“You sure love to hunt,” my brother said in response to my deer-season recap story of calling a respectable eight-point buck, “but you sure don’t like to kill,” he concluded after having listened to my umpteenth close-encounter tale in over seven seasons of bow hunting and my reasons for passing on the buck.
Few comments have stuck in my head as much as that one has. At the time, I thought maybe he was just pushing my buttons, as a good younger brother should; or maybe, riding high off his own recent bow kill, it was his way of urging me to convert a series of grunt calls into full draw, and full draw into a deer on the ground, to see what it feels like. Or maybe he was just stating the obvious – the kill means far less to me than the hunt.
As I finished out the pheasant season with family and friends over the holidays, the statement crept into my head several times while walking quiet fields which led to small pockets of birds, and did I feel the same way about my winged quarry? But his statement disappeared like cattail fuzz caught on a streaming north wind in the moment.
The adrenaline rush resulting from my lab on point over a holding bird caused my heart to thunder in my ears. When I was lucky enough to have a late season rooster flush, the shot was instinctive. There was never time to pause and think, no opportunity to anthropomorphize and give character to the creature slicing startled through the sky in front of me. Thought was replaced by reaction to a blur of feathers, chased down by a cloud of pellets and gunpowder, triggered by endorphins and the fear of letting my dog down. There was always that mix of solemnity and respect that I get when I gazed upon the face of an eyes-closed rooster, but it faded quickly.
“Think of them as furry walleyes,” a buddy once told me when I was getting ready for my first deer hunt. And to this day, that’s what my first two deer felt like. The first – an eight-pointer no bigger than the one I had passed on this fall – was caught in the crossfire between me and another hunter in the line; the second was a dumb-luck doe the following weekend which just happened to be running to right where we had parked above a small draw, stopping and staring at me just 50 yards from the approach. I was proud of both deer, enjoyed the rush, and the sense of accomplishment, but it took a good deal of envisioning a fur-covered-fish to overcome the connection with the megafauna as they bloodied the back of my truck.
A couple years later, I sat quietly on a hillside overlooking an oak-shrouded river valley, where the former Sheriff I was hunting with talked quietly about his many seasons in the field. The shadows of a mild November afternoon grew long as does and fawns quietly wandered 150 yards below us, unaware of our presence.
“Some day you get to a point where this what matters about hunting,” he said of the eagles soaring above, the deer milling below, and the cool breeze of late fall gently rustling the brown grasses around us.
A few minutes later, I shot my first ten pointer, and I could tell he was right. The deer at my feet meant so much more than a set of antlers on the wall and sausage in the freezer. His wide smile mirrored mine, and his excitement at my achievement was a big part of making his season a successful one without even having to pull the trigger.
In the end, looking back on these seasons and these statements made to me throughout my time as a deer hunter are all probably right in some way. Some days, deer are just furry walleyes and the challenge is finding out how to catch them, so to speak; but in the totality of the season, they’re part of a larger experience of watching, learning, telling stories and making statements of what the hunt truly means…in our outdoors.