A DOE IN THE SNOW
Saturday December 17th was the first day of the “late” black powder season up here west of the Blue Ridge, so my partner Rick and I went out to Spruce Run Farm, one of my regular hunting spots. I've hunted this place for about 15 years. Cecil, the farmer whose family has lived there for two hundred years and maybe seven generations, is a retired state employee but he's been a farmer all of his life, really. He runs a cow/calf operation averaging about 80 head. There are a lot of old graves in the very well-kept family cemetery where eventually Cecil will join his ancestors.
The farm is slapped up against the side of Spruce Run Mountain, which, like most of Giles County, is at about a 30-degree angle. He’s got a good quarter-mile of road frontage, with the bulk of the property running straight up the hill at least half a mile or so. Exactly where the property line is on the north side is pretty vague: not many people there post their land (it’s considered an un-neighborly thing to do) and I don’t know how much land he has in all. Certainly more than 400 acres, possibly as much as 700. There are several semi-level pastures and where the land gets too steep, it’s wooded over. The woods line is maybe 1000 yards away from and 500 feet above the road: normally I drive most of the way up the hill but Saturday it was far too slick to try that, so we parked a third of the way up.
Only the lower part of the property is pasture. The rest is oak and hickory woods, with a liberal interspersion of beech trees. The bulk of them are white oaks, some of them well over 200 years old if their size is an indication. In years past there were many chestnut trees as well. Most of the fences Cecil and his forebears erected to demarcate their pastures are split chestnut rails that have been there since at least World War One, but are still in reasonable shape. Needless to say, this is prime squirrel territory, and he’s got a large population of both grey and fox squirrels, the latter approximately the size of smallish raccoons. Spruce Run Farm is also an honest-to-God Deer Factory.
The food supply is more or less unlimited, what with the oaks, the supplementary stuff Cecil puts out for his cattle, and his enormous truck garden where he grows fruit and berries and tomatoes for the local supermarkets. I've often seen groups of 10-20 deer at a time (both bucks and does). I think he must have a permanent herd of something on the order of 150 animals just on his ground, but since his farm is surrounded by many others with similar terrain and vegetation, there are far more deer in the area than just those. The DGIF lists Giles County as having “high” deer density on private land; there are only two counties (in the DC suburbs, where almost nobody hunts them) whose density is higher. An average of 3400 deer get checked in from Giles County every year, a number that usually puts it in the top 10 counties in the state. This is despite the fact that almost half the land area is National Forest and the population is just shy of 17,000 people. With a land area of 357 square miles, that’s a kill rate of almost 10 per square mile; my best guess is that on average there are 20-30 living deer per square mile in Giles County as a whole. Certainly in the immediate area of Newport it has to be at least that high, and from the complaints everyone makes about them, it may well be more.
Cecil hates whitetails, which he considers vermin competing with his cattle and threatening his livelihood. He’d use land mines and poison gas to get rid of them if it were allowed. Every year he gets Deer Control Assistance Program kill permits from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and every year he bemoans the fact that they never get all used up. These permits are good for antlerless animals only, and he’s delighted to hand them out. Not many people hunt the farm: a few of his neighbors, but Rick and I are the “regulars” and certainly the most consistently present each season. We happily take the tags, which allow us to take deer over and above the six allowed on a basic license. Virginia has so many deer that in essence we have no limit on them. Cecil wants them shot out, and the DGIF wants them thinned, so really, I felt it was nothing more than my patriotic duty as a citizen of the Commonwealth to fill at least one of those DCAP tags if I could.
Over the years of hunting it I’ve learned the routes deer use to get from one part of the farm to another. The spot I was heading for is old familiar ground on which I’ve killed 8 deer since 1992. I like to sit just inside the fence at the top of the upper pasture, where a section of split rails joins a newer wire section. The location affords me a good view of the pasture, and of the trail crossing just above where I sit; and simultaneously affords me a good deal of cover and obscurity. I’ve often had deer almost step on me when I was there, doing my justly-celebrated imitation of a tree stump. Once a hawk tried to land on my head, and now and then a squirrel running along the fence will stop and stare at me from three feet away, when he realizes that the stump has eyes.
There’s a well-defined trail about 30-40 yards inside the woodline. In the morning the deer move along this trail, from the west end to the east end. I think they’re headed for a bedding area on an adjacent Christmas tree farm, but wherever it is they’re going, they almost always come from west to east. If the deer came, I knew they’d most likely be moving west to east but would stay in the woods, so I sat myself against the base of a tree, watching the trail from the west end of the property. Another nice thing about this spot is that the winds are very predictable. They usually blow uphill in the morning, and if they don’t, they blow downhill. Thus the deer are able to move across the wind as they forage.
I was also able to see the upper end of the pasture. As a general rule deer won’t come into a pasture when there are cattle in it, but sometimes they fool me, especially when they’re hungry and find their way to the cattle feed bunkers. Cecil said he hadn’t seen even one deer in the fields since he harvested his garden in September; nor had I in several previous trips to the ground this season. Probably this is because we’ve had an exceptional acorn crop: they have had no reason to come out into the fields at all, where they'd be forced to demean themselves by mingling with low-class trash like cows.
Rick and I left the house about 5:45. The weather couldn’t have been better for hunting: quite cold, a shade below freezing, but no wind. Better yet, there were several inches of old packed snow on the ground, surmounted by a skin of hard, granular ice, a crust thick enough for me to walk on. This presented one minor issue: the slope was so slick we had to park at the base of the hill, because it wasn't safe to drive up. I had to hoof it about 600 yards up that slope, which is hard enough in good weather! However, I had had the presence of mind to bring a walking stick, and with its aid I managed to slowly CRUNCH-CRUNCH-CRUNCH my way up the hill to the fence line, and then into the woods on the uphill side. It took me a good 30 minutes, but I sat down finally about 6:20 AM.
Snow on the ground and bare trees make it easy to spot movement. I also thought that with the crusty ice on the leaf litter I would certainly hear a deer coming even before I saw it. About 7:20 I spotted a doe moving through the woods above me, and sure enough, she was coming along the trail exactly as predicted. When I saw her she was perhaps 100 yards off. The snow made it easy to follow her movements and get ready: but curiously I didn’t hear anything at all. She was mooching along steadily, shoving her nose through the ice to look for acorns in the leaf litter.
Now, five weeks ago, I was in virtually this same spot, when I had a doe come up to me along that same path. She stopped maybe 10 yards away and I pulled the trigger with the sights on her chest, only to hear the disappointing “POP” of a misfire. She swapped ends and took off and that was that. Two weeks before that I’d shaved hair off a doe’s ass with a broadhead from my crossbow (the closest I’ve ever come to a kill with that thing). In essence, what I had was a replay of those two blown opportunities, which was one reason I’d chosen the spot: I wanted a chance to redeem myself.
Both muffed chances were entirely my fault. I’ve been hunting with that T/C .54 for years and thought I knew all its tricks and quirks, but it had a few new ones up its sleeve hadn’t encountered before and for which I hadn’t found the remedy. After my last misfire I'd taken the time to figure out exactly why it had happened and how to prevent it from happening again. This time I was confident things would go as planned.
The doe came on through the trees along the trail, still totally silent. I don’t know why. That ice should have made a lot of noise, but there wasn’t a sound I could hear. The wind was blowing down the slope, from her to me; she was totally unaware of my presence. I silently cocked my gun and waited, hoping she would turn and come down the hill to give me a closer shot, but it was plain after a couple of minutes that she had no intention of doing so. She was headed straight to the east end, and if I were to get a shot at all it was going to be in the 60-70 yard range. A long one for me. Nearly all my shots have been well under 40 yards and with that New Englander .54 I don’t think I’ve ever had one as much as 30 yards away. Usually the range is measured in feet, not yards.
On she came while I waited, gun up. She stepped into a clear fire zone I’d picked out and I took the shot, the range at that moment being perhaps 70 yards. There was considerable understory that gave me some misgivings, but I had a clear view of her front third, I saw no obvious twigs between us, the sights were in place, and things looked good. I fired.
At the shot she immediately fell down and rolled over towards me, sliding down that icy slope, kicking and sliding for a good 30 yards before she fetched up against a fallen tree. She was still giving a few feeble kicks when I stood up, but it was obvious she was a goner: I didn’t even bother to reload the rifle.
I staggered up that damned slope without my staff, since I had decided to bring the rifle, just in case, and had both hands on that. I didn't need it. The round ball had hit her at the base of the neck just in front of her right shoulder, severing all the arteries. It then crossed the front quarter of her body, traversing the chest muscle without entering the chest cavity (“cranial to the thoracic inlet,” as an anatomist would put it) and exited her left side. Her left hind leg was broken, snapped right in two just above the hock. She must have twisted it or banged it against something as she flailed around; the break emphasized how fragile and lightly-built whitetails are. There was a big pool of blood under her, and a long trail of it where she'd tumbled down the slope, brightly visible in the snow. She bled to death as she was slithering down towards me. She was as dead as the Pharaohs, having left this cruel world for Deer Heaven, a place where there are no dogs or snipers, where the grass is always lush, the water sweet, and the white oak acorns abundant; where no cattle wait to drive you away from the hay bales or the salt blocks, and coyotes are forbidden to exist.
I continue to be amazed at the penetration of round balls. To read the Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops catalogs, you’d think deer were made of armor plate and anything short of a 450 grain conical over 150 grains of powder would bounce off, but a .54 ball will go through a whitetail sideways virtually every time, even if it hits bone. Only once have I ever recovered a ball from one of the seven deer shot with this rifle, and that was just under the skin on the far side, after it had passed through both shoulders. This time the exit hole has bone fragments in it, so I’m expecting to find a .54 caliber hole in her left shoulder blade when I bone it out. I use a moderate load of 90 grains of FFg with an under-the-bullet lubricated wool wad and a 0.10” lubricated linen patch. My rifle uses #11 caps and I prefer Remington’s “Golden” bullets which seem to be very uniform.
So there I was at 7:30 AM, 50 yards inside the woodline, with a stone-dead deer on a 30-degree slope. I hitched the rope to her neck, and gave her a shove. She slid farther down, and basically all I had to do was help her along to the fence, freeing her when she fetched up against a stump or a log. She sort of dragged herself out, at least as far as the fence, but of course I had to haul her over that into the pasture. Once on the other side, I eviscerated her with my beautiful Joe Breti Artemis knife; then it was off to the truck, perhaps 500 more yards but thankfully downhill almost all the way. By the time I reached the truck about 15 minutes later, the crows had already found the gut pile and were having a hearty breakfast.
Rick was still in the woods. We’d agreed to meet back at the truck at 9:00, and I hadn’t heard him shoot. I decided to wait until he returned to get her up into the truck, as she was a little too heavy to handle easily by myself. There aren’t many things floppier than a dead deer: I’d put one end on the tailgate, and by the time I reached for the other end, it would roll off and I’d have to start again. She was far too heavy to haul up with the rope. I didn’t weigh her but a pretty good guess is that she went about 120 pounds on the hoof.
The cattle seemed to be attracted to the smell of the dead animal, or maybe they thought Rick’s truck was bringing them food and I was Cecil or his son. Who knows what a cow thinks? As I sat there on the tailgate with the doe at my feet, they started drifting over, staring at me and the deer, and mooing among themselves about this remarkable phenomenon. One or two of the more daring ones started to come up slowly, eyeballs rolling back and forth, sniff-sniff-sniffing until they got 20 feet away and hit their wall of confidence. Then they heard Cecil fire up his tractor down near the barn, and they forgot all about me as pandemonium broke out. Cows are not terribly intelligent, but even these lumbering dimwits knew that sound, and that it meant breakfast was coming. I imagine they were relieved they wouldn’t have to eat the deer after all. Twenty minutes later Cecil came by on his tractor, rolling out a hay bale, and was tickled to see one of his hated enemies laid out on the ground. We chatted for a while and he told me he’d seen a bear in the pasture several times recently, too. I have no desire to kill a bear but I’d certainly like to see one out there!
It was a good hunt, and a much-needed end to a week that began pretty badly. Late BP season is a tough time: all the stupid and unlucky deer are dead, the rut is over, and the weather is usually pretty harsh. I kill more deer in the early BP season than I do in the rifle season, most years; but this is the first year in which I’ve made a late BP season kill. I almost didn’t go out at all. I’m still coming down off a horrible cold that laid me flat on my back for a few days, and wasn’t sure going out to sit in the frozen woods was all that smart a thing to do. Plus, although I shot a buck in the early BP season, from that time until yesterday I hadn’t so much as laid eyes on a deer, and neither has anyone else I know. Last season in Virginia hunters took over 200,000 deer, about 25% of the pre-season herd. A lot of these were does, so the herd is down somewhat, and I suspect this year’s total kill will be significantly lower than last year’s, and way below the record kill of 237,000-plus in 2003.
Eventually Rick trudged out of the woods. We threw the doe in the truck bed, and off we skidded back down the slope towards home. I skinned her out as soon as we got back, partly to check the wound track and partly because I’d invited Rick and his wife to come to dinner, so I wanted the tenderloins. It’s a funny thing, but I can taste the difference between deer from one area I hunt and another. Deer from Spruce Run Farm have a distinct “tang” to them, far different to the flavor of deer from The River Styx or Rick’s father’s place in Amherst. I sometimes wonder if there ought not to be a sort of “Appellation Controllee” organization for game, that would certify the geographic origin of venison.
Those tenderloins were cooked very simply: salted and peppered, then wrapped in bacon, and grilled over a very hot mesquite charcoal fire to the rare side of medium rare. Absolutely magnificent, tender enough to cut with a fork and full of flavor. We all four of us had a merry time, and since the meal was special I opened a couple of bottles of very special wines, including a 1998 Crozes-Hermitage I’d been saving back for something worthy of it. This deer certainly was. By the end of the evening I’d pretty much run out of steam. Partly this was due to having got up at 4:00 AM, and partly because after I'd finished skinning the doe, my wife put me to work chopping ice in the driveway. At midnight we all called it quits, and I collapsed in a flurry of sparks, sleeping 10 hours straight after what was one of the best days I can remember in a long time. I’d been a little disappointed with the way the season’s been going this year, but yesterday made up for all of it.