Like many of us, my love of hunting and the outdoors was instilled in me by my dad. Every year, from the time I was seven years old, Labor Day weekend was spent camping at the Yellow River State Forest in northeastern Iowa with my dad, my uncle, and my cousins. It was men's weekend for us, and it consisted of three days of squirrel hunting and trout fishing, (and whatever else my cousins and I could get into when our dads weren’t being as vigilant as they should have been.) Some of my best childhood memories are of those yearly hunting trips.
Through the years, my quarry expanded to include other game, especially turkey and deer, but I’ll always have a love for squirrel hunting, since that’s where it all began for me. Fall was, (and still is), my favorite time of year, and I cherished every time my dad and I had the opportunity to hit the woods on those cool autumn mornings.
Dad was my hero, and I wanted to be just like him. He was hard-working, honest, generous, funny, and (thankfully)…patient. It’s not easy to guide an excited, energetic youngster through the woods, especially when your success is often contingent upon stealth and silence. In addition to the gun safety reminders that he hammered into my psyche, (which I can still hear him saying, by the way, “always be aware of where your gun is pointed,” “always treat the gun as if it were loaded,” etc, etc.), my dad taught me how to hunt. He taught me about camouflage and how to use the cover and terrain to mask your movements. He taught me how to walk quietly in the woods and how to stalk a critter. And he also taught me about the animal we were after…what it likes to eat, where it likes to sleep, how best to sneak up on it. I’m indebted to my dad for teaching me all of those things while I was growing up. Because of him, I’ve enjoyed much success in the forests and fields of eastern Iowa.
My dad is now 72 years old. Last year, he was given a muzzleloader by a friend of his who had won it at a benefit. Residing in a small rural community where he has spent most of those 72 years, my dad is fortunate enough to live in an area where it’s not uncommon to look out his back window and see all kinds of wild game, especially deer. And he’s also fortunate enough to know all of the landowners in the area and have permission to hunt a good portion of that land. So, armed with his new “smoke-pole,” my dad hit the woods for the first time carrying an early-season muzzleloader tag.
Though Dad has kept his freezer stocked with all kinds of game through the years, and Dad’s filled many a deer tag while party-hunting for deer in the shotgun season, he has never set out by himself in the pursuit of a whitetail. So, to put it bluntly, he wasn’t very good at it. His first several muzzleloader hunting excursions ended in failure, with him rarely even seeing a deer.
After talking to Mom one day on the phone and having her relate to me how disappointed Dad was that he couldn’t fill his deer tag, I realized I now had the perfect opportunity to return the favor and teach my dad a few things. Though I’ve never muzzleloader hunted myself, I’ve spent many an hour bowhunting deer. Through the years, I’ve learned a lot about whitetail deer…their incredible sense of smell, their feeding habits, their body-language, their bedding areas, their breeding season, etc. And, specifically in the areas where I bowhunt, I’ve learned when and where they like to go and how best to be in a position to get a shot at one.
So, I called my Dad one Friday afternoon and asked him if I could “guide” him on a muzzleloader hunt that weekend. He replied with an emphatic “Yes!” (as I knew he would, since he has always gone out of his way to spend as much time as possible with his kids and grandkids.) I told him to meet me the following afternoon at a designated place, and I would take him to one of my hunting spots. Knowing that he would not heed my advice about washing his clothes in Scent-A-Way laundry detergent and taking a shower with our green antibacterial soap, (you can’t teach some of these old boys new tricks), I advised him to wear the clothes that he wears when he helps out a farmer friend of his. (If he wasn’t going to hunt scent-free, then I at least wanted him to have a cover scent that’s not alarming to the deer.)
The next day, Dad met me and we jumped in my truck and headed off to my spot. Making sure the wind was in our face, we took a circuitous route to a marshy, overgrown grassy slough with a few cottonwoods in it, and we quietly set up a pop-up ground blind. We were about 75 yards away from a tree line bordering a bean field. I knew this area well, so I had a good idea when and where the deer would funnel out of their bedding area and into the bean field.
Since I made sure we were out there and set up in plenty of time, Dad and I had lots of time to talk (quietly, of course.) I used the opportunity to explain to Dad why it was a good spot, and I recanted to him the steps I take when I bowhunt this area. I went through how I get my clothes ready for the hunt, how I shower with Scent-A-Way soap before each hunt, and how I use Scent-A-Way spray and scent wafers to mask my scent. I reminded him that all of the deer I had taken with my bow, and the many close encounters I’ve had over the years, were largely due to the scent-elimination steps I take before each hunt. I told him he doesn’t have to do all of those things if he doesn’t want, but if he doesn’t, he better make sure he’s got a favorable wind and he better be able to shoot at long distances, because chances are fairly good he’s not going to get very close to them.
It was fun passing the time with Pops. The only time we weren’t talking is when we saw a group of hen turkeys come out of the woods about a hundred yards away. I grabbed one of my HS Strut mouth calls and had a lot of fun with them. It didn’t take long before they ran across the bean field directly at us and then milled around right outside of our blind for awhile. Dad got a big kick out of that. (Incidentally, turkey calling is another thing I plan to teach him soon.).
About an hour before sunset, just like clockwork, a small buck and a few does filtered out of the woods across the field from us. Since Dad just wanted to put some meat in the freezer, and since I wouldn’t let him shoot any small bucks, (that’s another conversation we had LOL), he put the crosshairs on a nice sized doe, and squeezed off a shot. He dropped her right in her tracks, and man, was he excited. After a congratulatory high-five and a hug, we packed up our stuff and made our way out to the doe.
Just like the old days when we used to party-hunt for deer, Dad took his knife out of his pocket and, of course, gave it to me and said “have at it.” He always carried a knife, but I’ve never seen him use it. Needless to say, I’ve field dressed a lot of deer that Dad’s shot during past shotgun seasons. And it’s comical, because each time he’ll make comments about how “slick” the Butt-Out Tool works, or how convenient our field dressing gloves and field wipes are. I just laugh to myself, because I know that as long as I’m around, he’ll never have to use them.
On the long walk back to the truck we talked and laughed, and we agreed to make this hunt a yearly tradition for us. It was definitely one of those hunts I won’t soon forget. Oh, and one more thing I was able to demonstrate to Dad while we were walking back…how our deer drag works. Dads are just like big bucks…they get pretty smart when they’re old.