White-tailed deer don’t just live in the woods, they eat the woods and they become the woods. The woods breathe, and move, and listen and watch through the deer, as the slow and relentless passage of time determines who shall live and who shall die, and when, where and how death shall come.
As one generation vanishes and another appears, sometimes an exceptional deer emerges from the primal woods. The best of the blood, almost as old as the woods them- selves, is preserved and passed on and pumped into his powerful heart. He is bigger, stronger, faster and wiser than those who came before him. He rules over the timeless woods like a king. Other animals step aside and give way as he passes.
This mighty buck often lives out his secret life unseen by hunters who enter his woods each Novem- ber searching for him. In 2015, our hunting camp killed such a rare and magnificent animal, and it took more than a perfect hunt to make it happen.
The king deer had to make a terrible mistake, and for a deer that smart to make such a mistake, a simple trick was needed. He had to be fooled into thinking the danger had passed. He had to be deceived into thinking he was alone. Only then would he appear in the open and stand still while being watched down the barrel of a gun.
The shot that was fired ended his life. The shot that was fired gave me this story. The shot that was fired revealed his life through his death. The shot that was fired may have killed the deer, but he will never die, because the deer are the woods, and the woods are the deer.
The shot was fired after five of us and an old dog named Dodger hunted in steady rain on the last Thursday and Friday of hunting season. The deer was shot at the same beaver dam and from the same watch where a big doe had been shot two days before. Someone said, “A big doe means a big buck, they travel together,” which was the reason we returned to the dam that day. But the circumstances were different this time. The doe had been running across the dam. But the big buck was standing still looking across the dam.
THE TRAP IS SET
The dogger waited with Dodger near the road while four of us drove on three motorbikes down the trail stopping where it forked. We dropped off the first man there at a strip of land running between two ponds. But we did not turn off the bikes, in case a nearby deer was listening for voices and footsteps.
The big buck had been standing back in the shadows, listening but hearing only the sound of the bikes, waiting for that sound to pass, before stepping out in the open to cross that beaver dam, which was 50 yards from the strip of land. A big buck doesn’t need to see a hunter to know he is there. A buck will hear him. Even if the buck is half asleep, his ears will hear the sound of death being slid into a dark hidden chamber when a nearby gun is loaded.
It took 20 seconds for the man to get off the back of one of the bikes and walk to his watch and load his rifle. But the bikes were still running, shielding the sounds of the man from the ears of the buck. The transition from bike to watch happened so fast the deer didn’t realize someone was left behind watching that dam.
When the bikes moved on, the deer waited about two minutes until the sound and perceived danger faded away. That’s when the buck stepped out in the open and looked across the dam into the woods one last time. In that moment his death hung in the air. The only part of him moving then was his final breath. It drifted slowly away from him across the open swamp and into the trees beyond. Then the lightning flashed and the thunder roared. He died a king’s death.
A GREAT BUCK HONORED
He was taken directly to the Lakeview Tavern on Highway 41 in Erinsville, Ontario, where he was entered in the annual big buck contest. The tavern emptied when he arrived. People came outside to watch him being weighed and to hear his weight announced. People stared and pointed and even touched his great crown.
He weighed 249 1⁄2 pounds and won first prize, a Remington bolt-action rifle donated by Ken’s Gun Shop in Tamworth, Ontario. Everyone who was in the woods that day was at the Lakeview Tavern awards banquet that Saturday night. In front of a packed house, Lee Pitt of the Mitten Lake Hunting Camp near Kaladar, Ontario, received the annual big buck trophy.
A man who kills a great deer is sometimes given a name to acknowledge the magnitude of his feat. Lee’s peers chose a name to honor the deer. They gave him the deer’s name. They called him the King. The King is dead. Long live the King.
— L.W. Oakley lives in Kingston, Ontario. He is the author of “Inside the Wild” and “Inside the Wild 2.”