For all the things you hope to bring home from hunting camp, the most important may not be venison, trophy antlers or the thrills of being outdoors. The memories you make are the true treasures, and they can last a lifetime.
Big Ken Ebert was the patriarch of our small Camden County hunting camp. Around the campfire at night he was always quick with a joke or a slick barb for the whippersnappers surrounding him. His brother, who we all called Uncle Ray, joined occasionally to even the score, but my college buddy Steve Ebert and the rest of us “kids” still had them outnumbered.
Big didn’t just describe Ken’s physical stature. He commanded every room he entered. He had a solid gold heart and would give the shirt off his back. He was always ready to share his hunting knowledge, his best tips for sharpshooting expertise, and as a union butcher, he could handle a boning knife better than anyone I have ever seen.
It’s been more than 20 years now since we all hunted together, but thoughts about the last time still linger in my mind. Those memories flood back strong with every visit to the big woods in the fall.
Everyone was out for opening morning on the 80-acre patch we affectionately called Deersneyland. The first shot rang out just after sunrise in the bottom of the bottom, a deep gorge that paralleled the property’s northern border where Uncle Ray was stationed. Everything in that mostly dry creek bed led straight up to the food plots and the stands dotted along the ridge top.
When we convened for a late breakfast, Uncle Ray said he shot at and was sure he hit a doe, but he hadn’t found much evidence or his deer. Big Ken agreed to accompany his brother on a search and recovery mission. The two diligently tracked up and down the holler, but by the end of the day there was still no deer hanging at the cabin.
Around the campfire that night we all shared stories about the day’s experiences and talked about prospects for the next morning’s hunt.
“I’m hoping for better luck tomorrow; the only thing I saw all day was two old men stumbling through the woods,” Steve said with just enough salt in his tone and a big smile as he hit the target with the best shot of the evening.
Later that winter, a quick and bitter battle with cancer called Big Ken home at 64 years old. That summer, Uncle Ray had a heart attack and joined his brother. The close knit family was devastated, and our hunting camp would never be the same.
Opening weekend dawned bright the following fall. Around 8 a.m. I was waiting quietly in the Lucky Dogwood Stand. About 50 yards away coming up from the bottom, the biggest buck I had ever seen on the hoof was walking slowly toward the field, where Big Ken’s Treehouse sat empty.
The adrenaline hit hard and then the commander’s voice came to me offering calm and confidence. I felt like the guide was sitting in the stand with me.
“Don’t move. Be patient. Breathe.”
“If you can see his eyes, he can see you.”
“When he goes behind that tree, turn slowly. Raise your rifle.”
“See your shooting lane. A few more steps he’ll be broadside in that opening.”
“Just a couple more steps. Safety off.”
“Find the spot. Aim. Let the trigger travel, don’t jerk it.”
The gun went off and the deer went down.
I chambered a new cartridge, slumped in my seat, put the safety back on and stared at the patch of brown laying on the ground.
Once my heart stopped racing, I was able to climb down and walk toward the deer. On close inspection I found an almost perfectly symmetrical five-by-five rack. One point for every year I hunted with Big Ken on his farm.
I love deer hunting, and I have since Steve first took me under his wing and introduced me to the sport. I have had the good fortune to take a several deer over the years, including a few that were bigger than the first trophy I hung on my wall, but that one will always be special.
I know it was not my woodsmanship, scouting skills or anything I did other than sitting in the right place at the right time.
I had hunted in that location for 10 years, and I had seen deer travel on that ridge top from every direction, but never had one climbed that steep hill and walked straight out of the bottom. What made that big buck leave his sanctuary? There may be more plausible theories, but I am pretty sure that it was “two old men stumbling through the woods.”
Originally published in Outdoor Guide Magazine September-October 2020.