The only thing worse than missing
I’ve developed a case of hunter’s elbow. The lateral tendons in my left arm are swollen and bitchy from carrying a 6 pound shotgun in cradle for many hours over the last few weeks.
When we returned from Utah two weeks ago general season was open, putting an effectively endless selection of areas at my disposal, and a sense of urgency in my hunting. The only way to put luck on your side for certain is to overwhelm the equation in your favor, and the only way to do that is to be out in the field a bunch. Fortunately there’s a little wildlife management area 10 minutes away. A few patches of woodlands sandwiched between fields, roads, and a river, hunting it feels like being back in the midwest. You can’t use a rifle there, but you can use a shotgun or muzzleloader, and you can shoot does as well as bucks. I’ve seen deer everytime I’ve been out there in the last two weeks, but they’re whitetails who get lots of pressure and are as you’d expect very alert. All I’ve seen of 90% of these deer has been their tails already running from me. The other 10% always run off before I can comfortably close the distance. I didn’t bother to work up a load for my muzzleloader this summer, so I’ve been carrying my Citori and some 7/8 oz rifled slugs. Not a tool I’m comfortable using beyond 50 yards.
Last night I decided that I might as well get up early today and hunt the management area again. With the time switch daylight post-work is non-existent, and any time I don’t have an appointment before 10 is prime for hunting. With mere weeks of the season left, I feel obligated to use every chance.
The dark morning was foggy, drizzly, and 35 degrees. Good conditions for tamping down noise. Most of the snow which fell last week has been eviscerated by rain, which makes tracking and reading sign harder. I had it in my head to hunt a certain route for the third time in two weeks. Each time before I’d spooked dear out of the brush patches, and still hunting through the ponderosa groves and thickets from fenceline to road would take exactly the amount of time I had to give. As usual, there was plenty of fresh sign: scat and tracks from several different deer which were obviously hours old at most. I tried to be silent, and tried to be patient. Still hunting is the antithesis of the walking I’ve trained my legs to do over the past six years, and I have to concentrate quite a bit to do it well. Fast walking is surely why I’ve seen so many deer tails this autumn.
I was nearing a particularly thick band of brush, which lies a few acres of open forest and then the road, when I looked up and saw a deer walking towards me, perhaps 70 yards away. I froze. I’d seen deer in the same patch of brush every time before, but I was still surprised. Add in that the deer obviously hadn’t seen me, was walking quickly towards me on the same trail I had been following, and was a fat, sleek, forky buck, and heart rate was instantly through the roof. It’s a cliche of hunting literature to talk about this effect, but that doesn’t make it any less true or potent. As the buck closed to 40 yards without looking up I felt like I was on my singlespeed, having barely cleared the sixth successive steep climb. Heart in my throat at well over 180 bpm, trying to gasp silently for air, black edging in to the outside of my vision. Passing out while standing in wet grass holding a shotgun at your side would be ridiculous, but seemed like a real possibility. The deer stopped at perhaps 25 yards, and stared at me. He stared some more. He took a sideways step, stomped his front feet, and grunted. One part of his brain was obviously at war with another, and I had no choice but to be very still, try to not pass out, and hope the part which saw me as just a really weird tree won. After a few minutes it did, and he turned broadside and put his head down behind a small bush to eat some grass. I shouldered the shotgun, snicked the safety off, lined up the white beads, and squeezed the trigger. I saw a puff of white fur and pink phelgm blossom above his side as the deer took off at a full run. I walked the thirty yards and saw the patches of white hair and pink flesh speckling the snow.
For a reason I cannot recall or begin to express, I was immediately convinced I had shot high, creased his back, and wounded the deer. A wound bad enough to make him suffer and perhaps die, or maybe only be vulnerable to coyotes. The cycles of self-loathing, for fucking up such a gimme shot and for wounding an animal, were immediate and vigorous. Should have practiced with slugs more. Should have been more patient. Should have got that damn muzzleloader, with its aperture sights, in working order. Given that I was obviously a failure as a hunter, giving up for the season or forever seemed reasonable. I didn’t see a blood trail, and was only able to follow the bounding, 12-foot apart tracks for so long. I circled back towards the car and eventually crept back towards were I had shot, but on a game trail closer to the dense thicket. I couldn’t move through the thicket without spooking anything in it, but maybe the deer was wounded badly enough that I’d be able to get another shot while he was bedded. This seemed highly improbable, but I was morally obligated to run through all my options. It was still very early in the morning.
After 20 minutes I was back at the clearing where I had shot, staring at the blood and tissue in the snow. Those sure do look like lung fragments. Here are his footprints, and hey, here’s a spatter of bright blood you inexplicably missed before. Good thing you didn’t step on it, only right next to it. Eight feet further is another, and six more another, all the right side of the path. Creasing his back wouldn’t cause such an entry wound. More spatters, well spaced but obvious, and always on the right side of the path, led a further hundred yards. I was searching for the next sign when I looked a bit further left, and saw a deer laying by a log. The little buck I had shot. I walk over, and see a big 12 gauge hole a hair behind the front leg and perfectly centered. Not only had I made an ideal shot and convinced myself otherwise, and walked for 60 yards along the correct path without seeing the blood trail, I had passed within 50 yards of the deer when he was undoubtedly already dead.
The most important thing I got from this deer, beyond relief from self-inflicted pressure, a beautiful memory, and a big pile of fat venison, is confidence in myself.
The strength of my conflicting emotions made the moment a bit muted. Ecstatic whoops don’t quite seem appropriate over the warm body of a fellow creature, while at the same time our staid musings on the ontological implications of death are surely not shared by deer. I had fulfilled my obligations by not having him suffer long, and the deer had fulfilled his obligations by doing what he could to not be shot. I laughed a little, cried a little, shouted a little, jumped a little, and knelt a little, then got to work dragging the remarkably heavy deer towards the road. He may have been mostly spike and only a little bit forky, but this deer was exceedingly well fed. Laced with fat and with a stomach absolutely full to bursting with masticated grains, even gutted I could barely get him up on the road, and absolutely could not get him on the roof of our tiny car. He got folded into the back, barely, with the chest cavity propped upright to minimize blood spillage.
I hunted deer growing up, but that consisted of practicing with my bow and sitting in the stand I was told to. This fall, my mind has been reaching out amongst the trees, constantly searching and obsessed. Sitting in the garage a few hours ago, completing the skinning with a cup of coffee steaming on the workbench and favorite songs in the background, I could feel much of that energy returning back to me. The best learning is measured in months, and is in the end written in blood. Happiness is far too small a word.