They were out in full force today. As I wound down to town on the back roads, it looked like a parade was about to come through. The edges of the woods were lined with pick-up trucks and SUVs. Every pull-off spot was crammed with vehicles. It is opening day for firearms season here in New Hampshire. The conditions were cold, mid-twenties on the thermometer this morning, and as one hunter put it, “potato chip,” meaning the leaves were dry and crackled loudly as you walked, no one was going to sneak up on anyone.
The laws for hunting private property in this state are a nod to hunters. If you don’t specifically post your land, it is open. Many private landowners have their land classified as in “Current Use.” In order to have a 20% reduction on their property tax, they must allow public access for hunting. There is plenty of incentive on both sides as this allows hunters more freedom of movement if they are tracking the deer, or more choice spots to erect a deer-stand along well-traveled paths. For the landowner, they can post parts near their dwellings and garner a huge tax break.
I have sat in deer-stands in the frosty early mornings, dreaming of my warm bed. I’ve scrambled and climbed, tracking a buck up rocky mountain-sides, keeping a pace just slow enough to not startle him, while maintaining sight of his moves. Neither is easy, nor would it appeal to everyone. I don’t want to debate the moral or ethical issues of hunting. I want to try to present a clearer picture. I came from the side, because of my own demonstrated love of creatures, of instantly judging the sport and condemning the bastards that shot Bambi’s mother. I learned, a true hunter has a tremendous amount of respect for his prey and sees beauty in life in the wild.
I’m not sure I could ever pull the trigger, and the sight of death requires me to remember two important lessons. First, the hunter will consume just about every part of the kill, there is very little waste and it will feed a family. The other lesson was tougher to learn. If the hunter doesn’t take the deer, something else will and it won’t be a split second death. One snowy day I watched two coyotes pursue a doe across a crusty field. They were lighter and on wide, padded feet. The doe’s hooves constantly broke through the crust, she leapt and bogged down. I’m sure her heart was racing and the adrenalin pumping through her was enormous. They took her down slowly, methodically, starting with her rear legs. Deer don’t have ObamaCare, Medicare or any type of long-term planning. To grow old is to die miserably.
Seeing so many folks out this morning, reminded me of tracking deer. Walking as quietly as possible, being aware of every snap of a branch and crunch of a leaf. It feels like your very skin is sensing the world, as well as your ears, eyes and nose. At first you may find where the deer have bedded down. The brown crispy weeds are matted under the low branches of a pine tree. Following tracks barely visible amid the leaves, you watch for deer poop, the fresher the better. Then you turn up the knobs on your senses and scan for a flash of color or the sound of a light footfall. If you are tracking, you don’t have the luxury of being all set up with your gun or camera. You must be able to swing it to your eye and make sure you have a clear shot. More times than not, you don’t. Firing or clicking the shutter will alert your prey and you will be off in pursuit, tracking again. The deer knows these woods better than you ever could. The deer knows these woods in the dark of night as well as the deep shadows of day.
Sitting in a tree-stand would seem the lazy man’s hunting routine. In fact, your presence is well-known. Yes, the stand has been there every day for the deer to walk by, it is safe and predictable. But you must be perfectly still and silent, for hours. Many hunters tell of falling asleep in their stands, this helps explain the harnesses they wear to keep them from crashing to the ground. Sitting that still and silent for hours heightens your senses to the point of overload. You start to tune things out. A chickadee lands near enough to pat, but you dare not acknowledge it. Life collapses into that small space of your body and your breathing. The deer have a bounty of acorns this year. They gorge then bed down, comfortable for the day, while you sit and listen to the wind.
To be balanced here, yes there are bad hunters, just as there are bad dentists and Tour de France winners. They taint the reputation of the sport with gory tragedies and drunken debauchery. A few qualify for the Annual Darwin Awards. But like most things in life, I try not to be judgemental until I have experienced it first-hand as close as my ethics will allow.
My favorite story of the death of a deer, if you could call it that, involved my Jaguar. If you’ve heard this before, my feelings won’t be hurt if you stop reading here. I was on my way home from work one November night years ago. It was dark, that cold, gray dark just after the sun has set. I was following a pick-up truck loaded with construction equipment. As we wound down a hill, a pick-up coming toward us swerved, its lights jerking into our lane. The truck ahead of me swerved as well and hit the brakes. I was far enough back to brake and pull off the road. The drivers of the trucks got out and met in the middle of the road. Illuminated by their headlights, I saw a small deer, lifeless. It had glanced off the first truck and struck its head on the one in front of me. There was no blood, no gore, just a beautiful young buck.
I climbed out of my sedan, and determined I was the only one with a cell phone. They watched as I punched in 911 and told the operator where we were and what had happened. It was bitter cold as I stood there in my suit, pantyhose and heels. The two men suggested I wait in my car until the police arrived. I realized just how out-of-place I looked.
The cruiser stopped, lights blazing and a short round officer stepped out. He was scratching notes on a pad when I approached to ask if I could leave. The other drivers dragged the deer to the side so cars could pass and were discussing who should take the meat. Driver One, “I sure don’t need it, I’ve got a freezer full.” Driver two, “You and everyone else this year, what about Mack?” The officer piped up, “Mack took one that was hit last week. I don’t know who would want this one.”
Me! Pick Me! I spoke up and said if no one wanted it I would be happy to take it home. Thinking quickly, I made a mental note to call a neighbor who did a lot of hunting, get him to pick it up and deliver it back butchered for a small fee. The three men turned and looked at me in disbelief. “How are you gonna get it home? You can’t put a deer in Jaguar!”
“Well not all by myself, dressed like this, but if one of you fine gentlemen would help me, I’m sure it will fit just fine.” I was already opening the trunk and folding down the back seat to accommodate the deer. I even had a sheet of cardboard handy incase it was dirty.
Two of the men collected themselves and deposited the deer in my trunk. The officer was busy calling Fish and Game to arrange for deer-tags for me. As I drove off, my phone chirped. It was the Fish and Game officer asking where to send the tags, but before we got to that, he asked “You don’t really have a dead deer in the back of a Jaguar, do you?”
My next call was to my neighbor who kindly offered to send his son by with a pick-up truck when I got home. No sooner did I swing up my driveway, when two trucks followed. Several teen-aged boys hopped out and sauntered over. “We heard you have a dead deer in the back of your Jaguar and we just wanted to see for sure.”
A week later, the little buck was returned in white butcher paper. Unfortunately, the freezer died a few nights later, the meat all spoiled and I never did get to cook the Deer That Arrived In A Jaguar.