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A Sniper Needs to Shoot

By Pat Lisi

My childhood friend Dave, who we all nicknamed “Chopper” in high school when he bought a  Honda 250 motorcycle, was a crack shot with a rifle.  He was so good in fact that the Marine Corps sent him to Sniper School midway through his 2nd tour in Vietnam.  He came back to the 7th Marines as a Regimental sniper and was ‘farmed out’ from company to company as needed in the bush.  Chopper’s classmates at Sniper School were thrilled by a half-day of instruction by one of the most well-known military snipers ever – Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock.

Chopper loved to shoot.  That’s what shooters do – they shoot.  He scored 249 out of 250 at the rifle range in boot camp which is an incredible feat even by today’s rigid standards in the Marine Corps.  Only a handful of recruits have ever achieved a perfect score and not that many more are able to miss it by just 1 point.

By 1973 I and Chopper were out of the Corps and doing our own thing back home in Madison, Wisconsin.  When hunting season rolled around in the fall we couldn’t wait to break out the rifles and shotguns and head to the shooting range to prepare.

Even then Chopper was extremely meticulous.  Sighting in his deer hunting rifle for example could take a couple of hours, because he was never satisfied with being in the bulls eye or “close” to the center – no, he adjusted and fiddled and shot his rifle until he could ‘stack’ the holes in the paper on top of each other.  His favorite combination for white tail hunting was a .243 caliber shot from a bolt action, Remington BDL Custom Deluxe with a 3×9 variable Redfield scope.  Chopper ‘zeroed’ the rifle for 100 yards which is a fairly long range shot in Wisconsin.

It was the second (and final) weekend of the deer hunting season in Wisconsin, 1973.  Thanksgiving had come and gone and neither of us had filled a tag as of yet.  It was Saturday and the land we were trespassing on was someone else’s property, a woodlot located along highway 33 just a few miles from Portage, WI.  The property was not posted against trespass, but in Wisconsin it doesn’t have to be.  If it isn’t your land and you don’t have it leased, you cannot hunt on it without prior permission from the owner.  Period.

A heavy wet snow was falling as Chopper and I parked his truck off to the side of the highway.  We loaded our rifles and stalked into the trees.  It was incredibly quiet inside the forest and it became obvious immediately that we would need to be careful so we didn’t spook any deer that may be about the area.  After a short distance we decided that Chopper would make his way up a hill and then walk along the ridge to find a good place to sit and watch the wooded valley below.  I would stay put and wait a half hour for him to get into position, and then my job was to ‘still hunt’ throughout the woods just to get the deer moving, not running, but traveling through the woods hopefully in Chopper’s line of sight.

By now it was probably 9 AM so I stood up and began walking, stalking, being careful not to startle any deer (in other words I was ‘still hunting’).  I hadn’t gone very far when a couple of rifle shots rang out from the west of us in an area of marshy bogs adjacent to the property we were hunting on.  I sat down and waited to see if perhaps another hunter had scared a deer or two in our direction.  And by gosh not 2 minutes later I saw three deer basically heading right in my direction on a trail.  Their brown hair stood out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of fresh virgin snow.

I crouched lower and then wormed my way behind a big red oak tree where the deer would not see me until they walked right past; I realized now the trail they were on was the same one a few yards from my position.  I really did not know where Chopper was, but I assumed he was not far away on the ridge to my north and could probably see the same deer I had eyes on.

The three animals slowly worked closer to me as they paused once in awhile to scrape the ground for acorns.  When they were about 20 yards away I could finally identify them as a doe with her two fawns.  It was well into fall so the fawns’ spots were gone, and the doe was plump as could be with a good layer of winter fat under all that short hair.  Just then momma picked up my scent and she froze in her steps and glared at me.  Even though I was well-concealed behind the oak she knew something was wrong.  It only takes a smidge of movement for a white tail to catch a glimpse of, and from then on you’re basically ‘cooked’.

Just then the CRAAACK! from Chopper’s rifle echoed through the valley from the ridgeline above me.  It was loud and close, much like I heard hundreds of times in Vietnam when the enemy sniped in our direction.  At the same time a distinct WHUMP! slammed into the big doe and she fell over, dead.  I mean, she didn’t even twitch, as Chopper had put a .243 slug clean through both her lungs and heart.  Like I said, shooters like to shoot, and Chopper was damned good at his craft.

The only trouble was you couldn’t kill a doe back in 1973 unless you had a special permit to do so.  And, neither Chopper nor I had any such ‘golden passport’! The dead deer was an illegal deer, and we were in a ‘predicament’.

Chopper came down the hill in a few minutes (he was 200 yards away when he took the shot) and we stared at the doe.  The fawns had turned tail and walked off into the snow and brush and were only 30 yards away looking at the scene.  Chopper told me that he swore he saw ‘spikes’ on the big deer which would have made a legal kill (as a buck).  This was a mistake that I would never predict Chopper to make, because of his acute eyesight.  There were several ways to justify what happened but the truth was he had killed a deer, illegally.  In Wisconsin that’s a pretty serious offense.  A felony in fact.

There are a few choices when this happens and we picked the worst one:  We walked away and got the heck out of there!

But, not so fast.  There was a new problem. As we made it to where the woods meets the open wetlands we ran into the hunters who had taken the shots we heard a little while ago.  Now, they heard Chopper’s shot, too, but had no idea if he had hit a deer or not.  But, there was another problem.  One of the guys in their group (5 of them) asked what we were doing hunting in that woods.  We lied and told them we had permission from the landowner.  One of them asked us what the landowners name was and we couldn’t come up with anything, to which he announced that HE was the owner and that we were trespassing.

It turned out that he and another guy in the party were also Vietnam veterans.  So after very little small talk we apologized for trespassing and then walked very quickly to Chopper’s truck, unloaded and cased our rifles, and left the area, relieved that the guy wasn’t going to press charges for the trespass and thrilled that he never pursued a line of questions about whether or not Chopper had actually hit a deer.  If they had been smart they would have noted our ‘back tag’ numbers and called the game warden (assuming they followed our trail back into the woods and came across the dead doe).  Our guess is if they did go in and found the deer they probably put a doe tag on it and claimed it for themselves.  If a warden got involved the deer would have to be seized as evidence and then no one would get it.  Chopper and I had ‘dodged a bullet’ (or two) so to speak and we knew it.

I wouldn’t be telling this story if Chopper was still alive, not to mention the fact that 19 years later I would actually become a Wisconsin Game Warden!  No, I hadn’t killed the doe, Chopper did, but I was an accessory to abandoning the carcass.  Chopper eventually lost his battle with cancer that I’m convinced he acquired in Vietnam from Agent Orange and then attacked him in 2009.  He died June 28, 2011.  His hunting days were over.  Aside from that one incident I never knew him to violate a game or fish law.  His lack of judgment in the woods west of Portage that day in 1973 was just one of those things, and we had a saying in Nam that covered just about anything like this that was inexplicable and it goes:

“There it is.”

 

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