Brenda Valentine, The First Lady of Hunting, said back in the day, you were lucky to see a track in her home state of Tennessee, much less a deer.
When she was about 12 years old and working in the tobacco field, Valentine saw her first whitetail. She said people came from all over just to see the tracks, convinced Valentine had lost her mind. Some of the local folk had no clue what the tracks were, speculating a goat or calf had scampered off the farm.
With a paltry 2,000 deer left in the 1940s, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency began a restoration effort that stretched into the 1980s, releasing 9,000 deer during that time. With the herd approaching nearly a million deer now, 45 percent of Tennessee hunters bag at least one, a figure that would have made hunters from previous decades gasp in amazement.
TWRA had just opened limited parts of the state for deer hunting when Valentine joined the "red coats," the hue of choice before blaze orange. She hunted hard for three years without seeing so much as a tail twitch. Still brimming with determination, 18-year-old Valentine was hunting with a group of friends at Natchez Trace State Park near Lexington when her luck changed.
Valentine carried an open sight Model 94 Winchester .30-.30 on that cold, clear morning. She hiked a gas line to the highest point she could get to and sat down on the ground. After sitting on an oak ridge throughout the morning, Valentine began trudging back to camp to get a bite to eat with her fellow hunters. When she topped a hill, she saw a deer at the bottom.
"It surprised me so much I never shouldered the rifle and aimed but pulled up and shot the lever action from the hip by instinct. Guess I'd been watching too many "Rifleman" TV shows!"
After dropping the small buck in its tracks with a cartridge she had carried so long she had "worn the shiny off of it," Valentine did what she had seen successful hunters do in Outdoor Life and Field and Stream photos.
"They were always shown packing out their bucks over their shoulders, so I thought that was the only way to do it," she said. "I somehow got that deer wrapped around my neck where I could hold onto the feet and carry my rifle while walking the mile or so back to camp.
"I didn't field dress it before carrying it, which was a mistake not to lighten the load. By the time I got there, it had bled all the way from my ponytail into my boots."
Valentine said there was no need to announce to her friends that she had scored. The entire camp witnessed her marching in, grinning, sweating, bloody and sporting a deer collar.
Since that day years ago, Valentine, TV show host, author, spokeswoman for the NWTF and member of the RedHead Pro Hunting Team, has killed many deer. As Valentine pointed out, there are a lot more deer now, which makes it easier to be successful.
She acknowledges that hunting technology has come a long way but is adamant that nothing can replace good woodsmanship skills honed from actual in-the-field experience.
When Valentine first started hunting, it was all about the meat. She firmly believes that today's hunters can place too much emphasis on what the antlers scored, which is bad for the image and future of hunting.
"I like to take an occasional nice buck just like every other hunter, and there is no denying what the whitetail has done for the hunting industry," she said. "I see major industries that were born from the love of deer hunting.
"Things such as treestands, camo, calls and scents have all gained fame since I first climbed a tree and stood on a limb in the same old faded winter coat I wore around the farm."
Valentine doesn't have a lot of time for nostalgia, though. She hasn't missed a season in 40 years and hopes to enjoy 40 more.
"I look forward to fall with eager anticipation knowing I will have that quiet time in a tree to slow down, take account of my life, witness the wonderment of nature," she said, "and give thanks that I live in a country where hunting is still legal and that neither age or gender are really a factor."