Shots Fired but no Venison: a Deer Hunting Confession

At 9:05 a.m., November 30, the last day of the 1990 Michigan firearms deer season and three hours into my first-ever hunt deer hunt, I saw the buck. He was following a doe in Dr. Lawless Park, near Cassopolis, Michigan. The top question on my mind, as I gripped the little 20-gauge shotgun: What do I do now?

I remember the exact time because two of my neighbors, Cliff Conley Sr. and Cliff Conley Jr. had been stationed several hundred yards to my right, and had told me at 9 o’clock, they would start walking the side of the hill, perhaps pushing deer toward me. A third neighbor, stationed to my left shall be identified only as “Steve,” because his behavior in this story wasn’t real ethical.

The night before, I had taken my 20-gauge smooth bore with its improved cylinder choke to shoot slugs for the first time. I know now that I did everything wrong. I set up a piece of wood about 25 yards away, and started plugging away, shooting five times. All of the shots were low and to the right of where I’d put the bead—I had no scope.

But that didn’t really matter. I had just turned 34 years old and had never been deer hunting. All I wanted to really accomplish the following morning was a deer hunt. I had no hope of actually seeing, let alone shooting at, a buck.

Other than being a bit cold on the gray morning, I enjoyed my first three hours of sitting still and silent, mostly watching the thick wooded area get light, chuckling to myself as squirrels hopped around in the snow-dusted leaves just a few feet away.

As it got closer to 9, I got closer to being uncomfortably cold, but I hung in there, waiting for my neighbors to show up. At 9:05, I heard a twig snap down in front of me, and there was a deer, a small doe. I was simply thrilled. I was on my first deer hunt, saw a deer and didn’t have to shoot it, because I didn’t have a doe permit! Then I saw a much bigger, grayish-brown body behind it. And antlers. What do I do now?

As a complete deer-hunting rookie, my mind raced through everything I’d ever read in outdoor magazines concerning the pursuit of deer. Amazingly, I was calm and steady, and I waited until the buck’s head was behind a tree until I shouldered the shotgun. He walked past and I had the bead on his shoulder. It was the moment of truth.

“BAHWHOOM!” The first shot echoed around the bowl and the deer, cleanly missed, did a John Belushi jump, straight up in the air, pivoting around and looking for the noise source.

“BAHWHOOM!” Another miss.

I shot twice more, still missing the big whitetail. Unbelievably, the deer didn’t run. Then I remembered the shotgun had shot low and to the right the night before, so I aimed several inches high and to the left of its head with my fifth and final shot. A different sound, that of a connection, and the deer turned 180 degrees, leaped twice, and collapsed on its back, four hooves in the air.

OK, in my brief conversations with the younger Cliff Conley about deer hunting, he suggested that after you hit a deer, you wait and smoke a cigarette before you go looking for it. I didn’t smoke, but I waited, the deer in front of me. But by now, the doe had scampered off to where Steve was sitting, and even though he’d filled his doe tag opening day, he started shooting. At the sound of Steve’s 12 gauge, the buck got up, made three more leaps and collapsed again.

I figured I better get down there and finish him off—he didn’t seem too mortally wounded. As I started walking down the slope, buck fever finally hit me like a freight train. My whole body was shaking and I started loading shells backwards into my shotgun. Somehow I got another four in, dropping the fifth on the ground. As I got to within about 30 feet of the deer, he got up again, facing directly away from me, seemingly calm while surveying the situation in front of him. I pulled my gun up, and actually had antlers growing out both sides of my shotgun bead. And I hesitated. He turned his head, saw me, and took off like a racehorse from the starting gate.

I fired four more times at him and missed on every attempt.

The Conleys soon arrived.

“What the heck was going on over here?” asked Cliff Jr. “It sounded like Viet Nam.”

I told him what happened and we looked for that deer for hours, finding mere pinhead drops of blood. Long story short, we didn’t find him. We theorized I must have just barely grazed the deer’s spine, and that he probably lived, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Still doesn’t. I felt terrible enough about it that I hunted deer just once over the following 15 years.

They say confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation. If someone reads this and decides to practice shooting his or her slug gun and making sure it’s dead-on accurate before the season opens, then the damage to this writer’s reputation was well worth the confession.