As I write this, I can barely feel my hands as I sit 20 feet up in a cedar tree during the second week of November – supposedly, during the peak of the whitetail rut. Despite countless hours of scouting, hanging stands, checking cameras, and learning deer movements, I have yet to see a deer.
I’m in a tree, in the cold, waiting on a deer that will more than likely not show up. He’s probably not even in this county anymore – I sarcastically think to myself. As the cold wind continues to bite my hands to the point where I can barely type, I wonder for about the one-thousandth time – why am I doing this again?
I could be at home getting caught up around the house or getting ahead on my workload for the weekI could be catching up on sleep that I so desperately need, or at a micro-brewery drinking a craft pale ale like every other millennial on a Friday night.
Before I can even finish the thought, I look up just in time to see a 6-point buck walk into view out of the brush, skating along the damp, quiet forest floor, almost completely silent. He wanders by completely oblivious to my existence.
Oh yeah – that’s why.
Explaining to a non-hunter what that moment means to me is almost not even worth the trouble. My mind flashes to a handful of my latest memories while hunting this year and a smile erupts under my face mask. I instantly remember why I do this.
It’s easy to get caught up in the end product. The picturesque low-angle camera shot holding a wide dark set of antlers. Buddies high-fiving, telling the story to friends with admiration (and a hint of jealousy) in their eyes. I would unbuckle the old fixed blade knife my great grandfather used to use to butcher fish while working as a fish monger on the streets of Brooklyn – preparing to gut, hang, and then butcher the animal. I can’t help but think - “I bet he’s smiling down on this moment right now”.
I jump back to the 6-point buck about to leave the trail and enter the field, anxiously looking for a doe that thinks he’s handsome enough to want to make baby deers with him (I’m kidding - I know they are called fawns). He gets to live another day – chasing does around the cut bean fields, digging up the last of this year’s white oak acorns, knocking antlers with other bucks as they compete for food and females.
I remember that these moments are why I hunt.
My grandfather was an extraordinary hunter, and one of the most instrumental role models and teachers in my life. I heard countless stories during family dinners, barbecues, and hunting trips of his adventures. He taught me much of what I know about hunting – how to hunt smart and ethically, how to shoot a gun, how to track a deer - but most importantly, he taught me why we hunt.
His stories never started with the score of a deer/elk/moose antler, its current ranking in the SCI record books, or that it was one of five animals killed as part of one of the many “grand slams” he achieved over his life. It always started with a moment – and oftentimes, not the one you would think. Something along the lines of “you should have seen the look on Nino’s face when … (you fill in the blank – it probably actually happened).
Stories of villages in Africa and South America where the local community would literally beg him to hunt a rogue buffalo that was terrorizing their farms. Stories of plane crashes in the Alaskan bush, getting tracked and hunted BY a grizzly bear, having a black mamba fall out of a tree onto his back… Spending days on a dog sled or snowmobile blasting around the arctic tundra trying to keep up with the eskimos (as a 70+ yr old man).
There are some hunts he wouldn’t talk about in full detail, and he took those details to his grave. Whether they were too frightening to tell his family, to emotional to talk about, too meaningful and personal to him – or a combination of all three - will never be known. My mind always wandered to those stories as I pryed for answers as an aspiring young hunter – but they were left untold.
He hunted for those memories and moments that would forever be engrained in his mind and the minds of his companions. Moments so personal and meaningful that no picture or video could capture it. You had to be there.
Although these stories are often told around fires and dinner tables, the impact they have had on those involved cannot be articulated. They form and shape character; they’re in integral part of self – development that can only be unlocked through experience. That’s what keeps us coming back. That’s why after four days spent in the back country searching for a mule deer in an area that apparently is void of any mule deer – you strap your backpack back on and take off for the next peak.
I challenge you not to post a picture of the next animal that you harvest on Instagram, Facebook, or any other form of social media. Don’t send the picture out to anyone except your closest family members or significant other. Let that moment be yours – and that animal’s – whose life you have taken to satisfy your deep-rooted primal instincts as the ultimate predator. Let that moment be sacred.
Remember why you hunt.