My father had a wry observation about deer hunting. “You wait for days for a few seconds of action,” he'd say. Dad knew from decades of experience that northwoods whitetails never come easy. Which is precisely why he loved hunting for them.
Dad hunted deer year-round, although he only carried a gun during hunting season. For him, hunting deer was about knowing the animal and the place where it lives, which he would visit throughout the year. It was about the preparation for the hunt, from reloading ammunition to building deer stands to oiling his hunting boots. It was about memories of past hunts from epic snowstorms to fun with friends to the many times when his path coincided with a wary buck. It was about eating venison, being with friends and, just as importantly, being alone out there. Never did he head into the woods without the expectation of getting a deer, yet never was he disappointed when on most days he did not. There was always another day or another hunting season.
A friend of mine puts it another way. He likes to point out that every day you spend hunting and don't shoot a deer brings you one day closer to your next successful hunt. Such an attitude can carry you through the inevitable dry spells which occasionally bedevil every deer hunter.
Every now and then luck runs the other way and you shoot a deer on opening morning, perhaps right at the break of the day. For me, such openers are bittersweet, because I enjoy the hunt more than the kill. One opener, I happened to see a distant buck walk across a county road. I had a good idea of where the deer was headed and hustled down a logging trail to intercept it, climbing into an old tree stand built by a bear hunter. I'd barely settled into the stand when the eight-pointer stepped out and then proceeded to walk directly under the tree.
The buck wasn't trophy-sized, but he was plump and sleek. For whatever reason—mostly because it was opening morning—I decided not to shoot him. Instead, I just aimed the rifle and silently said, “Bang.” My hunting companions thought I was crazy.
“You'll pay for that,” they said.
And they were right. I didn't shoot a deer that year or the following season. And I hunted for six days the third year before coinciding with a buck shortly after dawn on a snowy morning. It was the culmination of a dry spell of epic proportions. But you know what? I enjoyed every minute of the three-year hunt.
Killing a deer, even a big buck, is vastly overrated. While the point of hunting is to kill something, it isn’t what the hunt is all about. Cave drawings and other ancient artworks demonstrate that even our ancestors understood the sum of hunting was greater than the kill. In fact, about the only people who don’t seem to get it are the antler-addled nimrods who dominate hunting television and magazines. Sorry, but killing a buck so you can stroke its antlers and coo over how big they are is just plain creepy.
Out in the real world, it doesn’t happen that way. Sure, the average hunter gets plenty excited when he or she kills a big buck, but even for a serious hunter, such a kill is an occasional occurrence. Shooting a trophy is not the reason they go hunting.
What motivates the average hunter has more to do with living than killing. It’s about getting away from the day-to-day grind, spending quality time with family and friends, breathing fresh air and enjoying the sense of freedom that comes with getting up in the morning and knowing all you have to do for the day is go hunting. Shooting a deer may be important, but not nearly so much as all of the above.
It is fair to say a whole lot of hunters buy a license and head to deer camp solely for social reasons. Some may be lucky to kill a deer once a decade. Others are happy to serve as camp cook. A few never make it to the woods. All have fun.
For me, deer hunting is about the social aspects and about the wild, too. It usually takes a day or two in the woods before I really settle into the hunt. My senses must adjust to a slower, predatory pace. It takes a while before I can see through the trees, hear the whispers of the forest or smell the faint, but unmistakable scent of a nearby whitetail.
Once my senses get to where they need to be, I am truly in another place. Just what that means is hard, if not impossible, to explain to someone who doesn’t hunt or even to some who do. About all I can say is once your senses are tuned to the natural world, you understand what it truly means to be a hunter.
My hunting partner, no stranger to that special hunting place, puts it another way.
“Deer season,” he says, “is the only two weeks of the year when they let you wander around in the woods carrying a big gun.”
True enough. Hunting is about the opportunity to carry the gun in the woods and not just about whatever chance you may have to pull the trigger.
Airdate: November 5, 2010