A Long Weekend In The Field – Axis Hunting With John
February 18, 2013
Just to the left of this sentence is where the photo should go.
It’s a classic shot… His face, an admixture of weariness, excitement, happiness, and the subtle shadows of ambivalence at celebrating the death of such a beautiful living creature. He kneels proudly, holding his rifle in an extended arm, butt down and muzzle up… the portrait of success. Stretched on the ground in front of him is the sleek, spotted body of a mature axis buck. The eyes are still black and glistening… still unglazed by death. The velvet-covered antlers sweep back in a graceful arc over the animal’s back.
At about 09:30, Saturday morning, I thought that was the picture I’d be posting today.
The buck had been grazing on the far side of the pasture, oblivious to the three hunters discussing the shot opportunties, estimating the range (one of the hunters, an “experienced guide”, had forgotten to get his Leica binocular/rangefinders out of the truck), and debating whether we should try for more than one animal, or just focus on one shot at a time. We decided that John, the shooter, would build up a rest with some handy bricks, and take the (approximately) 250 yard shot from a solid mount. Our host, Levi, and I would spot the shot. I wanted to run back to the truck and get my rangefinder, as well as the video camera, but instead I sat tight and watched the animals through my scope. If the herd didn’t scatter at the first shot, there might be an opportunity for me to pick out a deer of my own and make it a double.
At the crack of the 7mm-08, the buck sprang straight up and kicked before sprinting into the pecan bottom. He stopped, perfectly protected behind a downed tree branch. All we could do was watch and see what he did. If he gave the shooter another opportunity, that would be great, but the way the deer seemed to be sinking with his head down, we were all pretty sure the game was over. It was only a matter of time before he collapsed. Finally, he sank to his front knees and laid down. Unfortunately, he was now almost completely hidden from my sight. Was his head up or down? Was he done, or just sick? Should we chance loading up into the truck and hauling ass around the pasture to get to him?
We all agreed that the shot looked good. The buck’s reaction seemed fairly textbook. He must be down for the count.
Except he wasn’t. Even as we stood discussing and congratulating John on a great shot, the deer staggered back to his feet. The herd had trotted past him, headed to another part of the ranch, and he was going to try to join them. The tangle of downed branches and pecan trees kept John from getting another clear shot as the deer slowly staggered off, out of sight. Then Levi said he saw it fall again, and we should get the truck and head around there to collect him.
We were pretty sure there’d be a dead deer laying under the pecan trees when we arrived, but there wasn’t. We cast about blindly for a little while before backtracking to the blood spoor, and starting over. The trail, it turns out, went the opposite direction from where we’d last seen the buck moving.
The tracking job was long, complicated, and very frustrating at times. I’ll spare the extended description of the whole ordeal, but at the end of it, Levi jumped the deer in a cedar thicket, and it leapt a fence and crossed onto a neighboring property where we could not follow.
Here is where I’d have inserted the second photo, aligned right, of John with his axis doe. Her copper fur, spotted with white would be shining in the brilliant sunshine of a mild and beautiful, winter afternoon. In the picture he strokes her slender neck with a look of somber admiration. The rifle is placed, muzzle-up (and bolt open, thank you), across her haunches for the photo, carefully posed by the photographer for a classic “hero shot”.
But it appears that this was not to be either. A moment’s hesitation is a moment too long for a skittish creature like an axis deer. And it never pays the marksman to second-guess his shot placement in the midst of making the shot.
Were there lessons learned? Absolutely. Hindsight is always so very clear, and looking back over the weekend exposes all sorts of things that could’vewould’veshould’ve been done differently. There were lessons of patience, waiting a little longer, taking a little more time on the trail, and paying closer attention.
We were reminded of the need to stop regularly while blood trailing to take our eyes off the ground and look around us. Levi was looking at the ground when the buck jumped up from a thicket very nearby. It’s possible that, had he been scanning the brush as well as the ground, he might have seen it before it got away. Or maybe not…
We were reminded that animals don’t necessarily stop where we expect them to, and you should never rush ahead without looking carefully around first. John and I had seen a group of deer run across the road ahead of us, and cut across country to head them off. I was rushing to get to the place I thought they’d be, and we practically walked right into them because they had turned and come toward us. If I’d been a little more attentive on where I was, instead of focused on where I wanted to be, I’m pretty sure we could have had a shot at those deer.
Other lessons? After losing the buck, Levi and I both remarked on our fondness for neck shots and how they eliminated tracking jobs. In the midst of the hunt, we convinced John to switch up his game and shoot for the neck instead of the shoulder shot he was generally quite comfortable with. As a result, he hesitated at a crucial moment instead of going with what he knew and the deer ran off before he could shoot. When presented with another opportunity where a shoulder shot would have been perfectly effective, he went for the neck and doubted himself just enough to miss the shot. This is a lesson I should already have known well… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So there are no photos. And John is going home without any meat.
But it wasn’t a total loss, as I got the opportunity to spend some time in the field with a great guy. We shared excellent conversations, some good food, and a drink or two after which we did our best to solve the problems of the world.
Next time. It may not be better, but it will almost certainly be different.