I long ago learned to temper my expectations for the opening day of deer hunting season.
Our group, which includes BDN Outdoors Editor John Holyoke and brothers Chris and Billy Lander, always heads to Otis. The Lander boys have hunted the property for decades, most recently through the generosity of landowner Ken Genovese.
Deer harvests from that beloved patch of woods, ridges and streams have been few and far between. And those fortuitous occasions have come during the peak of the rut in the middle of November.
This was a crisp, quiet Halloween morning. Even the most subtle sounds could be heard for a considerable distance.
I walked more slowly than usual on the crackly gravel road and stopped frequently to watch and listen. My pace was deliberate enough that Chris appeared on the road behind me. We chatted, confirmed our plans and went our separate ways.
I intended to try a new access point to a wet area bordering the stream. But I chose a bad entry point and encountered a maddening snarl of bushes and trees. I quickly abandoned the effort.
The alternate route took me along skidder paths for easier movement. Eventually, I came upon an abandoned ladder stand, still in its familiar location, and climbed up for a sit.
Sitting in a stand is not my thing. It’s boring, often cold, and requires the deer to move past that particular spot. I’d rather walk and risk scaring away a few deer than see nothing.
But I needed a breather and the stand is located adjacent to dark growth along the edge of the aforementioned wetland.
My stay lasted a little more than an hour. I fired off some calls — first rattling, doe bleats and buck grunts, then bleats and grunts — about 30 minutes apart.
I checked in via text with John and Chris, teasing John when the subject of lunch came up — at 9:26 a.m. They eventually decided to meet up at 11:30.
As usual, I didn’t commit. I thought about it, but I was looking at probably a half-hour walk back to the vehicles.
Plus, you can take it to the bank that bucks often move in the late morning.
It was around 10:40 when I unloaded and climbed down. I reloaded, propped the Savage .30-06 against the tree and answered the call of nature.
Not having eaten breakfast, I grabbed half of the peanut butter sandwich I had packed. Thoughts of joining the guys for lunch waned.
I again pulled out my phone (this is a bad idea) and wondered what kind of small tree I was standing alongside. I opened a plant identification app and took a photo of a leaf.
I turned back around, watching the app process the photo. Before it had finished, I caught movement directly in front of me. Antlers. A buck.
After an “oh, crap” moment, the long list of what not to do while hunting flashed through my mind: Don’t put your gun down. Don’t get caught looking at your phone. Don’t let your guard down.
“Don’t move,” I thought, fearing I was only seconds from watching the deer bound away.
The mature buck had walked silently toward the edge of the swale below and was barely 30 yards away. All that separated us were a few low bushes and barren branches and a couple of small trees.
I stood motionless as it looked in my direction, then put its nose to the ground. It didn’t see me.
I started to crouch down slowly, which caught its eye. Again I froze. It peered in my direction. Still no recognition or alarm.
As the deer again lowered its head I reached over for the rifle. I began to stand back up, which caused the buck to pick up its head. My time was up.
As the deer turned to the right, broadside, I raised the gun, aimed and quickly fired. The shot was on target.
Barely four hours in, by some miracle, a successful hunting season was over.
My ensuing group text was understated for effect: “Sorry, but I won’t be able to make it for lunch.”
“K,” Chris replied, clearly not surprised that I would bow out.
“Shot down past you a few minutes ago Pete?” he asked.
I then sent a photo of the nine-pointer.
“That was you!!!!!!!!!”
Billy and Chris retrieved a plastic sled to facilitate dragging the deer several hundred yards, uphill, over rutted skidder paths, slash and blowdowns. Chris and I both went to the ground along the way.
We teamed up for the haul, two at a time. By the time we reached the road, John was waiting with friend Chad Thompson, who was kind enough to open the gate and let us extract it in the truck.
We headed to G&M Variety in Holden, where the deer was tagged and weighed. There were raised voices in the group when the dial on the scale hit 220 pounds — until we realized one of the antlers had caught on the side of the truck.
The actual weight: 180 pounds.
As we celebrated with a tailgate picnic of sandwiches, chips and soda, I encouraged the guys to go back and hunt the last few hours. John and Chris insisted on taking me to deliver the deer to the processor, giving us the chance to recount the day’s events.
It’s always gratifying to enjoy a successful hunt, but what made it special was sharing another memorable day with my buddies.
Pete Warner is the BDN’s digital sports editor.