A Year Full of Firsts

Mitchell Shirk
Mitchell Shirk

A New Hunter is Made

In January 2022, my wife’s sister Maddy and her family purchased a new home, moving out of the city into a beautiful farm house.  In addition to the house, the property includes about 20 acres of woods.  My wife and I helped them on moving day, and I was eager to finish moving boxes and take a walk before the day’s end.  As I walked through the property, I was in disbelief of the potential hunting opportunity.  The property was comprised of multiple ridge systems with diversity of habitat, all structured in a way that was advantageous for accessing as a hunter.  I was already beginning to develop a plan in my mind for the coming fall.

After settling in, I was surprised when Maddy asked me to take her deer hunting.  Maddy is no stranger to hunting and the outdoors, however, I was still surprised by this request.  As a mother of 4 with plenty on her plate, I never expected her to have an interest in deer hunting.  With this in mind, I made sure to have things set up conducive for a first timer!  

Just above the house was a meadow that had been left fallow for quite some time.  The hill leading up to this meadow provided excellent concealment to approach a stand, and was also favorable for a very common west to southwest wind.  I decided it would be a great opportunity to plant a fall food plot and place a ground blind.  I placed a few other treestands and cameras for intel, and impatiently waited for our first opportunity to hunt during the upcoming season.  

Our first hunt was not until November 12.  I was able to borrow a crossbow from a friend for Maddy.  We took a couple practice shots and as expected she was a deadeye!  The morning was cool, foggy, and slightly rainy.  We sat in the blind enjoying each other’s company with hopes of laying eyes on something cruising through.  Maddy spotted the first deer, a small buck that worked into bow range, however it was not legal.  It was a good opportunity for her to practice preparing for a shot.  We sat all morning seeing a few other deer without connecting.

The main focus of the weekend was a birthday party for her daughter.  After presents, dinner, and cake, I was surprised that Maddy was eager to clean up and head back to the blind for the last hour and a half of daylight.  We were only settled in for 30 minutes when a mature doe stepped into the plot with 2 fawns.  The doe was nervous with the swirling winds, but Maddy was able to steady the crosshairs and touch off a broadside shot.  Perfect arrow!  The doe ran about 70 yards before piling up just out of sight.

Maddy’s excitement blew me away.  She leapt from her chair jumping and giggling like a child at Christmas.  Not a bad way to begin your hunting career!  One doe tag punched, now she was eager to hunt for a buck.  With the opening day of rifle season only two weeks away, Maddy’s excitement reminded me of my first hunting season as the anticipation grew during the counting days.  I thought it was quite comical when she called me the week prior and asked if the two-man ladder stand she found on sale at a local store was a good deal.  She pleaded with her husband if this could be an early Christmas present.

We placed the ladder stand on the point of a ridge looking into the main bedding area of the property, knowing the forecasted wind direction would permit the location.  As we watched the sunrise, I was surprised by the lack of shooting and deer movement throughout the course of the morning hunt.  We sat until noon, only to see one small buck and a few tails in the distance.  We came back to the house for a quick bite to eat then went back to the stand around 2:30. Within the first hour, we saw a buck that was not legal.  Excited by the encounter, we thought for sure movement would pick up soon.  However, the rest of the afternoon was slow and uneventful.  As the sun began to set, my optimism diminished, and I was beginning to strategize in my head our next move to get Maddy a chance at a buck.

Around 5:00, I heard a deer walking in the bedding area in front of us.  With the sun in our eyes and thick brush, it was extremely difficult to see where the sound was coming from.  Knowing it was coming closer, I told Maddy to ready her rifle with hopes of it being a good buck.  I scanned in my binoculars and found a nice seven pointer coming off the spine of the ridge in our direction.  I recognized the buck immediately as I had many pictures of the deer throughout the course of the fall.  When the buck stepped onto the two-track in an opening, I mouth grunted and stopped the deer.  BANG!

The buck mule kicked and ran into the bottom of the ravine to our right, briefly stopping before piling up.  Our emotions were through the roof.  In a mere 30 seconds the course of our evening hunt changed and a memory was made.  In only two days of hunting, Maddy filled two tags including a beautiful buck.  For a number years, I’d always shoot at least one deer and give it to their family.  Now, Maddy harvested and processed her own deer providing food on the table for their growing family.  I thought this would be the pinnacle of my season, however, little did I know that another first would happen only a few days later.

Dad’s First 10 Pointer at Camp

My first two hunting seasons at 12 and 13 years old I went hunting at our cabin with my dad.  With over 60,000 acres of state forest land, it was drastically different from the hunting I was typically exposed to at that point in my life.  With lower deer densities and a lack of sightings, I quickly lost interest hunting here and gravitated to more target rich environments.  Fast forward to 18 years old, I chose to attend college only 30 minutes from our cabin.  I’ve always loved spending time at the cabin, and with a closer drive to the destination for a four-year span of my life, I began to rekindle an interest of hunting the vast big woods.

Our cabin is located in a unit which has allowed us to harvest a bear during the first week of the statewide rifle deer season.  Each rifle season when I’d leave school to spend time with dad at camp, I would always mention that we should recruit a group of guys and make drives for deer and bear.  It wasn’t until I graduated that we planned the event for the first time.  Now we’ve started a tradition of joining forces with my brother-in-law’s camp for a day to make some old-fashioned big woods pushes.  

Partially by choice and partially by default, I’ve taken the role as captain of the day organizing the location of the hunt and working with our group to navigate access of drivers and standers.  While it is quite intimidating to plan with 20+ people, we’ve learned a lot over the course of a few seasons and have fun each year we get together.  This year, we made our game plan and started the day out with a bang on our first drive.  One of our standers connected on a nice 8 pointer.  Phew!  Always a relief to hear the guns crack when organizing a hunt like this.

But as the day went on, our efforts were yielding fewer sightings and no shooting opportunities.  With three drives complete and many miles put on by our drivers, I was beginning to get discouraged.  Everyone puts forth their full effort walking the mountains, tolerating the briars and brambles that leave us with scratches and bloody noses and ears.  With enough time for one more drive, I was optimistic for redemption.  This area had produced some of the best action in previous years, and little did I know, would produce for us again.

My Dad has always loved hunting these mountains, and has made it clear to me from a young age that shooting a deer is just a bonus.  While I know this to be true, I have wanted to see my dad wrap his tag around a big mountain buck for years.  I had my dad take the standers in for the last drive of the day, and knowing where a buck had slipped through our standers the previous year, he cleared a position overlooking this exact escape route.  The drive had not started more than five minutes before a shot rang out.  A nice buck slipped back between the drivers, and one of our “fall back” standers got a quick shot.  Miss!  At least we got another opportunity – my optimism increased.

Only a few more minutes into the drive, I heard a single shot in the directions of our standers.  Briefly I thought to myself, “that had to be close to Dad.”  The brief moment of silence following the shot was broken when a voice came over the radio, “Uncle Charlie just shot a buck!”  Uncle Charlie is my dad’s infamous nickname after his late uncle.  I couldn’t contain my excitement – I hollered like a school girl and started running through the chop off.

When I hit the logging road where the standers were waiting, I ran as fast as I could up to my dad and gave him a huge hug.  At that point he hadn’t even seen the deer up close; the rest of the drivers were dragging the buck down to him.  I quickly raced up to help them and was in disbelief of what lay before me.  A beautiful 10 pointer with good mass and 20+ inch spread; easily the biggest buck my dad has ever harvested.  This was the first time I’d ever seen a smile so big on my dad’s face while in the deer woods.  Not only was the deer itself special, the series of events leading to this very day made it the icing on the cake.  A new tradition was created, bringing together friends and family which rekindled the desire to pursue whitetails in an area rich with history in our family.

A Brand-New Perspective

I was fortunate to harvest a mature 8 pointer during the middle of October with my bow.  I’ve been blessed in my hunting career, especially being surrounded by family who have guided me and provided opportunities I could never repay.  With the experiences and generosity from my hunting mentors, I’ve developed an insane passion for habitat management and bow hunting whitetails.  For those who have never experienced developing quality habitat and coupling it with sound hunting strategy, the feeling is unparalleled when you watch your plan of a target animal follow your script.  The internal drive to continue chasing this outcome can become addictive.

Every year during the off-season I’ve always envisioned new projects and conversed with my hunting partners to enhance the quality of the hunt.  Recently, I’ve noticed during my current phase of life this has become harder to fulfill in a satisfying manor.  I have a beautiful wife, and two wonderful sons that are ages 3 and 1.  Between work and family schedule, my free time allowing for pre-season preparation, as well as planned hunting time is becoming more limited.  As I’ve watched this trend continue since becoming a father, my frustration has increased with this reality.

With my “hardcore” mindset of bowhunting big whitetails, I’ve often rolled my eyes when hearing statements from other hunters such as, “you can’t eat the antlers” or “it’s not about the size of the deer.”  A part of me has said to myself in response, that’s just because you have no idea how to get on a big one!  When you structure your time to focus on anything to this degree, it’s not hard to develop blinders towards this intense passion.  Thankfully, God has revealed some powerful things to me.

I’ve always said I want my priorities to be 1) God, 2) Family, 3) Friends, 4) Career and Finances… then everything else, never putting a number to hunting.  But in my heart, putting a big buck on the wall has never come in second place.  My wife has been a field hockey coach at the college level for a few years now, which runs 6 days a week from August through November.  Having our two boys has made it extremely difficult to hunt compared to just a few years ago.  Instead of embracing my family and this stage of life, I’ve allowed my passion to create stress in my marriage, placing my priorities and time over theirs.  While I was present in my home physically, it's questionable whether I was present in mind and heart.

As far as the buck I harvested this year, I was absolutely thrilled as a hunter. A 225 lb. live weight 8 pointer, estimated at 5.5 years old through cementum annuli aging, achieved my goal set at the beginning of the season.  But for the first time openly admitting this, harvesting this buck was not the fulfillment I expected or desired.  At first, I blamed it on my lack of effort in the off season.  Had I been present more preparing throughout the year, then I believed my feelings would have been different.  

It wasn’t until I experienced the first two hunts mentioned earlier, had many heart-to-heart conversations with my wife and loved ones, and prayer with God that He revealed this to me: How could I have allowed something so shallow to consume my life?  My fulfillment was not through antlers or age of deer, but the fellowship and support of loved ones while pursing Creation. The truth of the matter is, if I harvested a Boone and Crockett whitetail every single season for the rest of my life, not a single person would care about it except me.  There is not a single deer on the face of the planet worth getting in the way of our relationships with God, family, and loved ones.  

Now I understand statements like “you can’t eat the antlers.”  Maturing as a hunter, father, husband, and believer, the hunt isn’t measured by inches of antler and age of deer, but by the memories and events that transpired along the way.  Does that mean I’ll start shooting the first legal buck I see?  No, that would not be fun to me.  But it does mean I’m going to do a better job keeping my priorities in perspective.  There is nothing wrong with hunting big mature whitetails and strategizing to promote quality hunting opportunities.  There is also nothing wrong in going to the same tree you’ve hunted for 30 years on opening day of gun season to maintain a tradition.  Keep the hunt your own, and keep it fun.  Regardless of what your passions are, don’t allow it to consume the things that truly matter in life.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord, as the Heavens are higher than the earth.” Isaiah 55:8-9.