The Big Buck Pool Winner

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I'm sure you have been caught at it yourself, telling a little half-truth to make the story better. A tiny white lie to add zest to an otherwise truth-filled tale. Over and over with each retelling, you make the story shine in your memory and the collective memories of your hunting buddies, until your exploits rival that of Hemingway, favorably, and your stature in the group is solidified - as the hunter of marvelous deeds mere mortals cannot attain.

Fred and I were sitting by the fireside the night before deer season opened in our corner of Penn's Woods, regaled by the stories of the men gathered for this traditional rite. This year's crew included the regulars, Joe, Mark, and Me, returning alumni Bob "Blow-a-hole in 'em broadside", and some new characters. Joe brought his boss, Jim, a crusty character with hands like a pair of Vice-grip pliers from a lifetime of construction work. Nino and Tom, brothers, hailed from the Massachusetts Cape, and seemed to be the modern equivalent of the subsistence hunter-gatherers of yore (no known form of gainful employment). They hunted and fished in season, bred German shorthair pointers, and lived in a house that was in a perpetual state of renovation. But when Mark had invited them to the cabin for the two week deer season, they and their hounds, always ready for a road trip, agreed.

Now Fred, he was the odd man of the bunch. Although he knew Joe and Mark for as many years as I have, it took fully two seasons of my prodding for him to agree to make the trip. As an ex military man with the rank of Captain, I was just a bit unsure how he would relate to our unruly (some would say ragtag) bunch of hunters. Little did he or I know that he would contribute such hilarity to our outing……

Well, Tom was enjoying the fire, and his glass of spirits, and soon he starts the proceedings with a "remember the time we….." story, with Nino and Mark taking up the narrative. Soon the hunters are falling over themselves to outdo each other with their tales of outdoor machismo. After everyone had weighed in, including me with the story of my "Antlerless Season", Fred finally broke his silence to enter the fray. To hear him tell it, deer trembled at his very name, 12 points was the minimum he would ever take, (leave the inferior bucks to others), Winchester Firearms asked his opinions when designing new cartridges and rifles, and the Boone and Crocket Club had his name permanently engraved on the wall of their headquarters. In short, he laid it on mighty deep. It was truly amazing how quickly he took to the spirit of the evening's entertainment.

Not missing an opportunity to add a new dimension to the sport, I suggested a friendly wager, a pool if you will, to see if everyone would put their money where their mouth is. Not an amount designed to break the household budget, but just enough to sharpen the senses in the woods, and ensure that we all could have a chance at coming home a winner. We settled on splitting the pool two ways, half for the first buck deer, half for the biggest rack. I wanted to also have a fund for the smallest deer, but was overruled by the loud protestations of the manly hunters - "None will claim such a prize".

After the last boast had died away, and the cork returned to the bottle top, we fell into our bunks and dreamed of tomorrow's contest.

Dawn's light revealed a gun-metal gray sky, with a few inches of rotten snow left on the ground.

About 10:30 in the morning, I spied a column of does heading toward me on a game trail. The first in line was a large, mature deer, and as I could see they were unaccompanied by any bucks, I steadied my rifle on the blowdown trunk, and fired my trusted Winchester once. Winter meat in the freezer was all I could think of as I dressed the carcass. Then, back in my blind, I awaited the object of my intentions, a splendid 12 pointer that had been sighted in the tangled thickets where I was hunting.

A short time later, a spike and a more mature buck wandered down the hill, totally unaware of my presence. A glance through the binoculars confirmed that the bigger deer was legal, but it was missing one antler, so I let it pass, knowing that either Tom or Fred may have a chance at it depending on its route of travel.

About an hour later, a loud boom swept downhill to me - one shot only. 10 minutes later the radio hissed, then sizzled with the news - Fred had bagged a buck. Turns out, it was the one-antler deer I passed up. With four points on one antler it was legal, and the first buck of the season. Half the pool was his! Fairly beaming, we tugged it over the crest of the hill to a staging area where we stash our "jitney" - a 2 wheeled cart designed to carry several deer through the woods with a minimum of effort. In theory, this was a great idea. In practice, this was nearly as tough as dragging the deer out. "Endless Mountains", they call this region. Our county might better be called "Endless Blow Downs and Swampy Logging Ruts".

On the way back to our stand, Fred casually picked up a shed antler. He became very excited, presuming it to be the matching antler to the deer he just shot. Without much inspection, he thrust it into his pack, and fairly skipped back to his stand.

Others of our party were able to fill their tags too, and by the end of the first day, five deer hung from the front porch of the cabin. Fred's was the only buck, and he had the temerity to take a doe as well. This put him squarely in the lead, and he was positively glowing. Smug about his accomplishments, he told us the story of how he shot this monster from a difficult twisting position, and how he was sure the rest of us would be skunked, and the pool was his. To counteract his boasts, we pointed out that because it was missing an antler, his deer was a cripple. "Mutant", "Lopsided", "Lefty", and "Diseased" were other adjectives that made their way into our speech that night over scotch and bourbon.

On the last day of the pool, Mother Nature decided to throw the kitchen sink at us to see if we were tough enough. Although it was 40 degrees and clear at 4:30 in the morning, the wind moaned in the trees. My job was to position Bob at the top of the hill, and Jim in the "doghouse" blind down toward the creek. As Fred had filled his two tags, he was done shooting, but elected to accompany me to my blind for a little while. I took to calling him Punjabi, my native gunbearer, but he didn't see the humor in it. Too undignified for a captain in the Army to answer, I supposed. Funny, he even refused to wear the brown shoe polish I gave him for his face…..

My blind was so well camouflaged that we walked past it in the dark, and even became panicky at the prospect of not finding it before first light. In the end, Punjabi came through, and located it at about 2 minutes before first light.

Almost immediately, the temperature began to plummet, and the winds picked up. Treetops swayed, endlessly. The keening wind made it tough to hear anything over the roar, and I was sure all the self respecting deer in the woods had found a safe place to bed down until it passed.

By lunchtime my sandwiches were frozen solid. Ditto my water bottle and snickers bars. A snow squall swept through, pushing horizontal waves of white flakes, blurring our vision further.

Apparently, one deer was severely lacking in self respect, as it wandered past Tom's stand, and he put it down. Back at the cabin at the end of the day, we marveled at Tom's luck- he had also shot a 4 point buck, with one antler. The other antler had shed, just like Fred's deer. One by one as the men left the woods for the comfort of the cabin, each inspected the two deer side by side, to see whose deer had the bigger antler. Pretty close call. Someone pulled out a tape measure, and took the measurements - 16 ½ inch length for Fred, and 15 7/8ths for Tom. Once again, Fred began the story of how he bagged him: " I was feeling real good at breakfast, 'cause I didn't burn the oatmeal, and put in 2 spoons of sugar…. " General groans were heard throughout the cabin. Nino quietly slipped away, and returned just as we were about to pronounce Fred the winner of the pool. "Hold on there a minute." Nino said. "What about this?"

Fred, eying the shed antler he had picked up from the woods, joked that it just goes to show he is the better hunter, because he caught "all of the deer"! This was too much, and I carefully fitted the antler in its rightful place - on the head of Tom's deer! With a good natured chuckle, Fred pronounced Tom the winner of the Big Buck Pool - with an 8 pointer!

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