Ryan Clauson of Bismarck, N.D. with his five-by-five whitetail taken in the 2020 gun season.
By Nick Simonson
I can still hear the whisper from my left and sense Gene leaning in as the deer emerged in the first tree line below our position on the top of the hillside along the Sheyenne River valley one temperate November evening in 2008.
It’s a moment I relive each time I’m in the field this time of year and a bobbing set of antlers appears above a pair of dark, wary eyes on a deer.
“Nick…there’s a buck…”
It was a moment that changed my life and my mentor helped ignite a fire in me for deer hunting, specifically the style of still hunting that I have enjoyed through the both literal and figurative hills and valleys of the past dozen seasons. In all things I do outdoors – upland hunting, shooting sports, fishing and deer hunting – I try to place myself in the same situation, where a tip here, a comment there or some time in the field with another hunter will set off that same spark and keep the fire spreading, and the warmth of the memories they’ll be able to make can sustain them in the cold off season and make them want to pass the torch on to others.
My neighbor Ryan had been out of deer hunting for a while, and after telling him the story of my buck taken on PLOTS land last fall and all the excitement of the ups and downs I experienced that firearms season, I encouraged him to put in for a gun tag in that unit and join me in the hills. Having both drawn whitetail buck permits in the June lottery, we discussed strategy and plans as our days allowed, chatting through the fence or from a distance on the front lawn as we paused our mowers in the heat of an August evening. As summer made its way toward fall, my excitement grew to share my little spot in the northern draw to see what we could make of the season and the warm opening afternoon did not disappoint.
Deer by the dozens ran through the small space as hunters pushed the hills around us. A pair of does rumbled ten yards to my left and down into the timbered rill before rushing up the far hill to where my buddy sat, closing in to less than 20 yards. Following the commotion, the animals would reset, moving back up from the oak bottoms to the top of the hills as the afternoon faded to evening. The rut was still a couple weeks off, and besides a distant three-by-three on the far hillside and a forkhorn that came through at under 60 yards, there was little buck activity to start the 16-day stretch.
We continued on throughout the season, identifying other areas of public land and PLOTS that would provide similar activity, but found that EHD had left its mark on the landscape, encountering a number of carcasses in the places we hoped to hunt. The results of the summer outbreak and the continued lack of antlered deer in our sits began to worry me until I had a chance to sneak out for a Wednesday afternoon hunt on my own in the final week while Ryan worked, with the plan I’d report back with a deer, or at least what I had seen in the cooling conditions.
At sunset, a loud stomping to my left drew my attention from the distant hillside I was scanning and a thick-beamed four-by-four whitetail buck nervously snorted in my direction. Half of his neck, his head, and gray antlers craned above the small rise in the land, and I raised my gun, drawing a nervous stomp from him. As I found him in my scope I hoped for him to make one more step up the trail for a broadside shot behind his shoulder. He looked around, pivoted and sprinted back down the trail, leaving nothing but my elevated heart rate behind. The three or four seconds he was in view did not provide me enough of a target for my comfort level.
As I replayed the situation, I looked across the draw and saw another buck jump the fence into the adjacent private land, antlers big and white enough to be picked up without a scope at 250 yards. Coming out of the valley in the fading yellow twilight and getting reception on my cell phone, I called my neighbor with the news, and he decided then and there to take the morning sit the following day in the small bunker of brush where I had encountered the evening buck, and taken my four-by-four one year ago to the day. I encouraged him to do so, and to do the same: report back with a buck or at least some good intel on the developing rut.
The day dawned clear, cool and calm ahead of the rains rolling in from the western border. I received my last text from Ryan at 6:43 a.m. relaying the conditions and wished him luck, expressing my opinion that good things were about to happen. While I wasn’t there to help him pick it out from the treeline with a whisper, I was nearly certain he’d find an opportunity on the perfect morning. After dropping my boys off at school and settling into some real work in my office, I received a call at 10:22 from Ryan, filled with excitement and a request to check my texts.
There, on the ground in the photo was a tall five-by-five whitetail buck which had rattled the trees around him in the early morning light, spurring a rush of adrenaline as it cleared the brushline and provided my friend with a broadside shot. It was Ryan’s biggest buck ever. The excitement that poured through the phone was my hoped-for result in introducing him to the style of hunting that Gene had passed on to me, completing the circle and continuing the line for at least one more hunter.
Returning to the neighborhood with his quarry in tow, I was overjoyed at his excitement and success and eager for the new adventures I hoped he would continue to find in the seasons to come…in our outdoors.