By Wayne Smith
My 15-year-old son Hunter Smith, after several near misses in the last two previous seasons, was able to harvest his first deer and elk this season.
I myself, now 44, have been hunting since I was 10 years old (all on public land). All of these years have been with my dad Bruce by my side, and my uncle Dean and cousin Rob. The last three years my son had joined the long family tradition. Unfortunately, this spring, after an amazing fight, my dad passed away from lung cancer. Although he has missed a few trips the last couple years, he always made it out for at least one weekend a season through his battle with this awful disease.
As you can imagine, I had very mixed emotions coming into this season, but was excited for my son’s opportunities as he had drawn both a doe tag and a youth cow elk tag. My dad has always stored his gun in safe at my house, and before passing away and coming to the realization that he would not make it out this year, he told Hunter that he wanted him to shoot his first animal with his gun — an old .308 that barely has any stain left on the stock, but never needs adjustment every time it is sight-in time.
HUNTER HAD DRAWN A YOUTH DOE TAG for the Blue Mountain Foothills West. This was a new area for us, and we were really leaning on my cousin Rob who lives in Spokane to help us locate deer. All along he assured me this would not be an issue. Due to the homecoming dance at my son’s high school we were unable to make it out until Thursday of the modern season. That morning found us hunting on the Hopkins Ridge Wind Farm and we were spotting plenty of deer, but they all were about 500 yards away, with no cover to close the distance.
The afternoon was exciting, as we found ourselves 40 yards away from a group of 12 mule deer facing us head on and closely grouped together, but we were just unable to get the shot we wanted. Still, Hunter was patient with visions of a buck in his head.
Driving out that evening we spotted two does on a hillside. It was still legal hunting light and we could have easily gotten out of the truck and made a shot on one, but Hunter said he wanted his first deer to come while out hunting, not driving around. I can’t put into words how I felt about him saying this. All of my emotions came to the surface and I found myself hiding the tears rolling down my face.
The next evening, we decided to put my uncle and son on a draw near where we’d seen the deer the night before, and my cousin and I would go up the road about 2 miles and push towards them. A half hour into our push we heard two gunshots but could not tell the direction. Ten minutes later I got the call I had been waiting to hear.
“Dad, I got a deer!!”
I don’t even remember the rest of the walk back to the draw. The deer had been in the draw the whole time, and the kid made a great 175-yard shot on a nice big mule deer doe.
WE HAVE BEEN HUNTING ELK in the same area in Manastash since as long as I can remember. Generally, we tend to go up opening weekend, come home Sunday night and back up Tuesday evening for the remainder of the season. This year was again different. My uncle had to attend a funeral on opening weekend, and since Hunter’s cow tag did not open up till Wednesday, we missed the opener for the first time that I can recall.
We hunted hard Wednesday through Sunday but just did not see any elk. There was a herd that had moved through Wednesday, but they skirted our area though we heard shots all around us. After that it was like a ghost town.
The youth tag was good through Nov. 15 and we were determined to not give up. My wife had put her foot down on Hunter not missing any more school, so we drove back up Monday night to hunt Veterans Day. The weather had turned cold, and other than two other camps down at the bottom, we were basically the only people around our normally crowded area. Driving drove around a bit we found a herd of 40 just past camp! That definitely had us excited for the next morning.
We woke up to an inch of fresh snow and the wind blowing about 30 mph. My uncle, who came along to help, dropped us off at the top of a draw that we like to watch. After watching and freezing for about 30 minutes I told Hunter we should walk the edge of the draw slowly, as there was no pressure and it was up to us to find the animals.
Within five minutes he was shouting to me that he saw an elk, but he thought it might be a bull. I caught a glimpse of it disappearing ahead and could not tell what it was, but knew it had not spotted us. I told Hunter we should continue on top slowly and make our way to where we had spotted the elk in case it was a cow.
As we approached the area I did not see anything, but once again Hunter told me he spotted an elk running in the woods below us. We stopped and talked about which way it was running, and while we were discussing things, a big cow elk walked out in the opening 60 yards in front of us. Hunter spotted it immediately, asked for the shooting sticks and calmly placed a shot right behind the front shoulder with my dad’s old .308 rifle.
I watched the elk hump and disappear into the woods below us. We moved up and saw the elk standing in the woods 20 yards in front of us. It was wobbly and tried to take a step. Hunter found an opening and took another shot and the elk fell instantly.
That morning I had put on the old hunting shirt that my dad always wore, and I was carrying a rock we made that contained his ashes. We placed the rock on top of Hunter’s beautiful animal and prayed together, thanking god for this great elk and knowing that Dad, who served his country in Vietnam, was with us every step of the way on Veterans Day!!
Well, this story turned out a lot longer than I intended, but felt very therapeutic to actually write out. It would be a great honor to my dad if any part of it made it into your magazine.
Editor’s note: It is our pleasure to share your family’s story here and in part in the February 2016 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.