The great philosopher, Orphan Annie, once said: “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.” This morning, I could only hope she was right. This hunt has started badly. As I slide out of the passenger door to open the last gate, my .270 Win. rifle slides out first and the barrel sticks into the sand.
It’s a rookie mistake. I’ve hunted this 10,000-acre West Texas ranch for years, and I know the drill. I should’ve had my rifle on my left—not my right by the door—and I should’ve maintained a firm grip on it at all times— but I didn’t—and the result means my rifle is “in-op” on opening morning of this deer season. Oh, how I hate to start a day feeling so stupid … especially today.
The wrangler/driver senses my embarrassment and offers me his small-caliber varmint rifle, but I decline. An unfamiliar rifle would only add to my chaotic start. My options are limited with daylight now fast approaching. There’s not enough time to return to the hunting cabin for a cleaning rod; even if there was, I wouldn’t risk disturbing the other hunters in their stands.
More out of frustration than any gun savvy, I hit the side of the rifle barrel with the palm of my hand, and it seems like some sand pours out. Is it clear now? Is it totally clear? It’s still dark and I can’t be sure. I can only think of one quick way to check it out, so I ask the wrangler to shine his flashlight into the open breach as I look down the bore of the barrel. It seems fairly clear, but all I can think of is what a great safety poster this picture would make.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
The stand is an old wooden box-style ground blind. The wooden window panels have to be wired up to be open. That’s my first chore. The old metal swivel chair creaks as I sit down, so I make a note not to move around unnecessarily.
I open my “doctor’s bag” and begin arranging “my office.” In the dark, I load five 130-grain plastic-tip cartridges into my rifle, sliding the last one into the chamber. With the safety on, I stand it in the front right corner like I always do.
I arrange my treats on the floor to my left. There’s candy, peanuts, a Ziploc bag with strips of last night’s ribeye steak, coffee thermos, and yes— good cigars to celebrate with. Fun things always go on the left side of the floor, and firepower to the right. It’s a system that’s served me well under dark conditions in the past.
I sling my binocular around my right shoulder and let it hang to my left side—not around my neck as most do. This keeps the bino quickly accessible, but not such a pain in the neck. I always try to pack my bag and then arrange my stand so I can locate every item without a flashlight. With my grunt call hung around my neck and tucked in the front of my camouflage shirt, Dr. Death is now open for business, and awaiting “clients.”
While the inside of the stand is squared away, the outside is another story. The fog is so thick I can’t see 2 yards ahead, much less the 100 yards to the tripod feeder. The fog seems to swallow up the pickup truck and its headlights as the wrangler drives slowly away, leaving no trace he’d ever been there.
Having never hunted whitetails in the fog before, I’ll have to experiment. First, the 7X35mm binocular seems to work, but it only helps me see the dense fog more clearly. Next up, I try my 3-9X rifle scope. This only condenses the thick fog, so I stand my rifle back in the corner and wait for more daylight. Out of habit, I go back to trying to scan the edges of the roughs with my binocular.
I catch some movement out of the right window as day begins to break. The body appears to be big and close, but the fog hides the rack—if there is one. I conclude it’s probably a big buck making his morning rounds just like the good Doctor does. The only difference is he’s checking on his scrapes and I’d be checking on my patients. But I can’t be sure about this deer in the thick fog, and I’m not going to shoot a ghost, so I wait.
The only thing working for me now is an occasional gust of wind that clears the fog, but then for only a few moments. I can barely make out horizontal bodies moving left to right and back, but never really clearly, so again I wait. Time begins to work on my mind. Is my rifle barrel clear of sand? I mean, completely clear? If there’s still a little sand in it, will it explode in my face? I dismiss the thought as the wind clears the fog to the right of the feeder near the edge of the roughs, and I see a big mature doe. Excellent! This is will be my decoy—just like the Doctor ordered.
The big doe gives me a look now and then depending on the wind, but she seems to be the only show in town. I start thinking this whole morning hunt is surely going to be a bust, so why not relax for now and enjoy it?
Steam rises as I pour my first cup of hot coffee, followed by some strips of Texas beef. Later, another cup of coffee— and finally I light up one of my victory cigars. Why not celebrate? You have to face the facts. This morning, the fog has won! It’s a victory, but it’s a victory for the weather, not for Dr. Death.
THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU
The fog remains, but the wind begins to pick up and I’m getting longer views of the big doe. She looks down the open lane in the roughs toward me as my cigar smoke drifts out the open window. Does she smell my good cigar? Surely not in this wind. But she does seem to be more nervous, and who knows if fog carries the smell of a cigar farther than it does in clear air.
She spooks and trots off a few steps while looking back at some unseen thing in the roughs. I bring my rifle up just in case—when a monster buck makes his first appearance. He’s a shooter no doubt about it, but suddenly the fog rolls back in and he’s a ghost again.
A lucky gust of wind allows me to see him lower his swinging head and begin chasing the big doe back into the roughs. At the very edge of the roughs and safety, he makes a fatal mistake: He lifts his head up, tilting his nose in the air to such an extent his massive rack seems to rest on his shoulders.
Standing broadside, the big buck points his nose directly toward my exact location. Busted? The 130-grain bullet is launched before he can compute what this new aroma is and the danger it really represents to him. He collapses on impact, the big doe flags her tail, and the fog rolls back in.
When the wind moves the fog again, I can see the right beam of his tall rack clearly sticking up through the high grass. That’s what I wanted to see. Now, I can really enjoy my victory cigar.
I begin to realize how blessed I’ve been on this foggy morning. I could’ve been just a spectator with a rifle barrel packed with sand. The buck could’ve smelled the foreign odor of my good cigar and never left the safety of his dense cover.
I hunt with men who shower with special scent-killing soaps before putting on their scent-free camouflage clothing from their airtight bags. They swear by it. Yet I know the biggest buck of this hunt is strictly the victim of my second-hand cigar smoke. If it hadn’t been opening day of the season, I rather doubt either of us would’ve made the rookie mistakes we did.
But take it from the Doctor: Secondhand smoke kills.