Lessons From My Toughest Deer Season Ever
Deer hunters have some days they'll never forget. I'd rather forget Nov. 5, 2014, but I'm going to tape a reminder to my bow to ensure that I don't. It's the day that I quit deer hunting.
I'm asked on occasion how I ended up in the line of work that I'm doing. Was I hunter first, or a writer? My high-school English teacher might actually levitate from answering that so reflexively. I terrorized the squirrel population with a pellet gun as a small child -- and then Dad gave me a .22. I killed my first deer when I was in grade school, and became fixated on bowhunting in high school. I was mostly terrible at organized sports, but I didn't want to play them anyway. Being a predator was easy to me, right out of the gate, and it's all I cared to do. So choosing a career was easy. I'd be miserable at anything that didn't somehow involve hunting.
But on Wednesday evening, I found myself looking at a great buck—a buck I'd specifically set up to hunt—not 30 yards from my ground blind. When he came a little closer yet and turned broadside, I was already clipped up, and pleading with myself not to screw this up, too. I hit full-draw and let it go.
I would've told you at the shot that I was "on him." By midnight, long after I'd called a friend with a tracking dog for help, I had to accept that maybe I wasn't.
Every hunter—bowhunter or gun hunter—loses an animal on occasion. I've written that before, and repeated it to friends who've called me, desperate for advice at the end of an empty blood trail. It's easy to say, Learn from it and hit them in the vitals next time.
But this season, I've been checked. I've followed more than one empty blood trail of my own. And I've come home furious with my results. I've swapped bows and changed sights and bought different broadheads. I've second-guessed myself time and again, and committed some cardinal blood-trailing sins. I've wallowed in misery, and asked time and again what I've done to deserve a season like this. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to hate deer hunting. And so I quit.
On Friday morning, Nov. 7, I was sitting at my desk, staring out the window at a classic November morning. It was cold and calm and clear, and I wanted to be in a tree. But I refused. Instead, I drank coffee and called others--hunters who hadn't quit--on the phone so I could write stories about deer hunting, rather than get out there and generate my own. It was a pretty pathetic scene.
Just like that, it changed. My neighbor called, and he'd found my buck. A buck that he himself had been after for two seasons; a buck that he didn't have to give back to me. I left an unfinished story on the screen of my computer, tore off my pajamas, replaced them with some camo, grabbed a knife and jumped into my truck.
Vultures had led my neighbor to the the deer. It was no more than 100 yards from where I'd quit looking. It wasn't the fairly tale ending you see on outdoor TV. There was no camera running, but I couldn't have mustered saying something like, I didn't make a great shot, so I just backed out.
No. This was a reality check. Scavengers and two days to rot had cost me all of the meat; meat that we depend on throughout the year.
The buck's exposed rib cage, sunken eyes, putrid smell, and the arrow hole in the paunch, a foot back from where I thought I'd been aiming, drove it all home. I wasn't immune to screwing it up.
In my haste to get to the outcome, rather than enjoy the process, rather than do my part to the fullest of my ability, I'd wasted an animal.
That was exactly the realization I needed.
Saturday was the gun-opener, and my buck tag was legally filled with nothing to show for it but a pair of antlers. Yet, for the first time in a while—since the season began—I was determined to have fun. My brother, Matt, was in from out of town, burning a precious vacation day so he could get a long weekend to hunt. Michelle and I had brought our 4-month-old son in for his first deer camp. Mom cooked a big meal, and we got up extra early the next morning to brew two pots of coffee and make sandwiches for an all-day sit. The rut was kicking, and despite my perceived failures this season, Matt and Michelle were looking to me for advice on how to spend their opening day.
I sat with Michelle in a box blind. Her planned all-day sit lasted about 20 minutes. I heard the tall-tined 8-pointer coming through timber long before we saw him. He popped into view, nose-down on a scent trail we'd made in the dark, and she shot him at about 35 yards. Michelle's killed a lot of deer, but this one was one of her best bucks ever.
Matt didn't see much opening day. Yeah, he cheated with a lunchtime nap and I teased him a bit, but truth be told, there were about 11 hours of daylight, and he spent 9 of them in a stand.
Sunday morning was better. Matt found himself in deer right away, and at about 8 a.m., a huge 10-pointer came slipping through the timber toward his stand, scent-checking for does. Matt told the story in such detail that I could see the buck staring up at him 20 yards away while he attempted to shoulder his gun. His carrying strap had caught on an assembly bolt of his ladder stand. Fortunately, the buck took a couple more steps behind some brush, at which point Matt freed the strap, shouldered his rifle and shot the giant through both lungs. Little Brother has hunted hard for about six seasons now, and never even had a good opportunity at a decent buck until now. His deer is the biggest anyone's ever killed on our family farm. I must've hugged him 20 times. And called him a few names and punched him in the shoulder real good.
On Sunday afternoon, we shot photos and goofed off and laughed and butchered venison. And I realized some things.
My vow to quit deer hunting didn't last long. And I accepted how arrogant it was to ask why I deserved the season that I've had.
The truth is, this isn't a sport. Not in the way football or baseball are sports. In those games, I can see where the team that works the hardest deserves to win and usually does. But the struggle between predator and prey defines Mother Nature's brand of chaos. When we choose to participate in that, deserve has nothing to do with it. A deer doesn't deserve to be wounded, but then neither does a rabbit that escapes the jaws of a coyote. He simply escapes. The coyote doesn't quit, or even have a concept of quitting, because if he does, he'll starve. Maybe he'll do better next time, but maybe he won't.
Either way, he carries on and keeps hunting. After all, he's a predator. And that's what we do.