By Tim H. Martin
This Thanksgiving, take a minute to thank the person who introduced you to hunting. If they have since passed, please use that minute to remember them.
I am thanking my father, Larry K. Martin. Thanksgiving Day 2017 will mark exactly 40 years since he took me on my first white-tailed deer hunt. FORTY YEARS!
On Thursday, November 24, 1977, I had no idea the day’s events would lead to an obsession with deer and a 20-plus-year career in the hunting industry. Who knew the journey would lead me to countless hunting camps, as well as adventures on the Dark Continent and the back country of Alaska?
It’s been a while, but here’s what I remember about my first deer hunt.
Pop had just retired from 18 years of service as an officer in the U.S. Army, and we’d moved from Washington D.C. to a rural farm near Piedmont, Alabama.
I was in pure-and-tee hog heaven living in the country, but at age 14, I was getting a late start at hunting compared to my new classmates.
These country kids practically came out of the womb holding fishing rods and firearms, and were raised up on venison, squirrel dumplings and crappie fillets. I’d grown up breathing jet exhaust from Dulles International Airport and trying not to get beat up on Connecticut Avenue every day after school. A crash course in the outdoors was priority one, and Pop was willing to teach.
My father began with a serious conversation about gun safety and instruction with a gun that would someday be mine: A Model 94 Winchester .30-30 lever-action rifle with iron sights.
Before deer season, he’d shown me how to shove the fat bullets into a slot on the side of the magazine, use the lever to chamber a round, then carefully half-cock the hammer. In my mind, I was Chuck Connors from “The Rifleman.” Kids, that was a great old black and white TV show.
We practiced shooting pie plates, milk cartons and Coke cans. I managed to hit a few, so if these deer were stupid enough to stand still 30 yards away, I knew I stood a decent chance.
The night before the hunt, Pop sketched a diagram of deer vitals, and taught me where to aim for an effective shot. I was ready!
My eyes sprang open at 3:30 sharp on Thanksgiving morning. I tiptoed into my parent’s bedroom and tried to shake my dad into wakefulness. He mumbled something about “too early” and “make coffee.”
Eventually, he pulled on his goose down thermal underwear and shuffled to the cold kitchen. After cracking a few eggs, a can of Maxwell House and a tube of Pillsbury biscuits, we were out the door.
There was no such thing as camouflage in those days, so we wore blue jeans, Army jackets and flannel shirts. My feet were too small for my father’s extra jungle boots, so I wore tennis shoes. I remember my toes were freezing by dawn, but I was happy just to be outdoors and with my dad.
This was also the days before treestands. We stalked on an old logging road, and Pop showed me how to walk quietly, watching out for brown leaves and things that go crack underfoot. We sat on the ground from time to time, using my grandfather’s foggy old WWII binoculars to scan clear cuts.
We’d sighted no deer by mid-morning, so Pop sat on a stump and pulled a thermos of coffee out of his jacket pocket, poured some in the lid and offered me a swig. I tried a little because I was freezing, and nearly spit it out. At that moment, you couldn’t have convinced me someday I wouldn’t be able to function without the stuff.
The lessons continued, and so far, I’d learned that bobcat tracks don’t have claw marks, deer poop looks like Raisinets and a pileated woodpecker scream will scare the bejeebers out of you when it’s dead quiet.
As noon approached and we made our way back to our old van, it all happened so fast; a small herd of deer crossed the logging road and scattered among the oaks.
Pop whispered, “Do you see him? There’s a buck right down there!”
My untrained eyes darted across the forest and only found two does stomping the ground directly in front of me. I shook my head, no.
Try as I might, I could not find the one with antlers. Just before the deer started to spook, Pop smoothly raised his .30-06, settled it on the mystery animal and fired.
I remember how shockingly loud the rifle was, and seeing Pop’s shoulder lurch from the recoil.
I held my breath, watching for my father’s reaction, but he stood frozen, still looking through his scope. He quietly bolted another round, scoped a moment more and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
I said, “Did you get it? Is it down? Where? WHERE?”
He said, “Yep … follow me.”
Something I will never forget is the excitement of first seeing the sleek, mysterious animal laying in the leaves, and my father walking up from behind to touch its eye with the muzzle of his rifle. “He’s done,” Pop said in a hushed tone.
Overcome with joy and excitement, I let out a whoop, grabbed the antlers and counted points — all three of them. In the 1970s, ANY buck was a trophy and does were not legal to harvest. This was a big deal. We might even make the local paper!
Yammering like a kid on Christmas morning, I turned to Pop and noticed he was not smiling. For someone who had grown up shooting whitetails, wild hogs and mule deer, he didn’t seem excited. Almost inaudibly, he said, “Why did I shoot that beautiful creature?” To this day, I don’t know if he meant for me to hear that.
I guess my dad had done enough killing. This would be the last whitetail he would shoot, and he has long since traded his rifle for a paintbrush and camera. I never pushed him as to why he gave it up, and he never dissuaded my brothers or me from hunting.
But then, Pop sprang into action and took great efforts to show me how to field dress a deer, emphasizing the need to take extra care not to bust the pee sack.
Nothing in life prepares you for the first time you smell deer guts. Pop showed me how to stand upwind from the steam. If you are looking for a tip of the week in this story, that one’s a keeper.
This was in the days before ATVs. We took turns carrying the small buck on our shoulders, and Pop made sure to tie safety orange all over me even though we were on our own land.
We loaded the buck in the back of the van and stopped by several relatives’ houses to show it off.
Pop used my uncle’s swing set to hoist the deer for skinning, and I spent the day scraping and salting the hide, happy as a lark.
Even though this was not my deer, it was my first deer hunt. Four decades later, I can honestly say my dad’s efforts paid off, both for my future career and my lifetime of priceless memories.
Again, I say, please take time this week to thank or remember the person who introduced you to hunting. And pay if forward by taking a kid hunting.
So, thanks Pop! Now pass the cranberry sauce.
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