Longtime hunters know the adage: "That's why they call it hunting, not killing."
For those who believe in fair chase, coming home empty-handed isn't unusual.
Fair chase, as defined by the conservationist Boone and Crockett Club, is the "ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals."
A friend's chronicle of his blackpowder hunt for a whitetail buck near his central Washington home during the November primitive weapon season underscored the clarity and thrill of matching wits with an animal accustomed to outwitting predators. Some details, such as where he hunted and his last name, are purposely omitted.
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Stan began writing on Day 3. Some excerpts:
"I have been on big bucks every day. My partner has harvested a nice 4X4 whitetail buck. I woke up this morning to a constant rain, same as yesterday. I don't expect to see much."
But the weather cleared and Stan went to hunt some nearby Bureau of Land Management land. A mile in, he entered some hilly grasslands.
"I sneak thru the first draw hoping to find a big buck bedded down. I find nothing. As I cross over the ridge to the next draw, I spot a buck 300 yards away bedded down. He is not the big one I am looking for, but any buck with blackpowder is a trophy.
"I take off my pack and start crawling. I am 200 yards away and have run out of cover. What now? I look at the buck and he is looking away. I look that direction and a coyote is doing the same as me, sneaking up on the buck.
"I have the wind in my favor and soon the buck winds the coyote. He stands up. I hope he runs this way, it is my only hope. Just my luck, he runs to my left, behind a knob.
"I stand up to run over to the top of the ridge in hopes of getting a shot, but just as I stand up there is Mister Big at 125 yards to my right.
"I sit down, put the shooting sticks up and take a good rest. I touch off the gun. BOOM!!! When the smoke clears, the buck is coming right at me. I missed. Too far.
" 'Quick, reload Stan,' I say to myself. But wait, my bullets are in my pack that I took off earlier, 100 yards away. I run to my pack, reload in a flash, only to watch the buck run over the hill waving his big white tail as if to say goodbye. I sit down in disgust.
"But wait. I look down the draw and here comes another buck. I can't believe three bucks would be bedded down in the same area. He must have heard the shot and is coming to investigate. I throw up the binoculars and O.M.G.!!! It is the biggest buck I have ever seen.
"I try to hide in the tall grass. He is 300 yards away. I start to shake. 'Get ahold of yourself,' I think.
"Oh no. He turns to the left and goes behind the ridge. I run 100 yards to the top of the ridge and set up. Here he comes, 100 yards away. I get ready. I can see his horns shining from the sun. He is 90 yards away.
"He stops, facing me. He curls his head back to smell the air. I see the big white patch under his throat and I squeeze the trigger. POP!! The cap goes off but no BOOM!.
"I quickly reload another cap, hoping he is still there. He is. I can't believe it. I take aim again and squeeze the trigger. POP!!! Damn wet muzzleloader, damn rain!
"I reload a third cap. I can't believe he's still there. I squeeze the trigger one more time, POP!!, a delay and then BOOM!!!
"I shoot right between his horns. 'Look out Stan, here he comes!' I think, and he passes 25 yards from me.
"He is bigger than I thought. He is a monster. I get loaded and run to the top of the hill to look for him. Nowhere to be seen."
On day 4, Stan saw one buck but was limited to an evening hunt because of dense fog.
On day 5, his partner dropped him near a long, grass-choked draw that cuts through wheat fields.
It was a beautiful clear, frosty morning. He watched a flock of geese, then flushed a rooster pheasant underfoot.
About 20 minutes in, he saw movement and got down, but it was a coyote. Then he encountered a badger "digging like a kid in a sand box."
An hour in, he came to some 6-foot canary grass. With the wind in his favor, he moved slowly. He spotted a big buck bedding in the grass 250 yards away.
With his binoculars, Stan saw a 5X5. He lost sight of him in the grass, but slowly crept toward a rock he'd marked near the bedded animal.
"I look again. Nothing. I start to worry, is he gone? I keep crawling. I have been crawling forever. I finally get within 50 yards of the rock. He should be right here. I can't see anything."
His mind raced: "What should I do now Stan? Should I call? Should I rattle? Should I just stand up and shoot? I decide to stand up slowly. I ease up. I don't see anything. I stand up all the way, nothing."
He eased forward, 25 yards to where the tall grass ended.
"Bolt!!!! He jumps up behind me. I went too far... He is bouncing left to right, waving his big white tail. BOOM!! ... The smoke clears and he is gone. I don't try reloading, there is no reason."
Stan was walking toward where his partner had agreed to pick him up when another smaller buck jumped from the grass. But he hadn't reloaded.
In five days, he'd seen 16 bucks.
Day 6 began with the partners spotting another big 5X5 while driving. Stan got out at a draw that led two miles back to his truck. A short ways in, he wrote, "I spot horns in the tall grass. I'm lucky, this time I don't have to crawl. There is a ditch I can use to get close enough for a shot."
Twenty minutes later, he eased up to shoot but couldn't see the buck.
"I have screwed this up before, so I will try something different. I pick up a rock and throw it over the grass where he is bedded. He jumps up. He is running right at me!"
At 30 yards, he shot. Buck down.
And then the large 5X5 buck he'd seen earlier jumped to his right.
"Oh no, I have shot the little buck! I walk up to him and he is a nice 4X4. I will take him. Tomorrow is the last day of my season. I am happy to have finally harvested a deer with my smoke pole. My truck is two miles away. That's OK, I have nothing else to do the rest of the day."
* Rick Larson: 509-582-1522; firstname.lastname@example.org