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Oh, what a hunt!

8/18/2010

Editor's note: To accompany Deer Camp '09, we've asked athletes, prominent figures and outdoorsmen to relate their first deer kill .

One of the most zealous hunters to walk among us killed his first deer 46 years ago, in late December back in '63.

While it wasn't what Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were singing about in their 1976 hit, it was a special time for one lucky teen, Rob Keck, former CEO of the NWTF and now a member of the Bass Pro RedHead Team.

"The first time a hunter takes any game, it etches deeply in the mind, no matter how big the critter is, because it's the size of the experience that really counts," Keck said.

Back then, a boy couldn't hunt Pennsylvania until he was 12 years old, something that really chafed the eager young hunter. So when family friend John Hoover invited Keck to hunt state forest land in Mifflin County, the 13-year-old jumped at the chance.

Hoover had a reputation as being a savant in the fields of wildlife and woodsmanship, qualities a young man in his second year of hunting could really benefit from. Keck recalled marveling at his sixth sense in predicting the likelihood of seeing game. If Hoover expected a deer to appear in front of his stand, Keck said he'd sit there all day waiting for it.

Pennsylvania's antlered deer hunt season was over, so Keck's efforts on that winter morning in 1963 were focused squarely on slick heads. Hoover's forecast for Keck was he'd probably see a buck before the doe.

Just after daylight, Keck heard three shots off to the east. Thinking that might push deer toward him, his eyes were glued in that direction. Sure enough, he heard them, crunching through the crusted snow.

PHOTO GALLERY

Launch Gallery

Hoover's prediction was on target as the first deer to trot by was a nice 6-point. Keck grudgingly let him pass. Just as he was swallowing his disappointment, he glimpsed the lead doe — a big, ol' girl on the move. The adrenalin gates swung wide open and the nerve-tingling, heart-pounding, hair-raising rush was on.

Keck gave out a whistle, just as Hoover had instructed, to stop the doe in her tracks as she crossed in front of his stand. Somehow he mustered enough composure to red light her for good with a 150 grain norma 7.65mm cartridge fired from an Argentine Mauser.

The doe, hit right behind the shoulder, sprinted about 40 yards down hill before piling up. When Keck was convinced the doe had hoisted her white flag for the last time, he got out of his stand to tag his prize.
Suddenly, he saw what appeared to be another hunter walking toward his deer from the opposite way. His first thought went something like 'Oh no, this guy is going to try and tag my deer.'

Then he realized this wasn't just any guy, this was a Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officer. The second thought that crowded into his teen brain was 'Oh no. Did I do something wrong?'

A hearty congratulations and offer of help from the officer turned a hurricane of emotions into the cloudless day it was meant to be. And allowed the hunter to get down to business.

The man Rob Keck can still remember the boy from 46 years ago, field dressing his first deer, careful to make sure the incision wasn't so long it would allow the chest cavity to get dirty. He remembers how it felt to open up that animal on a cold, December day and slide its body across the snow back to the truck.

It was everything he had read about in "Fur Fish and Game" and "Pennsylvania Game News." A few hours later, Hoover shot a deer, too, making it a wonderful, unforgettable day.

Stories were exchanged and photos taken, documenting a rite of passage and the beginning of a lifelong passion.

Today, that same story unfolds in rural areas across America. However, things have changed. Today, hunters age their venison in the private confines of walk-in coolers. Several decades ago, hunters proudly hung their take from branches, basketball goal posts and meat poles where passersby could admire the accomplishment.

Today's hunters are no less pleased about a successful hunt, though, and the many online forums, photo galleries and video sharing Web sites attest to that. There also are a plethora of tools to excite even the "techiest" of sportsmen, including game cameras, range finders, grunt tubes, rattling antlers and optics that make the 1960s versions seem like soda bottles by comparison.

When it all comes down to it, though, it's man against beast that makes it exciting and the sights and sounds of nature that make it soothing. It's a sensation that never diminishes.

Keck said the anticipation is just as great now as it was on his first hunt. In 2005 he killed a stunning 201 class whitetail in Kansas. And the 193 6/8 Kansas buck he bagged this year will keep the other one company on the wall.

Keck said game cameras actually ramp up the thrill factor. There's nothing like seeing that leviathan before you hit the woods.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons must have been hunters. They had to have felt the electricity of pursuing big game. After all they penned the line "I felt a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder." Then again, it is possible they were warbling about another game of pursuit.