I have trouble remembering just how I felt before the harvest the day I discovered the color of bone. I was 18 years old and had gone out hunting alone for the first time on the opening day of deer season in Massachusetts. It was my first buck, a basket rack six pointer, and my emotions were so intense they’ve since masked my memory. What I do remember is that it is one of my more depressing hunting experiences.
I went out into the woods of Boxford State Forest in Massachusetts wearing a bright orange hand-me-down jacket that was way too big for me, holding a Remington 20-gauge 870 pump (youth model). With a sandwich in my coat pocket, you can bet I thought I was prepared – and you can also bet I wasn’t. This was my first year going out to the Berkshires without my father and grandfather, but I was going for it!
My plan for that day? Brute endurance.
I figured that if I just kept walking and walking, I’d eventually stumble upon a deer. As midday approached, I sat on a knoll next to a swamp. I leaned my shotgun against and a tree and pulled out my snack.
As I daydreamed, thinking mostly about my afternoon to come, I suddenly heard crashing coming through the swamp and grabbed my gun. My reaction time might have been better then as compared to now. As the sound of splashing water continued, I raised my shotgun to my shoulder and in the trance of adrenaline I clicked off the safety. I lowered my eyes to line up the sights and aimed at the deer rising from the swamp.
My shotgun unleashed a barrage of slugs on the beautiful buck trotting 20 yards away. It only lasted for an instant, but the image is still seared in my memory. He disappeared into a thicket and I lowered my gun. I shook in awe. Of course, I had no idea what to do next. I tried calling my father right away. If you think cell service is spotty these days, try remembering what it was like 20 years ago when we all had flip-phones.
That’s right, I had zero cell service.
I remember blood dripping off the buck’s side as he ran away. My mind told me that I had just gotten my first buck. I felt a strong confidence come over me. Other than good grades, I don’t remember being good at anything. The wide and obvious blood trail I found in the leaves reinforced my burgeoning self-confidence. I didn’t know, amateur that I was, how I was doing everything perfectly wrong.
Was I supposed to run after the deer or wait? How was I supposed to follow the blood trail? I had no plan for even getting the deer out of the woods. But I went for it. I slung the 870 pump over my shoulder, completely unprepared for walking up to a live deer, which is exactly what happened.
The deer stood up from its bed no more than 30 yards from where I shot him. I was foolishly paying too much attention to my cell phone and I dropped it as I fumbled for my gun. The deer ran away before I had a chance to shoot. With no idea of how to track blood and with no one to help me, I sat there in disbelief. My confidence caved in.
I managed to get my stepmother on the phone and asked her if she could leave a message via landline at the property owner’s house where my father was hunting. She did her best to reassure me that I would find the deer.
“Just hold tight,” she said.
I continued the search, but this time I had less blood to follow. My emotions ranged from victory celebrations to the swelling sense of my utter failure. It would be years before I learned how to not congratulate myself until actually laying my hands on fallen prey.
I crawled on hands and knees through the thicket. The six point buck lay yards in front of me. My first buck! I was on top of the world. Like any sports victor, I was happy to see a group of hunters come down the trail to savor the moment of triumph with me. It was a half dozen members of what I would come to call the “Orange Army.”
They congratulated me.
“What am I supposed to with it now?” I asked very candidly.
One of the gentleman, a term I use loosely, repeated insistently, “You’re going to need a rope.”
I told them that I had left the rope in my car. They promised to look after my deer while I made the 15-minute trek to my vehicle. As I walked briskly back to the car, I heard a gunshot near where I had left my deer. By the time I came back, I found the men still standing around my deer which was now 10 yards into the woods.
“The deer was still alive and tried to get away,” one of them said, laughing.
“Last one to shoot it gets the deer,” said another. He spit his tobacco out on the ground.
My heart sank. I knew they were trying to steal my coveted trophy. I remember looking down at the color of the antlers, a deep chocolate color.
It was a color of bone I had never seen.
The last thing they said to me was, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk away.”
Life had not brought me far enough to handle a confrontation like this. The highest moment of victory I had felt up to this point in my life was ripped from my hands. I wish I could have that moment back as a seasoned man. My soul is still frustrated with that “hunter” bragging to people about a buck he stole from some hapless teenager.
That moment proved one of the greatest impacts on me becoming a bowhunter. And for that, I guess, I’m grateful.
The experience also bred some stereotypes in my mind that I’ve tried to work through. But sometimes I am pulled back to that memory when I meet a group of firearm hunters. The faces of the Orange Army still keep me far from heavily hunted state forests.
I learned the true color of bone that day.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.