By Shawn Perich
Life is filled with firsts and last weekend, 15-year-old Joe Hamsmith of Duluth passed a hunting milestone. Deep in a North Shore forest late last Sunday afternoon, he killed what he calls his “first real deer.”
It wasn’t his first deer, mind you. Two years ago, he shot two bucks while hunting in a comfortable ground blind with his Grandpa Steve near Duluth. He even made the nightly news when he showed up at the registration station while a local television crew was there. Joe was justly proud of his accomplishment when he came up to hunt with us the following weekend. And he just couldn’t figure out why we didn’t have the good sense to use ground blinds.
Actually, we’ve never seen the need for ground blinds or tree stands when a comfortable stump will do. When Joe hunts with us, we make sure he has a compass and a two-way radio. Then we send him into the woods to find a deer. We are never far away, but he’s on his own. I learned how to hunt the same way.
Joe’s been coming into the woods with us since he was six or seven years old, though he only began carrying a deer rifle after he turned 12. He understands how we hunt by sneaking through the forest, but as for doing it himself, sneaking has been like voodoo. The still-hunting method is darned hard for an experienced hunter, because you must defeat a whitetail’s keen senses in order to get the drop on it. For a kid, it’s a task that seems impossible.
Joe’s been along when we’ve shot deer and he’s listened to plenty of stories about the deer that got away. He’s even seen a few deer while hunting on his own. However, until this year he’s had the short attention span and lack of patience that plagues most kid hunters. This year, however, he approached hunting with a new attitude.
“I’ve decided to go further into the woods and to try to be quieter,” he told me when he arrived to hunt on the second weekend of our 16-day season. On the first weekend, he hunted in the ground blind with Grandpa Steve. However, he also practiced slow and quiet sneaking as he walked around Steve’s property. So he was primed and ready when we headed into the woods last Saturday morning.
Sloppy snow turned to steady rain not long after day break, which made for quiet, but soggy sneaking. After a few hours, we were so soggy we decided to head for the truck. Neither Joe nor I had seen a deer, but our partner, Alan Lutkevich of Duluth, had jumped several of them. We decided to return the following morning.
It was still soggy when we started into the woods Sunday morning, though the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We went our separate ways, agreeing to touch in via radio at lunchtime or if we heard someone shoot. To make a long day short, no one killed a deer. Late in the afternoon, Joe and I met by happenstance in the woods. Joe had spent the day a-wandering and was ready to wander some more.
“This is really cool out here,” he said. “I could wander around in these woods even if I wasn’t hunting.”
We had a half hour or so before it was time to call it quits, so we split up and agreed to meet at the truck. About 10 minutes later, I heard a nearby shot, followed moments later by another. Knowing it was either Joe or Al, I waited, in case a fleeing whitetail came my way. Then Joe came on the radio.
“Hey Shawn, can you come over here and help me out?” he asked.
I told him to wait where he was and walked over to find him. He had left his hat where he’d been standing when he shot at the deer and was looking around where the deer had been. I got the story in bits in pieces. He’s been sitting on a log. Suddenly, he looked up to see a doe standing about 30 yards away. He released the safety, which made a surprisingly, loud, metallic click.
“The deer looked right at me,” he said. “So I stood up fast and shot.”
There wasn’t any evidence that he’d hit anything.
“I think I missed,” he said. ”My adrenaline was really pumping.”
The doe bounded past him and then stopped about 60 yards away. That’s when he shot the second time. I followed the deer’s tracks as best I could in the wet leaves and Joe showed me where it was standing when he fired. This time, his adrenaline was more in control and he thought he made a good shot.
I kept following what I hoped were the doe’s tracks in the leaves, but didn’t find any blood. The trail led me across a shallow ravine and into some conifers. I was thinking about turning around when I spied the dead deer ahead of me.
“Your deer is right here, Joe,” I said.
What happened next were mostly grins and handshakes, and then more grins.
“I finally got a deer up here,” he said. “That’s my first real deer.”
Light was fading fast. I told Joe to pull the doe to an open spot where he could field dress it. It was only the second time he’d cleaned a deer, but I let him do it himself. It was dark enough that we needed a flashlight to complete the task. Loyal readers of this column may recall the previous week I was in the woods after dark with no light. This time, I had a flashlight in my pocket.
It’s always good to be the man with the light, because you can light the way while the other guy drags the deer. With grunts, groans and an occasional mild curse, Joe pulled the deer along behind me. Eventually, we met up with Al, who had retrieved our hauling sled from the truck. The drag became easier once the deer was on the sled.
Easier, that is, until we reached a ravine where our trail switchbacks down one side and up the other. Painful memories have been made on those switchbacks. Joe made a few more as he pulled the deer uphill, clawing with his hands to make forward progress on the steep parts. Ever helpful, Al and I held flashlights so he could see the path. He made it to the top.
At the truck, he was tired, but still buzzing with excitement. “What time is it?” he asked. “I got to get back to the house and make some phone calls.”
First, we celebrated with hamburgers in Grand Marais. Joe worked the phones when we got home. As luck would have it, the only person who answered his call was Grandpa Steve.
“I think he was more excited than I am,” said Joe. Then he told us the story about how he shot the deer one more time. We were more than happy to listen, even though we’d already heard it several times. As every deer hunter knows, there’s no better feeling than having a story of your own.