The hunt, and its intended consequence, the kill, are driven by some savage predilection that I have tried to examine and comprehend to no avail. Like the scent of searing red meat on an open fire, the approach of a deer triggers some prehistoric urge in a dark cave of my psyche that is best left unexplored.
All by myself
Ninety minutes. Two hours at most. That’s as long as I can sit on-stand over a deer trail.
One of the Over the Hill Gang told me some years ago, “If you could just stay in one tree stand all morning, you’d shoot your deer first day of the season – every year.” That’s probably true. That’s also impossible for me.
I have to move around.
A 5:30 a.m. sentinel’s post is the least challenging for my wanderlust. Time seems to pass quickly as the snow-covered woods makes its fascinating pre-sunrise transition from a monochromatic, two-dimensional diorama into a multihued, wind-animated forest landscape of infinite depth. I have stealthily insinuated myself into a stage production both as audience and minor actor to observe and support the performances of a pair of raccoons, a chorus of a dozen black-capped chickadees, a squirrel who provides narration, and five turkey clowns for comic relief. In the best of these morning dramas a heavy-antlered buck – or even better a matronly three-year-old doe – will make an appearance and boost my cameo part to a major role. Most mornings are not action scripts, however, and before the sun has climbed a hand’s width above the horizon I have become restless and ready to move on to another theater.
This impatience makes me an unreliable and irksome team member in post-and-drive deer hunts, the preferred tactic for most hunters in this part of the upper Midwest. I have been involved in these hunts two different years, neglected my posting assignments, and was not invited back. That was best for everyone involved, including me since I did not much like these military style search-and-destroy operations that are an efficient way to kill a lot of deer but do not have much to do with hunting – at least not with the type of hunting I enjoy. It’s like parading a marching band across the stage in the midst of an elegant and flowing modern dance performance.
But my inability to sit still for long also jeopardizes my solo deer hunts, I must admit. I recall mornings, maybe a dozen, that I have found myself awkwardly suspended on a ladder halfway between tree stand and forest floor when a deer has made a sudden and wraithlike appearance well within bow range. We shared a few time-frozen moments staring at one another, me in irritated frustration and the deer in surprised bemusement. Or maybe amusement. These embarrassments are mine alone, however, not shameful failures that annoyed the drivers who were depending on me to fill-out their quota of deer tags, so I only have to deal with disappointment, not guilt.
(I’m not a good deer driver, either. I tend to wander off in directions counter to the line-of-march laid out on the strategic map of the hunt, so I arrive at designated checkpoints late and from unexpected compass points, disrupting the operation for everyone.)
The best course for someone with my “mobility issues” is to hunt alone. All by myself. All deer seasons: bow, muzzle-loader, rifle out West, and especially the shotgun season here in the North Country. Accordingly, I have closed our small farm to gun hunting (although we still grant permission for bow hunters and muzzle-loader hunters on our place) so that I can isolate myself from the orange armies of December.
The orange “uniform” itself has become an anathema for me, despite my understanding of its contribution to hunter safety. Deer do not see colors well, we are told, but they do see the huge blob of an orange-clad hunter, and the winter songbirds can most assuredly see colors and are constantly sending out warnings of “intruder in the woods!”
The other forest creature that clearly sees orange is me, uncomfortably aware that I look out-of-place as a giant fire hydrant or an emergency police phone booth that has somehow been dropped into the wild. I make the morning hike into the woods wearing an orange coat and hat, but in violation of game regulations and protocols I open my pack and change to a camo parka and balaclava when I am settled in on station. When my patience has run its course and I must move on to a new post I put the orange hat on, knowing that not every hunter in the township respects my property lines. Maybe I’ll be shot for a roaming bear or a yeti one of these days, but I’m pushing 70 and have decided that is better than gasping out my final breaths in a hospital bed with a dozen tubes and wires attached to my frail body.
This, then, is how it came to pass that I was alone in my woods on the third day of this firearm deer season, sitting astride a fallen tree, my fourth post of a day’s hunt that began hours before sunrise, looking down the steep face of the bluff onto the southwest corner of our farm. The previous night’s wind-driven, three-inch snowfall had coated the south side of every tree and shrub, leaving the north sides black and bare, and as the midday temperature slowly rose above freezing the gusts of wind caused gobs of snow to fall from branches and trunks, spattering me with slush now and then but helping conceal my movement from the eyes of any deer wandering through.
Ghostlike, as they almost always arrive, a large doe and her grown fawn appeared in an open patch of woods to my left, halting at the edge of the deep gorge that splits the bluff, statues that moved only their ears to locate each distant gunshot down in the river valley to the west. It was a long shot, one I decided I would take only if I could be sure of hitting, so I slid inch-by-inch off the log into a sitting position on the ground, braced my elbows on my legs, locked the scope’s crosshairs on the doe’s shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
She went down at the shot and never moved, a great relief to me since I half expected she would struggle to her feet and fall into the gorge so sheer and steep that I would have to quarter her to drag her out. I waited 10 minutes, watching her through the scope to be sure she was dead, then stood and began the long slip-and-slide walk down the snow-covered slope. The fawn scampered away before I had moved within 50 yards.
I knelt beside the doe, perhaps the biggest I have killed, awed as always by the beauty of this animal, especially the graceful curve of neck and the bunched muscles of the shoulders and rump. A unicorn’s head and face. This most elusive of game animals, how could a hunter not want to capture it, possess it? The hunt, and its intended consequence, the kill, are driven by some savage predilection that I have tried to examine and comprehend to no avail. Like the scent of searing red meat on an open fire, the approach of a deer triggers some prehistoric urge in a dark cave of my psyche that is best left unexplored.
Touching the flank of the doe, I apologized to her for taking her life, explaining that her body would nourish me and my family through the winter, that we are all animals in the cycle of life and must all take life to sustain our own. I always do this, and the deer’s eyes always regard me with an unforgiving stare, it seems to me. The ambiguity of the hunt: joy and sadness in the same moment.
After field dressing the doe, I looked up the bluff. A memorable hunt was over; a hard, hour-long drag was ahead. Best put on my orange hat.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page