I could open this story with many things. I could begin by describing how the odor of our clothes matched that of our bodies from our two weeklong stay in a tent with no running water. I could say discouragement matched our frustration level like brake lights in rush hour traffic as you watch the sunrise from your truck and not your tree stand. I could start with our goals and describe how each year we work hard to avoid coming home empty handed. But deep within every hand-felt trophy, are heart-felt moments and our trophy, “The Laura Buck” deemed no exceptions.
He’s not the most technologically savvy guy, but he can read a text message, without his glasses, at full arm’s extension. Only today, November 4th, my father may not have wanted to make clear of the text that he read aloud. “They think she has COPD. They are going to put her on home oxygen and see if that helps. Call me when you can. Love you.” The text was from Aunt Barb, my father’s sister, who was sitting bedside to my grandmother who had been admitted the night before to Lewis County General Hospital in Northern New York for low oxygen levels.
“Barb!” My father’s greeting technique to ensure he dialed the right “B” in his contacts, “How’s Mom feeling?” He isn’t showing much expression in his face as I try to make of the conversation, but as a career firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician with the Baltimore City Fire Department, I know COPD isn’t something that just comes and goes. “Well I’m sure she does.” He says as Aunt Barb tells him that Grandma just wants to go home. “Ok, thanks Barb. Just please keep me posted. Love ya!”
Nearly 500 miles from home, Day 2 into his vacation and Day 12 into mine, we knew this hunt was going to be different from our others.
We actually never were that “vacationing family”. We did our fair share of adventure parks and small family trips, even visited Disney once, but when a budget doesn’t allow for it, we learned to find fun in our surroundings and in each other; for Dad and I, it was hunting. When it wasn’t hunting season, we were on the riverbanks of the Black River or the shorelines of Pleasant and Lake Bonaparte as the budget also never allowed for a boat growing up. As “the kids”, my two sisters and I, grew up, we slowly began to create our own debts while exponentially decreasing our parents’ (I know they will get a good laugh at that one). In doing so “vacation” was no longer just a day off work, but a time to get away from the daily projects, honey-do’s (and don’ts), and for Dad and I, to continue our annual experience of spending time with each other while doing what we love to do, chase and hunt the mysterious white tailed deer.
I never hunted private land while living in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I never really practiced deer management or let younger bucks grow to their full potential. An 8-point buck had 8 points no matter if he scored 80 inches or 140. But when I met the Scott family of Dickerson, Maryland, not only did a family-friendship begin and grow, but also a mutual opportunity arose for us as well.
I met the Scott’s in 2010 and they were the reason I was able to call Maryland my home. They extended their farm of nearly 300 acres “infested” with white-tailed deer to me to hunt, which would fulfill my country boy needs and in return help control the damage of their crop. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in 2008 Maryland farmers suffered approximately $9.6 million in wildlife-related crop damage and deer were responsible for 80% of it. So through the years, as I have been hunting on the farm, David, the farmer and land owner, sometimes gives a hollow laugh, grinds his teeth, and shakes his head when I show him video and pictures of the “land rats” within shooting range of me as I pass on several shot opportunities. “He has 10 points and you didn’t shoot him?” David says. “Yes, but he’s only a 2 ½ year old deer. I’ll let him grow for a couple more years and in the meantime, control the population and ratio of the herd by harvesting some does (female deer) in the early season.” That’s usually our conversation, followed by a still confused looking friend and farmer whom I’m sure sometimes wonders if my weapon of choice is my camera or my bow.
I started getting serious about filming my hunts when 7 of my buddies and I started our hunting team, Top Pin Outdoors, last year. We all chipped in with a monthly fee that would buy over $5000 worth of camera equipment. The ups and downs of hunting could now be captured on film and we could “re-live” the experience. One camera stays in New York for 7 guys and one camera stays with me in Maryland, which sure adds up doesn’t it? I can honestly say I have some of the best friends.
The cameras turn on, seldom recording our full hunts on film, but habitually capturing everything leading up to and after the harvest of our deer. “Without a beginning, middle, and end I can’t produce a show guys!” I say to the guys after they capture something exciting like a shot of a deer on film, but nothing else. For most of the guys in Top Pin, the priority is about the experience and the hunt itself, rather than the filming. For me, filming is just a creative way to share our experiences with others and sometimes I find myself trying to run Top Pin Outdoors like a business rather than what we truly started the team for.
My vacation time is saved up all year long just for late October and early November. Last year I was able to harvest my biggest buck in Missouri with a bow and this year I found myself capturing my friend Matt’s very first hunting experience and harvest on film. Little did I know that during the butchering part of the hunt I would wind up in the hospital sealing up the hand, and the deal, that made me permanent cameraman for our hunting trip in New York and the first week of our Maryland hunt.
The stitches in my hand held together my anticipation to get out from behind the lens and get into the hot seat to try to get redemption on my opening day buck I put a non-lethal shot on earlier in the season. For 3 years I have put more effort into capturing my father trying to harvest his first Maryland deer on film while rarely ever touching my bow. As our 2 week trip, this year, came down to our last day to hunt, we decided it may be best to separate, put the cameras away, and go back to the “old school” style, and just hunt.
Apparently the warm weather wasn’t the only thing keeping mature bucks from being on the move. As the weather cooled to the low 30s, and we laid the cameras to rest, we separated the morning of November 14th. I texted my father, time stamped at 9:10am, “Shooter buck headed your way!” as I watch through my binoculars, 100 yards North of my tree stand, a mature 10 point buck head right in my father’s direction. Usually taking a full minute to read, and then reply at a rate of 60 LPM, that’s Letters Per Minute, or 1 LPS, yes, Letter Per Second, my father surprisingly responds immediately.
“BBS” I read before put my phone back in my pocket.
Now many hunters are familiar with the letters “BBD” which stands for “Big Buck Down” indicating the harvesting of a big buck, so I had to take a second to try to decide if my father traded in his bow for an airsoft rifle and was out of ammo, or if perhaps the “BBS” stood for “Big Buck Shot”. He quickly gave up on the texting and called me confirming, “I just shot a smasher!”
“Booner”, “Smasher”, “PP Buck”, “Joker”, you name it, the guys from Top Pin make all sorts of nicknames to describe a whitetail buck. “Smasher” I believe was coined by Joe Sparacino this year who is king on bringing new terminology to the Top Pin vocabulary and today, my father decides that was what he shot, a Smasher. Knowing we had one buck shot that wasn’t on film now, I didn’t want to try to take this other shooter buck without being captured on film, so I immediately got down and headed to Dad.
We’re known for story telling, my father and I. My father tells long, detailed stories, but keeps you interested waiting for the punch line. I on the other hand, tell “Prievo Stories” as friends I met in the fire academy call them. My stories have a beginning, middle, and sometimes an end, but usually with no point, or so the guys say.
“And I’m done.”
That’s how I end many of my stories as I sometimes feel the story went on for too long and the point of the story possibly now missed. This though, was my father’s story, and due to the shot placement on the deer, we had a little bit of time.
“I think I hit him a little far back.” He says in disgust as he describes to me the shot location he put on this mysterious smasher. I knew right there it was going to be a long day.
We spent the next couple hours on a hillside, glassing a creek bottom looking for the deer. “I shot him at 5 to 9.” He tells me as we decided at 12:45pm to begin slowly tracking the buck. Now normally you want to wait 4 to 6 hours to begin tracking a gut shot deer, but like the last 10 seconds on your leftovers in the microwave, we couldn’t wait the last 10 minutes.
“Dustin, this blood isn’t dry like the rest, I think we need to back out, we may have bumped him.” Dad says to me 250 yards into the tracking. Simultaneously, I hear a crash through the creek bottom and knew it was the buck on his feet making a run for the private park property.
Now, I’m not much of a runner, and the thought of jogging isn’t pleasing either, but I knew if I wanted to get a look at this deer before he went into the park property, I was going to need get on my feet, and circle around where the creek bottom exited the wood line.
After my uphill marathon across the farm, it was then, while in a sort of Mexican Standoff with the Smasher, I realized, not only did I need a shower, but Dad really did shoot a Smasher. Breathless, it was he or I. And in a Mexican Standoff, the second shooter usually has the advantage, so I was hoping this was my time. It wasn’t. And he took off into the park property leaving us with the decision to let the deer sit overnight.
We sat the evening watch to pass the time and knowing this was our last hunt together for the year, Dad got behind the lens and I grabbed my bow. We would at last light, stalk and harvest a doe in which I normally don’t like to do during the rut, but given the circumstances, we were in need of a boost in our spirits.
Dinner wasn’t an option, as our stomachs were full from the butterflies, so we started to clean up camp, grab our finest camping china, and fill the Solo Cups with Red Stag and Coke. “Well bud,” he says, “regardless of what tomorrow brings us, nothing can replace the time I get to spend down here with you, I look forward to this every year, and already look forward to next year.”
“Here’s to us Dad. And here’s to Grandma Laura.” I said knowing Grandma was back in the hospital two nights before, now prepping for a pacemaker.
Like kids on Christmas Eve, we went to bed hoping to find a present under the tree in the morning. The night before we called the warden and park police for permission to enter the park. We woke in anticipation getting right on the track where we last saw the deer enter the park property. The frost that came with the 28-degree temperature over night, not only froze time, but also froze all sign from the deer in his direction of travel. Prepared for a long day, we began with an opening interview for the camera, and then started our tracking mission.
“I got blood Dustin, looks like he headed into the wood line right here.” I heard Dad say as I was on my hands and knees across the field trying to pick the right deer track out like a witness in a criminal line up. “See this.” He points to the frozen blood trail at the edge of the field. Fifteen minutes in and only 75 yards from the last sighting, I looked into the wood line and realized Saint Nick came through.
“Dad, there’s your buck right there!”
“Get out!” He says putting his hands on his head like Ralphie receiving a Red Ryder in A Christmas Story.
“No, I’m serious, look, about 10 yards, right under that briar bush.”
It got silent. And then the amateur filmmaker, and professional procrastinator I am, I turned on the camera to capture the moment. A hi-five, a hug, and a weight, lifted off the shoulders of a father and son as we both took a deep breath taking in all that was there to take in. We practice, prepare, and live life hoping we take the right steps to get us to victory.
Victory can be measured in points or inches but can also be measured in the overcoming of obstacles, just like Grandma. There, just steps away from us, laid our physical evidence of victory, but deep within that "Smasher", was a much deeper story line. We walked over to the deer, Dad grabbed the antlers and said, “My Laura Buck, this, is The Laura Buck.”
And I’m Done.