Decisions Decisions

Last week I returned to Elberton to my brother-in-law’s 400 acres to hunt whitetail. On the drive out, we sipped coffee and talked about our wives, lives and work, but when we pulled onto the red clay dirt road we got focused. We had decided to hit the stand after sun-up this time, to spare ourselves, it was a holiday after all. We sprayed down our camoed bodies with scent blocker then I took the Kimber into my hand and we walked down the trail. We could hear the forest waking up all around us and as we topped the ridge at the end of the trail, I was told I’d be in the treestand instead of the ground blind this year. Better angles, and less chance of my scent tipping the deer off. We walked down the hill and though my eyes were still adjusting to the light, I could see three or four grey shapes on the side of a dry creekbed no more than 200 yards away. I stopped and whispered, “Wow, they’re right here. There they are.”

My brother-in-law paused, let out an explicative and asked for the shooting sticks and Kimber. He set up and took the shot. He missed. And the deer barely looked up. He chambered another round and shot again. A deer collapsed, literally his legs fell out from underneath him, and finally the herd spooked. White tails started bobbing as the deer headed out in different directions. There were at least five, and one strayed on the edge of the treeline, pawing and stamping an alert. She fell after two more missed shots and more cursing. Clearly the sighting was off. My brother-in-law picked up his own AR and brought her down.

And it was all over in less than thirty seconds and a mere minute or two from taking the field. Now, we’re meat hunters so there wasn’t need to examine rack size and we thought we were taking does. As we approached the deer, my brother-in-law was surprised and saddened to see one of the deer was a spiker, a young male buck with his horns barely visible. It seems there were less bucks on the property of late and he’d preferred to take does. I wanted to take a doe because they taste better than the hormone stressed bucks going through the rut. We removed the deer from the field and then decided to continue the hunt until I could take one. After about a half hour on another hill with no deer-sign, I was called back to the original site and to hit the stand. Two more deer had crossed from one side of the forest to another. An hour later, I saw two heads pop up out of the tall grass about 300 yards away and out of range for my level of shooting. I noticed my hand shaking, but forced a breath and calmed down. THEY WERE HERE! About thirty minutes after that, another deer came out of the opposite side of the forest at about 100 yards. I scoped the deer and took several deep breaths. THIS WAS IT. A nice-sized deer in range, and a clear shot I could make. And then I noticed the spikes, about 7 or 8 inches long indicated a young male. This deer would get a pass. But it was an opportunity to observe deer behavior, so I savored the encounter.

The spiker walked down into the gully, sniffed at the site of the other slain deer and decided to b-line it straight for the treeline. He dissappeared but only minutes later I heard him and then saw him walking to my right in the trees. He was just twenty feet away and oblivious to my appearance. He walked right underneath my stand. Then I got a text. It was from my brother-in-law on the ridge above me watching. It read, “there’s a deer right behind you!”

I texted back–“yeah I know, its a spike, he walks.”

About twenty minutes later I watched another spiker cross the field about 150 yards away. I made the same decision and didn’t take the shot. It was time to go but I got one more text, “just take the next deer.” Ha! If it had come in about 10 minutes earlier, I might have taken the spike, but no harm no foul, I had my decision that morning to take a doe, not a buck, and I was sticking to it.

Later it occurred to me that perhaps I had made a decision based on my station in life. Sure, I want to be a meat-hunter, but a hungry hunter, or a hunter putting food on his table for his family, would have taken the young buck. After all, we weren’t really “managing” the bucks on this property. Food is food. Maybe I had been a little high-fallutin’ with my decision. I pondered it and let it go. Nope, I think I learned a valuable decision out there on the fields of Georgia. Hunting is about making decisions. They aren’t right or wrong, but they’re yours. And I think I learned from my close in encounter, not to make snap decisions, to be patient, to go through a checklist and make a decision about what I was about to kill. Though I felt like a predator on that ridge, I was also a man who is nothing but the choices he makes. And without taking a single shot, I think I walked away a better hunter. I sure had a lot of fun too.

**UPDATE** I’ve since learned that taking Spikes is perfectly fine, that they indeed improve antlered populations according to studies, and could even be a sign of a lack of nutrition in the area. Texas Depart of Game and Wildlife suggests taking them when you see them because they have inferior genetics and aren’t likely to get “better” with age. A single buck can breed as many as 40 does, so one with superior genetics (antlered) could do the job with less pressure from spikes. Funny huh? Oh well, live and learn, I think a doe would be tastier than a rut buck anyway.

Hunting Black Friday

The rut is in full swing in Georgia with bucks chasing does everywhere according to the forum. So I’m going hunting with my brother-in-law in Elberton again this year. Its only fitting, while the girls hunt for deals on Black Friday, I’ll hunt for meat instead. Last Xmas, we gave it a shot only to find that every yokel in the county popping off their new toys which scared the deer away for miles.

I’m assured the stand has been productive as two nice does have already been taken this season. Apparently, venison burgers and italian sausage await me in Decatur.  I may just have to “finish” the sausages in my brother’s smoker too.

Not to knock shopping too much since I do enjoy it, I’ve got a backup plan in case we get rained out. With guidance from  Red Clay Soul,  I’ve got a few places I may have to wander in to.

Hunting 101

After a few false starts, I’m finally beginning my journey to becoming a hunter. My goal is to augment my family’s daily living with partial subsistence hunting. I’m aiming to learn the fundamentals of foraging (mushrooms, wild edibles) and hunting for meat (fowl, deer). I’ve been a catch-and-release angler for a while, but I’m going to start keeping a portion of my limit for the freezer too.

First up–I’m taking a deer hunting and dressing class by locavore activist and hunter Jackson Landers over Thanksgiving holiday in Charlottesville, VA. Landers new book, The Beginners Guide to Hunting Deer for Food just hit the shelves, and he’s working on a geese-hunting guide as well. I’ll be down there with one of my fellow Gowanus Noodlers and a few other guys getting the fundamentals down. The two-day class includes instruction in shooting, stalking, and field-dressing a kill, along with lectures, lunch, plenty of jawing. Jackson’s work has been well-documented in the NY Times and other places, for his desire to help urbanites and folk who didn’t grow up hunting but always wished they did, to get in the game.

I’m excited. If you think about it, hunting for deer is the most inexpensive way to put organic, grass-fed venison on the table. And I happen to love venison. Its taken me a while to find the best way for me to get into hunting, so I hope the trip is rewarding. Obviously, I’ll be getting the basics, but nothing replaces being out in the field with an experienced guide putting those skills to the test. And I still have the class and licensing to do here in NY state. Hopefully in 2012 I’ll be able to report back on a successful hunt of some kind.

By the way, documentary filmmaker Helena Swedberg has been filming Jackson’s work. You’ll see in the clip below, Jackson, an insurance-broker by day, is not your typical mountain-man or redneck–he’s just a regular joe who loves  gooseburgers and wine, who has made subsistence hunting a passionate part of his conservationist approach to life.