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The Shirttail Trophy

photoBy Thomas Jones

-- Dawn came quickly as the sun's rays seemed to creep through the shadows of the pine trees, which softly swayed in the breeze. The owls hooted as the ducks and geese took flight from the ponds and river as we sat waiting for our buck.

A shot rang out, and my younger son, Matthew, and I looked at one another and wondered who was responsible for it and if they had scored on a buck. Next, we noticed movement at the end of the field. There it was, antlers glistening in the sunlight. We both realized the buck was within range of my father who was sitting in his special spot, the same post he has used for 30 years.

Then we saw the buck take off running across the field as if it had wings on its feet. We heard one shot, then two, and then a third, but they were to no avail as my father had let buck fever get the best of him.

After that, the buck stopped as if to say, "Better luck next time." It didn't stand there long before we heard the report of Bryant's rifle. The buck collapsed in a heap. Bryant, who is my older son, was on the other side of the field from where Matthew and I had been watching the scene play out. I couldn't help thinking the buck made a serious mistake by insulting my father by looking back.

That was how our deer season started, but it was far from over. I'll start at the beginning and say that this was our family deer hunt, which is a 22-year tradition. My father started us deer hunting when I was 14, and we have continued every year since. My sons have joined us the last two years.

The hunting party includes my father, Arthur Jones; my two brothers, Frank and Johnny; me, Tommy; my two sons, Bryant and Matthew. And there's Sam, a longtime deer hunter and friend who is still looking for a buck. We all think Sam is special; he drives from Wilmington, Del., to Kent County, Md., just to go hunting with us. His relentless search for that elusive trophy is an inspiration to all of us. He says that there is a place on his den wall waiting for his trophy. We all hope he gets it one day, but it was not to be that year.

We were hunting on a farm some eight miles from Chestertown, Md., on the eastern shore. The deer are plentiful but very cautious. How else could they grow so big and have the kind of trophy racks that everyone dreams about hanging over their fireplaces? The deer stories start to flow from our lips to eager listeners, whether they are sons or grandsons, as we pass on knowledge to future hunters.

We'll pick up the story as Bryant slowly walked out to his buck, along with everyone else, except me. I continued my vigil for a buck of my own. As the group trudged down to see how big Bryant's buck was, a few more shots rang out, but nothing appeared. I settled down to a cup of coffee and waited.

When Matthew returned, he said, "Dad, when am I going to get my buck?"

Everyone was now sitting and waiting as the sun slowly rose. The sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a warm 40 degrees. As I glanced at my watch, I realized that it was only 8:15 a.m. - early yet. Suddenly, from nowhere, a buck was running straight to my father's point. We held our breath and heard a lone shot, telling us Dad had scored after three years of misfortune. He seemed even more excited than Bryant was.

As we congratulated my father, Matthew looked up and said, "Dad, when will I get mine?"

I said, "Son, you stick with me and you will get yourself a big buck, and then you can give your brother and Granddad a hard time."

Well, from that moment on, he became my shadow. It was like he was walking in my boots along with me. Wherever I went, he was there. He was determined to keep up and to get his trophy. As we walked slowly back to our stand with him so close that I could hear him breathing, I felt the pressure like a heavy pack on my back.

I needed to keep my promise and help Matthew get his trophy buck. In all the years I've hunted, I only have one trophy buck myself - a 13-pointer I took in 1966. My father, in his 30 years of hunting, only has a 10-point buck on his wall. Now I had told my son I would see him get his trophy in his second year of hunting. "Nice one, Tom," I said to myself.

As I sat next to my shadow and daydreamed, I noticed three does heading in Frank's direction. I told Matthew to be ready in case the does came to us after Frank shot. All Matthew said was, "I don't see any antlers, Dad."

At 30 yards, Frank took his shot, but he was high and the deer ran and weaved like a pinball in a machine, never going straight. On the third shot, the largest doe faltered and fell as her heart had been demolished. The third person in our party had scored. As the sun set, we slowly walked back to our cars. We said our goodbyes and waited for Monday afternoon to arrive so we could try again. 

When Monday came and went, along with Tuesday, my son asked, "Dad, when will I get my buck?" I had no answer. Then Wednesday came, cloudy and cool with a stiff 30 mph wind - not a good day at all for deer to move.

As Sam went back to his stand, we wished him luck. Johnny, Matthew and I headed for our stands. As Johnny headed toward his stand, my little shadow latched onto my shirttail and said, "Let's find my buck, Dad." I had an uneasy feeling inside and I wondered if I finally had put my foot in my mouth once too often.

The sun rose and finally broke through the clouds, allowing us to see. I realized that it was not a day to be watching a field. "On these windy days you will find deer in the woods where they feel safer," I told Matthew. As I talked, four shots rang out across the field from Sam's location. We rushed over to see Sam with a 6-point buck. It wasn't the trophy for his wall, but he was grinning.

As we took Sam's deer to the car, we talked about the weather and what strategy to try. We wished Sam well and told him we would see him next year and maybe, just maybe, he would get his trophy then. He smiled and even laughed, saying, "I'll be back," and we knew he would.

It was 12:30 p.m. as Matthew and I headed back into the woods. I had decided to sit in a spot where I had seen deer in previous years when hunting on windy days. As we settled down between the limbs of an old dead oak tree where I have sat alone for years, I was amazed by my son's perseverance while waiting for his trophy. There he sat, tired and expressionless, unwrapping a candy bar from his pocket. He did not seem the least bit worried or even concerned.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and there was a buck coming right toward us. I whispered, "Matthew, here comes your buck."

He looked up and said, "What?"

I said, "Get your gun ready. Your buck is coming!"

My heart began to beat quickly and I began to worry. What if he misses? Will I have time to take a shot at this buck? Then I thought of the amount of time I had spent with Matthew, hunting and teaching him all I know about guns and safety; I had confidence in him. I leaned my gun against the tree and decided this was my son's trophy, and he would have to take it himself or lose the chance of a lifetime.

The buck was so close. He must have looked huge to Matthew. Its rack, filled with long tines, seemed to shine as it stood only 12 yards away. Matthew shot and I saw bark fly off a tree right onto the side of the deer. Then the buck did something all out of character. Instead of running, it took one step forward, giving Matthew a beautiful shot. But buck fever had taken over and his second shot went high. On the third shot, he knocked the deer flat to the ground. 

We walked up and counted points. It was a beautiful 8-point buck. As he looked up at me and smiled, I realized this is what hunting is all about. It is about special moments and experiences that only come once in a lifetime.

I felt the pressure on my shirttail release, and I knew that someday Matthew would be looking at his trophy over his fireplace and telling his sons the story of how he and his dad got his shirttail trophy. As for me, there's always next year. 

Thomas Jones
Chestertown, Maryland

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