My eleven-year-old son, Croft, has been my hunting companion and friend since nearly the day he was born. At just eight months old, he was with me as I hunted pronghorn in Wyoming and has followed me to many places in the West. After passing the hunter safety course in our home state at just seven years old, Croft was successful in taking his first big game animal, a Texas whitetail deer, that same fall. So, I wasn’t surprised at his enthusiasm when I returned from the 2013 Safari Club International Convention and told him that Bud Rosenbruch of Southeast Alaskan Adventures had offered us a deal that couldn’t be turned down on a father and son deer hunt.
“If we do this,” I explained to him, “you have to have ‘skin in the game.’ At a minimum, I expect you to pay for your airfare and deer tag.” It was a lofty expectation for an eleven-year-old, but Croft agreed without hesitation. From the moment of that conversation, on throughout the summer and early fall, Croft sought out every opportunity to earn from neighbors, friends and family. By September had met his end of the bargain.
I wasn’t concerned about my ability to go on the hunt after my first surgery since I seemed to have plenty of time to recover and return to good condition. However, after being told I would need to go through the experience once more just six weeks before the two of us were to leave for Juneau, I didn’t see how the trip would be possible. Croft was devastated and felt his hard work had been for nothing.
“Why don’t you call Bud and see what he says,” my wife suggested one evening as I told her how badly I felt for ruining our plans. I placed the call the next day and explained the situation and my concerns to Bud.
“We can make it work,” Bud said. “We’ll just take it slow and easy and hunt at a pace you feel comfortable with.” Talking to him made me feel a bit better but I still needed to be certain Croft was willing to do his part.
“I won’t be able to do much,” I explained. “It will be up to you to carry our luggage, to help pack out any deer we get and to help Bud with anything he needs while we’re on the boat.” He assured me I had nothing to worry about.
An unseasonal cold front moved in during the night and fog settled in the bay, making visibility limited. The wind that came with the cold stirred the waves into dangerous swells through which Bud thought it better for us not to try and pass. Three times he called our hotel room to say he would be late picking us up so as to give the fog time to burn off and the waves a chance to settle.
Finally, with little time left to wait if we were to make our destination by nightfall, Bud’s knock came on the hotel door. He, Croft and Bud’s son, Josh, loaded gear on Bud’s boat, the “Alaskan Hunter,” as quickly as possible, and then we motored out of the bay.
Though the wind near Juneau had calmed somewhat, it was still howling as we rounded the point of an island and turned south. The spray from the ocean would freeze instantly as it hit the boat, cutting our visibility and making for a dangerous situation. The going was slow and it quickly became apparent that we would need to anchor in a nearby cove for the evening to wait out the storm.
We awoke the following morning to a complete change in the weather. The seas were calm and the sun shone brightly in the clear sky. While Bud repaired an engine hose that came loose the night before, Croft and Josh took advantage of the weather by beach combing and watching sea ducks. Soon, we were again on our way and, by late afternoon, reached the cove we would be hunting.
Near lunchtime, we rounded a hillside and below us lay a vast opening with a creek running through the middle. Having grown up in elk and mule deer country, my first thought was that the spot would be an excellent place to see game, so I said as much to Bud.
“I’ve never seen anything here in all my years of hunting this area,” Bud responded. “We might as well just hurry through and get to the better areas.”
Croft was a yard or two in the lead as we continued down the trail. We were walking quickly and I wasn’t paying too much attention since Bud said we wouldn’t see anything through this area. I should have known it’s when you least expect it that things will start to happen.
Croft suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “There’s a deer!” he exclaimed, pointing just ahead of us.
“Where?” I asked. There was some brush blocking my view and I couldn’t quite see what Croft could.
“Right there! Right there! It’s a buck!” he replied, still pointing. The buck apparently had been drinking at a small rivulet that crossed the trail as we approached and was just twenty yards away, staring back at my son.
“Well, shoot it then!” I instructed. Bud had seen the deer also and agreed it was worth taking.
Croft’s .260 Remington came to his shoulder in one fluid motion. As I stood next to him watching, I realized that in his excitement he had forgotten to release the safety, so I reached over and pushed it to the firing position for him. A moment later, the gun barked and a look of elation spread across Croft’s face. The shot was well placed and the buck lay at the side of the water where it had been ready to bound away into the brush.
“You just took a great buck!” Bud exclaimed as he slapped Croft on the back. The rack had a neat non-typical point on the left side and my son’s grin could hardly be contained. If the hunt had ended at that point, I would have gone home happy, as the most important thing for me was Croft’s success. Later, his deer would score 89 1/8 SCI points.
Two days later we saw other deer but still hadn’t found the buck I wanted to take, so we rode the four-wheeler on old logging roads to a distant lake. Bud’s hunters had taken several deer in the area over the years and he felt confident the area would produce again.
The trail we were on led around a slight bend and I was keeping my attention on a large bowl in front of us when Bud grabbed me by the shoulder and stopped short.
“There’s a buck right there!” he hissed while dropping to his knees. Motioning to the boys to do the same, I followed suit. I hadn’t seen the deer and waited as Bud watched through his rangefinder binocular.
“One hundred thirty-five yards,” Bud whispered. “That’s a good buck. Get ready.”
I was sitting at this point and settled my .300 Remington Ultra Mag onto its bipod, but still wasn’t certain where the deer was.
“He’s right there by that big log,” Bud said as he pointed. The deer seemed to be very well camouflaged because I had a difficult time making out where it was. Finally, it began to materialize among the brush.
I heard the “thwack” of the 180-grain bullet and knew the deer was mine. It took quite some time for us to find the downed buck among all the brush and debris of the logging slash, but when we did, all Bud could say was, “Fantastic buck, my friend!”
There was a time early on when I would have hunted with nearly anyone just to be in the field. Not so any longer. I’ve found over the years that good hunting companions–true friends–are difficult to come by. Bud Rosenbruch and my son meet the criteria and I look forward to the chance to hunt with them both again. In fact, I think Croft is already planning round two of the hunt in hopes of taking a larger deer than me, since mine scored 92 4/8 SCI, edging his out by just three points. I’m sure that one day the student will become the teacher, but not yet.–Brian Payne