by Hillary Keyes
Despite frigid temperatures, leaky waders, and missing more birds than I care to admit, I love waterfowl hunting. After several successful duck hunts in September and October, it was time to direct my effort towards big game hunting for the first time ever. There is a deeply engrained satisfaction that comes from enduring the elements to harvest your own food, and deer hunting was my next step.
My friend Zach, a long-time big game hunter, agreed to be my coach and mentor. With borrowed camo, a general white-tailed deer tag, and my uncle’s .257 Weatherby, we set out to the “good spot”–480 acres of private land we had permission to hunt.
We spent Remembrance Day weekend at the “good spot” without seeing much, save for a fast-moving spiker buck downwind of us at last light.
The third weekend in November, we try another spot. It had good sightlines: 330 yards to the south and 220 yards across a ravine to the west. Elevated above the surrounding area, it has fresh tracks indicating deer had moved through recently. We spot a buck at the far end of the field, too far to make a clean shot. He runs off after a couple of does soon after we put a stalk on him.
Fast forward to the fourth weekend of November. Saturday morning, after sitting and waiting (and becoming more talkative and less observant), I stop Zach mid-sentence. A nice-looking buck carrying a symmetrical 4x4 rack stands at about 60 yards, looking at us. He funnels down the ravine, and crests the hill to our right. I feel a nervous excitement wash over me, but we are caught off guard. I don't even have a shell in the chamber. He takes off when he hears the bolt click back to load up. Lesson learned.
Again, the evening doesn’t bring much action. If I don’t get my deer the next morning, I would be scrambling to fill my freezer on the last day of the season, a Saturday, when the temperature is predicted to drop below -25°C.
We return to the same spot on Sunday morning, just as it dawns legal light. It’s now -5°C with a light breeze blowing from the west. I have a shell in the chamber and am sitting in a good position to shoot, should an animal come from the south or the west. We get settled, rattle the antlers, and barely pour our first cup of coffee from the thermos when Zach spots a buck across the ravine to the west. It’s about 220 yards away, standing broadside, but there is just enough willow growth from below to obscure my shot.
There’s time. Maybe we can get him to come in closer. Zach rattles the antlers again. A doe crests the hill where we saw yesterday’s buck. She’s about 50 yards away, grazing and moving in our direction. The wind is right; they haven’t detected us. Zach keeps watch of the buck, who is hot on the doe’s trail and disappears from sight into the ravine. As I set up for the shot, Zach remains on the lookout, watching for the buck to come up on our side, while keeping track of the doe. He tells me to be still when she lifts her head, and when she turns back to grazing, he slips the gun rest under the barrel of my .257. I am in position when the buck crests the hill behind the unconcerned doe, now feeding 30 yards away from us.
Eventually the bottom of his belly comes in line with the tops of the grasses. He is about 90 yards away, and on the move. I can see his vitals in my scope. I am faintly aware of Zach telling me to focus on my breathing, in what is barely a whisper. The buck stops.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
I press the trigger at the bottom of my breath. In an instant, the gun fires, the deer buckles and bolts, and I can smell gunpowder as I cycle the empty shell.
My deer dies under a stand of white spruce. I am overwhelmed when I find him—it’s the excitement of harvesting my first deer and the weight of taking the life of this animal.
Friends have taught me how to butcher and process the meat with care, and I’m so proud to share the beautifully tender and flavourful meat with the people I care about. For some of them, it's the first good wild game meat they’ve had. I get to change the way they think about it, one backstrap steak at a time!
I owe this experience to my knowledgeable mentor. Getting my buck took a lot of time, but time spent hunting is never wasted. You always learn something in the bush.