by Russ Lumpkin
The deer-hunting bug bit my father and brothers and never let go. My father, especially, loved hunting whitetails. He spoke in glowing terms on the joys of sitting in a stand-—watching the sun rise or set, the sounds of a day opening or closing, and the sudden appearance of a shadow or a flicker that concentrated his focus. But as he reached 82 and my mom struggled with dementia, he couldn’t hunt, could hardly leave her sight. I believe an inability to climb into a deer stand hastened his death.
He had mostly good years, preaching and hunting and doing about what he wanted. He died at age 84 on November 11, 2015—just a few days prior to peak rut in the coastal plain of Georgia. It must have been eating at him. He whimpered and passed early morning, just as shooting light encroached on the horizon.
I’m the youngest of four children—a far sight younger. But of three boys, the middle brother, Tim, loves to hunt as much as my father did. He spends summer preparing for autumn and during the season, hunts before work and after. The oldest of all, David, doesn’t go to the woods as much as he did years ago but hunts enough to procure meat. My sister, Sharon, raised three deer hunters, including her daughter, and now has a passel of grandchildren who hunt deer. In short, hunting deer is a family tradition.
I, however, am the black sheep of the family. I prefer to cast a fly or shoot a bird of some sort. I hunt deer each season but only until I kill a doe, and unlike my brothers, I don’t enjoy hunting deer from an elevated deck. Perhaps our preferences differ because they began hunting from stands, while I stood on the ground and waited for dogs to push deer my way.
In 1971, I was four and the family was new to Wadley, Georgia, a genuine little postage stamp of earth surrounded by farmland, swamp, and pines. Not much has changed.
“Then, from somewhere down the line, I heard shots. Later and nearer, more shots and men hollering. The howls of the dogs continued, grew closer, then dissipated in the distance.”
Soon after we arrived, men in the church invited Dad to visit the local hunting club. He came home from the hunt and spoke of the dogs and the howls and the howls growing nearer. On the surface, it seemed grand.
Dad took me to the club one time before I began grade school. I had begged to go, and he wanted me to experience the atmosphere. I remember fidgeting unbuckled in the passenger seat as he turned down a familiar dirt road, then down an unnamed sandy drive that bisected a field of soybeans. Ahead, men with shotguns milled around a weathered cabin that sat hard against the track. We ate lunch, and before leaving I toured the shack. The clapboards on the outside formed the walls on the inside, which were lined with mounts of small bucks and wild boars. The men cooked, served, and cleaned while one older gentleman stirred a huge pot of stew with the working end of a boat paddle.
A few years later, Dad gave me a Remington 1100 20 gauge. By the time I was 10 or 11, I could hit a dove on a regular basis and manage the gun safely. He felt confident I could handle a dog drive. So on a cold, windy opening morning, he drove us to the cabin in the pitch of night. We parked while other vehicles kept rolling in.
From various trucks around the old shack, deer hounds in homemade kennels howled, barked, and whined. Their canine blood curdled with the expectation of running.
I stayed close to Dad, and we walked toward the hunters who huddled on the lee side of the shack. Lights coming from trucks, some parked and others moving around the structure, cast wild and rolling shadows across the faces of the men, some of whom I knew from church and others I’d never seen. Moments later but still long before sunup, an older gentleman, a Mr. Scarboro, climbed into a truck bed and everybody turned their attention to him. Tall, gaunt, and wizened, he wore spectacles that reflected the trucks’ low beams. The same lights threw his shadow in exaggerated pantomime against the side of the shack. The old man’s thick glasses looked glazed, and it appeared that either he didn’t have any eyes at all or his sockets had been sewn shut. Each word from the old man rose through the air in violent fog, but his warm words contradicted the fierce drama of his appearance. He told us he’d handle the dogs, a task that seemed more fitting for younger men.
Wide-eyed and unblinking, I listened to Mr. Scarboro explain how the hunters would be spaced. He also offered ground rules: shoot only out front and never downline, don’t try rounding up the dogs, and above all enjoy the cold morning and warm fellowship. He encouraged us to stick around for lunch. I climbed into the back of a truck with my dad and other hunters, and we headed out. Cold needled up my pants, and when we entered the woods, I didn’t realize it, such was the completeness of the dark. Soon the truck halted. I sat waiting for someone to move. Dad told me to hop down. I did and expected him to pile off after me. Instead, he extended the 20 gauge, handed me some buckshot, and reminded me to be careful.
Daybreak seemed long in coming. Damp cold worked my toes and ears. Just before sunrise, birds began calling, low and sporadic trills and whistles that grew quickly in volume and number. Then I heard it, far away and barely audible—not the canines, not the sound of fleeing deer, but Mr. Scarboro whooping as he ran with the tethered dogs that moved silently save their crashing through the brush. The plaintive, grimsodden whoops belied the muscle of the hounds and the force of their forward thrust. Fascination and anticipation of seeing deer, perhaps a buck, welled in me and made me forget the cold.
Soon I heard barking—Dad had told me the dogs would bark when they struck scent. Then, from somewhere down the line, I heard shots. Later and nearer, more shots and men hollering. The howls of the dogs continued, grew closer, then dissipated in the distance.
None of the action approached me. Still, I loved the experience.
The following year, for reasons I don’t recall, the club fell apart. Neither Dad nor I ever hunted dogdriven deer again. In hindsight, that’s no great loss, but the fellowship of the club—where people of various social standing composed the membership and communed where they may not have otherwise and boys witnessed grown men acting like grown men—was a sad and irrevocable casualty.
After the club’s demise, I hunted deer to spend time with my dad and brothers. I enjoyed the scouting, learning, and helping put up stands. But the actual hunting amounted to a lot of empty minutes. By comparison, my first deer-hunting experiences included a kind and surreal old man, passionate dogs, and frenzy on the front edge. Deeper, those first hunts filled me with a tactile longing to feel the earth beneath me and a visceral want to make sure a deer is within my range of hearing before firing.
Toward my goals, I’ll scout an area or sit in a stand and glass the fields and woods to get a notion of the animals’ routes. Then, I’ll either move or return later to sit near a well-worn trail. I find a spot and favorable wind direction that will obscure my presence from deer until they are within shotgun range—though I use a rifle. Usually, I get a doe quickly and am always thankful for a close, clean shot.
I receive a lot of joy from hunting on the ground. The peace of the woods soothes me as it did my father, and up-close encounters with birds and animals in addition to deer are common. I wouldn’t hunt over dogs again, but I am thankful Dad shared that experience, which continues to shape my hunting expectations—even as I pass 50.
As I get older, I often do wish my siblings and I had been closer in age, that we could have shared life’s experiences when we were all relatively inexperienced. Certainly, and as I’m catching up to them, sharing life events with family members of similar vintage creates memorable days. As Bruce Springsteen sang, “Nothing’s better than blood on blood.”
Deer season will arrive soon, and I’ll hunt and enjoy the edges of the day. But if you happen to see me on a stand, please say hello and share intel. I’m likely plotting my next move.