Hunting Angels

The author shoots two bucks with his dad’s old climbing standing in sight.

Justin Castile | January 17, 2024

Justin Castile with a pair of Henry County bucks he killed on Nov. 12 with his dad’s old climbing stand in sight.

A hunting angel. Do you have one? You may and never realize that you do. A hunting angel is that special person from your past who you talk to when you are in your deer stand. Or perhaps you are on the lake, and you aren’t sure which color topwater you should be using, so you ask your hunting (or fishing) angel, “Which lure should I throw to pull these bass off this log?” It could be that your hunting angel may send, push or even nudge a memory your way from time to time.

My hunting angel is my Dad. He was my lifelong hunting and fishing partner for all time. He passed away in April of 2021. The following October, I killed an 8-pointer. After walking up to him, it’s hard not to think my Dad may have had something to do with this encounter. That same year when moving stuff around in my barn, I stumbled across an old climbing stand he made back in the 1980s. That same season, I took it out to a spot where I knew deer must travel and used it a few times. But this old climber was just that—old. It got me up in the tree but would never be described as comfortable and certainly nothing that eschewed a sense of safety. After using it a few times, I just left it there, unintentionally at first, but after seeing it the following turkey season, I decided that it would be better suited mounted in the tree instead gathering dust in my barn.

Fast forward to the 2023 hunting season where we hunt in Henry County. Back in late August, my boys and I moved an old ladder stand that we refurbished the previous year and placed it on the opposite ridge of where the old climber made its final resting place. It was in an awesome spot right in the middle of white oak acorns and on a terrain feature that funnels deer down to a lake for water.

On the morning of Nov. 12, just a few days before my birthday and 11 days after my dad would have turned 80, the hunt of a lifetime happened. As I walked to my stand, on the trail was a giant community scrape that was still being worked with fresh scraping all around the low-hanging limbs that the bucks liked to work. I had considered not even going to my stand that morning and just sitting off the trail against a tree and watching that scrape, but something told me, “Justin, just go to your stand, it will be better there.” So, I did.

Around daybreak, a young spike came cruising through with his nose down. The stand was sitting on the small side of a hardwood ridge that overlooked a washed-out gully. From my stand I could see the start of the gully, but the saplings made it impossible to see down into it. The gully was so deep that it was over my head, and I am 6-4.

Around 8 a.m., a deer came up from my left as it had come from the other side of the ridge, passed through the gully and was probably heading toward the scrape on the other side of the ridge behind me. Another half hour passed and along came a small 6-point following the same path the previous deer had used. He noticed me and we had a staring contest for a while until he eventually left. It was turning into a good morning already, even if it ended right then.

But, as fate would have it, it got even better. Close to 9 a.m., I heard running. I looked up to my right and saw a doe careening down the ridge from the opposite side and heading toward the gully. Sure enough, a big buck followed in hot pursuit. I hefted my 30-06 to my shoulder and tried to find the buck in my scope, but neither the doe nor the buck was interested in stopping for pictures. As they continued to make laps in, out, down and around the gully, I was whistling, yelling, “HEY! HEY! Stop running!” Anything to try to get their attention, but nothing worked.

As the doe popped up out of the gully for the third time, she swung around to my side of the ridge. The buck kept in pursuit of the doe as she took another route to go down in the gully. I knew this would be my chance. As the buck jogged by, I followed him with both eyes open, put my crosshairs on his body and pulled the trigger. As I lowered my gun, I could see the doe running out of the gully on the other side and off toward greener pastures. The big buck, however, was nowhere to be seen. Did I get him? Did I miss?

As my thoughts drifted between certainty and doubt, a ghostly 8-point buck walked out of the end of the gully closest to me and stopped behind a large oak tree. I was fairly sure this was not the buck that I just shot at, but the pounding of my heart made it difficult to think. Through my scope, I could tell he was a decent 8 and that was all I could see. He moved slightly and I could see his neck and his head. I decided to shoot. BOOM! The deer, nonplussed, peered around curiously. I was confused. What just happened? The 8-point stepped out farther from behind the large oak. I put my crosshairs again on his neck. BOOM! The deer looked behind him this time and began taking a few steps. My kids will be reading this article, so I will not mention the colorful words that were going through my head at this time, but I was flustered to be sure. In reflection, I am chalking the foil up to my free handing of the shot, a small target and an inflated pulse rate. As the deer began to walk slowly up the ridge, I was able to put my crosshairs behind his shoulder and shoot. As impact was made, I saw him do a small mule kick, and 15 yards later, he was down for the count.

As I checked my gun over, I realized that I was now out of ammo. I glanced up and two does ran out of the gully up the opposite ridge, getting out of Dodge. I texted my wife and asked for reinforcements to help me get one, maybe two deer out of the woods. I climbed down, headed to the area where I shot at the first buck, and I discovered blood right on the edge of the gully and continuing 20 feet down. I walked the edge of the gully to find a better entry point and located a nice 9-pointer lying down in the bottom. An 8- and a 9-point in one morning. Whew!

Excitement was coursing through my veins as I checked on the 9-point, knowing this was the largest to date for me personally. I decided to go up and check on the 8-point. As I begin walking toward him, I realized where this 8-point had fallen. I looked up from the side of this ridge and see my dad’s old climber. It is there, straw and leaves covering the seat and the footrest. I take a moment and walk over to the old climber one more time. Through my tears, I thank my dad for that great birthday present. I know he was smiling down at me that sacred November morning. I sat on that seat for a few and recalled the many days of deer hunting and fishing he shared with me. Those hot summer days on farm ponds catching bass and bream. Those crisp fall afternoons dragging a deer back to his truck. Those memories and the new ones I make with my family are what keep me coming back year after year. Chasing the deer, turkey, doves, fishing for the trout in north Georgia, or just catching bass with my boys in our pond at our house are the little moments life is all about.

Well, my reinforcements arrived, and we worked together field-dressing both deer and hauling them back to the truck. I told them the story of the hunt, but I was not ready yet to share with them the moment I had with my dad, my hunting angel. In time perhaps I will tell them how I was able to share this hunt and every hunt with their papa. Perhaps I can tell them that he is there with them, too, when they are reeling in that largemouth or bringing a deer home for the freezer. I would imagine though, they already know. They know because the hunting and fishing spirit lives in them each and every day that we are able to be outside together, hunting and fishing like their papa taught their dad to do.

If you have a dad or grandparent who is getting older, make those memories while you can and while they are here. Take them and your kids hunting and fishing whatever chance you get. The memories are great, but you have to make them to keep them. Best wishes to you and yours.

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