January 12, 2012

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Only a few times in my 40 years of hunting have I assumed the role of guide during one of my excursions afield. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently at the Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) deer hunt at the Barnett Lawley Field Trial Area at the former State Cattle Ranch.

A dozen ladies who had previously participated in a BOW event were randomly drawn for the hunt in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt, known for its fine deer and turkey hunting.

The mother-daughter team of Jane Ellis and Lauren Robbins decided to split up for the afternoon hunt, and I was assigned to guide Ellis, who had never hunted deer before. During the middle of the day, the ladies went to the rifle range to get in a little practice. Ellis said she felt comfortable on the range, and Collin Roberts of the State Lands Division, which now oversees the Forever Wild property near Greensboro, transported us to the shooting house overlooking a green field that was bordered by a patch of woods and small creek bottom.

As we entered the shooting house, we again went over the gun-safety aspect of hunting, and then Ellis practiced taking the safety off without a cartridge in the chamber. After she was comfortable with the procedure, the gun was loaded and we settled in to watch the beautiful afternoon unfold. We had already watched two young beavers frolic in one of the many ponds on the property, and it wasn’t long before a red-tailed hawk was flying around the stand.

“There’s something and it looks like a dog,” whispered Ellis, who was seated on the right side of the shooting house and had a better view of the west side of the field.

“It’s probably a coyote,” I responded. Indeed, it was large coyote making his rounds in search of prey. I told Ellis that if I had been the hunter I would take the predator out but she probably would want to wait for a deer. She agreed.

“Let’s use the coyote to practice,” I said. “Get your gun up and find the coyote in the crosshairs.”

After a little fidgeting and adjusting the borrowed rifle, she announced, “I see him. He’s a big one.”

“This is what I love about sitting on a deer stand,” I said. “You never know what you’re going to see.”

Even if that had ended our wildlife sightings for the day, it would have been a successful outing, just enjoying nature on a sunny January afternoon. But there was more in store.

I told Ellis just to get settled in because the deer weren’t likely to move until the shadows had completely covered the field. As the sun shone on the field, we discussed mutual acquaintances we had in Baldwin County, where we both reside.

As the long shadows finally crept all the way across the field, I told her to keep a close watch because a lot of times the deer will appear out of nowhere.

Only minutes after I had glanced at my watch that registered 5 p.m., Ellis reached out and touched my arm.

“There’s a deer and it’s got horns,” she whispered, as the buck entered the field from the same direction as the coyote, which meant it was a couple of seconds before I could see the deer. When the buck finally walked far enough into the field, I saw a beautiful eight-point with a tall, white rack, which caused a rush of adrenalin to flood through my body.

“OK, slowly get your gun up and the put the crosshairs just behind his shoulder,” I whispered as my respiration rate soared.

As Ellis moved her rifle into position, the buck stopped on the edge of the field and reared up on his hind legs to reach a licking branch that overhung one of several territorial scrapes the buck had made. When his front legs hit the ground, he pawed at the scrape.

“Are you on him?” I panted.

“No, I can’t find him,” Ellis responded without the least bit of panic.

“Move your head back and forth on the scope until you see the crosshairs,” I coached.

“OK, I see him. No, he’s gone,” she said as the buck moved down the field to freshen the second scrape. As I’ll explain later, here’s where my inexperience as a guide was evident.

Ellis took her glasses off to see if she could locate the buck in the scope as he went to his third scrape to put on a show that is rarely witnessed in such a candid fashion.

“You got him?” I pleaded at the point of hyperventilation as the deer continued his mission unabated.

“No, yes, no,” Ellis responded as the deer walked over a little rise and disappeared into the broom sedge.

“The only time I got the crosshairs on him was on the back of his head when he was going over the hill,” she continued.

As I tried to keep from passing out, I patted her on the shoulder and offered, “You did the right thing. If you’re not comfortable with the shot, don’t take it.”

After I caught my breath a bit, I took the borrowed gun and looked into the scope. Even with my size, it was difficult to get the eye relief correct, which explained part of the problem.

Later, my longtime buddy Larry Norton, a former guide at Bent Creek Lodge and The Shed Hunting Lodge, clued me in to what I should have done in that situation.

“When I first started guiding, that happened to me,” Norton said. “After the third time, I realized what I needed to do. When they can’t find the deer in the scope, reach up and turn the scope down to three-power so they can see the whole field. When they get the deer in the crosshairs, then reach up and turn the scope back up to nine or 10.”

Hopefully, there’ll be a next time for me. For Ellis, there definitely will be.

“I didn’t realize deer season was so short,” she said. “We’ve only got three weeks left. I’ve got to go tell my husband that I need a gun that fits me, and I’m going to tell him that you told me so.”

Please do, Jane. My heart can’t take it.

Elsewhere during the hunt, Ellis’ daughter Lauren bagged a doe, as did Harriet Hyde of Evergreen. Kristen Bakkegard of Hoover took the big deer of the day, a nice seven-pointer.

Even the ones who didn’t shoot insisted it was an eventful afternoon.

“It was a wonderful experience,” said Vicky Lindley, a fourth-grade physical education teacher from Decatur who hunted with her daughter, Anna Higginbotham. “I’ve never been on a deer hunt, and I had never shot a rifle like we did. This was a good experience. I have a lot to tell my students when I go back to school. I’ve got 385 students that will get to hear about this.”

I’ve got a story to tell as well.

PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Jane Ellis of Orange Beach gets help on the rifle range from Jay Connell of the State Lands Division before the hunter headed out to the deer stand at the Barnett Lawley Field Trial Area, the former State Cattle Ranch. The crew and participants of the Becoming an Outdoors Woman Deer Hunt gather around the successful hunters, from left, Harriet Hyde of Evergreen, Kristen Bakkegard of Hoover and Lauren Robbins of Mobile.