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Lesson Learned

DaltonBy Michael Dalton

-- My 7-year-old son came to me one day and asked, “Dad, what is it like to go deer hunting?”

I explained, “Deer hunting is funny. The only thing you know for certain is: nothing is for certain. It’s not just about killing deer, though. There’s much more to it.”

But as I tried to explain further, I realized this was one hunting lesson that he would have to figure out all on his own. A couple of years later, he would join me in the woods. I hoped he would understand.

The Big Day

I have looked at the same bright red digital numbers, listened to the same obnoxious ear-piercing beep and pushed the same too-short snooze button on the same alarm clock for more than 15 years. Man, do I hate that clock. But it does its job, getting me out of bed each morning in time for coffee before I head off to the windowless office that holds me captive for eight hours a day, five days a week.

But the day I took my son hunting with me for the first time was different. That morning, I looked forward to hearing that hated clock ringing in my ears. I would be free; there would be no walls to hold me captive. Nothing could dampen my spirits that day.

At the appointed and much anticipated hour, I headed sleepy-eyed downstairs to wake Jacob, who was then 9 years old. I shouldn’t have bothered, because he was already dressed. He’d barely slept because the excitement was too much.

I didn't know exactly what his expectations were, but I was afraid he might be disappointed. Nothing is for certain, after all, when you are whitetail hunting.

Perhaps it would be the time of his life. Perhaps he would be bored to tears. I could only hope our preparations would bear fruit. At the very least, I hoped for some excitement.

I poured my cup of coffee and poured Jacob a cup as well. This has become a treat for him, reserved for hunting days. He tells me he likes it, but I believe it makes him feel a bit more grown up to have a cup of java in the morning with Dad. He needs lots of cream and sugar, of course.

We finished loading our gear and headed to our central Ohio hunting grounds an hour’s drive from home. We both sat quietly in my pickup truck, barely speaking a word. It was too early in the morning to talk. The caffeine hadn't quite kicked in yet.

Jacob finally broke the silence.

“Dad, do you think we'll get a deer today?"

“I hope so,” I replied. “But remember what I said. Nothing is for certain. We’ll see what happens."

I don't think he was quite satisfied with my response. Jacob sat quietly for a while longer and finally said, "Dad, I prayed last night that I would get a deer today."

"Well, Jacob, let's see what the Lord has in store for us today. Shall we?"

The climb to the top of the ridge and our stand is brutal at 6 a.m.  Even on the coldest mornings, the steep incline can bring beads of sweat to your brow.

We wound our way through the thick underbrush as quietly as possible and found our stand in the dim moonlight. Everything was going well, and we were settled in well before day break.

The November morning was cold and crisp, much cooler than I had hoped. I wasn't sure how Jacob would handle it. His slight 65-pound build offered him little protection from the elements.

He immediately snuggled close to me in the two-seat treestand we affectionately call the "Condo." We call it that partly because it is spacious and comfortable, but mainly because of the view it offers of the river valley.

On this day, a fog spread over the valley below like a fleece blanket. The sun rising over the farmlands and river was a magical sight. I felt sorry for those poor souls who would never be able to experience what I was experiencing with my son.

As the sun rose, Jacob sat quietly, deep in his own thoughts. Finally, he whispered, "Whoa … that is cool!"

The excitement would soon wear off, however. The woods were unusually quiet – no woodpeckers, no chipmunks, not even the gray squirrels that keep me entertained for hours at a time. Despite the lack of stimulation, Jacob was showing incredible patience for a freezing 9-year-old that is not accustomed to sitting still for more than 10 minutes at a time.

Several hours had passed before Jacob nestled closer to me, trying to get warm. He finally whispered, "Dad, when are the deer going to come?"

Feeling his disappointment, but not wanting to give in, I replied "Just wait and see what happens."

Amazingly, only moments after the words crossed my lips, a fat doe presented herself on the path leading in front of our 15-foot-high perch. I could immediately sense Jacob's excitement as he sat up to ready his crossbow on the shooting rail. I hated to break the news: "Jacob, you can't shoot this one."

He looked at me with a confused look and whispered, "Why?"

I pointed a little farther down the path behind the doe. Out came her late-season, spotted fawn.

We smiled at one another as the fawn bounded out of the brush, scampering about like a puppy that has spent too much time in the kennel before, finally, being set free. To our amazement, the fawn ran directly to our treestand. She even began licking the cold metal of the ladder.

Jacob and I peeked over the edge of the stand and laughed as the fawn played under our feet. Soon, she was racing around the bottom of our oak tree. The mother, however, was not amused. She quickly detected our presence mere feet from her precious baby and began stomping and snorting, trying to get some control over her unruly juvenile.

She reminded me of a substitute teacher who has lost control of the classroom. On the verge of panic, she did not know what to do. Mama deer raced in and out of the thicket, trying to coax her baby to follow her. The fawn, for whatever reason, was content to stay below our stand and play for quite awhile, despite her mother’s protests. Finally, the distraught mother won out, and our show ceased.

After that, Jacob and I decided to get out of the cold. On the way back to the truck, we took our time, hoping to see a deer or jump one from a ravine. It was worth a shot.

What we saw next I sometimes think was my imagination. I am glad Jacob was with me because I would have thought I was hallucinating. As we walked over the crest of the hill overlooking the ravine, we found ourselves surrounded by wild turkeys. I had never seen any turkeys in this area (and haven’t seen any since). On this day, however, there were hundreds … on the ground and in the trees. They were everywhere!

Jacob stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed, "Wow, where did they come from?" And as quickly as they were there, they were gone. One of them spooked, and the entire flock scattered like cockroaches on a kitchen floor when the lights go on. We were left standing there shaking our heads in disbelief.

As we stood packing our gear back into the truck, three bald eagles circled overhead and screeched. This is a rare sight in our region of the country. Spotting one these days is a special treat.

I looked at Jacob and said, "You know, Jacob, you prayed that we would get a deer today, and I believe the Lord blessed us with something better."

Jacob looked at me knowingly and smiled. He replied, "Yes He did. Didn't He?"
Lesson learned.

Jacob was able to harvest his first deer later that year. He dropped a nice doe with a 60-yard shot with a .50-caliber muzzleloader.

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