One of the questions I get most often about hunting is why I do it. We have grocery stores where you can go buy beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and at the right stores, even venison for relatively affordable prices. The meat is high quality, clean, and readily available. So why do I layer on clothes, hike miles through rough terrain, and sit hours in the cold, at times wet, wilderness waiting for a deer to happen buy so I can shoot it?
The simple and yet incredibly complicated answer is it’s a part of who I am.
I grew up in the country in a rural part of a rural county in an agrarian state. When I was ten I started squirrel hunting. I remember walking the woods with my dad teaching me the ropes. He showed me where the squirrels made their nests in the trees and explained it was good to find nests and sit under those trees in the morning and evening to get squirrels coming out of and going back to their homes. Then he showed me the stands of oak trees that squirrels used as a food source, hoarding acorns for the long winter months when food was scarce. And finally, he showed me the tracks squirrels, deer, raccoons, and other animals left in the sandy soil of the roads that cut through the fields and forests of the family farm.
Those were some of the only times we had where it was just us as he was usually away on work. When I was younger he was in the Navy, then a commercial airline pilot, and finally back in the Navy Reserve and later as a civilian contractor for the military. All of those jobs kept him, at various times, far from home, so I treasured those days walking through the woods looking for squirrels.
When I was twelve I told him I wanted to start deer hunting. Our neighbors were avid hunters and I’d seen some of the massive bucks and does they brought home. Hearing their stories it seemed like a wild, exciting, adventurous thing for a twelve year old boy to do, so I wanted to be a part of it. My dad was thrilled, but he explained clearly to me that going into the woods after deer is only part of what hunting really is. In his words, “The work starts when you pull the trigger, it doesn’t end there.”
Dad was an ethical hunter and taught me to eat everything you kill. I’ve held true to that principle ever since with the one exception being coyotes. I’ll hunt them, but I’ll be damned if I’m eating a dog that’s as likely to eat carrion as anything else.
As part of that hunting ethos, Dad wanted me to learn how to take care of my kill after I pulled the trigger. So for an entire hunting season he told our neighbors that anytime they killed a deer and I was home, he wanted me to skin, gut, and butcher it. It’s a messy, labor-intensive process that has to be done quickly after the animal is killed to preserve the meat. You can take deer to companies that will process them for you, and there’s no shame in that. But the way I was raised, the hunter takes responsibility for that kill once it’s made whether they clean it themselves or pay to have it done. And he wanted me to know how to do it by hand as a matter of principle.
Now, when I say our neighbors at the time were avid hunters, you need to understand what I mean. They bought both of their sons lifetime hunting licenses before either left the hospital. No joke, they really did that. And it was money well spent. One of the boys was close to my age, one close to my brother’s, and both the sons and the father would routinely tag out most seasons on both bucks and does. So when my dad offered me as a skinning, gutting, and butchering apprentice I had my work cut out for me.
I learned from a master, though, and by the end of that season I could skin, gut, and quarter a deer in less than an hour and a half by myself. The first few didn’t go quite that smoothly, but it’s a skill you hone by practicing, as are most. And I got a LOT of practice.
The next season I was ready to go. My dad paid for my hunting license and I started deer hunting. Around Thanksgiving that year I got my first deer, a four point buck. And I was hooked. Since then there have been a few years that I haven’t been able to get into the woods because of school, work, or other reasons, but I’ve always considered myself a hunter. Once you’ve stalked, killed, cleaned, and eaten prey it changes the way you look at the world and at yourself. From that point on, you’re a predator, a hunter, whether you’re in the field or not.
Over the years I’ve experimented with various kinds of hunting. I’ve baited corn piles on our family farm, run dogs with friends and family, and am currently starting to learn the ropes of stalk hunting on public game lands (it’s a LOT of work). I’ve hunted squirrel, duck, dove, deer, bobcat, and coyote and killed all of them except coyotes and bobcats. I had a shot a full-grown bobcat once, but chose not to take it. The animal was just too beautiful and I didn’t want to put it down just for the sake of doing it. I’m certain our local rabbit and turkey population wasn’t too happy with that decision.
This year I was able to get into the woods more than I have the past few, and I’m very thankful for that. I’ve learned a lot about some of the game lands here in North Carolina, Uwharrie and South Mountain in particular. For one thing, both areas have some of the biggest gray squirrels I’ve ever seen, and I know where I will be headed once deer season is done. And there is some absolutely beautiful wilderness out there just waiting for people to take the time to hike in and see it.
I’ve also learned that the deer on public lands are quite a bit more skittish and more challenging to track than deer on our family farm. With twenty plus years of experience, I can read the weather forecast and time of year and tell you with pretty good accuracy what fields to go sit in at what time of day on our farm to get at least a look at a few deer. It makes the hunting exciting and productive, but not exactly challenging at times.
I’ve found after more than two decades of hunting that there is always something new to see and something new to learn in the woods. Whether it’s trying to find a sneaky big buck on the family farm or hiking through unknown terrain following tree rubs and ground scrapes hoping to find the buck whose territory you’re exploring, you never know everything there is to know about hunting or about your prey. So I guess that’s another reason I hunt, for the knowledge and experience you gain.
When I’m out there in the woods, even in game lands that we never explored, I feel closer to my dad than I do at just about any other moment. I feel deeply that connection to the long line of my ancestors who have done the same thing I’m doing, trekked out into the wilderness looking for food to feed the family. It’s a skill that my dad taught me, and one that I’m doing my best to pass on to my kids as well.
My oldest daughter is five and she has been asking me to take her hunting all year. We finally got a chance to go sit in a tree stand on part of my family’s farm a few days ago and she was super excited. We talked in hushed tones about the woods and how to listen for and recognize different animal sounds. I told her when the best times of day were for deer to move and how to tell if what you’re hearing is the soft, regular footsteps of a deer or the erratic, jumping gait of a squirrel.
Then, when the sun was almost touching the western horizon, she began to really get antsy. I don’t think she was a fan of staying in the woods after the sun had set as she had informed me on the way into the stand that she hoped we wouldn’t see any wolves or grizzly bears. I explained carefully that we’re in rural North Carolina, about the center of the state, and not exactly a hotbed for grizzly bear activity.
Still, about ten minutes later, she asked if I was ready to go yet for about the fiftieth time. I turned to tell her that if we left at that moment we’d miss some of the best deer hunting of the day and my eye caught sight of a doe just stepping into view through the trees about sixty yards away.
I whispered, “Reagan, there’s a deer in the corn pile.”
She looked at me with a sigh and said, “No, Daddy, you just want to stay here longer.”
I finally convinced her that there was actually a deer in view and she turned to see. Her eyes lit up and her face split into an excited grin. It was all I could do to keep her from giggling with giddy excitement. Another couple of does walked into view and began milling about upwind of us as the sun sank lower and lower to our right.
“Do you want to let these go and just watch them tonight?” I asked.
Reagan shook her head. “I want to get one!” She whispered.
I explained that she was too small to shoot the rifle, but I let her pick out the doe she wanted me to shoot. She selected the largest of the four deer we could see, a nice mature, fat doe. I slipped a pair of earmuff style hearing protection over Reagan’s ears and stuck a pair of silicone earplugs in my own. I waited for a clear shot and put a single round through her neck as she faced us.
The doe fell where she stood and never so much as twitched.
I turned to Reagan and her eyes were wide, her mouth in a huge grin. “WE GOT ONE!!!” She yelled as the other three does ran for the woods.
We sat in the stand for a few minutes, partly to let the doe fully expire and partly to let Reagan calm down some. When I thought she was ready we carefully climbed out of the stand and went to claim our kill.
I approached first and prodded the doe slightly, making sure she was dead. Then, when I was sure that it was safe, I let Reagan come up to her. She petted the deer’s fur and commented on how soft and pretty it was. Then she pulled the ears back and held it for the photo at the top of this story.
Now, don’t worry, I didn’t make Reagan help me clean the deer. I thought that might be a little traumatizing for a five year old to watch. But I wanted her to know where the venison she loved to eat came from, and the responsibility that we as a hunting family carry for the prey we choose to hunt and eat. Because this tradition, at least for me, is about way more than just walking into the woods and looking for something to shoot. It’s about a deep connection to my past, my roots, and who I am. It’s about connecting with the memory of those who have come before us and preserving the knowledge and traditions that they have passed down to us. And, above all, it’s about the careful and respectful harvest of an amazing animal that provides hunters like us with enjoyment, excitement, and a bountiful source of healthy and nutritious food.
As I write this I’m struck by how both my life and my hunting career seem to have come full circle in a sense. Where once I was the inexperienced child following my father into the woods, those roles are now reversed. And that makes me feel that connection to my father even more keenly. I hope I do his memory and his legacy justice as I do my best to pass on the love and the passion for hunting that over the years has become such an enduring and fruitful passion in my life.