I have a week off from grad classes, affording me the luxury of reading something for myself for a change. This was my first foray into E.O. Wilson and I’m quite impressed. He articulates things I’ve intuited for some time and his background in entomology and ant behavior is an interestingly fitting backdrop to any conversation on social behavior. I read it in a mere two sessions while on an overnight with my son and a friend of his. Teenagers are nice; the boys took care of themselves while I broke off to read.
Sitting streamside by candlelight, equipped with a down poncho, pad, and backpacking chair, I was prepared for some serious backcountry leisure. Rocking back and staring at the stars while pondering a paragraph, there couldn’t have been a better setting.
I finished the final pages in my sleeping bag with coffee before the kids were up. A proper stretch of reading indeed.
My last day of hunting was over before it began. Not even 0430 and there were already 5 trucks parked at my spot, at least four hunters headed in by headlamp. They could’ve been going in many different directions, but combined with the occupants of the other trucks, it was safe to believe this spot was bust. Between the holiday weekend and the last days of deer season, the forest was overrun. Things were beginning to look complicated. I was content to let it go.
I found a ridge and this sunrise instead.
Rifled cleaned, oiled, and locked away. I’ve now got ten months to think about what I was intending to do out there and why.
I look forward to these ruminations over a fire at my hermitage, unarmed and at ease. Time to let it rest, for both man and deer.
Another sunrise, moon sinking, the wind impossibly sharp and clean.
Fresh tracks but no blood on my hands, the deer nowhere to be seen.
Walking in darkness, then early morning light, the sun’s first rays warming a hillside. We found a few great glassing spots, a canyon holding good potential- if not for hunting, for simple solitude. It looked remote and wild and lonely, flocks of dove circling about the trees. I can’t help but imagine myself sleeping down there, wildness and sky boxing me in. No deer this time, just fresh tracks, hiking, talk. Next weekend.
I’ve always wondered if the practice of meditation has evolutionary origins in hunting. For what other reason would an early Homo intentionally sit for hours on end, still and silent? And then perhaps we realized that with stillness, silence, and mindfulness come existential rewards, now practicing sitting without hunting.
The alarm went off at 4AM but I was already awake. Whipped and pummeled by gusts throughout the night, my bivy sack ballooned in the wind. I was shivering with Orion looking down on me. And then there was coffee, more shivering, and finally a heated drive further up the mountain before the sun would rise.
Our initial spot was immediately busted. There was the snap of my magazine and the shouldering of my pack and then three trucks pulled into our turnout. Eight men got out. Headlamp beams cutting through the sky, they started straight for our trailhead, rifles in hand. We watched in disbelief.
There’s no room on that ridge for ten of us. What the hell are they doing with eight? New spot. Quick.
I mentioned another area I knew from backpacking. There was a spring and the topography seemed right in my memory. We could glass from the trail into many different drainages and cut out cross country if something looked promising.
And then there they were, materialized from darkness. B was walking ahead, going a little faster than I felt necessary. I hung back, stopping to glass more frequently. The sun had just begun to break. And behold: two black shapes bedded beside some manzanita on a hillside. Across the drainage, maybe 300 yards. I dropped behind some brush and held, made a couple clicks to motion B back. The light was too low for me to make out antlers at this distance. They looked big, but I wasn’t sure yet. As B made his way back he immediately understood. I chambered a round and looked for a shooting position as he put a more powerful lens on them. “Left deer, antlers…” he whispered. “He’s big.”
The deer held. Interested, but not afraid. They stayed down but were watching.
“278 yards” B whispered from behind a rangefinder.
I can’t see.
My scope produced nothing but a hazy dark shape with a head. And there was a significant crosswind. It was more of a shot than I felt capable of in the moment. It all felt very vague. I wasn’t even sure what the animal I was about to shoot at looked like.
I backed off. “If you can do it, take it” I told B. When I whispered this it ended as quickly as it began. As B went prone with his rifle the deer on the right casually stood and walked behind a bush. And then the buck on the left followed. And now I could see the horns.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
But they weren’t busted, just a soft push up and out of sight behind some cover. A spike walked out and followed. They didn’t look too concerned with us and I was certain we’d have another chance. B went ahead, I backtracked to get a different angle.
And after thirty minutes of looking, there he was. Again. This time bedded under a low tree with his back to me. Nothing but a big black mass that I first thought was a log. Until the head shifted and I saw the antlers in the rising sunlight. At least 3×3. The neck was thick. The spike appeared from the left, calmly browsing into view.
I felt stuck. I wanted options that didn’t exist.
He was still almost 300 yards out and there was a little bit of cover in front of him. And there was the wind, gusting and dying. I had a stable rest and I thought I might be able to make the shot, but he was on the ground and quartering away. I could make out the front left shoulder but the angle was steep. An inch left would’ve taken his shoulder off, a few inches right would be through the guts. Shit. I backed out slowly, left my gear, and brought B over. He was comfortable with the wind and distance, but only if the buck would stand and turn a bit. We decided to split the difference; I’d sneak in and try and get a shot from its ridge while B would watch from here. If it stood before I got within 100 yards, he would do his best to follow it. Or shoot.
As I took one last look to make sure I understood the approach, the buck calmly stood with its back to us and walked over the ridge without looking back. Gone in less than 10 steps. We had the wind and had been silent. He wasn’t watching us. His ears were calm. I’m still not sure if it was a bad move on our part that spooked him or just bad luck. Two times now he was in my scope but it didn’t feel quite right. This is ridiculous. And exciting. And frustrating. Second-guessing my second-guessing, knowing someone would’ve taken either shot. Knowing someone probably would’ve blown it bad and someone would’ve made it happen. Today I would be the someone that would do neither.
I surmise that the worst possible thing I can do is to not be realistic about my shooting abilities. Perhaps with more range time and more experience either of those shots would’ve felt much different. But I must acknowledge what I am and am not. As elusive as the concept of certainty is, I have too much respect for an animal to shoot if I’m not feeling something that at least resembles it.
But that’s also the catch, isn’t it? Certainty may stem from nothing but stories that we tell ourselves in the moment, stories crafted solely to justify an end. Perhaps it’s all more blurred around the edges than we admit. When we wait for certainty we may be waiting for something that will never come. Perhaps degrees are all that exist, endless shades, one blending into another.
All this and it wasn’t over. The buck didn’t have many options, didn’t seem too nervous, and could only be in the valley on the other side of the ridge. We could circle around, descend the side opposite his, crest it, and hunt him again.
This we did.
B spotted the spike below us under a tree, only 100 yards out, its back to us. The buck was here somewhere but this approach was no good, the little one would spook and alert him. We backtracked and climbed a steep rise to our left to be well out of sight and circle back in from the opposite direction. This would take over an hour. B caught a glimpse of him in the scrub oak and manzanita below, slipping into cover. We circled in, posted on an adjacent ridge under cover, and waited to see if he’d come out. And we waited. And waited. Nothing. We decided to push down the ridge, staying just below its top and out of sight on the far side, looking for a view from a new angle.
The wind shifted hard, carrying our scent in the entirely wrong direction.
I spotted a run of tracks, funneling through the brush, and whispered to B pointing it out. As he looked at it and down the side of the ridge he froze and tried to drop for cover, holding his hand up and telling me to freeze.
“3 deer, right there…All looking at me.”
I caught a glimpse from over the brush. The buck was laying down in a clearing, completely broadside, facing our direction. But they weren’t panicked and we had some time.
B crouched and quickly put his pack down for a rifle rest. I stretched to get a glimpse through my scope over the brush in front of me. He was in my sights for the third time, but this time it was at 150-200 yards and I had no choice but to shoot offhand and off of my tiptoes. I watched my crosshairs drift and bounce over his vitals. It wasn’t going to happen. He was too beautiful for me to wing one out there and hope it hit; I think I owed him at least that much. B slid further down the game trail with his pack, trying to get a clearer sight on him. But he seriously rushed it. I saw the other two bolt into the trees, the buck soon to follow.
It would be the last we would see of them.
I remain convinced that if we had backed out, waited, and relocated, we would’ve stood a better chance. I’m not thrilled by his rush.
I’ve been replaying the morning in my head for days, trying to figure out where I messed up. Was I being too indecisive? Or did I play it right? I wish I could share the replay with someone more experienced, but even then these things are so subjective and circumstantial I suppose it wouldn’t matter. But all in all, I felt my instincts that day were good. I’m proud of the hunting grounds I selected and the spots I made. I’m not sure I could’ve done much better.
I also know that for the entire morning, from well before sunrise and into the afternoon, the only things that existed in my world were deer, sunlight, wind, and a little thirst. Watching a crisp breeze carry some scattered dust to read the wind, bluejays flicking about during the silence of sitting. All the abstractions of daily life and my overactive mind gave way to something ancient, quiet, and seemingly timeless.
If only for a day.
I’ll be out there alone this weekend, sleeping under Orion, seeing if I can’t pick up the trail and feel that silence once again.
rain chased back by a full moon
-visions of a bear in the same silver light
weaving shadow, becoming shadow
rooting in fragrant earth
lakes cold, mercurial
echoing owl calls
with sweet indifference
And suddenly we find ourselves out, sagebrush speeding beside the highway, disoriented as if waking from a dream. Lights and computer screens add to the seeming implausibility of the wind still blowing cool through the pines. At this very moment.
What else is there to say?
I didn’t know the names of many mountains or rivers then. The winding drive seemed impossibly long and cold in the darkness. The heater of dad’s Datsun 210 struggling to keep up, frozen vinyl of the seats sticking to any exposed skin. I’d stay with him on some weekends, staying up and eating Fritos and cheese dip, the occasional can of Vienna Sausages thrown in for good measure. Dad’s culinary tastes were not very sophisticated. We’d wake early with junk-food and video game hangovers, make lunch, and pack our gear. Matching fishing vests (which I still own) were pulled out of the closet, accompanied by ultralight Daiwa spinning rods that broke down to only a foot long. I remember being very proud that I carried the same rod as my dad, that I didn’t have some cheap kid’s version.
Bologna, cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread and cans of RC Cola tucked into our pockets, we’d come to the river in search of trout. My father could pull fish after fish out of a hole, working the current, drifting a salmon egg and tiny split-shot exactly where he wanted it. I don’t remember ever catching any fish myself, but he’d hand over his rod to let me land some of his. It took many years of fishing on my own after dad died before I realized what was happening; that he simply knew how to read things and be silent whereas I was charging through the river like a drunken buffalo and casting as if my rod were a bull whip.
Dad relished fried trout, filleted and coated in flour, crisped and finished with salt and pepper. We’d savor the day’s catch that evening before retiring to the latest chapter in our quest to beat The Legend of Zelda.
Decades later, I’m still sneaking out of the house silently at 4am, my own family asleep, making the drive up the cold mountain. Bluegrass on the radio, heater working, I can now name all the surrounding peaks, rivers, and forks…
I moved away from spinning rods to fly fishing, self-taught on the same river I fished with my dad, standing thigh deep in a cold December pool. His ghost stands at my side, reading the current with me, trying to drift our line just so, easing it into a dark undercut on the opposite side…
I know how to catch fish now, probably better than he did. But in my mind, dad remains a legendary fisherman on account of the magic I watched him work as a child.
It’s probably been over twenty five years since our last fishing trip together. I’m out in the garage today, preparing for a week in the High Sierra, piecing together an ultralight Tenkara fishing kit, selecting and putting the finishing touches on a few hand-tied flies.
The last trout I caught brought tears to my eyes, summoning back the connection to my father, our time on the river together. There’s a part of me that would rather not kill them; images of blood in the grass surrounding colorful scales haunt my dreams. But I push it down.
Because I know he would’ve loved this, finishing a beautiful day over the hiss of a fry pan beside a stream. I do it as much for him. My father was a fisherman and I’m my father’s son, roll casting to a ripple in the shade.