The first hint of dawn was on the Eastern horizon when Jeff Bartz pulled off the highway and onto the dirt lane that wound its way through a farm field. In the passenger seat was my grandson, 14-year-old Sammy Bartz who has accompanied his father on numerous hunts in recent years, but only in the role of an observer. On this day the roles would be reversed.
It was the first day of New York State's Youth Firearms Deer Hunt. In only its second year, the program allows junior hunters aged 14 and 15, and accompanied by a mentor who possesses a valid big game hunting license, to hunt deer. Under the terms of the hunt, the mentor is not allowed to carry a firearm, he/she is there for guidance only.
Despite the low light, as the Bartz' vehicle moved slowly along the dirt lane they were able to see several does feeding in the field beside them. On a nearby knoll, silhouetted by the first light of day, was a buck that the father and son estimated to be a six-point. Moments later Jeff and Sammy began the slow walk to their tree stand a quarter mile away through a hardwoods.
"On the way to our stand I could hear deer running off, just kicking up the leaves in their haste," said Jeff. "I figured we botched our hunt."
Not to worry. Not only would the elder Bartz' original plan for the morning pay off, there would be plenty of action forthcoming. Theirs was a strategy that began during midsummer when Jeff and Sammy first scouted a variety of locations before the actual placement of their tree stands. One such location was a large woodlot with an abundance of shagbark hickory and a smattering of beech trees. Last Saturday morning found the pair in those same woods, situated 12 feet off the ground in a buddy stand, a pre-fab ladder stand built for two hunters. Cradled in Sammy's arms was an Ithaca Featherlite 20-gauge, the same shotgun used by his great-grandfather.
The father and son tandem weren't seated very long when the action began.
"Four does came in first," said Sammy. No doubt they were intent on feeding on the bumper crop of hickory nuts that now littered the forest floor.
"A six-point came in right after that," he continued, "and then another buck right behind him. That one was a six-point, too." That's when a skirmish ensued as the two combatants squared off and began shoving back and forth. When asked what the does did at this time, Sammy said, "they all stopped eating to watch."
At this point Sammy turned to his father and asked, "What should I do?", to which Jeff replied that it was his son's own decision to make. Sammy didn't know it yet, but he was about to have his decision made for him.
The two bucks were still going at it when a newcomer arrived on the scene. Both bucks stopped battling as another buck, an eight-point, strutted onto the scene. Sammy raised the Ithaca 20, but with the big buck walking broadside behind leafy growth at 75 yards, he wasn't afforded a clear shot. Noting the direction the buck was headed, Sammy picked an opening between two tree trunks and waited. The opening was slight so once the deer moved into it Sammy had little time. With the buck still on the move, the young hunter took the shot and the buck went down, flailing on the forest floor only briefly before it was up and bounding away.
Both father and son got a good look at the directon in which the deer ran off and decided to wait 45 minutes before climbing down out of their stand. After what must have been an incredibly long wait for Sammy -- no doubt his adrenaline pumping to beat the band- - they began the tracking process. After 20 minutes and 150 yards, Sammy let out a loud whoop after spotting the antlers.
His cheeks flush, a broad smile on his face said it all. Certainly the events that unfolded on this morning will be forever embedded in his mind. And as for Jeff, who has put a great deal of venison in the family freezer over the years, how did this outing rank among all the others? Savoring the moment he said, "This was by far the best hunt I've ever experienced."