Written by: Benjamin Korman
8:30, opening morning of the 2022 Minnesota rifle season. My brother and I were set up at the base of a hill on a land-bridge that funneled into an open oak-savanna, acting as a shelf between an area of high and low elevation, just west of the infamous Camp Ripley hunting zone. This area in north-central Minnesota is known for holding a healthy deer population, with some of the biggest bucks in state history having been harvested within the neighborhood. I’ve shot my fair share of mature deer out of these woods over the past decade since my dad and I built our off-grid hunting cabin a mile away from our stand, by hand. As the mercury began rising with the red-morning sun, I heard my dad shoot off in the distance, followed within minutes by the text: “Just killed a nice momma doe.” Not moments later, an old, thick-necked, gray-faced warrior of a buck with broken tines started down the funnel towards my brother and I, following close behind his chosen doe for the day. He was lacking in the headwear department, thanks to a recent scrap with another buck, no-doubt. But his bull-like body more than made up for such a superficial shortcoming; he was an absolute brawler and a definite shooter, in my mind.
My brother was seated below me in the same tree, atop a ladder stand I had placed there just weeks prior. I was positioned in my saddle stand, above and behind him, pivoting from left to right, scanning my sectors. We expected the deer in the area to follow a historic trail located directly in front of us, running perpendicular back and forth, from left to right, as indicated by our countless trail cam images gathered over the month of October, as well as the numerous, punctuating rubs that connected the dots of doe sign. But of course, deer being deer, and doing deer things, our two opening morning visitors decided to change things up. The doe decided to bed behind some deadfall, giving the buck some chance to mosy around behind me, in a swamp clearing, to refuel on various low-browse buds and acorns fallen and lain strewn along the savanna’s edge. This put him right within bow-range of me, completely broadside.
As he grew nearer, his hooves took on the authority of a Clydesdale, splashing through the boggy buffer of the pond. Swinging laterally in my saddle, I was able to level my .300 win mag’s crosshairs on his front left shoulder, squeezing a shot off, only for it to be met with the frozen, unscathed stare from the buck, as if he were posing for a picture, smiling at my flash. My ears whistled as I held my aim, frozen and locked in a staring contest with the still-alive whitetail. The momentary shock wore off as I racked another round, sending the buck into a dead-bolt in the direction from which he came. I led him like the countless wood ducks I had folded the month prior, focusing on the target as I squeezed off another shot, which met an intercepting oak tree, sending splinters everywhere in firework-fashion. I racked again, losing sight of him.
“There he is!” My brother hoarsely whispered, pointing with his own rifle barrel. I spotted him broadside through a window of branches, leveled my aim, exhaled and held, both eyes open, relying on what my drill sergeants had taught me years prior. Breath into your shot, private! And you can shoot the nuts off a fly! Translation: Aim small, miss small. The rifle's report didn’t register with my already deaf ears at this point, but the buck donkey-kicked, spun and landed with the athleticism of an Olympic figure-skater before bolting uphill and out of view.
I still wasn’t sure of the shot, so we gave it a precautionary half-hour, despite my brother’s affirmations. Upon our descent, I could spot a white belly through the trees at the other end of the bridge, a football field away. But to our head-scratching surprise, there was no immediate sign of blood at the kill site. Regardless of the fact that we could clearly see him piled up, we weren’t certain he was dead yet, and wanted to get a sense of how well he was hit before b-lining for him. So I pathetically searched on hands and knees, Velma style, looking for any and all clues. Finally, a tuft of hair and a single drop of blood the size of an eraser head led on and grew into an absolute bread-trail sprinkling of dark, crimsoned bubbles, indicating a lung and possible heart-shot. Stumps and logs, both of the vertical and horizontal variety, were brushed barn-red with the deer’s lacquering lifeblood. I was taken aback by how much blood he had lost and kept going. When we finally walked up on him, he had the marbled glare of vacant eyes. As if lining up a billiard shot with my barrel as my cue, I prodded the black orb, sending him home with a sinking nudge of confirmation. “He’s done.” I spat over my right shoulder towards my brother, who was already prepping his camera.
Like a miner hauling up a dead canary in a cage, I pulled hand over hand at the buck’s knotted entrails, until I came to the heart, skipping and slipping along the ribs as I went. It had been bloodied and pulped into a pumpless sack, like a deflated, vascular beach ball; shrouded in a pair of equally lifeless lungs. It was as if a V8 engine had dropped straight-out the bottom undercarriage of a fast-moving pick-up truck, its momentum propelling it another 100 yards before expiring, running on fumes and tripping over various road-blocks in the form of moss-eaten stumps and glazed-over, icy stream beds. How is this humanly possible? I recall asking myself. But therein lies my major mistake, comparing human capabilities with that of a deer’s capabilities. Oftentimes, we hunters fall upon common fallacies of comparison between two totally unrelated species: that of ourselves - Homo Sapiens, and that of our prey, in this case - Odocoileus virginianus, otherwise known as America’s favorite big-game animal - whitetailed deer. Across countless American deer camps, conversations and debates abound surrounding the level of toughness and grit these fury vegetarians truly possess. Everyone seems to be an expert in moments like this, chalking off such follies to sheer, intangible and variable states of luck. And I suppose I myself am guilty of this very offense by default in writing an article such as this. But as they say, experience trumps theory, every time. Which is why many in this industry lean on the wisdom and vast experience of old-timers as opposed to the budding theories of various know-it-alls on online forums and blogs. All anyone can attest to is what they truly know to be true - what they’ve seen happen. Anecdotes serve as potential answers. With all of this in mind, here’s one such anecdote of my own: Never underestimate the propelling power of momentum and adrenaline.
In this day in age, all of the rage in hunting discourse seems to predominantly surround conversations and flat-out arguing around appropriate caliber considerations. A quick scroll through any hunting-related Facebook feed, and you will see members taking sides in this growing universal fight. Advancements in ammunition technology in recent decades have certainly given rise to once considered obsolete and “wildcat” cartridges as now having a puncher’s chance in the game. (.223/5.56 and 6.5 creedmoor seem to top the list at the moment). “It all comes down to shot placement.” “A pin-prick to the heart would even cause an elephant to bleed to death.” And, “If it’s good enough for the army, it’s good enough for deer hunting.” Are all common statements repeated with almost religious verbatim on these pages, about as often as statements like “Good luck!” and “shoot straight!” Perhaps we should all be focusing more on these latter two comments than the prior.
As my own adrenaline began to wane, I suddenly grew colder, and fought to stabilize my shaking hands as I notched my tag. This led to the all-too-familiar energy dump and fatigue that often follows such excitement (and we still had a hell of a drag ahead of us). And in this feeling, I found the answer to my own aforementioned question: if adrenaline is often blamed for the common “fight or flight” feeling, it’s only understandable that deer flee, with utter grace and endurance, when met with their own adrenaline rush. Humans have the capacity and capability to choose between fighting or fleeing, whereas prey animals, such as deer, are left with two different choices of their own: simply flee or die. The human body itself can withstand its own fair share of abuse. My own mind reflects back to fellow veterans of mine missing limbs or bearing scars from upwards of multiple gunshot wounds or shrapnel. Even a magnum caliber round like my .300, often touted as being “too much gun for deer” fails to drop a deer in its tracks, even in instances such as this, in which such a round evaporates a vital organ with lethal shot-placement.
Everyone is busy chasing after the fruitless one-shot-drop consistency of the “magic bullet” theory without paying enough attention to consistency with accuracy. More often than not, vital and accurate shot placement leads to a dead deer - every time. Even then, at the risk of calling pardon to the all-too-overused pun, it’s a crapshoot at best. We have to remember that these animals are hard-wired to survive at all costs, against wolves, -50 degree temps, food shortages, disease, car collisions, and yes, even the hard-hitting bullets and arrows of hunters. And with the advent of tracking dogs having been recently legalized for use in Minnesota, everyone is all too quick to dial up the dogs when they lose sight of their deer before following through with good ol’ fashioned boots on the ground searching. Perhaps if we all spent a little more time at the range than the weekend prior to opener, honing our accuracy alongside of our general woodsmanship, we would all bear the confidence to follow through with each shot before throwing our hands up in the air helplessly.
- Benjamin Korman