It was 30 minutes before the end of shooting light when I noticed a white spot behind the pine trees in the distance.
“I don’t remember anything white over there,” I thought to myself.
Focusing the binoculars, trying to sort and process the mostly obscured vision filtering through the pine trees, my first thought was that there was a large white PVC pipe sticking out of the field – but I knew there wasn’t. At that second, something moved. Through a tiny gap between two tree trunks, there was no mistaking antlers.
I probably gasped out loud as I whispered, “A piebald buck!”
Caused by a recessive gene, piebald whitetail deer are exceedingly rare. Few hunters, including me, have ever seen one. Most never will, no matter how much time they spend in the woods.
Beside me in the deer stand sat 12-year-old Blake Russell and his father, Brian. Young Blake had killed his first and only deer two years before – a doe. On this hunt he was hoping for his first-ever buck. And here it was – most likely the kind of buck he would never see again in his life.
It was late Saturday evening on a special youth hunt sponsored by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. This hunt was organized by official TWF Huntmaster Brandon Olinger who brought together five youngsters and their fathers for a unique, free weekend, hunting on exclusive property in Marion County. At least eight other volunteers and landowners gave up their time and efforts to support the kids. I was proud to be included. A random drawing teamed me up with Blake and his Dad.
Saturday morning was miserable as we all sat through driving rain. A few deer were sighted by other hunters, but no shots. With the passing cold front, temperatures falling fast and no rain, the evening hunts held great promise.
It was 5:42 pm when the first group text went out to guides that Dyson Remling scored on a trophy doe on the youngster’s very first deer hunt of his life.
The Russells and I had seen three does earlier that moved too quickly to present a shot. The afternoon was growing to a close when the piebald buck appeared.
But our hearts sank when he soon disappeared, feeding the opposite direction and out of sight behind the distant pines.
The next five or ten minutes felt like an eternity, at least until we saw the white appear again. But, the buck was still mostly obscured behind a pine thicket and at least 20 yards from where Blake might have a clear shot. The feeding buck moved like molasses, teasing us with every step as the light began to fade. As it moved toward the clearing I put my binoculars down to shoot iPhone video. Brian kept his binoculars trained on the buck, calmly coaching Blake in hopes of keeping the young man’s “buck fever” to a minimum.
“I got really nervous about missing it,” Blake said later. “I knew I was a good enough shot, but I sort of lost my mind for a second and I wasn’t sure if I could hit it or not.”
All of the youngsters on this hunt participate in the Tennessee Scholastic Clay Target Program. That means all had excellent shotgunning and safe gun-handling experience, although many had zero, or at least limited deer hunting experience.
Shooting light continued to fade as the rare buck finally began to move faster up the field, stepping from behind the last tree into the open.
In a soothing voice Brian told Blake, “Remember, aim right behind the shoulder, breathe and squeeze.”
The buck stopped in the open and I was impressed as Blake aimed carefully from a solid rest and whispered a countdown – “Three, two, one – boom!”
Blake’s high-powered .243 rifle roared and a burst of flame shot forth in the fading light. Brian and I watched as the buck hunched its back, jumped and tore into the woods, tail down. It was the telltale sign of a good shot. Brian and Blake celebrated, certain that the piebald buck wouldn’t run far.
Deep, gouging hoof prints in the mud made it easy to find the precise spot where the buck was standing when it was shot. However, it also revealed the first sign of trouble. There was absolutely no hair and no blood to indicate a mortal wound. Brian and I criss-crossed the field and the woods where the buck disappeared desperately searching for a blood trail. There was none and as complete darkness fell we called for backup with better lights.
A .243 bullet is one of the smallest legal calibers for deer hunting in Tennessee. With less recoil, it is often the best weapon of choice for younger, smaller deer hunters. The downside is that the small caliber bullet, while deadly, sometimes won’t do the damage to leave evidence of a deer’s path. That was clearly what happened here.
Bright piercing beams cut across the field as a half-dozen reinforcements appeared out of the darkness. Every experienced hunter viewed the video and unanimously agreed Blake’s bullet had found its target. For an hour or more with flashlights and spotlights we combed the area, including the extremely steep nearby ravine. Without success, we finally made the difficult decision to abandon the search for the night and return in the light of day.
It was an incredibly long and fitful night for the father and son after a day of intense highs and lows.
“That’s a huge understatement,” said Brian. “Blake actually took it way better than I expected when I told him we may not find it.”
Blake said, “It took a while to go to sleep because I knew my piebald buck was out there with the coyotes.”
THE NEXT MORNING
A hunt and situation like this is a balancing act for organizers. Besides Blake and Brian, there are four other youngsters and their dads – all who are itching to be in the woods hunting. Yet strict and well-warranted safety rules dictate that guides be with hunters at all times and that all hunters be in their assigned blinds during hunt hours. No one can be, or should be, out roaming the woods while others are hunting.
The decision was made that hunting would go on for everyone as normal Sunday morning and the search for Blake’s piebald buck would resume afterwards. Youngsters were allowed two deer so the cold, blustery sunrise found the Russells and me settled into another blind.
The morning passed slowly. No doubt Blake’s mind was filled with questions about the fate of his piebald buck. Howling winds whipped the treetops, a scenario hunters know makes deer nervous and often prone to bed down and not move. The designated hunt hours were to end at 10 am. It was 9:55 when Brian looked out and said, “Deer.” We texted the other guides advising everyone we would stay in place.
Brian told Blake that the two deer, while clearly visible, were too far away for an ethical shot. They fed calmly for 15 minutes, never moving closer until they finally decided it was time to leave, disappearing into the distant woods.
Disappointed yet again, we were seconds away from unloading Blake’s gun, packing up our gear and ending our weekend hunt. Before we could move however, Brian again tapped Blake on the shoulder and exclaimed, “More deer.”
Two other deer stepped from the woods and into the open 50 yards away. Blake’s .243 eased carefully out of the blind, again taking careful and steady aim.
When the .243 spoke it was another definite hit. This time the bullet did its job perfectly. In the bright light of day, we watched and listened as the deer ran headlong into the woods and crashed down dead within three seconds.
After the experience the evening before, it was sweet redemption for Blake and Brian.
“Getting that deer, knowing that he can shoot and hit what he’s aiming at gave his confidence a boost to know that he’s a good marksman. I told my wife that this solidifies that I’m a pretty good teacher. He is my son and can shoot,” said Brian with understandable pride.
THE PIEBALD SEARCH RESUMES
As Brian and Blake returned to camp to field dress his deer and take part in the other organized lunchtime activities, I returned to the woods to resume the search for the piebald buck. In the light of day it was easy to confirm there was absolutely no physical sign of a solid hit. Yet certain of a hit – based upon the deer’s reaction on the shot – giving up the search was not an option. I prowled the woods for two hours, knowing a downed piebald buck should be easy to spot.
My search was in vain. Olinger texted me, asking for an update. When I reported the depressing results I expected a declaration to, “Call it off.” Instead his immediate reply was, “We’re on our way to help.”
The famous words of professional fisherman Michael Iaconelli rang in my ears – “Never give up!”
With very long drives to the far reaches of Tennessee, and the negative results from the lost-deer search so far, the fathers and sons all headed for their respective homes. With a deer in the bed of the truck, no doubt Brian and Blake left with a curious mixture of glee and sadness. It was up to volunteer guides to continue the search for the piebald buck, although by now, there seemed to be little hope of success.
THE MOUNTAIN MAN COMETH
Olinger and volunteer guide Chris Sanders arrived to join me. Throughout the weekend I had watched in awe as Sanders worked with kids, giving a detailed live demonstration of how to properly field dress and butcher a deer. I’ve known Sanders for years but it was becoming increasingly obvious that this was a man who knew his way around the outdoors.
I watched as Sanders headed off down the ravine in the exact direction I’d already been. There was only one difference – Sanders didn’t stop and kept going far beyond the area I had already covered climbing to the top of the far ridge.
Olinger and I were searching another area when his cell phone rang. When he answered, the first words I heard were, “You found it!”
With a gleam in his eye Olinger turned and gave me an emotional high five and we headed down the ravine to meet up with Sanders.
I am now thoroughly convinced that Chris Sanders must be descended from Jeremiah Johnson, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone all rolled into one. We found the fluorescent-orange clad Sanders a half-mile down the ravine after he had dragged the piebald buck down the far ridge top.
“How did you find it?” we asked.
Humbly Sanders said, “I don’t know. I just walked in the direction I thought a wounded deer would go. Coyotes had covered most of it up but I saw two white things sticking up and thought, ‘Those look like deer legs.'”
THE RUSSELLS RETURN
We quickly notified TWF Hunt Leader Cameron Mitchell back at base camp who immediately called Brian Russell to share the good news. Brian told Mitchell that Blake was fast asleep, but he was turning around immediately to return. Returning to the trucks I retrieved a sled that would protect the precious piebald hide on the long drag from the woods. Olinger and Sanders then went to work hauling the buck several hundred yards up the side of the very steep ravine. I huffed and puffed my way out of the ravine for about the fifth time that day, watching in awe as these powerful men – volunteers working out of the goodness of their hearts – slipping, sliding and sweating to recover the once-in-a-lifetime deer for Blake.
Later Brian said, “It’s hard to put into words what these folks have done – about an organization that cares this much for kids and wants them to succeed in everything they do, outdoors or otherwise. I just can’t say enough good things about them.”
Blake had been tipped off to the find before arriving back at camp.
Brian said, “I pulled up the picture on my phone y’all sent and showed it to him. His eyes just lit up. I thought he was going to bounce out of the seat and break the seatbelt.”
We all still enjoyed, and recorded, the young man’s reaction on video.
Hunters who have been there understand the emotions. For the folks who haven’t been there, it is pretty much impossible to explain.
They really can’t comprehend that there is a great respect for the game we pursue. True hunters know we owe the animals who give their lives, and their flesh, every possible effort to insure their recovery. Blake, Brian and their family will enjoy the venison this animal provided. The amazing hide and head will be preserved for a lifetime.
“I can’t wait to have it mounted and up on my wall,” said Blake. “For my first buck to be a piebald feels amazing.”
This was not the only TWF hunt of the weekend. Across the state a cadre of other Huntmaster volunteers gave up their weekends to introduce young hunters to the woods – along with the joys, and sometimes sadness, that goes along with pursuing wild game. Sometimes it is sadness that comes in making a kill – or sometimes it is sadness born of a missed shot, a missed opportunity or even never seeing a deer. Whatever form it comes in, it is a fulfilling, lifetime educational experience for everyone involved.
With a maturity that belies his age Blake said, “There were a bunch of great people helping us get some deer and helping this sport grow.”
That pretty much sums it all up, Blake. The Piebald Buck will leave a lasting impression none of us will ever forget.
Footnote: A state law passed by the Tennessee Legislature forbids hunters from taking albino deer. The law does not apply to piebald deer.