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New Season, Old Friend

PhotoBy Chuck Vereen

-- It was November in Arkansas, and it had been unseasonably warm all week. On Wednesday evening, the weatherman enthusiastically announced a cold front was scheduled to hit Saturday morning, which happened to be the opening day for the modern gun deer season. I had drawn a permit to hunt White River National Wildlife Refuge for the whole weekend.

The refuge is the home of many of the state's biggest bucks, according to the record books. A group of friends and I had planned this trip six months ago, and things were finally coming together to get in the woods for some whitetail action.

We made the trek early Friday morning for two good reasons. The primary goal was to scout the best stand locations. The second objective was to establish our command post:  Deer Camp. Todd's four-wheel-drive pick-up pulled a camper; my truck towed a boat and a four-wheeler.

I had my two buddies and my best deer tracking friend, a German Shepherd named Gabe by my side. Both vehicles were loaded with supplies and some fired up hunters as we drove through the dawn in the cooling autumn air.   

We had studied topo maps of the area and planned to boat up the river in attempts to get away from the crowd and into some deep, seldom visited woods. We launched the boat and headed up river. When we arrived at our starting point, man's best friend stayed with the boat and the hunting party headed out. We scouted some promising areas and located some good looking deer sign.

The bottoms of the White River are awesome. You can just imagine the original inhabitants that lived off the land. I know people who have found arrowheads along the river bed. The woods just seem ancient. Each of us found a place to return to hunt the next day. I found a particularly good rub line and a few fresh scrapes. I placed my climbing stand, and remained cool-headed about the secret spot I had found.

Upon returning to the campgrounds, we set-up our headquarters and commenced to enjoying the great outdoors that evening with a full-fledged cookout of steaks on a charcoal grill. You could feel the temperature dropping as we sat around the fire that night. Steam spewed out of our mouths with each word spoken. My trusty friend remained by my side as usual and feasted on three large T-bone steaks. We finally bedded down with high hopes of the upcoming hunt.

We all woke in the dark to a frosty morning. It was tough to get out of the sleeping bag and into those longjohns, but as someone started the coffee, the anticipation of opening morning began to build.  As flashlights flickered, we gathered our gear and headed to the boat that was down on the river bank. I don't know who was more excited, us humans or Gabe. The dog stared at me excitedly and wagged its tail. Gabe knew we were going hunting. 

We loaded the boat and the little 9.9 Evinrude sputtered as the boat slowly split the water.  The stars were brilliant and the air was crisp as we headed toward our stands.  We had about 4 miles to go when the engine stopped. An "uh-oh" was heard along with a couple of unmentionable words. I turned to pull the rope on the motor with no results. Man, what luck. 

We decided to pull to the bank as the river pushed us back toward camp. The sun was beginning to glow in the east, so we made a group decision to head out from where we were and just hunt. We saw one other boat pass, as hopes descended. We all split up and went in opposite directions, planning to meet back at the boat at 10 a.m. As I walked away from the boat, I peered back to see Gabe staring my way, ears perked, and loyally awaiting my return as trained. He wouldn't leave that boat if it sunk.  

I walked down the bank of the river, toward La Grue Bayou that intersected the White River. As I crept down water side, I decided to ease into the woods and keep the bayou in sight as a reference. I finally sat by a huge cypress tree and waited until daylight. I decided not to sit long, since I was unfamiliar with the area. I planned to walk until I located a trail or some other sign. I shook my head as I thought about my boat that left us stranded. Oh well, at least I was hunting and it was a textbook opening morning. There was no wind, the sky was clear and the temperature was cold!

I stalked between the trees, looking for sign and any movement. I took about 10 more steps when I saw a flicker across the bayou. I froze and strained as I finally made out the shape of a deer standing on the sand bar. The deer had its head to the ground and then raised it. I saw the antlers! I could immediately tell it was a shooter buck, and the antlers spread outside the ears of the deer's head. I slowly raised my Remington .308 and scoped the buck. I steadied the rifle against a small tree, concentrated on the front shoulder and squeezed. The thunder echoed in the bottomlands of the White River. I was so excited, I did not feel any recoil as the smoke bellowed, and I saw the deer bolt down the bank and in the woods. I was certain that I made a good shot.

There was no way I could cross the bayou, so I headed back toward the boat. Gabe was happy to see me. He somehow knew by my excitement that he had a tracking mission. I climbed in the boat and started paddling across the river to track my deer. I heard a whistle and turned around to see my buddy Vince standing there. I turned around and paddled back. 

I told Vince what happened. He hopped in the boat, and we headed toward the scene of the shot. When we arrived, I looked across the bayou on the bank and found a branch I had whittled to mark where I had thought the deer had been when I shot. Ole Gabe's nose was dribbling the area like a basketball. We quickly found a scrape that the deer must have been checking. We looked and looked, but did not find any blood. I kept scanning as Vince and Gabe walked up the bank into the woods. After about 10 minutes, I heard Vince shouting. I ran to where he was and there lay the biggest buck I had ever taken - an awesome 9-pointer with a huge body. I thanked my old friend for a job well done then I finally gathered my senses, and we pulled the monster to the boat. With great effort, we got him in and paddled back across. Todd walked up and said he had heard the shot. He was stunned at our cargo, and I told him the story.

We shoved off and let the current carry us back down the river to the camp site. It was an exhilarating ride back. I savored the moment as I studied the massive animal and surveyed its rack. I reflected on the hunt, our luck and how old that animal had lived to be. I felt like a Native American might have felt as we floated down that river in silence.

The shot had been perfect at over 150 yards. I think Gabe was as proud of my accomplishment as I was. We were after all, a team.  The buck weighed in at 225 pounds and had a 19-inch spread. I had to be the camp cook for the rest of the weekend, but as I smoked my "victory cigar," Gabe and I didn't mind a bit. Man, what luck.

Last summer Gabe was 11 years old, and I had to put him down because of old age. It was the one of the hardest things I ever had to do.  The memories of that particular hunt are still alive, though. I have a new pup I am training. The weather is hot now, but when I train my newest tracking friend, I smell a hint of fall in the air.          

Chuck Vereen
North Little Rock, Arkansas

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