by Caleb Ritenour
My first year as an outdoorsman did not yield Wilt Chamberlainesque statistics. As foliage transcended to folly, I was left with nothing to harvest but the memories of what could have been. It is true what they say – you’ll never forget your first time. My all too virgin hands were forced to wait another season while my mind relived the intimate details of my rookie year on the hunt.
My age matched the caliber most youngsters grow up practicing to shoot – .22. Rather than learn how to align the crosshairs for a fatal shot, my sights were set on athletics during my youth. The only gauge I knew how to handle was the one connected to my soccer pump. Like many late bloomers, I was at a disadvantage when it came to firing a weapon. The scope of what could go wrong seemed to make the Bushnell scope attached to my .243 rifle less certain.
Despite my learning curve, I had one thing most beginner hunters lacked. It was not a secret buck snort or scent attractor. His name was Marshall Nych – friend, teacher, and hunter extraordinaire. To this day, Marshall remains a steadfast hunting buddy. Without the wisdom of the Nych sage, my rookie season would be far less memorable.
Looking back on the last quarter century, there are a few years that standout among the rest. Nine explored the magical worlds of authors and illustrators. Thirteen discovered the importance of being true to oneself. Sixteen was a wreck – literally. Eighteen walked a tight rope of good vs. evil. Yet, the year atop my list remains twenty-two. The year began on one knee, rose into a cap and gown, exchanged it for a tuxedo, and finally changed into a blazer and loafers. By the first of September, I was proudly wed and gainfully employed.
As Thanksgiving drew closer, my friend Marshall strongly encouraged me to join him in the great tradition of white-tail deer hunting. Most rookies make the mistake of trying to do too many things all at once. Who was I to break from tradition? In my youthful exuberance, I was able to make one more wardrobe change – a bright orange vest with matching hat. Being a few years my senior, Marshall reassured me the wife would only love me more when I walked across the threshold bearing venison steaks and trophy wall mounts. What wife wouldn’t want deer meat crowding the freezer or a nice 8-point to replace the frames of recent wedding pictures?
Admittedly, the woman I chose to spend the rest of my life with was raised with hunters of a much more grizzled variety. Where my wife grew up, it was not uncommon for deer to be dangling from the front yard tree any given autumn night. The tire swing rope was promoted to antler harness as children developed into competent bow hunters. Being around this environment as a child had prepared my beautiful bride for any blood, guts, or gore my harvest was hoping to yield. More importantly, it made her patient and understanding with my prolonged absences to the woods.
My first major blunder came shortly after I broke the news to the missus. I explained how I desperately needed a new hobby since my dreams of playing professional sports were completely shot. She was sympathetic and proposed an early Christmas present. It did not come with ribbons or bows, but it was finished in a matte blued barrel. I had officially become the only member of my immediate family to own a gun. I even talked the smiling salesman into throwing in a round of ammo for the greenhorn. Glancing at my checklist of hunting supplies, I felt confident and prepared leading up to Deer Day – the Monday after Thanksgiving and subsequent first day of rifle season.
For a novice hunter like myself, it came as a big surprise when I found out my gun needed “sighted in”. It was even more of a shock discovering this rather important detail the Sunday before Deer Day. Luckily, my wife and I were quick to come up with a plan. We were going to drive to the local sportsman’s club and sight it in my rifle. Neither of us knew how, but we figured Google and YouTube could pick up the slack our ambition was unable to solve. I immediately regretted not asking Marshall for help as soon as we pulled the gun out of the box. The bolt was not connected to the gun. For nearly half an hour, I fumbled with my brand new bolt and rifle. Like a stubborn toddler completing a jigsaw puzzle, I desperately tried to fit the one into the other without success. It was hard to tell which was waning quicker, the daylight or my hopes.
All promising rookies have veterans to help guide them and instill wisdom gleaned from personal experience in the game. As I previously mentioned, I was equipped with hunter extraordinaire Nych. I did not mention said hunter recently welcomed baby number two into his loving family. Needless to say, I was not surprised he did not get my S.O.S. (Save Our Savage .243) late that Sunday evening. Undeterred, my wife and I packed up the incomplete weapon and headed to the only other veteran hunter I knew – Brecken Ellis. Brecken is four years my junior, yet knows more about the woods, guns, and hunting than I’ll probably ever learn. Like Nych, Ellis shared a childhood of shooting, trapping, and exploring the diverse sylvan glades spread out among the country roads. A city boy like me could only hope to see the woods as instinctually as these two experienced outdoorsmen.
To our relief and good fortune, Ellis answered the emergency call and agreed to assist with all bolt related issues (a simple pull of the trigger allowed the bolt to slide in). He was also sighting in his own rifle (a family heirloom passed down four generations) and graciously offered to help me with mine – another stroke of good luck. In less than an hour, my bolt action rifle was hitting the bullseye at a hundred yards every time. Orion himself could not have been more confident tomorrow’s hunt was going to be a killer experience.
Waking up the next morning at 5 o’clock never seemed as easy in my life. With a belly full of Judy’s homemade biscuits and gravy and fresh-brewed coffee in the Thermos, I was rip roaring to shoot my first ever deer. In my methodical preparation, I packed every hand-me-down piece of hunting gear I had acquired into my father-in-law’s timeworn Air Force rucksack. Realtree and Mossy Oak were not yet in my vocabulary. I donned a bright orange jumper, looking more like an escaped convict than a determined hunter. The old adage “ignorance is bliss” certainly applied to my rookie debut.
Not knowing what to expect my first time out, I was like an obedient Labrador when Brecken placed me on a mound in the woods. I planned on staying until given the order to move. The excitement of seeing the woods for the first time was exhilarating. Every rustle of a leaf made my heart skyrocket. Quickly, I developed a deep loathing of squirrels. Like fireworks that fail to detonate, those bushy bandits had me staring with bated breath all over the horizon only to leave me feeling deflated and slightly less hopeful. By noon, there were no deer sightings and my legs were growing restless. It was back to the garage for halftime.
Over the course of history, many of sport’s greatest comeback stories begin at halftime. The coach usually storms into the locker room and delivers a hair-raising speech that rallies the team to victory. When we hunters made it back to the garage for lunch, such a speech was not delivered. Nor were my squashed turkey sandwiches inspiring either. With my sails deflated, I trudged back into the woods to stare at the unmoving wood line for a few more hours. As the deerless day crept closer to dusk, my mind grew content with the excuse of getting skunked.
At the time, I was unaware of a popular and effective deer hunting strategy called pushing. When the patriarch of the homestead, known by many as “Pap”, suggested he try pushing, I mimicked the others agreement, hoping to hide my amateurism. Using logical deduction, I learned a push meant he was going to walk through a thick part of the woods in hopes of scaring a deer my way. Pap is respected by everyone and highly revered as a hunter. When he looked me in the eye and assured me a deer would be pushed my direction, I knew my moment was near. My melancholy melted into exhilaration as the seasoned hunters debated the location of the push.
Following Pap’s plan, Brecken placed me on a mound next to a thicket. Alone and anxious, I began getting some serious Rookie jitters. What if I miss? I could hear Marshall in my head, motivating me to be a man. As every second passed, my hope to shoot a deer played tug-of-war with my fear of missing. I wondered if other hunters ever felt this nervous. I determined the true test of my character would reveal itself in the moment.
Looking toward the thicket, my insides performed a somersault as the sound of twigs snapping pierced the muted wilderness. With sweaty palms, I raised my eager barrel in enthusiastic anticipation. My rifle felt light as a feather in the moment thanks to the adrenaline coursing through my body. All my doubt from before was erased – I was ready to kill. More snaps came cascading through the still silence that once blanketed my small section of the forest. Every hair on the back of my neck was now standing at full attention. This was the last second field goal or the walk-off homerun to engrave a brown W next to my first season. That was when I saw it…
It was not antlers. It was not a prancing doe. It was the orange glow of a vest, signaling the push was over. My Hail Mary attempt did not yield a touchdoewn; my buzzer beater sadly missed the bucket. My rookie debut had faded like the day’s sunlight. I turned around to grab my rucksack from the branch behind me, only to come face to face with opportunity. A mere 20 yards away stood the creature I so desperately desired to see – a legal buck!
Afraid of forfeiting the staring match, I stood frozen and transfixed. The beast’s unflinching gaze seemed to penetrate my very soul. The birds and squirrels must have paid top-dollar for tickets to witness such an intense duel. In a matter of a split second, the deer conceded the staring contest for an opportunity to win the game of survival. Both species’ instincts kicked in as the buck kicked up dirty leaves. I drew my Savage .243 into firing position. My nemesis was less than 30 yards away. Pressing my eye to the scope, I instantly realized I had made the biggest Rookie blunder of all…
I had left my scope turned up all the way to 9 power. The only thing I could see was a blurry shade of brownish green when I pointed toward the escaping deer. My chances of harvest decreased as rapidly as my scope’s magnification when I quickly tried to amend my folly. In desperation, I threw two rounds of ornery lead toward my target. They chose to domesticate a couple maple trees rather than my disappearing deer.
When the smoke cleared, Mother Nature declared me the loser; but not without first teaching me an invaluable lesson. To this day, I always leave my scope on low magnification when posting or moseying through the woods. I owe more than one harvest to the wisdom gleaned from my biggest rookie mistake.