- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003


Jim Riley and I sat up on a small ridge overlooking 40 or 50 acres of rolling farmland that included several fallow fields and a few that were cultivated. Massive hedgerows lay in a hollow beneath us. Dense hardwood forests loomed on both sides. It was the kind of land that, in lieu of regular farm livestock, bespoke of well-fed whitetail deer, turkeys, cottontail rabbits and fox squirrels.

We weren’t hunting — yet. For now, it was a time to study the trees, the grass and ancient rocks for possible deer movements, or simply sit and chat quietly. Unloaded rifles rested barrels down in the front of the pickup truck.

“Bad winter’s comin’,” said Jim, a Loudoun County septuagenarian who is seeing his beloved home county rapidly change from a place once ruled by agriculture to where bustling housing developments and shopping centers now encroach on the open land. The hunting properties that Jim and I and so many others cherish are forever shrinking.

“Yep, it’ll be a bad winter,” Jim repeated. “Those guys on TV don’t know squat about the weather. All I have to do is look at the woolly bear caterpillars. They’re black all over; means a bad winter is comin’.”

Suddenly, Jim jabbed my arm and whispered, “What’s that over on that little hillside to our left, under that locust tree?” He lifted his binoculars and instantly cursed the day he bought them.

“Never did like those things,” he said, then quickly added, “My Lord, that’s a buck and would you look at the size of him.”

The big male reposed regally, head erect, hooves folded under him on a grassy slope overlooking what probably was his personal domain. His antlers rose straight up, 10 or more tines curved forward. We had no doubt that he saw us even though the distance was more than 400 yards.

Jim started the truck and backed away from the scene, idling along through another hollow, laughing about the huge deer.

“We have at least three others here just like him or bigger,” he said. That’s when we saw its rump and high-swaying white tail just as the buck disappeared into dense jungles of honeysuckle and scrub pines.

“How about that,” Jim said with a chuckle. “He figured we were going into a different direction and he got nervous and left, then almost ran into us.”

It was a moment that just about made our day. Non-hunters would have a tough time understanding how we were happy to see the big trophy deer even though it got away.

Jim drove back to the ridge we’d started on, all along musing about various subjects such as the high price of beef and the past summer’s rains that just about ruined his turnip crop.

“Yesterday some does came out of the woods over there, but today they’re not interested,” he said. “Well, I’m going to load my gun and start walking over to that thicket. It’s time to put some meat on the table.”

Jim disappeared over a rise, walked back into view on the other side, then came to an abrupt halt. He looked, slowly raised his rifle and — kaboom! — a shot rang out.

A young buck had been standing inside the patch of thick tangles. All Jim could see was the flicking of an ear. It was enough for the man who’s observed Loudoun County’s wildlife since he was old enough to walk.

“Let’s clean this buck,” he shouted with a laugh. “It’s time to fix an early lunch. How about some grilled venison steaks?”

Back at the barn, that’s just what we had, only this venison came from an earlier kill, back during the blackpowder rifle season.

The hunt for deer would resume after we ate and rested a while. Then we’d start a trek back up onto the grassy ridges and rock formations so old they probably saw the likes of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. However, those two Southern soldiers had more pressing problems to face than deer hunting. Besides, chances are there were far fewer of the ruminants back in Civil War days than there are now.

Go figure.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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