A long dry spell came to an end this past deer season .
I put venison in our freezer. That means lean, healthy deer chili and summer sausage we haven’t had for several years — maybe even deer burgers for those of us with a taste for game.
I honestly don’t remember the last deer I brought home. It was at least five years ago. I do remember every deer I’ve missed over the years, two due to rusty marksmanship and several because they were simply out of range or in the wrong places.
This year was different. Shortly before sunset on the sixth day of deer season, and at the end of my fifth trip to the woods, I had a clear, clean shot at spike buck — the only deer I saw from my stand through the whole season.
I was getting more than a mite discouraged by the time that young buck came into view. Hours and hours of fruitless watching for the slightest movement in the brush, experiencing momentary excitement every time an unseen squirrel rustled through fallen leaves, frosty mornings and simply sitting on a metal bench high in a tree had dulled my enthusiasm. I wasn’t sure I could spend another hour in a tree.
Curious, though, how all the boredom, frustration and weariness of waiting vanishes the instant a deer steps out of the brush. When that young buck came into view Nov. 21 and that single slug from my 30-30 hit home, a wave of relief swept over me. Whatever doubts that had eroded my self esteem as hunter vanished as surely as fog at sunrise.
It was more than luck, more like providence. Not just any deer, that spike was exactly what I was hoping for — a doe or young buck to put in the freezer. I’d already determined I’d pass on a gnarly old stag, no matter the rack. I’ve no use for antlers, no interest in Boone and Crockett records. I just wanted venison for the table. That deer — exactly the right deer — was the only one that presented itself all season, my aim was steady and the shot straight to the heart — all too perfect for coincidence.
I learned to hunt at the feet of my Dad, who certainly enjoyed the sport of it, but primarily went out to put meat on the family dinner table — whether directly as fried rabbit or squirrel, or indirectly from the sale of coon and possum hides. I wasn’t raised to take pleasure in shooting anything just for the pleasure of killing, and I reckon that ethic has stuck with me.
The sporting side of hunting most always involved dogs — listening for beagles to bring a cottontail around through the pastures and briar patches on our brushy Ozarks farm, or following the hounds through the oak woods or along a river bottom while cocking an ear for their distinctive tree barks.
Dad was much more likely to spend scarce money on a hound than on a pricey firearm. He never owned anything but a second-hand Winchester .22 and a patched-up, almost never-used J.C. Higgins 20-gauge.
He never owned a deer rifle — never needed one. Deer were rare when I was a boy, and even when they became more plentiful, Dad reasoned they looked too much like our doe-eyed Jersey cows to shoot.
Deer hunting I had to learn on my own, much of it at the feet of a seasoned old-timer who took me under wing not more than 20 years ago. By then I’d read a lot of magazine articles, but I learned a lot more from his shared experiences.
I yet recall his caution after I took my first deer early on opening day. “It ain’t always that easy.” He knew something about dry spells, too.
I reckon that’s bit of wisdom has something to do with keeping me going to the woods year-after-year, day-after-day, sunshine or snow. Like the sublime joy of seeing rain at the end of a long drought, putting meat on the table brings a particular satisfaction I find hard to explain — food for a hunter’s self esteem, as well as hot chili when December snows pile deep.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer and former editor of the Buffalo Reflex. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. © James E. Hamilton 2019.