This past weekend I was awarded a Pinnacle award from the Professional Outdoor Media Association for a story I wrote. Several people have asked that I post the story. Here is the story that won the award.
The Mind of A Mature Buck
Over the past thirty five years or so, I have spent an inordinate amount of time tromping and plodding through forest and fields chasing mature whitetail bucks. Thousands of hours studying maps, analyzing weather patterns and wind currents. Dozens of pairs of boots worn thin scouting, tracing routs, marking rub lines and scrapes. Locating bedding areas, feeding paths, cutover hideouts, staging areas and all to sit in a tree in a well thought out location to see……..well nothing.
Mind you, I have had a fair amount of success. Some would say, I have had my fair share of success since I only hunt a small piece of ground locally. But if truth be known, the majority of my time spent looking for a mature buck is passed by admiring does, ‘want-to-be’ bucks and of course the array of small game that seems to appear in biblical proportions during a deer hunt along an acorn ridge. Through all of this idle time of sitting, looking and thinking, I believe I have come to realize just how an old buck thinks. And this could actually be the game changer I have sought for so long.
It has become evident that old bucks are really not that different from old hunters. Especially when it comes to the way they see the world around them. Old bucks are solitary creatures for most of the year. They like to get away from all of the noise, all of the confusion. Their lifestyle is not one of isolation, as it is one of independence and of all things, irony. I believe that the old buck likes to get away and think about things. To spend time on his ridge, looking over his territory and marvel at how his world has changed around him. The girls he has chased for years and the ones that got away. He lays and ponders his territory. “Will I walk the creek line today, or just stay close to home?” He thinks to himself. If the temperature is too cold, perhaps he will just take it easy so his old bones and joints won’t have to work quite so hard against the bitterness. Or when it rains, he decides to wait it out to keep from getting wetter than he already is.
I can remember clearly one frosty November morning, back when Novembers were cold. Trying to ease into an afternoon stand early and enjoy the warming thermals. I was too late, the old boy had beaten me there. As I moved along the ridge, there he lay, beside the old blowdown just watching me. Hoping I wouldn’t see him and he could just let me pass him by so he too could just enjoy the warming of the day. Our eyes met at a mere twenty yards. He blew out of there like a boy late for a prom date and I just stood marveling at his grandeur. It was then that I started to understand that these old bucks are really not that different from me.
As the weather begins to turn, and the oppressive heat of long summer days wane. The winter solstice approaching, he starts to feel young again. Just as October invigorates my soul, so too the mature buck. The cool air reminds him of days long gone when he could prowl for days on end looking for love. Days when one girl wasn’t enough, he needed more to make some jealous or to show off to the rest of the boys. The cool air invites him to parade his territory again, rubbing his growing antlers against the same trees as before. Making an exclamation point to all new comers that he is still here and very much alive. From time to time he will clean out a patch of ground beneath a licking branch along a forgotten field or logging road and say to all who pass by “this is mine!”
But as his days increase, his ability to love decrease. His desire is there for sure, but the passion is gone. He now dreads the cold that is to come. So he eats even when he isn’t hungry because he knows. He knows what those half his senior could care less about. Winter is long, food is scarce and love is fleeting. So while he sneaks in a moment of romance for a brief period, his main concern is survival. His genes have been passed for several years, his work there is done. Now, just as a grandfather teaches his grandchildren different lessons than he taught his children. The old buck passes along lessons of longevity to other generations. Without knowing it, young bucks learn that the wisteria thicket is safe because that is where he lives. The impenetrable vines hold refuge, comfort and protection. They know this because this is where he determined years ago was the best place to be. From here, he can see every truck that enters the property and sneak away or lay still as he’s done hundreds of times before. He knows the knob near the creek is safe because the wind always swirls and prevents anything from approaching undetected.
He’s learned that as his night grows longer and the mercury seldom climbs to freezing that the most important thing is food. The girls he sought for so long are gone, taking his heart and his genes. So he sleeps near where he eats. Saving energy from traveling great distances from one to the other for more important tasks.
He’s seen a lot through his life. Great pine stands erased for cash then restored to provide a home for his children. Loosing friends who made poor decisions. Teenage romances that never ended well. He’s seen those who chose to play hard and love hard only to return to see their empty beds. He’s watched as mothers stood helpless as their young died way too soon. He’s worked hard and for a long time, and now just wants to rest in peace. To spend a few more cool autumns on his ridge and watch the bounding of children as they romp through meadows. He longs for days when his mere presence brought a sense of awe to the forest. But for now, he passes his days with the pleasure he finds in himself, knowing all too well these fresh springs are fleeting. That summer is coming with its hordes of bugs, sweltering heat and plentiful food. He knows water will be scarce, predators abundant and he knows the necessity of protecting what is rightfully his.
Yes, I sat there in my tree stand and I watched as the old man, seeming to have let his guard down, or perhaps had a momentary lapse in judgement but more likely was moving slower than he should. I watched as his old weathered body struggled to walk down the steep ridge. One shaky foot in front of another, not really trusting himself. At the bottom of the ridge he pauses. At first I thought it was to catch his breath. His panting was obvious as the mist from his mouth poured into the morning air. Then I realized, he is not catching his breath, he’s admiring. He looks around his creek bottom soaking it all in for what could be his last time, Suddenly in what seemed to be a moment transfixed by time. He turned his head and as matter of fact as it could be, he looked straight into my eyes. One old man looking at another. When we locked eyes I did not see fear, I did not see trepidation or anxiety. I saw an old man wanting one more time to stroll through his creek bottom on his way home after a long night.
It never crossed my mind to raise my rifle. This is the old buck that had filled my dreams. The one that caused so many sleepless nights, thousands of hours and dollars of my time and money. And there he stood, thirty yards away. His grey muzzle revealing what I had already known. This was an old buck. His eyes had seen so much. He seemed to know when he looked at me that I would understand. But also did not care if I didn’t. He was determined he was going home, on his time and at his pace. So he turned ever so slightly and wandered through the open hardwoods, passing by me at fifteen yards. Each labored step was methodical and glorious. I sat and watched as he drifted out of sight along the ridge that he called home.
As I sat there, taking it all in, it dawned on me, that indeed we are not that much different at all. Now I am on the home stretch of my life in the out of doors. I am still not that old, but enough to realize that these moments are precious. So I savor each day, each moment and I hold onto them with vigor. I do not regret at all not raising my rifle. On the contrary, I cherish the moment greater than any trophy. A moment when two old men met in the woods. Looked at one another and understood that for now, that was enough.
No the old buck is not that different from us at all. As our hair starts to turn, and our muscles begin to ache at the slightest of movements. We savor each day, and pray there is another day coming where we can again feel the freshness of cool autumn mornings.