My deer season began about a week ago when, while hunting on my property I slipped, fell and slid on my ass down an embankment of jagged shale. The slide, which took place as I was stealthily working my way down to a well traveled deer path behind my house, took long enough for me to go through every curse word in my extensive list and part way through the list a second time. When gravity was done with me, I sat on the ground amid crumbles of shale trickling down the embankment around me, and had two immediate concerns: My rifle, and my ass. The rifle, a Winchester Model 70 I purchased after last season and had brought into the woods for the very first time, was slung over my shoulder behind me when I fell. Miraculously, it was not scratched (although the scope was scuffed pretty badly). My ass, I could tell by the excruciating, take-your-breath-away pain, was not as lucky.
I gingerly limped around the woods until dark, but there were no deer to be found. I’m sure my earlier ‘stealth’ sent any deer in the area into the next county. I tried again the next day, and the next, and was starting to feel like that nice deer wasn’t going to come this season. But I have venison recipes I want to try. I bought two extra trays for my dehydrator and ordered four new flavors of jerky seasoning. I needed a deer.
Every evening this time of year, like clockwork right before dusk, between 7 and 12 small deer enter our front paddock nearest our barn, and work their way down the hill where they graze until dark. I’ve watched them for weeks and rarely have seen a medium sized deer, let alone a large one. But I wanted meat in the freezer, so I decided to take out the biggest of the small ones. Last night I took the Model 70 to the far corner of the paddock, hid behind a pine tree and waited.
Right on schedule, they arrived. A few about the size of my dog, Finn, came first. Then some others followed. Darkness was falling, but there were a few still on the far side of the fence I couldn’t get a good look at, even through the scope. I thought one might be larger than the others, so I put the scope on her and waited till I could get a good look. I had just about decided she was the one, when I heard a truck coming down our driveway. Hay delivery. It was almost dark so I had to either take the shot, or wait for another day. I took the shot.
The hay arrived, the deer left, and after an extensive search for any sign of a hit, I determined I just plain missed. As I put the Model 70 back in the safe I looked at that scuffed scope and wondered if maybe the fall knocked it out of alignment. I would have to sight that in before I brought it out again.
This morning, I reluctantly took a backward glance in the mirror to ass-ess the damage from the other day. A shocking, dark, multi-colored bruise had taken over the entire surface of my butt cheek. And every time I sit down I am reminded of my less than successful attempts to stock my freezer with venison. So when I got home from work this evening and saw a couple good sized doe in the paddock, I went to the safe, reached past the Model 70 with the suspect scope, and grabbed my Winchester Model 94. My father’s rifle. Short and thin and heavy, this rifle feels good in my hands. I fed two 30-30 rounds into the loading gate, eased the hammer down and walked outside to the paddock. Five deer had worked their way down the hill, about 75 yards away. They saw me and heard the dogs in the yard but they see people and hear dogs all the time. They were far enough away they were not concerned with me.
Seventy five yards out, with dusk rapidly thickening, I chose the largest deer at the base of the hill. I pulled the hammer back, leveled the sights on her front shoulder, breathed, and squeezed the trigger. With a flash of orange from the end of the muzzle the shot rang out, echoed and faded. As the smoke cleared, the four non target deer bolted toward the woods beyond the fence, and my doe just stood there.
Have you seen movies where someone gets shot and stands there for a moment, before crumpling to the ground in a delayed heap? Yeah, me too. Anyway, after a few seconds, the doe, unscathed, turned to follow the others. But they don’t call it Winchester Repeating Arms for nothing. Sights still leveled on the doe, I pushed the lever forward and heard the hollow, metallic ting as the spent shell ejected and flipped end over end past my right ear. The second round slipped into the chamber as I brought the lever back and my finger found the trigger again with ease. Swinging right to left, the gun felt light and comfortable in my hands. This is a fun rifle to shoot. I squeezed the trigger again. I felt certain this shot was on target.
I didn’t have to wait for the smoke to clear this time. In the dark shadows of the treeline I saw her healthy, white tail bounding innocently through the dense brush. Three shots at two deer in two days, each bullet whistling by their target by a safe and unknown margin. My freezer remains empty, but as I wiped down the Winchester tonight I had to smile. I’ll be glad to get that scope on the bolt action Model 70 sighted in again, Lord knows my eyes need a scope. But it was fun as hell to shoot that old ’94 tonight.
A gold watch. A Winchester Model 94. A trunk full of shooting trophies. A keen appreciation for the outdoors. A fierce sense of loyalty to good friends. A pretty good head of hair and a tendency to let too much beloved beer hang around the midsection.
These are the things I inherited from my Father.
Patrick Edwin Felker would be 76 years old today, but he died almost 35 years ago. Many of his gifts I see in me went unnoticed, regrettably, for decades. But I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. A typical kid of 15 knows hardly anything and appreciates even less. But I watched him live his life — or the portion I was present for — to the very fullest. It was almost as if he knew he had too little time here. Then I watched him fight like hell in an unimaginably long and horrific battle with cancer. One could hardly expect a man so full of passion for life to give it up easily, after all.
I used to think I would be driven by the desire to have made him proud as I navigated the challenges of a full life without him. And I think I said as much for years after I knew it was no longer true. I do of course wish it, but it’s not a force in my life decisions. I am my own man, and while he is part of me, so much time has passed that the lines between his influence and who I am have blurred. I do wish to have made him proud. But mostly I long to have known him as a man. To fish together, hunt together, joke together and add a little bit of girth to the midsection together.
Somewhere along the line, long ago and without really noticing, I think I stopped needing him, and started simply missing him.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really, Ed? Starting a blog post about the ancient art of falconry with a quote from Tommy Boy?” Well sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. And besides, I want to be able to capture all the web traffic from people who might Google the terms “Chris Farley” and “Rabbit Hawking” together.
When I learned the Virginia Falconers Association was having a meet not far from where I live (which was right after I learned that falconry was practiced at all in this part of the U.S.), I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. I will be writing more about the sport and my day, but for now I wanted to share my favorite photos from this amazing experience. I hope you enjoy them.
(The beautiful bird pictured above is a first year, or “passage” Red-tailed Hawk named Kingsley. Thank you C.B.)