Hunting is not just about the harvest. It’s not about the thrill, and it’s definitely not about the trophy. While I doubt I would complain if a 12 point buck made its way onto my wall, I’m just as happy when I can harvest a small 4 point or a mature doe. There’s factors at play that the non-hunting world simply doesn't understand. The magic of the waking hour in the woods, the thrill of successfully getting within bow range of an elusive animal, the connection one feels to thousands of previous generations as he draws back a bow and releases an arrow, and the reverence felt when approaching an animal that gave its life in order to feed my family. This is “the history of mankind” as Fred Bear put it. The very essence of tradition. But society has so brainwashed us into becoming disconnected with our natural survival instincts that we’ve hidden away the messy parts of the sacrifice required to sustain us as humans. We’ve been trained to believe that survival is easy. Why do the hard work? Why witness the “gore”? Quite simply, because survival is actually difficult and messy, and being disconnected from that practice makes us weaker people. We were designed to interact with the processes that keep us alive. But modern society believes that survival is found on a shelf, wrapped in plastic and stamped with a expiration date. Well, I guess that’s one way to do it. But is that really surviving? Is that contributing to the human tradition? Only you can make that judgment. But as for me and my house, we chose to keep the tradition alive.
Life for Life
The air is cold. It’s crisp. It’s silent. I hear nothing but my breathing. As I turn I see the familiar red numbers of my alarm clock. 3:58AM. “I should have turned the heat up last night” I think to myself, stumbling across the cold floor to shut the alarm off before it sounds. As I groggily walk into the kitchen and start a pot of coffee I ask myself more than once, “remind me why we’re doing this.” But I need no reminder. Its 4am, its bow season, and the deer woods are calling.
The dog stirs. “It’s too early, girl, go back to bed.” She agrees and lays back down. I down a cup of joe and pour the rest into a thermos. By this time I’m freezing, as I refuse to make coffee or breakfast with my hunting clothes on – the scent sticks around too long. I quickly pull on my long johns and wool socks and step out onto the back porch to retrieve the camo pants, shirt and jacket I set out the night before. Despite being washed in scent-free detergent, I like to leave them outside to pick-up the smell of the woods on my property. It’s one of many tricks I’ve learned over the last several years that I now swear by. The clothes are freezing, but I tough it out until they warm up. As I pull my boots on and fire up my pickup, I apply camo facepaint in the rear view mirror. I’m not convinced it helps, but it sure can't hurt. The truck finally warms up and I make my way towards the highway.
I wasn’t raised in the woods. I’ll admit I’m a little jealous of those that were. My father taught me how to work hard, pray hard and fix anything that breaks, but he wasn’t much of an outdoorsmen. Oh, we had our occasional Saturday fishing trip to the local lake, but pinching a ball of Powerbait to the end of a line and waiting didn’t make us anglers - occasionally lucky, maybe, but not anglers. I did learn how to shoot a gun and bow in Boy Scouts, along with camping and survival skills, dutch oven cooking and dangerously whittling away at a piece of store-bought pine until it vaguely looked like an ill-painted 1960’s Camaro that I could roll down a derby track. All essential skills to the modern outdoorsmen. Still, I credit the Boy Scouts for my introduction and eventual lifelong affair with the outdoors. As I grew older, I slowly became impassioned with the idea of self-sufficiency. Providing for myself and my family and depending on no one had a certain appeal that I just couldn’t lick. This caused me to journey down the road of hunting, fishing, hiking and all things outdoors. Perhaps I was on a journey to find myself, or rather lose myself in something much larger, older and deeper than I was. Either way, I knew I was becoming a man that would be shaped by my experiences in nature - experiences that I sought out year after year, season after season, on mornings like these.
The air is cold. It’s crisp. It’s silent. I hear nothing but my breathing. I’ve stopped the truck on the side of a familiar dirt road. I’ll hike from here. I’m worried my diesel engine might spook anything within earshot, but after a minute of total silence, I rest assured that it has not. I spray down with scent-free solution, hoping to mask my scent. I grab my bow, my pack, and my flashlight and stand at the edge of the woods. Any outdoorsmen will tell you, the longest journey in hunting is the hike from wood’s edge to your hunting spot. At 4:20am, nothing is awake except things you don’t really want to run into. Every sound is amplified and your flashlight creates an eerie tunnel effect that rivals any horror movie you’ve seen. Combine this with the excitement of what might occur in just a few short hours and your breathing immediately becomes a little shallower. As my adrenaline starts flowing, I spray doe urine on the bottom of my boots, hoping the scent will find its way into the nostril of a passing buck when it wakes from bedding down. I’m not convinced it helps, but it sure can’t hurt. I take my first step and the sound of rustling instinctively has me reaching for my side arm. It’s the local resident armadillo, about 15 yards away, scavenging. My heart rate drops a bit and I release the breath I’ve been holding.
20 minutes later I arrive at the blind I set up the night before. Luckily it’s still standing, untouched. I’m a public land hunter. I may not have the resources to own 5,000 acres, but I can read an Army Corp map and utilize Google Earth like it’s no one’s business. As I crawl into my blind and get situated, a bead of sweat drips from my brow. It’s a stark contrast to the 39 degree weather outside. It will take about 10 minutes for my body heat to warm up the blind and about 1 minute to cool it off again as soon as I open up these windows. Good thing I wore my heavy coat this morning.
It’s 5:15am. The air is cold. It’s crisp. It’s silent. I hear nothing but my breathing. Then the woods begin to stir. My timing is perfect, as my goal is to get in and get situated before anything wakes up. It seems I’ve achieved that. Any hunter will tell you that this is the magic hour. All nature around you seems to start buzzing. The squirrels wearily step out of their nests and wobble down the branches. The birds chirp, quietly at first, then louder. A distant coyote yelp echoes through the oaks and makes me swear he’s 30 yards away – he’s actually 300. The feel of success is overwhelming as blue birds land on the tree branch not 2 yards from me, unaware of my presence. “If I can fool them, I surely can fool a whitetail,” I tell myself, slowly building confidence. These are the moments I feel closest to God. It’s as if I’m observing a church service in front of me, with all creation giving thanks for another day. It almost makes me forget why I’m there - almost. These experiences are what draw me back into the deer woods morning after morning, season after season. The thrill of the harvest dims in comparison. As nature quiets and goes about its morning routine, the chill finally gets to me and I crack open my thermos. I would be worried about the aroma of coffee, were it not for the sage advice of one of my hunting mentors. “Hunt the wind. Keep it in your face and nothing will ever jump you.” My blind placement is perfect, having checked the weather relentlessly the week prior. The wind is in my face and I feel safe enough to steal a few swigs of coffee without giving away my position.
The morning wears on. It’s 7:21am and suddenly I hear a crash in the woods. It’s to my left – no, my right. My left hand tightens around my bow grip and my trigger finger instinctively finds its way to the release strap hanging from my wrist. I haven’t seen a thing but my heart starts pounding. There’s only one animal in these woods that makes that noise – the whitetail deer. 30 seconds later I see the first flash of brown, followed by another. Two doe are frolicking behind a tree line about 15 yards from the shooting lane I had cleared weeks earlier. I wait patiently for them to move into position, but a playful flag of white tails signals that they’ve headed in the other direction. Just as my grip loosens, I see another flash of brown – this one alone, and not intent on playing. It’s morning and he’s hungry. He stops 5 yards short of my shooting lane and slowly grazes. Heart is pounding. 3 yards short. Still pounding. 1 yard short. His sightline goes behind the tree at the edge of my shooting lane and I come to full draw. “Breathe, just breathe” I coach myself as my sight pin wobbles on the place his vitals will be in just a few seconds. Finally my breathing slows and the pin zeroes in as he steps into my lane and stops. 3-2-1, release. I watch through my site as the arrow disappears into his vitals. His back legs buck and he darts. I turn my head and struggle to hear him fall as my heartbeat deafens my senses. “He’s down,” I hear myself whisper over and over to no one in particular. As my adrenaline levels slowly return to normal I look at my watch and mark one hour. Yet more sage advice echoes in my head. “Never push a downed deer. You spook him once, your chances of recovery are cut in half. You spook him twice, they’re 10%. An unrecovered deer makes you no better than a poacher.” It’s the longest hour you’ll ever experience.
8:25am. Heart starts pounding again. As I unzip the door to the blind and make my way to the last place I saw my deer standing, my mind is going a mile a minute. “Did you really see that arrow go through him? Could he have jumped the string? What if it hit him high?” My mind settles as I see the yellow fletching of my arrow reflect the sunlight. I pick it up and look at the blood coating it – reddish-pink with small bubbles in it. A lung shot – a quick, clean, ethical kill. I breathe easy, knowing he didn’t go far. As I begin to track the blood, it turns from large softball size puddles into small droplets, no larger than lemon seeds. “He must be bleeding internally now,” I think, as I realize this tracking job might be harder than I expected. At 45 yards I completely lose all sign – at a 3-way fork in the path, no less. My training tells me he took the easiest path, but another 2 hours brings me no closer to recovery. I hear the words again. “An unrecovered deer makes you no better than a poacher.” Swallowing my pride, I pick-up my cell phone and call my wife. She’s good at finding lost things – keys, socks, the occasional hand tool that’s sitting directly in front of me. “I’ll meet you at the road,” I tell her as I continue to look for sign. 30 minutes later we’re both back at it. Of course she discovers the next puddle 15 yards away, hidden by high grass. Within half an hour I see the familiar white belly laying under a scrub oak. He went a total of 52 yards as the crow flies. I slowly approach to verify he’s expired. As I kneel down next to him and put my hand on his side, I take a moment of silence in prayerful thanks for the opportunity, an ethical shot, and for the harvest. The Scot’s used to say prayers over their harvest and I believe it’s wholly appropriate. “Life for life,” I whisper as I slowly stand up and prepare him for the trek out. He’ll feed us throughout the next year.