(Editor’s Note: Once again in 2019, Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead continues his yearly tradition of penning a fictitious outdoors story as a Christmastime gift to readers.)
As he stared glumly into the bright screen of his laptop, Jed Sullivan had to admit to himself that he was a discouraged man.
He found himself in such a spot after pulling the SD camera cards the day before from the half-dozen game cameras that he and his dad Raymond had scattered around the family’s ranch not far from the Red River in North Texas.
For the umpteenth millionth time this fall, there just wasn’t much to get excited about on the familiar acreage. Still, he dutifully searched the cards again before heading out for his annual Christmas Eve morning hunt, hoping against hope that there was something there on the computer that he had somehow missed the night before.
But there wasn’t. Instead, once again, the images staring back at him contained a smattering of does, several yearling bucks and a couple of thin-horned eight and 10-pointers that needed at least another year or two of seasoning as his late grandfather Bill used to say.
As Jed shut the computer down, he pushed back from the heavy oak table in the center of the room and nursed a sip of hot coffee, noting the irony of it all.
Here he was using technology designed to give a hunter hope about what was out there on the hunting landscape. But despite having such game camera tools at his disposal, he had no more reason for optimism now than he did when the family employed more traditional old school methods of checking sign, putting yourself in a likely area, and simply going afield to hunt while hoping for the best.
As he sat there sipping the holiday-flavored hot brew in the pre-dawn darkness, Jed looked around the main room of the family’s longtime cedar cabin. It was simple and old, a building that his grandfather — Gramps as he had been known — had built not long after buying the place in the aftermath of World War II.
With cheap land prices and a boyhood dream, Bill Sullivan had used his meager GI savings and had stepped out in a bit of faith to purchase the hardscrabble acreage that rolled across the landscape of northern Montague County.
Knowing little about cattle, but having dreamt of the cowboy lifestyle since he was a boy reading the tales of Zane Grey, Bill began to build his ranch and cattle operation one piece at a time. By the ranch’s hey-day in the 1970s, the Sullivan operation stood at more than 10,000-acres and supported scores of livestock.
As time passed, the cattle world began to change and his health began to slowly fade. As his sunset years approached, Bill Sullivan began to slowly dismantle his ranching empire, selling off one piece of land at a time to others in the area.
But he was determined to keep the core of the ranch intact, a 2,500-acre spread that he held the title of until his dying day.
That’s when Jed’s dad — Raymond, the only son of Bill and Kate Sullivan — retired from his career in Dallas and moved back to the Red River Valley to continue chasing cattle. And from October through early January each year, white-tailed deer.
Most years, Raymond and Jed had found a number of good bucks to target, first from their own observations made while hunting and then from a collection of photos that the pair began to assemble as the age of trail cameras took the deer hunting world by storm.
Jed smiled as he mulled over all of these thoughts, knowing that his grandfather wouldn’t have liked such space age intrusion into the ancient pastime of chasing deer each fall on the rolling Red River Valley terrain.
As he sipped the remains of the morning coffee out of a black metal coffee mug called a YETI — he could hear his grandfather now, “Who ever heard of a coffee mug with a lid?!?” — Jed looked up on the wall at the giant 13-point typical buck that had stood guard every since Bill Sullivan had tagged it nearly 20 years ago.
Lost in thought as he recalled the story of that long ago hunt that resulted in the Boone and Crockett bruiser scoring north of 170-inches, Jed heard the crunch of tires on gravel outside and looked up to see the lights of his father’s pickup truck stabbing through the inky darkness as they made their way up out of the creek bottom.
Moments later, after gathering his gear and shutting the front door, Jed climbed into the warmth of the truck’s cab on the chilly winter morning, reaching over the seat to carefully deposit his bow into the back as the north wind freshened and picked up steam.
“Morning son,” said Raymond. “Sorry I’m running late. But I had to tiptoe through the house a little extra careful this morning — I didn’t want to wake your mom, your wife or the grandkids. And I almost succeeded — until I tripped over that yellow Lab of yours.”
“No worries pop,” said Jed with a wry smile. “Thanks for understanding and letting me stay in the cabin last night. I wanted to do so, you know, for old time’s sake.”
“Speaking of old time’s sake, where do you want to hunt this morning?” asked Raymond as he drove slowly down the road into the ranch’s rugged heart. “I’m thinking of East Three Fork, myself.”
Jed thought for a moment and considered all of the options before him. There was the I-35 Blind, a good spot where the most deer photos were coming from with each card pull from the game cameras. Then there was the Lakeside Condo, another spot with decent deer activity. And finally, there was the Lincoln Suite, a new elevated fiberglass box blind that promised warmth on the raw December day.
After thinking for a few moments, Jed cleared his throat and gave his final verdict.
“Dad, if it’s just the same with you, I think I’m going to go to Amen Corner this morning. It’s been a good stand over the years and I think I just need to be sitting there today.
“Besides, I want to try out this new Sitka Gear Whitetail Fanatic stuff that you and mom got me for my birthday last month,” Jed added with a grin. “It’s finally cold enough to use it.”
“Fine with me son,” said Raymond as he turned the truck’s wheels and headed for the familiar tripod stand. “But do you mind me asking why? There really hasn’t been any camera evidence there this fall. That spot is kind of dead this year for some reason.”
“Can’t really say dad,” replied Jed. “Call it a gut feeling, I guess. I know it’s old school, but I think Gramps would approve. Besides, the preacher spoke Sunday morning about going out on a limb sometimes and exercising a little faith, trusting with your heart what you can’t see with your eyes. Just like Mary and Joseph did on that first Christmas so many years ago, believing that what God had told them was true.
“I might come up empty. But that’s where I’m going to give it a try today.”
A few hours later, Jed sunk deeper into his new deer hunting duds, appreciating their warmth even as he quietly questioned his decision on where to hunt. After all, other than a few plump wintertime mourning doves riding the wind, no game had been sighted.
But he had chosen this stand for three reasons. First, because of the day’s wind direction. Second, it stood right in the middle of a solid travel corridor between an oat patch and where a fair number of deer typically bedded down. And third, it had been his grandfather’s favorite stand over the years, a spot where Gramps had consistently taken good bucks long before anyone had ever thought of a game camera.
Unfortunately, whitetails aren’t big on sentiment and another couple of hours passed without a single deer sighting being observed by Jed. In fact, the only wildlife to keep him company was a scraggly Rio Grande turkey that had appeared on the edge of the brush for a moment along with a small flock of mallards that wheeled their way down the creek towards the big stock tank on the ranch’s north end.
“Looks like I should be duck hunting today,” mused Jed, looking at his watch and realizing that it was almost time to head to the ranch house to begin preparations for the evening’s big Christmas Eve dinner and family gathering to open up gifts.
“Guess I’d better start gathering up my things,” he thought quietly. “So much for going old school today and ignoring the little bit of evidence the cameras had given…”
Suddenly, Jed spied movement to his right. Cutting his eyes in that direction, he gasped at the sight of a huge buck, almost the twin of Big Boy that his grandfather had taken so many years ago.
As the buck trotted slowly up the trail, Jed tried to maintain his composure, looking at a ghostly apparition that neither he nor his father had ever seen on the hardscrabble ranch. There had been rumors down at the local feed store of a huge buck roaming the area, but no one had volunteered a photo to substantiate such a tale.
When the record book buck ducked behind a mesquite tree, Jed went onto autopilot and sucked his bow back to full draw. When the big whitetail took a couple of steps forward and cleared the tree, the top sight pin on Jed’s bow settled on the deer’s boiler room and the archer cut the shot.
A half-hour later, as Jed knelt over the fallen monarch wearing his tag, the bowhunter pulled out his phone to text his father the news that he had downed the second coming of Big Boy.
As he fumbled with the Smartphone in the chilly wind, trying to punch in the letters that would relay the news, Jed couldn’t help but grin.
Because he knew that his text — and a Smartphone photo, of course — would bring a smile to his father’s face, not to mention a family celebration for a tag filled, a freezer full of lean meat, and another visit to the taxidermist in town.
And somewhere, perhaps, in the eternal reaches of heaven, Jed thought that maybe there might be a smile from his grandfather following a holiday hunt that was more than just a little bit old school.
Because it was a deer hunt based on the heart, not the eyes. And those are always the best kind of outdoor journeys for anyone, especially at Christmastime.