I’ve made lots of game mistakes.

As you pursue deer this month, perhaps you will enjoy – and learn from – some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years. These stories are in my book, A Lifetime of Hunting and Fishing, published in August by North Country Press.

He was huge and I was shaking

I’ve never forgotten this buck. Even after 40 years, I can still see myself sitting on that stonewall, 30.6 in my lap, hearing him coming through the thick firs and brush, just after sunrise. A lot of the fun of hunting is the anticipation of seeing a deer, and boy, I was enjoying a lot of anticipation at that moment!

I swung left and raised my rifle, still seated, so I’d have a good shot when he stepped out of the firs, but when he did, I just lost it. He was huge! As he sauntered slowly across the 15 yard opening, I snapped off four shots without thinking. I was shaking so badly that – even though he was only about 30 yards from me – not one of those shots came close to hitting him.

Then he stopped. And I knew I had just one chance to get him. So I took a very deep breath, tried to stop shaking, peered through the scope, and fired my last shot. And I was pretty sure I’d hit him. But he bounded off, and it took me about 15 minutes to calm down and take off after him. I remember little of what happened after that. I don’t think I even tried to follow his tracks. I just took off through the woods in the direction he went.

He was long gone. Morose by now, I returned to the scene and discovered a few drops of blood and a bit of hair. So I knew I’d hit him. But when I started to follow his trail, there was no blood, and eventually, no trail.

I’d never lost a wounded deer and I was so sad, walking out of the woods and to the house. Dad was there at my house, ready to join me in the day’s hunt, and I told him my sad story. He suggested we go back and look some more for the buck, but I insisted it was no use, there was no blood trail, he was gone. So we drove to another favorite spot in Mount Vernon, hunted the rest of the morning, then returned to the house for lunch.

After lunch, Dad insisted that we take another look for that wounded buck, and by then I had processed all my mistakes and agreed one of them was my failure to continue looking for him. So back we went, easily picking up the buck’s trail and following it for about 300 yards to a spot where he had laid down. There was lots of blood in his bed.

And now, with the two of us working on it, we were able to follow his trail as he moved toward the stream. He’d laid down once more, left more blood, and then swum across the stream. Later in the day I came up the other side of the stream but could find no trace of him. He was gone, but never forgotten, the only wounded deer I ever lost.

Postscript: I learned a lot from this experience. You just can’t give up if you have hit a deer. Once, Dad and I pursued, for three days, a deer he’d wounded, and finally got the deer on the third morning.

A lot of things can go wrong in deer hunting

I’ve made all the mistakes you can make in my 55 years hunting deer. I hunted throughout my teens and early twenties without even seeing a deer. In my mid-twenties I began to get close enough to see some deer, and even got off occasional shots. I had a habit of walking right up to them, startled when they got up, unable to react with a rifle and scope set for a hundred yard shot, not a hundred feet.

One cold rainy late November day, I walked a game trail in Readfield, hunting alone (no other hunter was insane enough to want to get out on this miserable day) when I spotted a rabbit about fifty feet down the trail. Taking careful aim with the 30.6, I shot the rabbit, cut through the woods about a hundred yards to put it in the trunk of my car, and returned to the spot from which I had shot.

I took about five or six steps when a large doe jumped up right beside me on the other side of a small fir. She had not moved when I shot! My wet and cold fingers couldn’t even get the safety off before she was gone.

On another infamous occasion, the last day of a deerless season for both of us, Dad and I had given up and were walking out a woods road, happy in the camaraderie of a good hunting season, not really disappointed that we hadn’t killed a deer, when we looked down to our left and noticed three handsome deer running along in the bottom of a ravine about 175 yards away. We stood side by side, carefully aimed, and shot the hill away just over the top of those deer.

Sometimes you don’t even have to be on hand to be a victim of the cruel fates that hunting throws our way. A second deerless season passed into oblivion one year as I hunted a couple of miles from home, while my wife enjoyed watching a doe meander around our front law for fifteen minutes.

Bad luck or ill timing has even caused one of my old hunting buddies, who I will call Bigfoot, to miss some chances. Famous for his appetite, I remember one day when he left his stand and headed home for a mid-morning meal just fifteen minutes before I chased a large buck and doe right directly through where he’d been standing.

Now that I have had a lot of success hunting deer, with five big buck mounts on the wall, I wonder what changed my luck. And I marvel that I never gave up through years of adversity and bad luck. What kept me going?

Well, we are entitled in this country to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the pursuit of happiness that brought me into the woods and kept me there, seemingly unsuccessful in ever actually bagging a deer, but every year more and more aware of my surroundings, as well as the hunting craft and good luck that is required to consistently put venison in the freezer.

Bigfoots abound and I certainly had my own tendencies in that direction. Many hunters fail to bag a deer year after year after year. So many things can go wrong! And don’t let anyone tell you that things have not gone wrong for them. We suffer together.

But few would say this is really suffering. The stories get better and better every year. The failures take on heroic proportions. The legends are built, traditions developed, crafts learned, amid the peaceful and quiet dawns and dusks of our hunting days. To all those deer we’ve missed before, a tip of the hat. Thanks for the memories.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.