January 23, 2014
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
There was a new confidence evident when I saw Jane Ellis for the first time in two years. The Daphne resident had every right to be confident. She had experienced the thrill of the hunt that culminated with a successful harvest when she bagged the first whitetail buck of her hunting career this season.
What happened two years ago, however, will be the twine that forever connects two hunters. The highly successful Becoming An Outdoors-Woman (BOW) program had expanded with a few extra events called Beyond BOW. One of those extra events was a day of rifle shooting and deer hunting at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area, formerly the State Cattle Ranch. The field-trial area is prime Black Belt habitat for whitetails, and the BOW ladies have had the chance to hunt them the last three years.
When Ellis was drawn for the hunt two years ago, she had little hunting experience, but she attended one of the semi-annual BOW events and wanted to try deer hunting. Ellis didn’t have her own deer rifle, so she borrowed one. She felt comfortable shooting the rifle at the range. As her guide, I suggested that we practice a little when we got into the shooting house and a coyote made his way across the green field in search of an afternoon snack.
Ellis got the gun up and found the coyote in the scope, giving us confidence she could do the same if a buck made his way into gun range. After we watched a red-tailed hawk circle the field and a couple of beavers go merrily about gathering food and material for their hut, we settled in for the afternoon.
As is most often the case in Alabama, deer tend to move during low-light conditions just at daylight and right before dark. Almost on the dot, at 5 p.m., Ellis spotted a buck approaching the field from the west. I’ll never forget what she said.
“There’s a deer and it’s got horns,” she whispered, although bucks have antlers and not horns.
After a few more steps, I saw the eight-point with a beautiful, tall, white rack. Of course, I realized what was in front of us and quickly got more excited than Ellis. Despite being barely able to breathe, I coached Ellis to slowly get the rifle to her shoulder and put the crosshairs just behind the buck’s shoulder.
While the big buck was perfectly content to freshen his scrape line along the edge of the field, Ellis had trouble finding him in the scope. The buck even stopped to rear up on his hind legs to reach a licking branch that overhung one of several territorial scrapes the buck had made.
Ellis moved her head back and forth to try to get the buck in the scope to no avail. She took her glasses off and tried again. No luck. As a guide, I had made a rookie mistake. When a scope is turned on its highest power, the eye relief (the distance from the eye to the scope’s reticle that provides the optimum view) is very limited. As the power is scaled back, the eye relief increases. I should have reached up and turned the scope’s power down until she could get him in the scope.
By the time Ellis finally got the buck in the scope, he was disappearing over a knoll and into the woods.
Despite my panic, Ellis stayed calm. The only time she got the crosshairs on the buck was as it was walking over the hill, and I explained it’s much better not to pull the trigger if you’re not comfortable with the shot.
Ellis vowed that she would be back if she got drawn the next year, and we’d continue our pursuit of the big buck. She was drawn again in 2013, but she came down with walking pneumonia only a week before the hunt and had to cancel.
This year Ellis was lucky enough to get drawn again, and, despite my shortcomings as a guide, requested I accompany her again.
Bill Mason, facility manager, and Chris Smith with the Alabama State Lands Division, which oversees Forever Wild Land Trust properties, had seen several big bucks in the area of the stand Ellis and I were assigned for last week’s hunt.
The only problem was the weather. At the 2013 hunt, it was a balmy, hot day for January, which meant deer movement would likely be low. It was.
This year, a cold front had blown through that morning, and the wind was howling at 20 mph with gusts to 30, also not good weather for deer movement.
Undeterred, we headed for the shooting house and got settled in. We watched a beautiful fox squirrel run across the field to change trees and then Ellis got to try out a Christmas present from her husband. She used her brand-new binoculars to get a close-up view of a bluebird perched atop a weed stalk.
As the light started to fade, a young doe walked into the field and started to feed.
“I’m going to wait on a buck,” Ellis said.
Just before dark, three more deer entered the field.
“Get your binoculars and see if one is a buck,” I said.
After glassing the field, she responded, “Nope, all does.”
Despite our lack of luck that day, Ellis said the BOW program is what prepared her to take the first deer of her life earlier this season.
“My husband gave me my rifle, a .243, for my birthday and I was able to take it to BOW last year and take it to rifle class,” she said. “This year, I was hunting with it. The day after Thanksgiving, I was able to go in the stand by myself, load my own gun and kill my first deer. I feel like the classes I had at BOW definitely prepared me, and the enthusiasm of Jinks (James Altiere) and all the instructors made me feel comfortable and I was able to take my first deer.”
Ellis said her husband put her out near the stand at about 2 p.m. on her fateful hunt. After getting into the stand and loading her gun, little happened until 4:30 p.m., when a couple of does walked into the field.
“Then two bucks came in the field, and one of them was a six-pointer, which I was allowed to shoot (club rules),” she said. “I counted those points 10 times to make sure that’s what it was. I real quietly got the crosshairs on him and took a deep breath. I pulled the trigger, and he jumped straight up and took off.
“My husband told me if I shot to wait a little while. It was starting to get dark, so I unloaded my gun and got out of the stand. I went to look for it and didn’t find it. I waited for my husband to come pick me up. He said, ‘Let’s go get something to eat.’ I said, ‘No, we’ve got to go get a deer.’ We found blood, and he wasn’t 15 yards out of the field. I was real excited, and I think BOW prepared me for that moment.”
Ellis said her excitement was prolonged by what happened the next day.
“I got to drive my deer in the truck to the deer processor in Leroy, Ala.,” she said. “I loved pulling up by myself with my deer in the back.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Fourteen lucky ladies with Becoming An Outdoors-Woman backgrounds were drawn to participate in the Beyond BOW hunt at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area recently. The hunters managed to take five does and one nice buck despite windy conditions. Leisha Martin, a BOW veteran, took this tall 7-point that was missing a brow tine.