There were those three deer moving up through the trees, steadily and swiftly but not too fast, with fleeting 1/2 second shot opportunities.
There were those other three deer (or the same ones on a different day) bedded in a still, thick bowl of dark timber way up in the tops of the hills, who jumped up and looked at me from 30 yards as I fumbled the scope cover before crashing out of sight.
There was that one deer I never saw, crawling closer and closer to a small cattail-riddled pond in the middle of the forest, glassing and cautious as I could be, only to here snort, snort, snort every two seconds, following by a stamp and a crashing of brush.
There were those two deer 80 yards away, giving me the stink eye as I stood where I shouldn’t have been right in the middle of a dry side channel on a river bottom island, shotgun useless at my side, who disappeared into improbable willow thickets.
There was that time I was walking, slowly and near silently, up a trail through an inch of fresh snow cut over and through with deer tracks, when I heard a nervous stamping. I chambered a round a tore my right mitten off, and saw antlers and only antlers off to my right, concealed by the curve of the hill, at 20 yards. Then nothing as the buck and harem of does covered hundreds of yards downhill in seconds.
And finally there was that hillside, striped in one direction with logging roads and the other with 20 year old clearcuts, the steep soil frozen into concrete by temps well below zero. The deer path vanished and after 10 feet of descending I ran out of holds, and slid 30 feet down to the road, smearing and edging my boots. I hit bottom and congratulated myself on staying in control, then turned around and saw two deer 100 yards away, staring at me. I shucked my hipbelt and sternum strap, dropped my pack, got my rifle on it, and clicked off the safety. A clear patch of brown was visible between frozen grass stalks. I took a half second of stillness, and fired.
Since we returned from Utah two weeks ago I’ve been putting all the time I can scape together toward filling two doe tags; one for the core of the Flathead Valley which is available over the counter, the other for a valley a few hours south, which I drew in a lottery over the summer. I thought these tags wouldn’t be too hard, especially the local one. Naturally, that’s the one I’ve been able to put the most hours into, and the one which as of this writing remains unpunched.
Thinking a given hunting project will be easy or at all sure is a stupid thing to think. Hunting is marvelously objective in a way the best outdoor pursuits are: effort and luck and doing all the right things at the right time are only vaguely relevant, and success comes down to only one thing. A lot of worth can come out of a hunt if it does not end with meat in the freezer, but no dead animal still means a failed hunt. To be a hunter is to get a lot more comfortable with failure than most of us will find easy.
The essence of deer hunting is seeing them before they see you. This is why treestands and long-range glassing have become so popular in the respective environments to which they are best suited; they make seeing deer first a lot easier. I find the first extremely boring, and the second only a fair amount less so, and thus have been banging my head against the wall of trying to sneak through the fairly thick woods which makes up local public land without spooking deer left and right. It has not yet worked.
The deer I shot last fall came down to a bit of luck in looking up and freezing at the right moment, aiding by a young deer made dumb by the rut. The deer I shot two months ago came down to good glassing and a quiet enough stalk that didn’t blow the deer out of the basin, enhanced by a young buck made dumb by living in an area which sees very few humans. The doe I shot this weekend was old and big, heavier than either of the aforementioned and as butchering made obvious fattened very well by human crops. Did my luck here come down to the weird manner of my entrance? My quick action at getting into firing position? Some peculiar quirk of that does mind? I’ll never know. What I do know is while 30 is not the precise number of deer I saw running away before I shot this one, I had seen a lot, and had a mind ready to take the chance when it was given.
That deer last fall was the first I had taken as an adult, and a moment marked by overwhelming haze which I can nonetheless recall with perfect clarity. The buck in mid-September was just perfect, perfect calm even after a miss, and a quick and clinical butchering job followed by a grueling but no-drama packout. This deer, whose killing was built up with anticipation at least the equal of the others, is a blur. I shot, the two deer ran away, one stopped after 30 feet, tipped over, kicked the air, and was dead. When I arrived next to it, bright lung blood trailed off on the far side in the snow, as the second deer reached the end of the logging road 300 yards away, looked back, and ran into the trees.
Had I shot both deer? How was there blood on that side of the deer? Had it doubled back when it tipped over? No blood was visible for any of the 300 yards of logging road I had seen the second deer travel, but I did not trust my memory on this, it being largely absent for the shot and immediately after. This is why we train for difficult things, so that in the moment brain and body click together and the job is done on auto, ego and memory as distant observers only.
I concluded that I had not wounded the second deer, and got to work. The doe was immense and heavy, with huge quarters and extensive lobes of fat I took care to harvest (and later melted into lard). The lacing of caul fat, absent entirely in that September buck, was thick and extensive, and later wrapped a seasoned roast which went into the freezer labeled “Christmas.” The rump meat and backstraps where red fading into purple, and made a weighty game bag on all their own. I fried the backstraps in a smidgeon of peanut oil that night and ate them blue-rare with sea salt and paprika. The rump meat was cubbed, cut 4 parts to 1 with deer fat, and ground, then patted into the best burgers I’ve ever had.
The butcher job took twice as long as that September buck, and I welcomed the warm carcasses’ influence on my bare hands in temps which just climbed above zero in the sun. My pack, with just the deer and day gear, felt the equal if not the superior to the load with which I became so intimate two months ago. The hike out was not even a mile, but almost all of it was down a steep slope, frozen and trailless, which wrecked my hamstrings in 20 minutes.
Home, with a freezer very close to full with packaged deer parts, life is good. Messy, scary, intimidating, and confusing, but very very good.