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Pennsylvania Whitetail

Bill Burkett
11 min readDec 13, 2023

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A cool, grey day here in Chongqing. Looks like real duck hunting weather when I look out my window. But, of course, being Chongqing, the temps are still too moderate for properly managed duck hunts.I got up early and watched Sunny and CS get out the door, then puttered around the house and went back to bed for a recovery nap. Got up again at 10:30 and felt much better. Then, because I felt much better and — even more important — because I had the day to myself, I did something I hadn’t done for a long time: I fixed a cup of Randy Bragg’s whiskey-laced “Florida coffee”. And that, of course, made me think of you and our personal exchanges, plus “The Duck Hunter Diaries”…remembering that we are only a few days from the anniversary of your first whitetail buck back in 1971. Damn, boy, that’s a whole lot of water under a lot of different bridges since then…

A holiday note from my only correspondent in China, a Missouri expatriate a little younger than me whose bourbon and coffee put him in a reflective mood. Which in turn inspired my own musings. I got to know Randy long-distance after he wrote a very kind review of my Duck Hunter Diaries after finding them at Amazon Books. The marvels of modern-day communications. His favorite outdoor pursuit back home was fishing, to which he was evidently as devoted as I was to duck hunting. Not a lot of fishing in a Chinese city of 32 million. At age 80 with my disabilities, largely housebound for three years, no hunting opportunities. We are left with memories.

I looked up my diary entry about my first (only) Pennsylvania whitetail buck. The way my brain works, the writing triggered a processional of memories. Ray Stafford for one, a Michigander trapped in Florida by marriage after a Navy tour, who introduced my bother and me to deer hunting. He used the same 16-gauge bolt-action Sears Roebuck shotgun with which he’d hunted the UP. Hadn’t hunted since marriage and settling in Florida. I invited him duck-hunting.

When that was slow, we spread out and moved through tall-grass beside the lake to see if we could flush some bobwhite quail. The mud was tracked up with deer sign and Ray insisted my brother and I swap quail loads for rifled slugs. I’d never seen a deer in the wild so this seemed fanciful. Then I heard hoof beats on the two-track and thought horse.

A large whitetail buck came around the corner and skidded to a stop.

There was one of those frozen moments. We all stared at the apparition. He stared at us. Then he moved — a graceful leap into thick brush before I got my own Sears 12-gauge bolt-action halfway to my shoulder. None of us reacted fast enough. There were expletives.

The sighting kindled Ray’s old deer-hunting fever. He talked about nothing else all day, or at work the following week. Ensuing seasons until I was drafted, I sacrificed duck-hunting weekends to follow Ray as he taught himself — and us — flatwoods deer hunting, so different he said from Michigan woods. We hunted hard but never scored; my brother came closest with three missed shots at ten yards from my Winchester 16-gauge pump. The year after the Army I missed a big Florida buck with the rifle my father bought me for Christmas. I moved to the Bahamas; no deer there. And thence to Pennsylvania, where deer hunting was almost a religion. I hunted them unsuccessfully with rifle and bow until my second season and the event Randy mentioned in his note. From my Diaries, written on a weekend shift at the Harrisburg Evening News:

My First Buck

December 4, 1971 is the day. Maybe later I will tabulate how many other days there have been, the empty kind, the almost kind, the near-miss, heart-in-your-throat kind. Including my unclear encounter with the buck in the Florida rain in 1968 that I wrote as “The Christmas Deer” for Charlie Brock that started me trying to write creatively again. But today, with my brand-new Winchester Model 94 .30–30, a gun I always wanted but let some fancy salesman or other talk me out of over the years…At 8:50 a.m., after leaving the house at 6:15 for the game lands behind Dillsburg in York County, then changing my plan about hunting the bottoms after changing my plan to hunt the reverse slope, I moved diagonally up, cutting deer sign as soon as I left boot-trodden snow — Wait.

It was 8:50 a.m. I squeezed the trigger and the buck hunched and staggered, and ran. I fired. He stopped. I fired. He flagged and jumped. I fired. He went to his hunkers, got up and went out of sight. At 9:20 a.m. I drew a bead on his neck and delivered the coup, probably half a mile away. Those were adrenalin-pumping, pulse-thundering, jog- trotting yards, unstoppably across rough terrain, following wide pink and scarlet spray on the clean snow.

My first sight of that blood trail, something clicked, and I was moving in a loose-jointed trot I believe I could have sustained across that whole damned mountain…

Then a puddle of dark-colored blood where the buck lay down — some lumps; one of my follow-up shots was in his gut. Then no tracks, no blood; nothing to show the way. I was trying to figure which way to cast for sign when he struggled out of a thicket twenty-five yards away. I shot again. I gave chase again. I saw the flicker of an ear — my eyes as acute as radar. He was down. I tried for the spine, hands shaking, drew a shallow rut across his fur. I used a twig to touch his eye. He came up again in a lunge. I broke his neck, point-blank. Blood trickled for a long time.

I tagged him. It was a day almost cold enough to defeat my Sorel pacs, but I was warm all over. My heart all-ahead full, but steady, strong. The buck steamed when I cut him open. His guts scalded my hands as I cleaned him. My little Buck Personal did a job of it. He was still steaming when I rolled him out at the meat plant in Highspire five hours later. Twenty bucks for cutting and wrapping, eight more to mix ten pounds of beef with the venison scraps for beef-venison burger.

He had two points on his left, one broken off. The other antler was a snapped off nub. Trying to fight too big an opponent, the guys in the parking lot said. His nose was so slender the butcher thought I’d shot a doe with antlers. Nope. He had him a pair all right, which is what probably got his antlers wrecked.

He was ambling along, right where those two does went by earlier. But he had his nose in the tracks of the nineteen does that passed on my right. I said nineteen. All in a row, single file, half-walking, half-trotting, pausing, snuffling; they sounded like a horse stampede on the frozen snow. I figured there had to be one buck in all that. But he came later, and passed to my left, close beside me. All I had to do was lift and let drive at ten yards. I was cutting across the hill when I found this spot. There are places in the woods you just feel. The way the tracks parted on both sides of the deadfall, with the snowy backdrop of another hill about 200 yards away so you could see anything move; kind of a streambed down the hill, some frozen, some trickle. A sneaking deer could get through if you were fifty yards away.

I picked my tree, walked away to look, came back. Tracks came right up and turned at the deadfall that would mask me. A thin screen of bare branches, young narrow trees. A thick tree trunk to break my outline; sun at my back in a horizontal yellow pour in their eyes as they came. I put my Jones cap with its red bandanna on a twig to my right to alert hunters behind me. Orange face mask; turn your head, no change of profile like with a billed cap. No face-shine in the shadows. Rifle on my lap, stadium seat for comfort. Down jacket over flannel shirt and wool sweater; sweat pants under hunting pants; blaze vest. The new 7x35 binoculars tucked niftily against my chest.

New ski gloves, not as warm as my Sorel boots; fingers icy. Maybe that carpal tunnel crap.1 It puts my hands to sleep and wakes my joints up screaming. My hands were cold; very cold. Twice, the cold got to my legs and made me shiver. When it finally reached my toes in the pacs I thought seriously about moving around. I worked my toes around and remembered how much colder they got in uninsulated hip boots.

When the nineteen came, I felt warm and ready. They went to my right. It would have to be a lunge-around, shoot-fast shot. I cocked my rifle. The leader — about a dozen feet away — paused, hearing it, but was pushed on by the followers. I had glassed them off the hill and could not believe the trot-trot-trot-trot-trot-trot of hooves coming down that slope, then the slush-slush-slush-slush in the snow as they minced and paused and tail-twitched by. The last one was limping — a shattered left rear leg. It would have been a mercy to take her, but some game warden would give me a hard time.

I pitched right in to gut the buck. I will never forget the musky distinctive odor, the scalding entrails, the hot blood, the incredible amount of corn spilling out of his belly. I can smell the corn-fur-deer blood now, a curiously pleasant, obsessive odor. The solid heft of his heart, his shot-up lungs, and his corn-crammed belly. There was yellow semen on his belly fur from his last hurrah with the does…

The sliding weight of him, as I grabbed the horn and skidded him down to the road. I false-trailed, had to circle back, and he was very heavy upslope. Then down across the field where I killed my first Pennsylvania dove. Cars full of gawking faces. Blood drying stiff on my hands and sleeves. A guy offered me a lift, sitting feet in his trunk, lid in my lap, holding the hooves away from his vinyl roof. A mile and a half, perched precariously, my .30–30 in my other hand still loaded in case he wanted to hijack my deer. Then the other hunters in the parking lot gathering around.

“Who’s the wise guy, shooting a deer?”

“Didja see them twenty?”

“There wasn’t no horns in that bunch? I didn’t see horns. But nineteen, you say? That one messing along in the rear, I thought it might have been — Well!”

“Nice little buck. Little, but he’s nice.”

“That you shot those four times? Sounded like a heavy gun. A .30–30? Those echoes musta really been boomin’. Sounded like a cannon!”

“A regular cannon. It sure sounded like more than a .30–30…”

At home finally, Wanda was gone somewhere. Mama, no answer on the phone; Earl, no answer. Doug still out hunting, but Marie sounded happy for me, very businesslike about how to fix the deer. I called meat plants, no answer until Highspire, made arrangements, relaxed. I lay a dirty blanket across the bed and slept, finally. Wanda woke me up.

“What’re you doing?” That grin.

“Waitin’.”

“Waiting for what?”

“To take pictures.”

“I spent all the money — take pictures of what?”

“Of my deer.”

Pennsylvania Whitetail headed to the meat locker. Nutritious food well into the next year.

“I thought you were dreaming again,” she said later, bouncing up and down. “You really got one! You really did!”

I had told her about a dream that after sighting in the seven gun on Thursday, I shot and shot at a buck with the .30–30 and had to finish it with the seven. There was snow in the dream, too. But I hunted all those years with the seven, and scored first time out with the .30–30. Lucky gun; bought with ten dollars plus the forty that Frances sent for me to buy a new attaché case. I sighted it in on Wednesday, awfully close groups for an iron-sighter.

When he ran, I blew smoke at him like “The Rifleman” on TV. As if I had been born and raised with a .30–30 in my hand. It is №3,400,000 and something of Model 94s. It’s beautiful. I feel an almost apostolic succession go back to the first buck felled eighty years ago by a Winchester 94; the saddle gun, the woods rifle, direct descendant of the Gun That Won the West.

I remember a pawn shop in Jacksonville asking $60 for a used 94 — ten dollars more than I paid for a new one! Harry Smith, the news editor, got his 94 when he was seventeen and it carries seven notches, a deer for every three seasons since; needs one this year to keep the string going, maybe has it by now. Great Uncle Luke’s son-in-law Grady over in South Carolina had the old Model 73 in .44–40, ancestor of the 94, itself a taker of a few deer in its time.

But I am using no more factory-second ammo just because it is cheap. The Canadian soft-points didn’t expand. I shot him first in his left shoulder at ten yards, if that. I counted three more in his rib cage, a hand-span apart as he ran, and a fifth in his right shoulder where he turned fifty yards away. Five out of five, four through and through, only the fifth staying in…But I worked that lever! And I got my first deer, have well over a hundred pounds of meat in the locker, and still had plenty of time to clean up and get to the newspaper for my Saturday night shift. It may be that now I have the deer-hunting fever….

As it turned out, no, I didn’t. I hunted ducks all over the place, deer only occasionally. I missed a Pacific black tail in Washington State after I moved into a house less than a mile from the hunting woods — but an hour’s drive from duck hunting. Then I finally got one with the Christmas 7mm my father bought me. Two deer in over fifty years, not much of a record. I have teenage granddaughters with better scores — and bigger bucks. Guided by my son, who has killed more deer than I have Canada geese.

His hunting partner Ken had interesting insights about my son’s incredible instinct for what wild animals will do before they do it. My son, the modern-day mountain man. Ken was surprised my son was so into big game hunting when I took him duck hunting all the time. I guess I am too. But I am proud of his mountain skills….

1Diagnosed that winter — both hands — from years of manual typewriters. Nobody had ever heard of it then.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.