The Most Important Lesson

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Like most, as a young hunter I longed for my first buck. I didn't take a deer the first season despite numerous sightings. The deer were there. I just couldn't seem to get a clear shot. I saw only tails, or running deer instead of deer standing broadside waiting for me like I thought they should. As the second season opened, I wondered if I should take shots that I was not 100% sure of.  I had a tag for antlered deer only, so I would at least have to make sure that the deer was a buck before I pulled the trigger.  I resolved that I would take the first shot at a buck I saw.  No more waiting for the perfect broadside pose. If I could just be sure it had antlers I would pull the trigger no matter what.

I had one glimpse of a departing tail opening day. My hunting companion bagged a nice six-point (eastern count) opening morning and so after that I was on my own, pitting my wits and knowledge of the terrain against the wily bucks I knew were there. The next day I saw three does trotting across an open field, but could not legally take them. By the afternoon of the third day I had buck fever. I thought I could see antlers in every clump of brush. Every fallen log was a buck in his bed to my eyes. I hunted away from home all morning. Without much thought, I crossed onto the next farm about noon. I did not doubt that access would be granted if I took the time to ask permission. We were on good terms with the neighbors and the area that I planned to hunt was cropland bordered by woods and a brush-choked stream bed well away from any livestock.

It was this stream that drew me over the fence line. I knew that any deer feeling pressured could duck into its gully to skirt the open field on one side and the open hardwoods on the other. I took a position overlooking where the gully ended. Any deer walking that brushy corridor would emerge into my view and either cross the field of corn stubble before me or work up the slope of open hardwoods on the far side. If a buck walked either of those routes my investment in cold toes and fingers would be well worthwhile.  I chose to settle in for a long wait, watching the shadows grow as the afternoon wore on.

Just about the time I was thinking more of my damp seat and cold toes than watching the hedgerow, I became aware of something moving in the gully. A bird flew up at the far range of my vision. Then a moment later, the sound of a snapping twig reached me faintly over the gentle sound of running water. Long minutes passed without revealing the wary buck and I gradually became less alert, lulled by the gurgling stream and the motion of gently swaying saplings. The dappled leaves still holding to them occasionally drifted down to mingle with the berry bushes separating the watercourse from me.

Minutes had passed without any sign of life when a crackle of breaking brush at the near end of the gully shot adrenaline through my veins. There was something unmistakably moving just out of sight and coming my way! I saw the top of a sapling move as something out of sight brushed against its trunk. The falling yellow poplar leaves drifted against the thick hedge of briars below. The form under the saplings moved closer. Yes, I could see it now. The unmistakable gray of deer hair glimpsed between silver saplings and the screen of red berry stalks. A sneaky old buck must have walked straight down the streambed. The noise of his approach had been covered by the gentle gurgle of running water and muffled by the wall of brush.

My breathing became ragged. My heart pounded in my chest. I could feel every pulse in my shoulders and throat. My palms begin to sweat as my thumb reached for the safety on the rifle that lay heavily in my lap as the animal moved toward me. Oh if I could only see antlers!

I tightened my grip on the cold stock. I could see the shape of his body now. It was about 3-4 feet long, soft gray, 3 feet off the ground and moving slowly, and steadily my way. He was nearly free of the saplings, which at that point, had a few low branches. We were only separated by the screen of thick blackberry bushes. I thought about the powerful cartridge in the chamber and knew that the briar stems could not deflect the bullet from its intended target. I would click off the safety, throw the rifle to my shoulder, and fire the instant I saw antlers. I contemplated the devastation a shot raking from chest to tail would create. Without a doubt the buck would slump in his tracks and I would have to drag him up the stream bank and out of those thick thorn bushes. Perhaps I should let him step clear? He was coming the right way. I realized that I was holding my breath. Then I saw the antlers.

I could not help but pause at the sight of them. I had dreamed of this moment for so very long. This was going to be my first buck, and oh what antlers they were! Powerfully thrusting through the thick berry bushes, the antlers shoved through the briar screen and broke into the open. With raking motions the rack moved toward me. I saw three long tines on each side and thick brow tines sweeping ahead of a gray hulking body almost as tall as the low sapling branches. I heard the briar stems breaking. I could even hear his breath and began to raise the rifle.

I never fired. I never finished clicking off the safety. In fact, I never even raised the rifle from my lap. I sat stone still with the kind of chill in my soul that I hope I never feel again. Long minutes later I was quite alone at the edge of that field.  For what I saw as that matched set of perfect antlers was thrust clear of the briars, was that they quickly split apart and fell earthward when the man who held them stood up. This hunter, with rifle slung over his shoulder, had bent at the waist to move under the low branches and held his rattling antlers in either hand to push thorns away from his face as he climbed the stream bank. He never knew I was there. He never knew how close his tree bark camouflage had brought him to being a terrible statistic. As I look back now, more than a decade later, I do not recall seeing any red or blaze clothing at all. What I do recall is that my hands shook as I took them off the unused rifle and silently thanked God that I had learned the most valuable lesson of hunting without tragedy.

I've taken more than a dozen deer from that same area over the seasons that followed. But two years ago I went deerless. I heard my buck working a rub, and caught glimpses of his gray hide moving away through the hardwoods in the last light of the last day of the season, but I let him walk into the shadows with my tag unfilled. I was 99% sure of my target. But 99% is not sure enough, because years before I had learned that when you are hunting, safety is the most important lesson of all.

Mike Skelly lives and writes in his log home in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY. 


ndemiter's picture

MIKE, that reminds me of

MIKE, that reminds me of hunting in iowa with my uncle. it was muzzle loader season.

i was sitting in a tree stand and was watching a briar thicket intently. i watched as the briars began to sway and 6 does ran out and headed straight underneathe me. just a moment later the brush moved again... and out pops my uncle paul. apparently, he decided to push the briar thicket my way to see what he could kick up. he was not carrying a weapon, or wearing orange.

i wonder if he knew how much adrenaline was pumping through my veins?

thanks for the story!

i met a father and his son while hunting once, two weeks later, i read in the paper that the son shot and killed his father in an accident, with a crossbow. in the same wildlife area we were bowhunting. both of them carried crossbows. it makes me sad every time i think about it.

the danger is real, and it's right there in front of us. sometimes, you just have to pass on irresponsible shots.

groovy mike's picture

absolutely right

absolutely right.  Scary and sad.  Safety has GOT to be the number one concern.  Nothing else matters.

ManOfTheFall's picture

Mike, I really appreciated

Mike, I really appreciated that story. Both my son and myself has had several instances where we heard something making it's way towards us and we thought it could have been a deer, but we held off, waiting until we were completely sure of our targets. Thanks for the story and one of the most important tips of all, because no animal is worth more than a person's life.

Rem2arms's picture

I gotta tell you Mike that

I gotta tell you Mike that reading your story I was getting real excited then came the paragraph that stopped me cold and even I began to shake just reading it. Just like you I always make sure of what I'm shooting at and even passed up deer not knowing for sure it was a deer untill it was to late and he got away from me.

Every year in the paper or on the news you hear some hunter who said  (I thought it was a deer ). Excuse me but B.S. these so called hunters in MY opinion should not ever be allowed to have a license. I'm so glad I hunt with someone I call a hunter not a shooter. Thx for the story.

hunter25's picture

Thanks for a great story and

Thanks for a great story and reminder of how vigilant we have to be to avoid an accident out there. Safety is something that must be on our minds all the time not just for ourselves but the others around us also. I have found that it is not at all uncommon for hunters to remove their orange if they think no one is around to catch them.

cscott711's picture


Wow, what a great read and important reminder.  I could not for the life of me understand why you had a chill that you hoped you'd never feel again.  That is, until I read the rest of the story which left a sickening feeling just at the thought of such a tragedy occurring.  This story should be widespread as an important reminder to be 100% in identifying your target as well as what is beyond your target.  I am thankful that this simply became a lifelong lesson for you instead of a lifelong burden.    

jim boyd's picture

that is an incredibly well

that is an incredibly well written piece of literature

i sat transfixed as i read that and was entirely unprepared for the eventual revelation toward the end of the hunting tip

what a genuinely good contribution to the library of big game hunt


jaybe's picture

Great Reminder!

Thanks for sharing that great reminder of the most important aspect of hunting - or any use of a firearm - SAFETY!

It's hard to imagine the folly of the man going along that creek bottom with the antlers above his head, but given the situation, it also seems quite possible - - and logical to him at the time.

Assuming that he was the land owner (perhaps an incorrect assumption) he would not have known or believed that anyone else was on his property, so to him it may not have mattered how much he resembled a deer coming through the brush.

The whole scenario is just a great reminder of how the burden of responsibility for firearm safety rests on the one with the firearm, not the other guy.


groovy mike's picture

Thanks guys, please share

Thanks guys.  I try to put this story online every hunting season and have shared it with hunter safety classes.  If you would liek it in printed form, it is published in "More Tales of the Ultimate Sportsmen"  (Here's a link in case anyone has a desire to buy the book and share the story: ).  I don't get any royalties from the book sales, so please feel free to share this story whether you buy the book or not. 


If my writing helps to prevent even one hunting accident, I'll consider my writing career a success.  So please feel free to cut and paste, email or repost it anywhere that you think might help a young hunter make better decisions.

Mike Skelly

Rem2arms's picture

MIke, you are 100% right.

MIke, you are 100% right. keep up the good work!!!