6:30 a.m., Lodi Lake Nature Area. It is 50 degrees. The fog of my breath dims the beam of my flashlight as I walk down the uneven path.
I move silently away from the pavement and hunker down beneath a tree at the edge of a meadow. I wait for my target.
I’m hunting a buck.
Not just any buck — a buck who will not shy away from conflict and will stand his ground when faced with a trespasser. A buck whose aggressiveness prompted the Lodi Parks and Recreation Department to post warning signs.
Three people have already had encounters with the hostile animal.
I watch now, not down the iron sights of a rifle, but through the viewfinder of a Nikon D800 camera.
Moments go by. Then, in the distance, I see two sets of eyes, one yellow, one green, reflecting the light of my flashlight back at me.
An eerie glow in the darkness.
I wait in anticipation as the first rays of dawn begin to illuminate the meadow and the creatures on the other side.
Will the morning light reveal my target? Will the velvet antlers of a stag rise with the sun as I kneel in mud and wet grass?
No. Only a mule deer doe and her fawn. I must, however, be on the right track.
I watch and wait, finally taking photos when the light is strong enough. After a few minutes, another doe appears out of the brush. My excitement builds as I snap photo after photo, ignored by the little herd.
Then, I hear twigs breaking and leaves rustling right behind me. I freeze. Has dad come to join his family and discovered an intruder instead?
A nut falls, landing just inches from my feet. I look up to see a gray squirrel rummaging. Behind me is (presumably empty) forest.
No buck. Just a busy, noisy rodent.
I decide to move closer to the deer for better photos, hoping the buck is in the nearby trees and brush. Taking slow steps I inch closer and closer. The deer, now numbering six, stare at me, then go on eating and grooming.
As I reach the halfway mark of the meadow a familiar sound fills the air, much to my dismay — loud talkers on a morning walk. They stop on the path to watch the deer, then begin walking excitedly toward them.
I begin shooting photos in hopes of getting the attention of the walkers before they scare off the deer. It works. With hushed voices and slow steps back, they leave me to my prey.
I advance again.
I am shocked by how close the deer are letting me get to them, but I am losing hope of finding my real target. I can see all of the deer clearly because the sun is rising above the tree line, but none are adorned with antlers. More and more walkers are passing by every minute.
Finally I am about 15 feet from the closest deer. I settle down and begin taking photos.
Several minutes pass, and four of the deer have ambled on into the more heavily wooded areas.
Only a doe and a fawn are left. I stand and start walking toward the path. The two quickly bound away.
I step out from between bushes onto the path and I am greeted by a man and woman walking briskly.
I leave the nature area, disappointed that I did not get the photo I was looking for, but elated by what I did capture.
Next time, I will go deeper into the Lodi Lake wilderness.
I will find my trophy.