"The best thing about hunting … is that you don't have to actually do it to enjoy it," wrote Robert Ruark, author of "The Old Man and The Boy." "You can go to bed every night thinking about how much fun you had 20 years ago, and it all comes back as clear as moonlight."
Those visions might be of a big buck slipping through the woods 20 years ago, or the warm feeling of a camp fire shared with friends and family. Often, those memories center on a hunter's first opening day or the first time a hunt was successful.
I've been thinking a lot about hunting lately, not just the overall collective of the season, but specific hunts that I've been on.
My thoughts are of deer encountered in years past. I can remember with vivid detail my first, second and third successful deer hunt. And I can remember a whole lot of deer over the years I didn't kill. But when I stop and try and remember the past three deer I killed, the vivid detail is missing and I'm not sure if I have them in order.
It's funny how things like that happen. Hunters go through transformations. I still get a charge from deer hunting with my bow and arrow because it's an up close and personal experience, but I find other things can be just as satisfying.
The kill, while necessary, isn't as important today as the experience. The vivid details I have today are of seeing a big buck close enough to photograph but not close enough to kill with a bow, or watching a buck grow after I passed on it a few years. Those are the thrills that have replaced those memories of early hunts.
Those first few deer were killed before the mandatory hunter orange law, not that I worried about not being seen by another deer hunter.
I wore every make and model of sweater, sweat shirt and coat I could find. I looked like a rainbow of colors, but I was warm. Back in those days, it actually was cold in November.
My hunting boots were actually cowboy boots with pointed toes and leather soles. I could kill a roach in a corner with them, but I couldn't walk up a slick hillside.
I remember wearing about a half-dozen pair of tube socks, those with the three yellow, red or blue stripes around the top and went almost to your knees. I remember thinking I had to put the colors on in the same order on both feet. Why, I don't know. I've never been much on style, but I like my hunting things to be fairly orderly. (Were tube socks really ever in style?)
My gun was a Remington Model 11 pump shotgun loaded with No. 4 buckshot, loaned to me by a friend of my parents. I sat on the ground, a stump, a rock or a log. It was all the simple basics.
Occasionally, I see a few hunters -- mostly youngsters -- who are relegated to those simple basics. But for the most part, the hunters I see, myself included, wear the finest of camouflage and carry deer rifles that cost as much as a half dozen of that first shotgun.
I've invested in deer stands and deer leases and others have brought along four-wheelers, enabling even a hunter wearing slick-soled cowboy boots to ride up a hill.
When I look back to those first hunts, I remember how special they were. The excitement of going to camp, the very real confidence that I would surely kill a deer, any deer, even though they were in short supply.
Since then, I've become much more picky. I wouldn't shoot the same deer today that I shot back then. But I don't begrudge anyone for shooting the deer they want to shoot.
Although my hunting has changed, I haven't forgotten that each of us hunts for different reasons.
My reasons to hunt are decidedly different than they were years ago. I've passed on bucks I dreamed of killing when I was younger for a lot of reasons.
|A nice buck in the woods |
I remember a conversation with an old hunter about 20 years ago, when killing anything was important. I'm not sure, but that conversation may have been the start of the changes in the way I think about deer and hunting.
The old gentleman was retelling a story of that day's hunt. We were sitting around a camp fire, and I hadn't seen a deer all day.
The old man, on the other hand, had had a good day. He told me about seeing a flock of turkeys picking and scratching their way down a ridge. He told me of seeing the first wood ducks flying down the Little Missouri River and watching a coon meander through the woods.
Those were neat things, but he really held me spellbound as he told me about watching a "nice 8-point'' that trotted within 40 yards of the man's stand, visited a scrape, then went on its way.
The man said, "It was a wonderful sight."
"Yeah," I replied, "but why didn't you shoot?"
In as clearly a measured response as I've ever seen, the man picked up one of the burning sticks in the fire, stoked the coals a bit, then looked me square in my incredulous face.
"I'm not convinced it would have improved my day that much," he said.
I've thought about that encounter a lot over the years.
The woods will soon fill with hunters. Many of them will be hunting for a deer, any legal deer. And there will be others, like myself, who will be looking only to improve their day. It might come in the form of not shooting, holding out for a bigger buck, as a way to recapture those feelings of long ago or a way to make the shooting improve the day.
Hunting, especially deer hunting, has changed. We all want to get something different out of the experience.
But the most important thing is remembering that if you do things right, a hunting experience will give you what you need. It might not be what you want, but at the least it should improve your day.
And when we go to bed that night and many other nights after that we can think about it as it all comes back as clear as moonlight.
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