Paradise Lost: The Golden Days Of Deer Hunting In Wilkes County
Remembering the golden days of deer hunting in Wilkes County, before time, death and progress took their toll.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. This is especially true of your glory days, your golden years — that part of your life when you were wild and free. You felt like you would live forever; you could take on life and kick its butt.
My glory days were from the mid ’80s to the early ’90s during which I played in paradise. Pain, heartbreak and death had not yet entered my world, and I absolutely lived for deer season. Paradise was 250 acres in Wilkes County, a beat-up old ’ 77 Chevy truck, and my Aunt Lois’ rambling old farmhouse; it was family and friends and the camaraderie of our little hunting club.
I used to schedule almost all of my vacation time during deer season, and then begged off any and every extra afternoon I could. I counted the months, weeks, and days until the season opener. Spring and summer were spent scouting the woods, counting deer, taking note of their shifting patterns and learning everything I could about these magnificent masters of survival. When I wasn’t in the woods I was near them, riding around the countryside hoping for a glimpse of a doe and her fawns or maybe a buck in velvet if I was lucky.
As fall approached, weekends were spent with my dad and my brother-in-law, sighting in rifles and bows, practicing to become more proficient, and building and putting up new stands. Sometimes we got as much paint on us as we did on the lumber. New stands built in the late summer were put up about a month before deer season opened, and older stands were checked for safety. Unsafe stands were pushed down and the debris cleaned up — they always came down a lot easier than they went up. Then pathways to the stands were cleared of limbs and branches and marked with hot- pink surveyors tape; it was too easy to get lost in the pre-dawn darkness without it. All these preparations were accompanied by the sharing of stories and lessons learned from past seasons — oh, and a good deal of friendly ribbing, too.
For me, the day before deer season was like Christmas Eve to a child. I was so excited I could barely keep my mind on my work, and I was so keyed up I was practically bouncing off the walls. At 5:30 p.m. on that magic Friday I was out the back door like a bullet. On the way home from work, soda, snacks and ice were bought, and the truck was gassed up and given a final check. Drinks were iced down in the chest along with sandwiches and whatever other “luxury items” we might want for a snack.
Our camouflage coats, fanny packs, bullets and other accessories were loaded into “Luther” (yes, I named my truck Luther) and marked off a checklist. Guns were set out in the living room just before bedtime, to be carried with us in the morning.
I still remember how easy it was to leap out of bed when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. I hit the ground running, wide awake and ready for anything, impervious to wind, rain and cold. As I have gotten older, I have noticed that my bed has gotten much warmer and much more comfort- able — and much harder to leave when it’s 26 degrees outside.
My dad was not a big deer hunter at first and went only because I wanted to. He had been in the Pacific during World War II and, though by 1980s he was in his 60s, I think it still really bothered him to be alone in the woods with a rifle, especially before dawn. Still, he went anyway, and deer hunting became one of the few things we really enjoyed doing together. My fondest and dearest memories of my father are still those associated with hunting.
The sweet smell of wood smoke can still take me back to early morning in my Aunt Lois’ front yard. I’ve long since lost count of the truckloads of firewood daddy and I cut and hauled for her. She lived in an old shotgun farmhouse where the main source of heat was a huge wood-burning heater in the living room. How I miss the scent of wood smoke mingled with the smell of breakfast cooking; it was ambrosia for my nose. And the break- fasts that dear little old lady would lay out for us: sausage and bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and oven toast, and homemade jellies and preserves. I nearly foundered myself at that kitchen table on more than one occasion.
Her cooking was so good and so rich that it made daddy and me sick on a few occasions; there was nothing wrong with the food — we just weren’t used to eating like that. We eventually told my aunt that it was too much on her to cook for us, and we grabbed a sausage biscuit from a convenient fast- food restaurant on the way. Heartburn on a deer stand is true misery.
We began hunting at my aunt’s in 1987. I had been hunting, or what passed for it, since 1980 but never got a shot until ’87. Suffice it to say, I am very persistent. I took my first deer that year, a nice little basket-racked 8- pointer, and I’m still as proud of that buck as I am of any I’ve taken since.
Daddy and I hunted with two of my cousins on 250 acres of hardwood bottoms and pine thickets that seemed to be crawling with deer. My favorite stand was at the top of a steep hill in the hardwoods. There was a small creek in a gulley at the bottom of the hill, and deer traveled along that bottom. I spent many a glorious autumn day on that hillside and saw more deer and turkeys than anywhere else I’ve hunted before or since. That stand was a good producer through mid-November usually, and some years right on into December.
After our first season hunting in Wilkes County, my brother-in-law began to hunt with daddy and me, and the three musketeers had nothing on us. During deer season, weekends found us in the woods from “can’t see to can’t see.” We hunted in the afternoon and, though my cousins swore the deer would all be bedded down, we took quite a few.
I took my climbing stand and scouted out new areas for permanent stands. I knew that property like the back of my hand. I remember one crisp morning when daddy and I walked in before daylight without flashlights because the moon was so bright, and the owls that “laughed” at us that morning.
I can remember swapping a herd of does that ran between our stands back and forth about three times until we both emptied our magazines — I dropped one doe and daddy shot a doe and a nice fork-horn buck. That was Halloween 1990, the year we played trick-or-treat with the deer. We had many good laughs about that day.
I shot my largest deer to date on our lease, a big 7-pointer with a massive, tall rack. It happened just like one of those outdoor programs I loved to watch. It was about half an hour after sunrise, and I spotted a small buck making its way along the creek. I pulled out my grunt tube and rattling bag and did a short sequence. The small buck began to work its way over to my side of the creek. I gave a few more grunts to further entice the small buck.
Suddenly there was a series of loud crashes from the woods behind me, and this huge (for our lease) buck came trotting past my stand. All the hair along his spine was raised up like a dog sparring for a fight. His ears were pinned back, and I could see the whites of his eyes. He was an awesome sight, and though I was 15 feet up a tree he was scary. He stopped about 25 feet directly in front of my stand and stomped one foot. I settled my crosshairs between his shoulders on his spine and squeezed the trigger. That rotten old deer dropped in his tracks and rolled all the way to the bottom of that very steep hill. I still don’t know how I managed to drag him up the hill and out to the road — probably the adrenaline. He weighed about 175 pounds.
I shot my first deer on that property. I shot my biggest deer so far there. I helped my nephew get his first deer — a buck — by putting him on my favorite stand one opening weekend. I even had one excellent year when I filled all my tags.
I became an expert tracker on that little piece of heaven. I once crawled on my hands and knees about a mile tracking a gut-shot doe for my dad. I found her holed up in a deep gulley under some fallen treetops and learned two valuable lessons. First, persistence pays off and second, never shoot a high -powered rifle in a 12-foot-deep gulley without hearing protection or your ears will ring for hours… but I got the doe.
I saw more wildlife, more golden sunrises and crimson sunsets than many in our fast-paced society will ever see. I have heard the woods sing on a brisk autumn afternoon; it sounds like angels singing. I once had a co- worker doubt the healthy population of deer because he said he never saw any when he went to the lake. I told him it was because he probably made too much noise and that he had forgotten how to see.
I was luckier than he was; I knew my place in the scheme of things then. I belonged in the woods as much as the deer, turkeys and bobcats. It was paradise.
All good things must come to an end, or so I have heard. In 1991 the old woman who owned our 250-acre slice of heaven had the property clearcut. I am not anti-logging, but one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is 50-plus- year-old oaks pushed over and left to rot. Such a shameful waste. We still had hunting rights, but without the trees our lease seemed to have lost most of its magic.
Then, in 1993, my dad passed away from cancer, as did one of my cousins. My brother-in-law and I hunt- ed the property that year and again in’94, but it just wasn’t the same. When I changed jobs in 1995, we abandoned the lease altogether and joined different hunting clubs.
My Aunt Lois died in 1999, and my favorite cousin, Guy, passed away in 2002. In 2003 I was involved in a serious auto accident and was out of work for 15 months before retiring on disability. I discovered my company had dropped our disability insurance, and there I was with no income. So, along with most of my shop tools and my horse, I sold all of my deer stands, all my rifles including my dad’s .308, and finally my 4-wheeler, not to mention many other non-hunting related items. It hurt every time I sold some- thing; I could feel my connection with my past slipping away bit by bit. But you do what you have to in order to survive.
The cruelest blow, though, seems to have been when I heard that my aunt’s old house had been razed and replaced with a double-wide. I have dozens of photographs of daddy and me with our deer. I have hours of videotape of our sight-in sessions and video of my beautiful autumn woods. I have memories enough to last a life- time. But when I heard that last tangible link to those golden days of deer hunting was gone I felt so lost and empty.
I have often told people that the largest part of deer hunting has very little to do with taking a deer. It’s about being with your hunting buddies and being in the woods on a crisp autumn morning. It’s about that connection you feel with the land and the woods and the creatures themselves, and that special almost holy place where you can feel the presence of God in the forest.
I still deer hunt. I have taken many nice deer at the different clubs I have belonged to. I no longer live in Georgia and have moved to Ohio, and I look forward eagerly to taking some of the Buckeye State’s giant whitetails. But for me, paradise is lost and gone until I meet my hunting partners on the other side.
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