Whitetail Hunting At Its Simplest And Best
Long-Time GON Writer Daryl Gay Spells It Out.
Daryl Gay | August 30, 2022
(Odyssey: a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.)
The thought that one day I would hang up my guns and hunt no more has never presented itself. A man does not live long lacking the very essence of life; for me, the hunt is that essence. Hunt, mind you. Hunt. We’ll delve deeper into that, but indulge me, please, as I make my way through some semblance of introspection and explanation.
As a writer of words and builder of stories for most of my life—much of it here in these pages for more than 30 years—there have been times when ideas spark into life, build, whirl, meld and at long last almost force their way out and onto paper. This is one of those times.
It’s August; and I’m already excited about October. How does that happen? What is it at a hunter’s core that manifests itself into gathering gear and checking sights 10 or 12 weeks before opening day? I’m looking ahead and backward at the same time here. And the reason is this: my fear is that many completely miss out on the intense gratification fused with pure, near-spiritual joy that warms one’s heart when you walk, at long last, up on him.
If you’ve accomplished it, there’s likely a faint smile on your face; if not, there’s a lot to look forward to and hopefully learn. We’re trailing back a lot of years, so let’s get on with it.
After so many decades of chasing so many critters, I decided to focus on but a few of the many trails wandered over 45-plus years and several states among the tracks of whitetail bucks. I mention states for the sole reason that if you can drop in blind and HUNT down a mature buck across the bottomlands and swamps of Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi, you can get it done anywhere. Beating him on his own terms on his own ground is as good as it gets. Except possibly the getting there itself…
There was no deer season in Dodge County in 1964, because there were no deer. That’s the year I was taken upon my first more or less official “big game” hunt. But let’s go back to 1959—when I learned the single most fateful lesson of a long hunting life. I was 5 years old.
Thunderclap moments that produce pivotal results are, I would think, rare in the lives of 5 year olds. But my dad, Theo Gay, had already come to the conclusion that he had fathered a burgeoning lunatic when it came to the things of the woods and the fields. I am forever grateful that he fed the fire.
We were walking through a pecan grove barely beyond the city limits of Eastman—I can take you to that grove today—just as the morning sky was beginning to gray. Excited as only a kid on his first squirrel hunting expedition can be, I was chattering like a couple of battling mockingbirds. The instant we sidled left and entered a bordering creek bottom, Daddy pulled up and hissed “STOP!”
Man, I locked down on point, scared speechless. “Everything changes right here,” he whispered. “You’ve just entered the world of whatever it is that you’ll be hunting. It’s a place all its own, separate and apart from the one you just walked through. You will either fit in and become part of it—or you’ll fail.”
Fellas, I searched more dictionaries, online and otherwise, than you knew existed trying to define the word “hunt” as I’ve come to know it. None came remotely close; those editorial staffs and consultants have never entered my place. My hope is that you have; or that we can somehow get you in. Because, for better or worse, I do not hunt deer like the vast majority. That is not to say better, only different. You will never hear criticism of any legal, ethical hunter from me, because we’re all in this together, and we catch plenty enough flak from the outside. I’ve never had a bad day in the deer woods. Fell flat on my face and been made to look like an idiot by bucks smarter than me? Oh, yeah. But never a bad day. That’s my goal for you.
Yep, Daddy knew. He wouldn’t give you a nickel for every whitetail buck on the planet. A mourning dove, a bobwhite quail, his setter Yet, the Ocmulgee River… and me; those were the things around which his world revolved. So when at 10 years of age I mentioned that I wanted more than anything else to kill a deer, it was off to find one. Simple as that. Nearest place he knew of that had a season was Jones County, 70-plus miles away. One Saturday morning, running on faith, hope, love of each other and of the hunt, we set out in his 1959 Ford pickup.
Here’s what I recall: rain, slippery red clay roads, bemused, bedraggled hunters standing alongside those roads in what I later came to know as a WMA—and, upon cresting a slick hill, three big does stock-still and staring at us. They remain in my mind’s eye as the most gorgeous among the thousands I’ve seen since.
We had only his Model 12—which is now my Model 12—unloaded between us on the seat, but even then I knew the legalities and ethics. We both got what we came for.
Opening day of the 1975 season in Laurens County—next door to Dodge—fell on Nov. 1. As near as I can find out, it was the third year of buck-only hunting and I had come to know a group of guys who called themselves deer hunters. None had actually ever killed a deer. Who had? But they invited me to join their merry band since I was a brand-new outdoor writer. Whatever that is.
(When prospecting for my life’s work, I had it figured like this: What are you best at and what do you enjoy most? The answer dovetailed into: hunting down, killing stuff and eating it. Seems to have worked out.)
October of ‘75 saw me put in my time. Each club member had his own territory within the acreage to be hunted, and I got what was left, a small oak head bordered on two sides by corn and soybeans. That was more than fair to me, and to this day remains what I enjoy most about deer hunting: just show me a new spot I can go into and become one with whatever is there. I’ll figure it out. Or not, which is what the game is all about.
I was the new guy, the only one without a real, high-velocity, howdy-doody deer rifle; the one who had never walked the place; who had never even been on a real-life deer hunt. Boys, I didn’t even have a deer stand!
But I SAW it. Through instinct and through those years of finding my place, I saw it. This became my new place. I learned what lived there through the lore they left behind. I’d never heard the term “pinch point.” But I knew it when I found it. Even though I was a regular correspondence-school whitetail student, reading everything I could get my hands on from the experts, the ground itself was the true teacher.
That’s why I decided to lug a piece of exterior plywood up the massive oak on the very tip of that little head and nail it across two big, semi-level limbs. With four nails. And six more up the trunk as steps. That was my stand. My gear—and we’ll get more into this later—consisted of a 16-gauge Winchester automatic and a pocket full of No. 1 buckshot! At the time, that shotgun and a Winchester single-shot .22 made up my entire gun “collection…”
You should’ve heard the whooping and the ribbing about my setup. That long week before opening morning, I caught it and couldn’t even give it back. I knew the crew had their special spots, and even though I had never been back there, deer must be roaming around everywhere in those deep woods. Why, 200 yards in front of me was a gravel highway! But I was good with paying the back-slapping dues and learning whatever lessons were out there. Right up until opening morning.
Got in the stand early, as the writers said to do, and sat in the dark 20 minutes—until a pickup pulled off the highway and stopped within 25 yards of where I was sitting. When its driver got out, non-cognizant of the fact that I was within 300 miles, I said some admittedly rude things to him in a voice that nearly necessitated a pre-dawn diaper change. He readily agreed that rapid relocation was likely our best option and so peeled out.
He still don’t like me.
So now I’m sitting there cross-legged on the plywood with the knowledge that my first-ever opening morning whitetail trip has just been flushed down the toilet. I ain’t pleased. Then, as day breaks, over the highway come the first few hundred of what had to have been ten thousand migrating blackbirds. It’s good to be simple-minded in times like this; got me back on track. The birds were SO loud; to this day I wonder why we don’t see them in those numbers any more…
I couldn’t hear, but at least my eyes were still working. So when the 8-point buck—the first one I had ever seen, by the way—caused corn stalks to flutter as he moseyed through to my right, I quickly picked him up. He stepped out at exactly the right spot, turned left toward the soybeans and walked directly below MY limbs. Buckshot ripped into his neck as I shot almost straight down, and his nose was the first thing to hit the ground. He kicked once, and I handed him another dose; that was one deer that wasn’t ABOUT to get back up.
Just like that. Or so it seems now. But I remember sitting incredulous, staring down at the single most impressive animal I had ever seen. There are trophies, and then there are trophies… Two of us loaded him, hanging in all four directions, into the FRONT of a Volkswagen Bug and tied its top down. We were real deer hunters!
And that’s where it all started.
We could spend a couple of years talking about what happened since, but there are two more deer in particular that taught me and maybe can provide you with a mite of enlightenment…
The buck made his big mistake when the truck eased around the field road corner and surprised him: he allowed me a glimpse. That’s all it took. Some bucks are simply no-doubters. I’ve never had a buck of my own mounted; just never cared to. I’ve never fed one, nor shot one over anything poured on the ground; goes back to Daddy, and how I was taught. Ain’t never even named one…
But looking back, it might have been nice to have this one glaring down at me from over the fireplace.
Man, it was a dicey situation. Biggest problem was that he was standing 10 feet from the property line. He makes one bound and he might as well be in China, because I had never asked permission to hunt that tract and we don’t shoot over fences now, do we? My new place was going to be roughly 3 acres of U-shaped woods. It was bordered by a cow pasture, a pond and off-limits. If I couldn’t catch him in there, he wasn’t going to be caught. And he knew it. So here’s what I had to work with; that gear I mentioned.
Here’s what I use, and it’s all that I use and all that I have ever used for nearly half a century of hunting whitetails: a TomCat climbing stand (the same stand since 1988); a Winchester Model 70, .30-06; Bushnell 7×35 binoculars that fit into a shirt pocket; Tink’s 69 lure (during and pre-rut, and I’ve proven it too many times to need another); matching folding limb saw and clippers that fit into my pocket; and a Windicator bottle. There’s not enough space to explain each of those, but know this: I’d as soon leave my rifle at home as I had those Bushnells. They will show you deer that have probably slipped by a dozen times.
When I went after this deer, it quickly became obvious that the TomCat had to be on a tree facing east. Just trust me, there was no other way with the severe space limitations; ain’t no fun if it’s easy nohow. That meant that when the sun topped the trees, I was going to be looking dead into it—blind as a bat!
Worked closer to him, west to east, for two weeks; never showed. Finally, a front moved in, temps dropped and we got a brisk wind—into his face. The Cat and I were up the tree early, and I was so excited I forgot to put out the Tink’s soaked cotton balls in film canisters. Exasperated, I tossed them away from the tree, sat and hoped. But when that sun came up, it was eyeball-searing. The TomCat faces the tree, and that was the only way I could even sit there, using the sweetgum to block it. Several times there seemed to be rustling—birds or squirrels—going on, but it was impossible to see anything but tree bark or sunburst.
At long last, the crunching sound went from “What’s that?” to “Oh, Brother!”
One of the canisters had hit a limb and bounced down less than 10 feet from my tree trunk. Straddling it stood the biggest buck I had ever seen or that was ever taken from this property. His rack was directly beneath my boot soles. His nose told him that there just HAD to be a hot doe right here! (So yeah, that’s how you prove Tink’s works.) A buck may not always trust his ears and he may not always trust his eyes, but he DOES always trust his nose. When he fell, he was still looking for that female. Fortunately, I retained my toes.
And finally there is, to me, the most IMPORTANT deer. And I didn’t even kill this one. Could have, at least twice; but that’s what makes him important.
I was in the second row of 20-year-old planted pines, my back to a small stretch of gravel road, still-hunting, which I enjoy even more than sitting in the climber. Try beating him in his territory at eye level some time. (When you do, you’re moving too fast. Always. Every time.) Movement 300 yards away across that road caught my eye, and it quickly turned into a pretty good buck chasing a doe. They eventually crossed to my side, then trotted and feinted right to me—one row over. I could have shot him a dozen times, but he was too good a young buck to take yet. But the main reason I didn’t shoot was my son, Dylan.
Still learning, like the rest of us, he hunted the other side of that road, less than 100 yards from where I stood. Figured this would be a good one for him to learn from. Little did I know…
All his life, if I took a step, Dylan took two. He has been at my feet and my side, and I made a promise to him before he was born that I’d never again go any place I would be ashamed to take him. That, too, has worked out well. He knows the place, as does his brother Myles. Same situation.
It took two years for Dylan to finally kill that deer, and he became the best hunter I know in the process. I’m going to fast-forward to the buck’s final day. I had seen him again, but Dylan hadn’t. Then came opening day, 2009.
Chaos erupts before daylight, deer running everywhichway underneath his TomCat but providing nothing but glimpses. Thirty minutes hobble by, then here they come again. This time he sees the most massive whitetail he’s ever caught sight of on the hoof. Yep, that’s him. But chasing three does again and gone in a frustrating flash.
I’m hunting a mile away, and at 7:48 I get a text: I see a nose and a tail.
A deer is standing angled behind a huge, double-trunked oak in the middle of the creek bottom, directly across the road from where I saw the buck two years ago. What kind of deer, Dylan can’t be sure. But he raises his .270, rests it alongside the pine he’s on, and waits…
At 8:00 on the dot—a full 12 MINUTES later—I hear the BOOM! The buck flips completely over, lands on his back, tilts over to his right side and never moves again.
This is what we need to keep in mind: for 12 minutes, at the very least, that animal stood in one spot without a hint of movement except for an occasional tail flip. (Try it some time. Without the tail flip.) I think he knew something wasn’t quite right but couldn’t figure what it was. The smallest movement on Dylan’s part, repositioning an arm or leg, a cough…
That one, by the way, does have a place… on Dylan’s wall. Maybe one day…
But I’ve been in on the taking of somewhere between a hundred and a thousand, and they all eat extremely well. Best of all, each one takes me back to my place, a place only a hunter knows. Hope you find yours.
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Read this article in magazine. I hunt very similar to this except I have a homemade tomcat and a summit climber. I also employ a short five foot ladder from time to time. You would Be surprised how that works. Oh and the most important thing that ole Winchester model 70 .270. I thought about putting one them long range scopes on it one time but then I would have to chrono it. Might not be as fast as I thought. But kinda like one them ball players that plays good in game but doesn’t run blazing 40 i know what it can do when it’s game time. Plus you can’t see them dots when most mature bucks come out😜