Buck Fever Follies

By Jason Smith

Growing up, my father was an avid deer hunter, but putting food on the table was his top priority and taking time off from work was nearly impossible for him, so he’d schedule PTO nine months in advance and squeeze all of his deer hunting in during first season shotgun. For as long as I can remember, he always had one old majestic mount hanging on the wall of our living room. My older brother named it Rocka. I would LOVE to hear Dad tell the story about how Rocka came to reside in our home. Dad had an out-of-town hunting buddy (Gary) who would stay with us for the five day season, and I couldn’t get enough of their hunting stories when deer season rolled around. Their faces beamed with great big smiles and roaring belly laughter filled our house. There was excitement and happiness in the air, it was almost electric. It was like a pre-Christmas, Christmas, but I wasn’t opening any gifts. Heck, I wasn’t even taking part in the hunt, but I knew there was something special about this deer hunting thing.

One of the stories told was of a crew member who had an absolute bruiser pass right by him. At the end of the drive, he had the entire party scouring the ground for blood and the downed buck, only to come up empty handed. As they congregated back together, they got to talking about what exactly went down. When one of them asked him how many shots he fired, he emphatically told them that he’d emptied his gun, all five shots. He was so certain his gun wasn’t shooting straight that he was determined to wrap that hunk of steel around a tree. One of the guys said that he didn’t hear more than two consecutive shots during the drive, definitely not five, so he asked where the poster was standing. When they walked over and looked on the ground, there were five unfired shotgun shells, all lying neatly within inches of one another. The dude got a bad case of BUCK FEVER, and shucked all of his shells without firing a single shot. If I hadn’t heard this story from these two father figures, I’d never have believed it.

Dad would occasionally throw in the short story about how he thought he was going to break his trigger once, he was squeezing it so hard, because he’d forgotten to take the safety off…

Gary hunted with my Dad for years, but had yet to harvest a trophy buck of his own. One evening, instead of entering the porch with a, “Howdy Boys!” Gary came in with his head hanging low. Over dinner, he reluctantly told us about his day. While on post, he’d watched a BIG buck trotting towards him and out of excitement, he rushed his first shot and missed. When he went to shuck in another shell, the base of his winter glove had gotten jammed in his pump slider, solidly locking up the action. Try as he might, he couldn’t budge the slider. Gary’s frantic movements got the attention of the buck, and it stopped to watch him for a few seconds, just a few yards away, before bounding off. Gary was beside himself with grief. The wind had been sucked from his sails for the rest of the season. By the time the next season rolled around, grief had been replaced with humor, and this quickly became one of my favorite hunting stories.

Time rolled by. Gary finally got a trophy buck and Dad added a second to his collection. I was finally old enough to join the hunting party. Gary and many of the other guys, I’d only heard stories about, had moved away or retired from deer hunting all together. Of the original crew, only my Dad and a good friend of his remained to introduce me to the sport. Outside of getting lost a few times, conceding to thick patches of multiflora rose, personally surviving a few cases of Buck Fever (mostly Doe Fever), and avoiding having my shirt tail cut off, I harvested my first deer during that first season, a button buck. Deer hunting was everything that I’d imagined it was for so many years. I was officially one of the guys!

Every outing was a learning experience. I was a high energy kid who was easily excitable, so I missed more shots than I care to admit. I would get SO frustrated with myself when I would hurry a shot or mow down a tree sapling instead of hitting my mark. I got to where I’d rather walk drives, and let the more seasoned guys post to make successful shots, than post myself. My Dad rarely ever fired a shot, but when he did, it was almost guaranteed there was a dead deer on the ground. He was a crack shot in my eyes. He’d always tell me to remember to breath, don’t look at the antlers, aim at the vitals, release the safety, and don’t jerk the trigger. Easy enough in theory, but like many things, theory and reality are seldom the same. He always seemed so calm. When asked if he still got Buck Fever, he’d always respond, “Son, the day this stops being exciting for me is the day I’ll stop doing it.”

Twenty years went by. I and my buddies had become the veteran members of our shotgun hunting party. I’d become less excitable and had put a few deer on the walls of my own home. I thought the days of Buck Fever were behind me. Then I picked up archery hunting. Boy was I wrong. I made SO many stupid mistakes early on. In particular, I remember my first shot on a decent buck. I didn’t knock off any hair or leave any blood trail, and I was absolutely positive I’d put a good shot on it. I heard the arrow hit and everything. Hours of searching in the dark for any sort of sign, and I conceded that I somehow missed. I told my brother about it over the phone and, after he hunted the same tree stand a few days later, he called me up laughing. He told me that my arrow was stuck in a big gnarly limb of the oak tree the stand was in. DOH!!!
After years of asking a good high school friend of mine to join our shotgun party, he finally joined us for a season. Typical beginners luck, he had what was probably one of the biggest bucks we’d ever seen in that area, run right to him while he was driving. His first shot dropped the buck like a stone. As he was walking towards it, it started getting to its wobbly feet as it shook its head frantically. He put another two rounds into it and made a successful harvest. When the group made it over to him, we all knew what he was looking at when he took his first shot, as the slug had shattered off more than half of one antler and at least a third of the other. Broken antlers and all, that buck still had sixteen scorable points.

This same friend got into bow hunting a couple of years back, and I let him sit a stand on a little chunk of timber behind my house, on a workday that he had off. I’d harvested a deer the evening before and the rut was in full swing. Deer were on their feet and moving strong. I was confident that he’d have a shot opportunity or two. I received a text message at work. “Got one!” YES! I was pumped. We continued to text. He was watching the deer walking away and wanted to take chase. I told him to stay put and watch it to see if it beds down. He watched it walk up and over a distant hill. After pegging him with a bunch of questions, I determined that he didn’t hit it and recommended he continue hunting. I received another text. “I’m certain I got this one.” SWEET! Then, much like the other communication, he watched this one walk off into the distance too. I asked him to get down and check his arrows. Both deer had been standing in roughly the same spot when he shot, so his arrows were less than two feet apart. No blood. No hair. No nothin. I gave him a quick call and had him walk me through both scenarios. At the end, I asked him, “Did you remember to aim? Actually put your pin on their vitals?”
“Yeah man. I held my pin right behind the shoulder of both of them.”

“Did you remember to look through your peep sight?”

Long pause…

“*@#$! That’s exactly what I did. I forgot to look through my peep.” He’s a really good natured guy, so he was able to shake it off and laugh about it right away, and that’s good, because I could barely breathe I was laughing so hard.

The next story is my own personal crown jewel Buck Fever moment. Two plus decades of shotgun hunting and a few years of bow hunting under my belt, along with a few deer mounts to my name, I’ve got this Buck Fever thing licked. Right? Wrong again!

Late, second day of shotgun season, I and two other guys are about to begin pushing a timber. It was finally cold enough that day to freeze over the small farm pond, the dam of which we were about to crest and drop into the backside wooded ravine to begin our drive. I was on the East corner of the dam and they were on the West corner. As they took their first steps over the top of the dam, a nice buck flew up and over the middle of the dam and started sliding and kicking its way across the freshly frozen pond. We all just stood there, kind of dumbfounded, which really wasn’t a bad thing, because none of us could shoot initially, as we were all in line with one another. I gathered myself, waited for a safe shot opportunity, took aim and shot. The buck spun, dropped and CRASH, broke through the ice in the center of the pond.

My first thought was, “Now what?” My second thought was to continue with the drive even though I wasn’t sure if it was going to sink, or float, or even make its way back out of the water and run away. Then one of the guys on the other side of the pond, who was already one of the tightest wound guys I’ve ever met, got all sorts of spun up and started hooting and hollering, “That’s a trophy! That’s a trophy!” over and over and over again. In turn, this got me all spun up. (Like I was a fourteen year old kid again instead of a man in my mid-thirties.) I swear I heard a, “You gotta go get him!”, in there somewhere, at which point my calm, rational mind switched off, as Buck Fever had slid into the driver’s seat.

I’d fished this pond several times and knew it had an old leaky fiberglass boat, riddled with small holes, lying along the bank. I had just witnessed a two hundred(ish) pound deer nearly make it across this ice without punching holes in it with its tiny feet, so I quickly devised to hold onto the back of the boat, and walk my way out to the deer. My irrational logic was that the bottom of the boat would spread our combined weight out enough that everything would stay on top of the ice, without breaking through. It didn’t have to be sea worthy, just have enough surface area in contact with the ice.

The boat was upside down and a quarter submerged in the frozen pond. I got my legs and feet wet breaking the ice away from the hull and couldn’t flip it upright because it was suction cupped down. Instead of slowing down and letting the leaks let in enough air to release the water, I literally punched a hole in the bottom of the hull to speed up the process. I quickly had the boat flipped and was soon implementing my plan.

I grabbed the boat transom, leaned and held most of my body weight up and out over the back of the boat, and began walking myself out to my buck. Everything was working as planned. That is, until I got about ten feet away from the deer, and the fractured ice quickly gave way, so I leapt into the boat. It was at that exact moment that my logical mind took back control, and I realized just how STUPID I had been. I told the other two guys to go get the rest of our party and go get some rope or something.

So, there I was, two hundred feet out in the middle of this farm pond, wet and cold, sitting in a boat that was quickly sinking, as the sun was beginning to set. My buck is expiring right beside me, but I don’t even want to look at it, because I’m so disgusted with myself. Our hunting party all gathered on the shoreline to discuss their game plan. My brother asked me what I thought I was going to do with the deer once I got to it anyway. I told him, I didn’t think that far ahead. Then he started getting excited saying that he thought we needed to call in a helicopter to pluck me out of the deathtrap that I’d put myself in. My response was that I’d bail and give swimming to shore my best go if they called in an aerial rescue. Then he asked if my buck was very big, “I think so, I don’t want to look at it.”, was all I could bring myself to say.

After they figured out how they were going rescue me, it wasn’t long before my Dad returned with a canoe and a rope. It was dark, the buck had expired and remained floating five feet away from me, I was COLD, and within fifteen minutes I would have been treading water, so the timing was perfect. The guys tied the rope to the rear of the canoe and the smallest guy got into the canoe and scooted his way out across the ice and pulled up alongside my sinking boat. I rolled into the canoe and the guys on shore pulled us back to them. I think the first words out of my mouth were, “We shall never speak of this again.”

A cold front moved in overnight, so the following day, I went back out after my buck, via the canoe & rope method, along with a sledgehammer in hand to break the ice around him and drag him out. He wasn’t frozen solid, so field dressing was still possible, but it was by far the coldest one I’d ever performed.

I’ve received my fair share of ribbing for that one, and rightfully so. Buck Fever took a strong hold of me that time, and I’ll lightheartedly take that ribbing for the rest of my life. It helps keep me humble and remember to be graceful to others, because everybody is capable of doing stupid stuff.

So there you have it, Buck Fever can be humorous and dangerous, and no doubt about it, it can sneak up on you and make you do some really stupid things. Remember to breath, don’t look at the antlers, aim at the vitals, release the safety, and don’t jerk the trigger. AND, don’t take a leaky boat out to retrieve a deer in the middle of a freshly frozen pond.