Dec 10, 2018

A Day in the Sun

8-year-old kicks off deer hunting career with a doe and a 12-point buck

By Brian Reisinger

Here’s the thing about the Great Outdoors – every once in a while, God decides it’s your day in the sun.

This happened to my 8-year-old nephew over deer hunting weekend in 2017, when he became one of the youngest hunters in Wisconsin state history to legally shoot a 12-point buck. You read that right: 8 years. 12 points.

As you can imagine from that ratio, there is plenty of excitement in this story to go around, but it really began in earnest the night before Wisconsin’s gun deer hunt on Friday, Nov. 18. I was finally about to leave work – and anxious to get out to my parents’ farm – when I received a cryptic text message from my sister: “can Steve hunt this year?”

State lawmakers had just passed a new law allowing children of any age to hunt with their own firearm only if they were hunting with a mentor. The 12-year-old age limit my sister and I had grown up under was a quaint thing of the past.

Deer hunting is already the most special time of year for us, a rare set tradition that our family and closest friends all look forward to gathering for, no matter where we are or what we’re doing in life. For me, it has always been a way to connect with my dad and sister and the more than 100-year-old farm we all grew up on outside of Spring Green in rural Sauk County. Even when we drifted apart, even when I lived in other parts of the country, and especially now that I’m back and we’ve grown closer again.

Now my nephew, Steven, was about to deepen this tradition, in ways we couldn’t even imagine.

For years – ever since he could talk – Steven idolized every deer hunter who convened on our land, littering the farm as well as my sister’s home with invisible deer carcasses he’d shot with toy guns, foam bow and arrow, sticks vaguely shaped like a rifle, the tips of his cocked thumb and forefinger – whatever weapon he could procure.

This year, picking up a gun like the other men meant even more than it might have. He’d had to become man of the house for my sister and his two little brothers a few months earlier, and now on top of that his mom was laid up from knee surgery.

For him, what was supposed to be a harmless youth hunt would become a proving ground.


Sub: Awaiting sunrise

As I sped home to meet my sister at the gas station where we all buy our licenses, it fully dawned on me just how real this was.

Steven knew how to be safe after a lifetime of growing up around guns and receiving careful instruction. He had a Winchester .243 Youth Ranger rifle I’d given him after famously hunting with it through all of my years as the family runt. But I still wondered how this would turn out – four years earlier than his mother and I were allowed to hunt, was he really, actually ready?

I arrived at the gas station and found Steven had the requisite excitement, bounding around the gas station holding his fingers up like a rifle as my sister stood smiling on her crutches.

His cautious side came out later at the farm as I showed him again how to safely load and unload the rifle, operate the safety, and work the action. When I asked him to squeeze the trigger of the safely unloaded rifle he refused, afraid it might go off – it took my sister calmly explaining it was OK for him to try it.

So far, we’d seen one part overwhelming excitement, one part overwhelming caution. I wondered whether those forces would balance out, or indicate that it wasn’t quite time for him to hunt.

Was he ready? We’d just have to see.


Sub: Headed toward high noon

Opening morning was brutal by any hunter’s measure. The chance of rain was 95 percent as we all shrugged into our blaze orange. As it turned out, it was freezing rain – carried on by a strong wind. It pelted our clothing, streaked across the truck windshields, and found its way inside all of our deer stands.

My stand, situated in our farm’s valley, has a roof – but the rain was undeterred, blowing in sideways and finding a leak that permitted icy water to patter methodically on my left shoulder.

I thought back to my first hunt at the age of 12, walking in a strong wind with my dad, when he spotted a doe hunkered down under a rock shelf. It was an awkward angle, and I missed – then cried in anger and shame. More than two decades later, when I harvested a mature doe that morning – and with many buck on my wall – I had to admit still feeling pride at doing my dad proud each time.

Steven, as it turned out, would experience both failure and triumph with more grace than I had as a young hunter. In for lunch, we learned that Steven – hunting with Grandpa Jim, my dad – had missed a doe that was so close he claimed he could have just thrown his gun at her. His cheerfulness was rewarded that afternoon, when he shot his first doe.

Then on day two all hell broke loose. My dad arrived at the farm mid-morning yelling for me, running around the yard looking for someone to help. Had someone been hurt?

“No! Steven! Steven! Steven shot one! Steven shot a buck! Steven shot a buck! A buck!”

I wasn’t even able to get my gear on before he was gone, and a half-hour later Steven and Grandpa rode triumphantly into the yard with a 12-point buck in the back of the Kubota. The morning was crisp and clear, and the look on my nephew’s face said it all. Here was a boy who had taken the bad with the good – both in life and in the deer stand – living out that old truth we all must learn over and over again. (ital.) Where the rain never falls, the sun doesn’t shine. (ital.)

And so began Steven’s day in the sun as he told the story. 

He and Grandpa had been near the bottom of the ridge road when Steven saw the buck up in the woods.

“I looked and there it was, a buck!” he exclaimed.

Steven shot first, then Grandpa took the gun and shot as the buck ran, one of their shots wounding it. The buck stopped and turned, and that’s when Steven took the gun and shot again, this time knocking him down. When they reached the injured buck, he was bawling and they had to finish him off, a detail Steven included with a matter-of-factness that comes with understanding the circle of life and the importance of killing an animal cleanly.

Steven’s day in the sun continued all weekend. At the tavern – where we used to register our deer before that process went online, and where hunters still convene to swap big buck stories – Steven logged time at the bar sipping root beer.

Hunters marveled and laughed as he told his story. We took pictures there of Steven and his deer in the back of the truck, as we’d all done outside that same bar for generations. His photo made the local paper, and we learned that if he’d been signed up for the tavern’s Big Buck contest, he’d have won.


Sub: The sun also sets

With a doe and a trophy buck down and his story told, Steven still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to go hunting with me.

In years past I’d drug him to the stand in a sled, and after not too long found that he was too cold or too distracted for us to stay put. This year, we trudged together down the ridge road where he’d shot his deer, and Steven shared little pieces of wisdom from his time as a hunter.

“You keep watching over there Uncle Brian, we might see one.”

“Be quiet, we might hear them.”

“If we see squirrels we are gonna see deer. The squirrels tell the deer it’s OK.”

As we sat in my stand in the valley, Steven remarked on the cold like any hunter, but he didn’t complain. Nor did he complain when we didn’t see a single deer.

With shooting light fading we got out of the stand and walked back home, more than a mile uphill. I walked ahead then turned to see if he was coming, the sunset glowing in the trees behind us. As the searing sun set, he walked onward, the hot orange turning to a rich purple, carrying his rifle home all by himself.

I could see that his day in the sun would last a good long while after light was gone.