The deer hunter
Nine am, the second morning. Noise-lessly and with a certain majesty the young buck picked its way through the brush, its movements well-suited to this country of thick bush, poplar and willow. At first just an outline obscured by the tangle of branches and twigs, it became wholly visible only when it moved between bushes, perhaps 75 yards from my tree stand.
I eased the safety off and moved the rifle quickly into firing position so I could see the deer in the crosshairs. I began shaking as I caught sight of the antlers - not large, but big enough to confirm it was a legal kill. 'Come on', I thought, as I willed the animal into a position where I could get off a good shot.
For a second it disappeared altogether, but came out of the brush into a clear patch, the early morning sun gleaming off its back. Crack! My first shot echoed through the forest. The animal kept on moving as if nothing had happened - a good sign as a near miss usually sends the deer sprinting for cover. I pulled back the bolt and pushed the next shell into the chamber of my Winchester .257 in one motion. As the deer walked between thick bushes I fired off another round. This time I saw the impact, but the animal still kept going. Now, only 50 yards away, it emerged into a clearing, limping. I squeezed off one more shot and it collapsed.
Before sunrise on the first day of the hunting season we had driven up through the wooded hills of Potter County, Pennsylvania. The headlights caught four or five deer at the edge of a field before they disappeared into the bush, flashing their white tails at us. When my guide dropped me off in the pitch-black, he assured me that I would see them again later that day.
Deer hunting requires several key ingredients. First, you must have a party of perhaps six or seven guys to drink whiskey and trade stories with after the hunt. One of our party seemed to have come only for this. My guide sneeringly referred to him as a 'social hunter'. Second, you need somebody willing to serve breakfast at 5am - preferably somebody whose hobbies include butchering deer. Next, you need patience. On the first day I spent nine hours in a tree-stand 15 feet above the floor. Deer have extremely good sight (do not move), hearing (do not wear anything that could rustle), and smell (do not piss, spit, or sneeze anywhere near the tree stand). And you need warm clothes: blowing snow and 10 degrees of frost went through all my five layers after a few hours of sitting still.
We enjoy it
After the deer flopped to the ground I waited for a few seconds to be sure it did not move; then, remembering the advice I had been given, carefully memorised its position. There is a chance that the deer will suddenly get up and bolt into the bush, necessitating a tracking expedition. I climbed down to the ground like a child coming down the stairs at Christmas, missing some of the wooden slats in my excitement. As I hurried over to the spot where I had seen the deer drop, I shoved another .257 Roberts shell into the chamber, just in case. For one panicky moment I thought I had lost it. But there it was.
Shivering in my tree stand, I had plenty of time to consider some of the discussions about hunting. It is a fallacy, I concluded, that hunters hunt because they are concerned about pest control and ecological hazards caused by excess populations of deer, foxes, bears etc. We hunt, first and foremost, because we enjoy hunting.
In pursuit of that enjoyment, hunters come to know their quarry and appreciate them more than any non-hunter. We have a purpose, and a reason to study their movements and habits - unlike animal rights activists, who seem to derive their understanding of nature straight from the script of Bambi. Moreover, to shoot a deer and turn it into a trophy is to enoble it. As our quarry, it acquires a significance beyond its own dumb existence. The only purpose in the life of the deer is that bestowed on it by the hunter. Without us, it would live and die uselessly in the forest, no good to anybody. However, I did resolve that if I heard one deer say to another 'Bambi, run and whatever you do, don't look back!', I would forswear hunting forever.
Discussions about animal rights are rare in Potter County. A million Pennsylvanian hunters abandon their jobs, wives and children for a few days every fall to harvest close to half a million deer. Schools close for the first day of the deer- hunting season, shops advertise 'deer widow' sales for the wives left at home. Stopping at a gas station in a university town, I expected abuse when two young women came towards the car. Had I driven a car loaded with two dead deer through an English campus, I might have been lynched. But when these women said 'awww' as they looked at the deer, it was only because 'my husband didn't get anything this year'.
As I got closer to the fallen animal I was struck by how large it was, perhaps 120-130 pounds. It was a four-pointer (four prongs to its antlers), a respectable size but no prize-winner. An experienced hunter might have been disappointed with this rack but I was just happy to get one at all. After admiring my kill for a few moments I became aware again of the icy winds and the temperature of minus 10 degrees, which I had forgotten in my excitement. As I gutted the creature, I found that the steaming entrails warmed my frozen hands, making the experience less unpleasant than anticipated. Then the hard part: dragging the carcass by the antlers a half-mile through the bush.
As my buddy and I strapped our two deer onto the roof of his car, we received the backslapping congratulations of the rest of the party and the grudging approval of our guide. And we still had the triumph of driving past the thousands of hunters who had not yet bagged their deer. Besides taking home the sights and sounds of the Pennsylvania hills, I also took home 40 pounds of venison steak. Perhaps the greatest moment of the trip is still to come. Honey, get the red wine sauce ready.
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997