The beginning of my hunting experience is likely not what you imagine. It ceratinly isn’t the story that I imagined for most hunters. I wasn’t a child, there was no father figure explaining the ways of the forest. No, for me hunting began with many months of reading, watching television shows, and eventually blundering around in the woods with only the most vague idea of what I was doing.
When I first took up hunting I was working for the National Park Service in northern Virginia at a Civil War Battlefield. I was one of two employees in the Natural Resources branch of the park (Me and my boss), so I spent most of my time running around a few thousand acres doing any and all natural resource related things that needed to be done. This particular battlefield leased some land to farmers, so we would get to know them through our various dealings. This is how I ended up on my first hunt.
One of the farmers who leased from us had, just across the road, another corn field that he owned. You can’t hunt on just about any National Park Service land, but this farmer told me I was more than welcome to come out to his field and reduce his crop loss by taking a deer or two. For me finding a good spot has always been one of the biggest hurdles to hunting, particularly when I was back on the east coast with so much less public land around. My hunting area taken care of, I was ready to have my first day in the field. I would go out by myself equipped with only the most basic plans and knowledge, and try to kill a deer.
I knew from my books and from conversations with hunters that it was important to get out to your location early, preferably before sunrise, so that you can be in place from the moment it is legal to shoot, and also to be in place while these crepuscular critters are most active. But, blunder number one, I didn’t do this. I didn’t really scout the location, and the morning of my first hunt I showed up half an hour after sunrise and just started wandering.
On the far end of the field I found a deer stand, which seemed awfully fortunate, so I climbed up in there, rested my 30-30 on the rail, and took out a book. I may not have had a whole lot of knowledge or experience, but intuition told me that a bit of quiet entertainment might be a good idea.
On this day I ended up reading the entire book (it was quite short) without seeing the first sign. Could be that the landowner and his pals had already thinned the local deer population, though the late-night deer surveys I did at work led me to believe otherwise. More likely I simply showed up too late, made too much noise, and wasn’t paying enough attention. But I had set my expectations low, so I was not terribly bothered. Why not go for a stroll, I wondered. Maybe that will stir something up. I packed up, climbed out of the stand, and set to strolling.
I walked the edge of the field and the wood, taking careful steps and paying careful attention to any sound or movement as I made my way toward a densely vegetated bottom, but all I encountered were squirrels.
Some sort of instinct drove me toward this bottom, where a creek trickled, the water low this time of year. I was somewhat familiar with the idea that deer bedded down during the day, but I also ad many memories of seeing deer on the move at high noon, so who was I to say?
I struggled down to the creekbed, fighting my way as quietly as I could through a thicket of brambles. Along the creek the vegetation thinned out and I could move more easily. I walked all of maybe fifteen steps before I heard it: this time not a rustle but a tromp through the leaf litter. I shouldered my rifle just in time to watch a white tail bounce behind a tree and over a hill. My heart pounding, I ran to the top to get eyes on it again, but I knew the whole time that it was futile. From the ridge I watched it bound off through the trees and into the distance.
I was completely exhilarated. My blood was rich with adrenaline from even seeing the deer. If only I’d been a bit smarter maybe I would’ve had a shot at it. With a feeling like I’d won a small victory, as winning a cheap hand of cards, I trudged on. I walked the bottom for another couple hours, occasionally pausing to sit a while and hope that something would appear out of the trees. Alas, that was not to be.
Mid-afternoon I abandoned my mission. I had not taken a deer on my first hunt, but nor had I expected to. Having just gotten out there, carried a rifle over my shoulder, and put eyes on a deer felt like a major accomplishment. While I hadn’t yet succeeded, I was changed. I was now a hunter.