Harshbarger: 2019 hunting season one of rejuvenation after the death of my father

2019 was a particularly memorable hunting season. From common frustrations related to hunting state game lands, to a seriously bone-headed injury,and logging more hours in the woods than I have in the past few years to see fewer deer, the season was trying, to say the least.

For the first time in a number of years, I went into the season with a full head of steam. I felt motivated, excited, and truly started to embrace the outdoors again. My father –my best friend and my best hunting buddy — passed away on Nov. 30, 2017.

I lost pretty-much all interest in hunting and fishing after his passing. I hunted maybe a hand-full of days the two prior seasons. Probably zero daylight to dusk sits. I was skunked in back-to-back seasons.

I had not gone a single year before that without harvesting at least one deer. I came out empty handed because I wasn’t concerned with putting the time in. The drive just wasn’t there for me anymore. I distanced myself from reminders of his absence and from things we always did together. He was always there when I came down off the mountain.

From a couple hundred yards, I could see his orange beanie poking up through the brush on “the mound”– that is what we called the spot where he stump-hunted. He wasn’t there anymore when I came down off the mountain, though. I struggled to cope with being out there at all. I hoped that this year could be different. I wanted that passion back.

Given that my fiancee and my 7 year-old son share an interest in the outdoors, and with two wonderful soon-to-be step-sons highly interested in learning, I had some incentive to get back out there. It gave me peace and happiness to see the boys enjoying the same Pennsylvania mountain stomping grounds where my brother and I spent countless hours with our Dad — hunting, tracking, dragging, and sometimes just shooting the bull when the deer weren’t moving.

My family and I spent a lot of time, from the summer into the fall this past year, hiking, building ground blinds, hanging stands, checking trail cameras, and reading whitetail sign. I put in a TON of preseason scouting. Would it pay off? Would I be able to find that passion again? My brother and I planned to log some serious time in the woods, regardless.

Things were NOT going the way we had planned. The fall turkeys kept themselves tucked anywhere on the mountain that I was not, and the deer seemed to move at the most unexpected, and inconvenient times.

The first day of archery season resulted in a pretty-heavy blood trail…my own. First of all- for those using a cross-bow, which I was seriously regretting transitioning to by 10 a.m. on the first day of archery, be careful, or purchase one with a thumb guard. I’ve shot a cross-bow, off-and-on for a number of years.

On this day, things went sideways, fast. I found myself with tunnel vision waiting for a pretty-decent six-point to give me the shot I needed. As he moved to the right — my bow resting on the rail of my stand –moved to the right with him and my left thumb slid up and into the path of the string. You can guess the end result when I took the shot. An ER trip, 11 stitches, and a blown opportunity at a good buck started the season.

Fast-forward two weeks. Now hunting with only one functional thumb, add another blown opportunity.

A buck I had been watching, that I named “Drop Horn” came up over the steep ravine. “Drop Horn” is named for his unique set of antlers — three very nice points on the right side and a foot-long spike, with velvet still hanging off, growing down the side of his face past his snout.

Not knowing if it were due to injury or poor genetics, I decided I was going to take him. He gave me a poor shot at 27 yards, quartering hard toward me. After a 15-minute staring contest, he turned and gave me a better shot, slightly quartering away, at 35 yards. I ended up hitting a limb that deflected my arrow low. The arrow revealed a likely gut-shot. I backed out for the day and spent the entire next morning, into the afternoon, on my hands and knees trying to follow a blood trail, which eventually disappeared. As a hunter knows, nothing is more heart breaking than this exact scenario. Circling the area without blood resulted in nothing more than lost calories and a bunch of jaggers stuck in my hands and face. And the woes continued.

On Nov.1, the wind was howling. My alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I strongly considered going back to bed. The storm the night before was wicked and the residual wind was still 40-45 mph. I got a late start. Deer seemed to be moving though, post-storm.

I saw a number of deer crossing the road on my way in. I was hesitant to start hiking too early because of the tree limbs I could hear crashing to the ground as I stood outside of my truck in the dark. I had to come up with a plan. It was breaking daylight in about 15 minutes. I started in with about 10 minutes until shooting light. The wind kept me out of my tree-stand. “the mound” where Dad hunted was less than a 100-yard hike back in. Since his passing, I avoided “the mound” like the plague — aside from a smile and a “Hey, Dad” as I passed by.

“The mound” has always been more of a rifle spot. There isn’t much cover and the layout makes it difficult to get deer into bow range without them spotting you. It’s your basic stump-hunting. On the ground, you have fewer shooting lanes, making for a lower percentage chance of getting a good, clean shot with the bow.

I sat there for about 30 minutes. The wind never let up. I thought about my Dad. I thought about all of the time he spent in this exact spot. I wondered if he was here, too. I reflected on the frustrations of the season. All while dodging tree limbs. My thumb still wrapped up and sore. Stitches still in. I decided that it might be better to just call it quits. I

I gave one last 180-degree gander up and down the creek bottom, and there he stood. As if he came out of nowhere. A decent buck. Not huge. No trophy. One long confirmation look to be certain he was legal, and I smiled. “I have to take this guy.”

We needed venison in the freezer at home and the scenario just seemed too perfect. The buck came into one of very few open shooting lanes, inside 30 yards.

He made a small scrape, turned, and presented a broad-side shot. I still cannot believe he didn’t spot me. There has never been a more satisfying harvest for me. I’ve been lucky to harvest many deer throughout my life, but none sweeter than this. The deer barely took a step and expired quickly and humanely. I dropped to a knee and said a prayer. I thanked God for the opportunity to provide for my family and thanked my Dad for guiding my arrow.

To harvest my first deer since his passing, in HIS spot, was the rejuvenation that I had searched for.

In words, I can’t fully describe the emotions, but the scenario was breathtaking. He ended up being a decent seven-point with a less-than impressive 14-inch spread. I took my time and enjoyed every second of field dressing and dragging the animal from the creek bottom to my truck. Rifle season was a bust, other hunters had the entire mountain so drove out that I couldn’t find a doe unless I stepped on her, but I found what I was “hunting” for this season. I rediscovered my passion for the outdoors. I found comfort and certainty that my best hunting partner is always out there with me. I will continue to pass my Dad’s teachings and love for the outdoors onto my own boys. His spirit will live within myself and within my children.

The outdoors, for me, has always been about family, friends, and memories, regardless of the size of the harvest. It’s about the thrill of the hunt, the emotions felt, and sharing the experiences with family and friends. I hope for those who find themselves in a similar situation, that this piece can bring you some hope in moving forward.