Note: If you don’t want to read about killing animals for food, you may not want to read this
This past Friday was November 15, a date that until recently meant nothing to me. I didn’t know it was Michigan’s Opening Day for firearm deer season, but I do now.
For a long time now, Rob and Mark have offered to take me along hunting, but until Friday I’d never taken them up on their offer. Now that I am a Michigander and country-boy in training*, it was high time I head into the woods in orange and camo.
*The fact that I would write something like ‘country-boy in training’ is proof I have a long way to go in my rural education
Things have been very busy lately– it turns out buying a house is a complicated, confusing, and time-consuming process. It’s hard to get outside on a regular basis when there are inspections, meetings, and piles of papers to sign. I haven’t been fishing much; I haven’t been doing much besides ‘house stuff.’ (That’s not entirely true; I’ve been super busy at work, and have started working on this year’s Christmas album in what little downtime there’s been.)
So just before sunrise, I was sitting in a tree stand in the woods with Rob.
“We’ve got four minutes to legal shooting time,” he whispered.
It had been pitch black when they pulled up in my driveway, pitch black when we arrived at the farm, pitch black when I put on borrowed camo and my orange vest, and pitch black when we hiked across the cornfields carrying guns and gear. It was still dark when Rob got the tree stand up as I watched, completely useless. I have a lot to learn.
We heard the first shot before it was light enough to see anything. Michigan’s firearm deer season was on.
“And so it begins,” said Rob.
I’ve read a lot about hunting, even though I’d never been, don’t own a gun, and don’t have enough camo of my own to cover even the upper half of my body. But I love being in the woods, I love seeing wild animals, and above all I’m interested in procuring my own food.
This was the original appeal of fishing: swimming meals, figure out how to catch them and you’ve got food. Of course fishing has become so much more to me than a way to eat, but the original allure is still there.
I’m a fan of venison. I like duck and quail; I have an inexplicably strong desire to cook squirrels and rabbits. Maybe even woodchucks.
Of course I could just ask my friends to save me some meat from their hunting and trapping adventures, but why have others do what you can do yourself?
Not to mention all the fly tying supplies that come “packaged” with wild game.
So there we were, sitting in a tree. We sat there, as still as possible, for a very long time. With each minute that passed I got colder and colder, wishing I’d put on just a few more layers. It wasn’t that cold out– above 40°F I believe– but I didn’t realize how cold that could be when you don’t move.
Apparently deer can’t see so well, but they can pick out movement. If they smell you or they see you move, they get spooked and prance away… So the key, at least in this type of hunting, is to sit still and be very quiet.
When a pair of does finally appeared, it was incredibly exciting. It was almost magical when they appeared out of nowhere. Their brown fur was perfect camouflage for the woods; when they stood still they disappeared into the trees.
The morning was long stretches of silence and cold punctuated by excited whispers of “Deer! Straight ahead!”
This part was almost exactly what I expected, except for the number of deer.
I honestly didn’t think we’d see any deer. I thought it was normal to get “skunked” (or whatever hunters call it) and only on rare occasions did you actually see deer, and only when the stars aligned just right did you actually get a shot.
But was saw lots of deer. So many deer. More deer than I’d ever seen in my life.
An hour (or two or three?) into the season, amid the fairly regular sounds of far away shots, we heard some shots that were very close. That had to be Mark, who was in a different tree nearby.
We sat there, watching deer everywhere. Deer across the field, deer deep in the woods, deer walking through the woods. At one point a group of does in the field apparently smelled us and made a beeline for the safety of the woods. They passed within inches of our tree; they were so close I could make out the whiskers on their heads, their large eyes, and even the burrs covering their backs. It was magical.
And then there was a pair of does that seemed close enough for a good shot.
“You might want to cover your ears,” said Rob.
As he slowly moved his rifle into position,
a few inches above my head (actually it wasn’t close to my head at all, I just thought it was because it was so friggin’ loud!), I did– my frozen mittened hands covered my earholes. I realized I was shaking, probably from the cold but perhaps also with the excitement of what was about to happen.
It happened very quickly. I was watching the pair of does; I saw the bigger one stop, its broad side facing us, a nice opening in the woods almost framed it between the trees.
And then there was a ridiculously loud sound, the doe jumped a little, let out a kind of grunt, and fell to the ground.
My heart was racing; I imagine Rob’s was too. Suddenly everything was silent; the millions of squirrels and birds that had been making a racket in the dry leaves had suddenly disappeared. All was quiet.
And then, all at once, the woods erupted in deer.
Deer everywhere– suddenly the woods was full of white tails and brown fur, bounding over logs and crunching in the leaves. There were so many of them.
“They must have been bedded down over there,” whispered Rob.
Some of the deer went to the doe on the forest floor. Some of them pranced away as quickly as possible. Eventually the deer were gone, and we were once again alone in the woods.
We sat there for a while longer; Rob had a buck tag too. Mark had texted that he got both a doe and a buck. Rob wanted to stick around a bit more in case a buck wandered by.
But we didn’t see any bucks. After a while we descended from the tree stand, shook hands, and walked over to the fallen deer.
It was much farther away than I thought. From the stand, I guessed it had been 20 or 30 yards away, but in fact it was much farther. The deer had fallen just on the other side of a log, and was laying in the leaves.
There was a splash of paint-like blood coming from the exit wound; the red covered a small area of leaves, making vibrant an otherwise dull patch of ground. The bullet had hit the deer much higher and farther back than Rob intended, but the deer had died quickly without suffering. We were both grateful for that.
Standing there in the woods, this impressively large animal on the ground, its blood spilled, killed; I considered how I felt.
Before the hunt, I thought I would be very sad; I thought I would mourn the loss of life and perhaps decide hunting was not for me. I expected the sight of blood to make me reconsider the killing of mammals.
And I was a little sad; after all, this great animal had just died.
But this great animal would feed Rob and his family for the next year. In the death of the doe was life for us. It could be argued that she wouldn’t have died that day if we had stayed home, and that’s probably true. But eventually something would kill that deer. She hadn’t suffered the way she would have if a pack of coyotes or a speeding F-150 killed her. One shot one kill.
Of course I wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger. I don’t know how I will feel the first time I take the life of an animal like that, although I have some experience with smaller animals. I was almost despondent the first time I killed a small brook trout. The fact that I did not cook it well only made things worse.
Since then I’ve somewhat come to terms with this truth: for us to survive, other things must die, there is no way around that. Whether we have a hand in it or not, living things will be killed so that we may live. Even vegetables: farmers kill thousands of animals a year to protect their crops.
There is a choice: get your food from the grocery store where it’s possible to ignore this fact, or look it in the eyes, literally. Surely there is a middle ground between blissful ignorance of your packaged ground meat and murdering a large deer, but in the end the result is the same.
I want to face this reality head-on, even if only a small part of my food comes from the wild.
When Rob opens his freezer and pulls out some venison roast in a few months, I have a feeling he will remember this morning and the doe he took, and his respect for the beautiful animal will mingle with his desire to eat a delicious meal.
I put my hand on the deer and was surprised by its warmth, shockingly warm compared to the frigid air. I’d never been this close to a deer.
I offered to take some pictures for Rob and proceeded to take about twenty. Maybe I was cold, maybe I was excited.. maybe I just wanted to get a good shot.
As it turns out, hunting deer is more than sitting in a tree waiting for a good shot. There is the whole process after the shot.
After hiking back to the truck and parking it at the edge of the cornfield, we half-carried half-dragged the deer through the woods. It was heavy and difficult work. I was winded almost immediately, which made me wonder how one would do this alone. I also wondered how out of shape I was.
We got the deer in the truck and drove to meet Mark. When we arrived, Mark had already gutted both of his deer, his hands and camo jacket and camo pants covered in blood. A few years ago a sight like that– a pair of dead deer with open chest cavities in front of me– would have been shocking, but I knew that was part of hunting even if I’d never actually experienced it.
Rob gutted his deer, which I thought was strangely similar to cleaning a fish. Except the organs were much bigger. And there was fur. I’ve had stuck in my head that I want to gut and process my own deer, and seeing a deer gutted did not dissuade me. (Of course butchering a deer is much more complicated and time consuming…)
Before we hoisted the deer in to the truck, we took some more pictures. Some of them were silly.
We drove across the two lane road to the dairy farm and rinsed out the deer, our hands, and the asphalt which had become bloody. Back into the truck went the deer, back across the road we went.
The camp stove went on the tailgate, the bacon went in the cast iron skillet, and country music was played from the truck’s radio.
I have a feeling that this part of the hunt was as important as the rest of it, if not more so. Cooking breakfast in a cornfield, talking smack about Mark’s small buck, enjoying the outdoors– that must be part of the experience.
It certainly was for me.
On the ride to the Stegink’s, who would “process” (butcher) the deer, I fell asleep dreaming of hunting and guns and trucks and tree stands and venison roast and venison barbacoa and venison jerky and venison tacos and venison with red chiles and venison molé…
Note: If you don’t want to read about killing animals for food, you may not want to read this