Ghostwood Farm

Nine deer.
October 19, 2012, 11:18 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I had an early morning meeting on Wednesday which necessitated my leaving the house at 5am. As I pulled down the driveway, the buck I’ve been watching, a big lovely 10-point, ran across the driveway. At first excited, I realized quickly with dread that he had a very bad limp in his left shoulder. I could not see, as his right side was to me, but I suspect that someone shot him with an arrow: Archery season opened October 1.


Deer One

The first deer I ever shot was the first season I ever hunted: November 2000, in North Dakota. In North Dakota, if private property is not posted, one can hunt on it without permission (at least, that was the case then). A friend, Eric, who had grown up hunting deer was helping me scout. We found some heavily-used trails along the Red River just east of the town in which we were living (Buxton). It was raining that day, about 40 degrees. I remember a red squirrel coming down the dead tree by which I was standing, getting within about five feet of me, and bitching up a storm.

I was hunting with my SKS. It was a Chinese made semi-automatic “assault rifle,” but the only rifle I owned. I bought some soft-tip hunting rounds and sighted it in alongside a black bean field. I had a doe license, which were much easier to get than a buck license, and I was only interested in the meat anyway.

The first deer I saw that day was a huge doe. She came busting down the hill about 20 yards from me. I remember it clearly: I thought, “Oh my God, is that the first deer I’ll ever shoot?” It was not. She winded me and shot north along the river.

Hours later, me freezing and fairly wet, a small herd of does came along. It was well within shooting hours (it is illegal to shoot later than half an hour after sunset). They did not notice me and were coming from the south. I picked what looked like the biggest one. I remember that she was darker and redder than the others. I lined up the shot, just behind the shoulder, right where her lungs would be, and squeezed the trigger. I remember for some reason watching the brass shell casing as it ejected. When I focused again on the deer, the herd was running. I went over to where I knew the deer had been standing. Nothing. I looked until dark, growing more and more frantic. No blood, no deer, and it was getting warmer.

On my way home, I convinced myself I missed. After all, she was only about 20 yards away, much much closer than I had practiced, and I had shifted my point of aim downward, perhaps too much. When I got home, Eric said he’d come out with me the following day.

I went to the south end of the woodlot, Eric to where I had been the day before. The idea was that he would drive deer to me by walking and making noise, giving me an opportunity to shoot one. After about five minutes, I heard him shout: ‘ADAM, DON’T SHOOT.” I went to see what the issue was. Of course, he had found my deer from the night before, not 30 yards from where I shot her.

I dressed her, with direction from Eric, and I dragged her out myself, shaking. We could tell that some of the meat was bad–it had been in the 40s overnight, and her body heat took too long to dissipate. We butchered her that afternoon, discarding some of the obviously bad meat, but not enough. Occasionally, we’d still get a mouthful that wasn’t quite right. I hated to waste what we did, and it was no one’s fault but my own. Interestingly, she had a 12 gauge slug lodged against her spine, just above her tail, that had healed over. She was a year and a half old.

I don’t think I’ve ever told that story. I think Eric is the only one that knew about me losing that deer.


That limping deer bothered me all day. I had to give a talk, but as I drove to and from the meeting (a total of nine hours on the road), most of what I thought about was how terrible it would be for that poor animal to have a broadhead wedged in its shoulder blade–a wound that would not be fatal, but excruciating for weeks or until someone else finally killed him.

It’s easy for such to happen, by the way. The point of aim for an archer is just behind the shoulder of the deer. The idea is to put an arrow through the deer’s lungs, which will kill the animal within seconds from massive internal blood loss. Miss by six inches forward with a rifle and the deer is shot through the heart. Miss in the same place with a bow and the arrow is incapable of penetrating the bones in the shoulder–you have a terrible, painful wound.


Deer Two

I was in Massachusetts for deer season 2001 and did not hunt. Deer Two came in early November 2002, during muzzleloader season in Virginia. I was hunting with a friend and co-worker, Brian, on his father’s farm. We had been hunting all day, and it was just about sunset. We were sitting, facing in opposite directions, with our backs to the same downed log. Earlier in that same spot I had seen a fork-tine buck and did not shoot–we were hunting on deer damage tags, and they preferred to take does. Brian said that I should have shot, so when he tapped me on the shoulder in the failing light and pointed, I got ready. It was, I thought, the same deer. He was scraping in the dirt, urinating in the scrape, and rubbing his face on a tree branch–just generally having a good time, marking his territory, getting ready for his first opportunities to breed. I took careful aim with my percussion muzzleloader and pulled the trigger. The cap went off, but the powder did not. I whispered, “No…you…didn’t.” The deer took no notice, being about 50 yards away and really into what he was doing. I was trying to figure out how to get another cap out when I saw the muzzle of Brian’s rifle moving past me. He was handing me his gun! I took it, and shot. The deer ran off and we followed a bit faster than normal, because the light was dim and it was fairly warm–it would be easy to lose the deer and it would mean losing most or all of the meat if we did. We walked right to him. It was a different deer, a spike. It remains the only deer I’ve killed with a muzzleloader, and I’ve never killed one with my own, despite hunting many seasons with it.


This year is the first year I plan to hunt with a bow. One of the big reasons I’ve avoided bowhunting so far is the higher probability of inflicting the kind of injury from which this buck likely suffers. One is also more likely to completely lose an animal when bowhunting, because deer can run quite a distance even while hemorrhaging. However, my job is such that I always have to work opening weekend of the firearms season. After that weekend, the deer completely change their patterns and are much more difficult to hunt, at least on the farm. Bowhunting will allow me to start early, hopefully allowing me to harvest an animal before the gun season opens.


Deer Three

Fall of 2002 again, back on Brian’s dad’s farm. He was hunting across the property and I was in a clearing, hanging out in the top of a blown-down tree. Just after lunch that day I had seen a herd of 30+ deer run by me. I stood there, slack-jawed and dumbstruck, as they ran by at top speed. I didn’t shoot.

I was hunting with my .30-30, a gun that remains my favorite deer gun and one that I wish I could use here in Indiana. It was not scoped–I prefer open sights because I don’t like taking long shots. If I feel confident I can hit with the open sights, it’s close enough to shoot.

About an hour before sunset, I heard Brian shoot. Thirty minutes later, three or four deer showed up, all does. Chances are they are the same herd from which Brian took his deer earlier. They were probably 90 yards away, right at my limit. I drew up on the biggest one and shot. I gave them a few minutes, then went to where they were standing. No blood.

I could see in which direction they ran, so I walked slowly, cutting diagonally across and downhill. Finally, 60 yards later, a giant gush of blood, and 20 yards further, there she lay. It was the longest shot I’ve ever taken.


When I got home, I took a long, slow look through my binoculars at the unmowed portions of the field in front of our house, hoping to see the injured buck bedded down. If I had seen him, I would have tried to sneak on him with my own bow, moving quietly from downwind (it was quite windy) and try to get a fatal shot. I looked very carefully, but he was not there. He was not bedded down in either of the unmowed areas closer to the house. If I wanted to find him, I would have to go looking the hard way.


Deer Four

I didn’t kill any deer in 2003, and not for a lack of trying. Brian and I hunted his dad’s place hard, and I hunted the Powhatan and Amelia Wildlife Management Areas as well. For my next deer, I had to go to a controlled hunt at Presquile  National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is a large island in the James River, where deer tend to concentrate. I was drawn in a lottery to hunt the refuge. The morning I hunted was the second day of the two-day hunt. The day before, 20+ hunters killed 40+ deer.

We rode in a ferry to the island, where we received orientation. It was shotgun only, and most hunters were using buckshot (which I despise). I had buckshot because I didn’t know if they required it, but I loaded my shotgun with a slug.

Not a shot was fired before lunchtime. I went to find a new spot, and wound up in a wet woodland adjacent to a marsh. Just across that marsh was the tidal James River. I had been in this spot for no more than an hour when I heard a crashing in the cattails to my right. A doe came…well, not “barreling,” precisely, for reasons that will become obvious, but moving. She came out of the marsh maybe 25 yards from me. I saw with what can only be described as horror that one of her rear legs was barely attached. She collapsed in a heap in some grass, right in front of me, maybe 15 yards away. She saw me, was looking right at me, but didn’t move.

I knew I had to kill her. She was not going to survive and was clearly suffering and exhausted. I took the slug out of my shotgun and put in a round of buckshot. With tears streaming, I shot her in the neck. I’m sure she never even heard the shot.

When I calmed down, stopped shaking and weeping, I saw it was even worse than I initially thought. In addition to her rear leg being broken and hanging by just a piece of skin, her shoulder on the opposite side was torn open and her shoulder broken by buckshot. This deer had been shot twice with buckshot, each time causing a horrible but non-fatal wound.

It was the first of only two deer shot on the island that day. When I butchered her, much of the meat in the damaged portions was rancid, meaning that the wounds were days old. It’s the only deer I’ve taken with a shotgun, and hopefully the last. It cemented my hatred of buckshot for deer hunting. Luckily, buckshot is illegal in Indiana for deer hunting.


When Melissa and the kids got home, I helped get their dinner together, then I took Melissa into the bedroom and explained what I had seen, and that I felt I had to go look for him. I took my bow and my .357. If I found him and couldn’t get a shot with the bow, I wanted to make sure I could put him down. I would just have to call it in to the conservation officers after the fact and hope they were understanding about it.


Deer Five

The last day of the season, very early January 2005. My last chance in Virginia, though I didn’t know it then. I was at the Amelia WMA, one of my favorite places. I was sitting inside a woodlot, just inside the edge from a large sunflower field. I was at the top of a hill; at the bottom of the hill was the Appomattox River. It was a lovely sunny day, and warm–probably 55 degrees at 9am.

I had been there for an hour and decided that another log, about 10 yards away, looked more comfortable. I had not been sitting at the new site for five minutes when a spike buck ran by me at full speed, not 15 feet(!) away. I almost shot from the hip he was so close. The bullet from my .30-30 hit him and he went down hard…then jumped up and took off. I waited, as one is supposed to do, then followed the trail. He had run downhill and died on the bank of the Appomattox.

When I dressed him, I realized how lucky I had been. Because he had been so close, I hit him much higher than I intended. I missed the lungs and the heart, but managed to just clip the aorta–just half an inch difference between this clean kill and either a live deer (bullet passes clean through with little damage) or a long, ugly, painful death.

The hill was not an insignificant one. It was just about all I could do to get him back to my truck. As I dragged him out, I came upon the carcass of a huge buck that someone had shot the night before and just cut the rack off. I got back to my truck, called my deer in, then called the game warden for Amelia County to ask if I could salvage a portion of the other buck. He said I could, so I cut out the backstraps (the hindquarters were probably no good by then, as warm as it was).

It still appalls me to think about that deer, lying dead, with nothing taken but the rack.


I put my boots on for the first time in weeks. I badly rolled my ankle three weeks ago and it is still swollen. I started by walking the field but saw no sign. I followed some deer trails down into the woods, walking down into the creek bottoms. My ankle was killing me (walking downhill was, unexpectedly, far more painful than walking uphill), it was coming up on dark, and it was warm. In addition, it was threatening rain.

The leaves are just starting to fall and it was windy, so it was tough to hear anything. It had not yet rained so everything underfoot was super crunchy–there was little chance of sneaking up on anything. The woods were full of squirrels, which are much louder than deer (really). I walked down into the creek, followed it to the property line, then took a breather, trying to decide whether to go up the hill toward the barn and pond, or go back the way from which I came.


Deer Six, Seven, and Eight

These deer were shot in 24 hours, within 48 hours of Thanksgiving 2008. We had moved to Indiana in September of 2005, and I was unsuccessful in 2005,06, and 07. In 2008 I hunted a friend’s pastured poultry farm and had good success.

I had scouted it well, and was sitting in exactly the right spot. A heard of perhaps eight does and fawns crossed the fence onto the property, maybe 35 yards away. I was hunting with my .44 magnum lever action now, since high-powered rifles are not legal for deer here. I aimed at the front doe, a big one, and fired. She collapsed, but then to my surprise, looked at me, alert. She made no sound, nor effort to rise. I waited a minute or so, then shot again. This was my first Indiana deer.

She was a large 2 1/2 year old doe. My first shot for some reason had struck very high, and hit her in the spine just behind the shoulder, paralyzing her back legs. She was probably not in much pain, but she couldn’t move. I got her home, hung her up in the garage and skinned her out, then went back to the exact same spot for the afternoon.

That afternoon, after not sitting there more than two hours, another doe ran by. She was moving at a good trot. I shot, and she ran off. I couldn’t find her right away, but as I neared a thicket of multiflora rose, I could smell her. Well, I could smell HIM. It was a 1 1/2 year old buck with one tiny antler hidden behind his ear! Luckily, I had two doe licenses and a buck license, so I was legal. It was the first and only deer I’ve ever found by scent!

I had to get my friend to help me get the deer in the truck–I was exhausted after the day I’d had. I got this deer home and wound up cutting the meat off the first deer that night, then skinning and hanging the buck.

The next morning, I was in the same spot. Foggy, cooler. The does came across in the same spot at the exact same time. The first one, a big grey doe, looked right at me. I aimed and shot. My bullet hit her in the throat, just below the white spot that extends for six inches or so below the head. I blinked and she was gone, a puff of steam where they had been. I couldn’t believe I had missed…and I hadn’t. She had collapsed right where she was standing, dead. Again, she probably never even heard the shot. It was 24 hours almost to the minute from when I shot the first doe. She as 3 1/2 years old, the oldest deer I’ve ever killed.

And now I had three deer to butcher and get in the freezer before we left to go north for Thanksgiving…the next day.


I decided that my ankle would not allow me to climb the hill to the pond and went back the way I came. I looked below the pond from above, but by this time it was quite dark. He wasn’t there, anyway. I expect he hit the mowed trail just off our property to the south and headed west, bedding down somewhere in our neighbor’s woods. I never found him or any trace of him.

I collected eggs, picked some collards and rutabagas, and went inside to hang out with the kids before they went to bed.


Deer Nine

Thanksgiving weekend, 2010, our first season here on the farm. My brother Matt was hunting (his first season) to my east. We’d been out all day and firearm season was nearly over. I was right on the property line, overlooking the very place I stopped to rest on Wednesday. From the west came a large doe. I was unsure what to do. Should I let her go? She might go to Matt, and that would be his first deer. Plus, she might be followed by a buck. But she seemed to be interested in cutting up the hill opposite me rather than follow the valley around to Matt. I shot. She fell in her tracks, dead instantly.

I started climbing down the hill and the closer I got, the smaller she got. The large doe I thought was 70 yards away was a button buck 40 yards away. It was the first deer I killed here at Ghostwood (so far the only one), and the first fawn I’ve ever shot. It was the last deer I shot, too. So far.


I tell these stories because I remember every one of them like it was yesterday. Every one of these animals was and is important to me. I’ve cried over some of them, and I’ve thanked every one of them. I hate like poison that some deer may still be out there with an arrow in his shoulder because I couldn’t find him Wednesday (and someone else missed their shot). I didn’t wound him, but I have empathy for him.

I intend to kill a lot more deer. I intend to kill deer with my bow, too, hopefully starting this year. And I’ll probably lose a deer at some point. Maybe I will exercise poor judgment and take an ill-advised shot that wounds an animal. It happens to nearly everyone who hunts, no matter how conscientious. I hope not. I don’t know how it would affect my future hunting. I hope it would make me more conscientious, and I hope it would not make me quit.

Killing is hard. Really. It should be hard, I think. I don’t want it to be easy. I think about the beans of mine they ate, and I think about the population that is very healthy–that’s the big picture, the population, not the individual. But I do have empathy for the individual, and I hope I don’t ever lose it.

So, this big, injured deer:

I’m a little sad that he probably won’t live long enough for me to shoot him, it’s true. I’m not a trophy hunter by any means, as is evidenced by the fact that I’ve taken three bucks in my life, and between them they had five points. I’ve been watching this deer since he was a spike yearling. He was raised on this farm, to some extent eating my produce. I’m more sad that he’s unlikely to be utilized (except by scavenging wildlife). I’m mostly sad that he is in a great deal of pain, and that it is possible (likely?) that at some point I will cause the same suffering in another animal. I cannot help this deer, but I can use the experience to focus on trying my hardest to be very careful, to take the right shot, to do the right thing.

2 Comments so far
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Adam – I really enjoyed reading this, and am greatful for your compassion. Your writing is wonderful. I could picture myself right next to you and your friends and Matt in every scene. thanks for sharing!

Comment by Carolyn Slade

You really should write a book. This is so well written. You are special and I do love you.

Comment by Polly Phelps

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