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Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category

This year’s deer

On Halloween, Eric’s birthday, we took off work and headed up to a Block Management Area where we had a reservation. Block Management is hunting access to private land orchestrated by the State. It’s a wonderful program. Anyhow, we had almost two sections of land, with a big butte in the middle all to ourselves. We started at the northwest corner of the area and skirted all the way around the butte to the southeast side, seeing absolutely no sign. I figure there would be no deer for us today. I was okay with that. It was a beautiful day and I was so happy to be out hunting and feeling good.

Finally, we started seeing a little bit of sign. We got on a ridge with Eric working one side and me working the other. Eric signaled that he had seen 2 does bedded down on a little flat area on the side of the ridge. We decided that since I’m 6 months pregnant and won’t be wanting to put an incredible amount of work into hunting, I’d take the shot if one was presented. So we snuck out to a spur off the ridge where I had a good gun rest and a good view. Turned out I could see 2 does and 2 bucks. The bucks were standing and I decided I wanted the 4-pointer. Spindly rack, but a big, healthy buck. He was standing facing me and then bedded down that way, so I didn’t have a good shot at him. One of the does was bedded down quartered away from me. I knew she would be an OK shot. The other buck (slightly smaller, but still good-sized) was standing broadside to me, but he was licking his side obsessively. He just wouldn’t quit. Where his head was, if I’d have shot him in the heart-lung zone, I’d have blasted him through the head as well. What’s the point in taking the buck when you’re just going to ruin the mount? I also remembered that I’m a meat hunter and should take what tastes best.

So I decided on the doe, settled in on her, and shot. She never got up, just died where she lay, so the rest of the deer didn’t really know what happened! Turns out there were several does in the area and they all decided it was prudent to leave, as did the smaller buck. The big buck, however, just stood there. So I told Eric that if he wanted the buck, take it! Since he’s really after elk this year, he was only going to shoot if he had a perfect shot. He crawled over to my gun rest and set up. The buck stood there and waited for him, broadside, so we ended up with a buck and doe!

After we dressed them out, I let Eric drag them to the nearest road while I walked back to get the truck. Of course, I took an ill-advised “shortcut” and ended up making the whole thing over a mile longer than it had to be. It was waaaay too much hiking for me at this point in my pregnancy, 6+ miles over rugged terrain for the whole day. I felt about 80 for a few days afterwards! But it’s worth it. We got a lot of meat!

It was amazing how different the experience of shooting a deer was this year. Last year, the decision to shoot was fraught with ambivalence and followed by so much sorrow, regret, and then elation all mixed up with a healthy dose of adrenaline. This year, I knew I was going to shoot one of those deer, that decision was made once I saw them. Following the shot, I still felt a little sad and deeply grateful to the deer and to the land, but I was mostly happy to have so much good meat and a wonderful day in the woods with my husband.

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Ahhh, Montana

My husband related this story to me over dinner tonight. He’s headed out to Eastern Montana for a week of bird hunting, just him and our German Shorthaired Pointer, Stanley. He called to set up a reservation for a room in the big city of Circle, MT.

EZ:  Hi, I was calling to see if you have a room available Sunday night.

Motel Guy: Let me go up front and check… Sunday, you say?

EZ: Yep. It’ll just be me and my dog.

MG: Oh, so you’ll be needing two beds, then?

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Last, we butchered up the rear legs and backstraps from my deer. I rather enjoy butchering… once the quartering is done, anyhow. Quartering, taking the deer from hanging as a whole to the primal cuts, is unpleasant to me for some reason. I can quite put my finger on it. It’s not really a gross thing and it’s not particularly hard. I just don’t like it. I even prefer field-dressing to it.

Butchering after that step, however, is an indoor, seated activity, rather than in the cold spare room. The dogs, desperate for a nibble here or there, are laying expectantly at our feet. It’s also just another layer of familiarity with the animal I’ve harvested and that I’ll be eating for next 6 or more months.

I just enjoy familiarity with my food. I absolutely loved eating tomatoes this summer that I’d watched grow from tiny, green orbs to red, juicy tomatoes. Likewise, I love that I looked that deer in the eye, assessed its apparent health, made the decision to pull the trigger and was there every step of the way to getting that deer from field to freezer. That’s not to say that it was all pleasant and enjoyable (though much of it was), but it was all deeply satisfying and entirely worth it.

Perhaps it is an odd proclivity to want to witness and take part in every step of your food’s journey from point of origination to table. I suspect, however, that it is a common thread among all humans, a remnant from our ancestors. So much of the population pays little heed to their food, but who wouldn’t love a meal with a story? A story better than “your steak grew fat on a feedlot, was stuffed full of grains, hormones and antibiotics and your potatoes came from a factory farm in Idaho.” Why else would pastoral, idealized images in the marketing of food be so prominent and successful, even when it is so often very far from the truth?

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Pulling the Trigger

I finally did it. I finally got my first deer.

***Please be warned. The story to follow is at times graphic and may not be your particular cup of tea. I mean, it’s kind of obvious given my opening, but the following is going to discuss, in detail, the hunting, shooting and processing of a deer. I really don’t want or mean to offend/gross out anyone. If you think that might be you, please check out my links and read something without so many blood and guts.***

We stepped out of the truck this morning an hour before legal shooting hours, on a cloudy, pitch black night. We climbed up into the State Land we’d be hunting by the light of EZ’s headlamp, held close to the ground, so as to not scare off any nearby deer. The entrance to this particular half-section of State Land is very steep and very rocky, so it was slow going and we both stumbled once or twice in the darkness.

This was the first time we’d been in this land this year, but we hunted it last year nearly every time we went out. So we posted up on the edge of the field that had all the fresh deer beds last year. Since I was the primary hunter for the day, I sat up against a limb of a fallen tree, while EZ laid back for a few extra z’s. There was still over half an hour before we could legally shoot, and since it was so cloudy, before we could really see. We waited, we got cold, and of course, once the sun brightened the eastern sky, all those hopeful dark spots out in the field proved to be bushes. We moved on through the area, checking out each draw in the direction that wind, which was quite strong, offered us most protection.

This particular area (no, I will not say where!) has three more or less parallel draws. We make a habit of staying on the ridges in the trees. If we discover deer within the draws or their side draws, we just might have a decent shot if the trees aren’t in the way. If the deer are on the opposite slope, the shot is likely too far to be feasible.

We were on the last ridge of the last draw and I was thinking today was probably a wash. We’d seen a few deer, but they were way too far for a decent shot and were moving off the State Land onto private ag fields. Although, EZ did pull on my backpack so hard that I landed flat on my butt when he spotted them. “Sorry. I got excited.”

EZ was checking in one direction while I was checking the other side of the ridge when he signaled me. I moved down to where he was, not seeing the deer he was seeing. I settled in next to him and he told me to peek down to my right, around a rock outcrop, there was a deer bedded down. I leaned over and sure enough, there were the huge ears of a Mule Deer, about 60 yards away. She was bedded down beneath some trees on the same slope as us of the draw. She stared at me wide eyed. I ducked out of her view. “What should I do? Should I shoot her?”

“I dunno, I guess.” EZ’s usual non-commital answer. “Do you have a good shot?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s laying down so it’s not great, but I can definitely get her.”

“Then, do it.” There’s a genius in his simple logic that I often overlook. I slid over back in to her view. She was still there, looking at me with the big eyes and huge ears. I lifted my rifle and looked at her through the scope. She was small, but I couldn’t tell a lot about her from her bedded-down, quartered toward position. Her eyes were bright, her coat was smooth, her relaxed body was filled out nicely. She was healthy.

I thought to myself, “Well, she’s a little small. Probably a yearling.  Not much meat. And that shot is not great. I can get both lungs, but I’ll probably get a lot of other stuff too.” I recognized that same cycle starting in my head. “Look, Kim,” I told myself, “You’ve got a lifetime to be picky about your shots and the size of your deer. But first, you need to just shoot one. This one!”

I looked over at EZ. He was already covering his ears.

I looked back through my scope put my crosshairs on the spot I thought would get both lungs. I stopped breathing and started squeezing the trigger. I knew the gun had fired, but I never did hear the bang. I looked down at her. She started to get up and couldn’t. She tumbled once, twice, tried again, tumbled again and then all motion ceased. Her death took in the neighborhood of 5 seconds.

“She’s dead,” I told Eric. In the first 10 seconds after pulling the trigger, I felt horrible. I wanted to take my bullet back and walk away empty-handed yet again. “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” The adrenaline began spilling out my mouth in the form of that phrase, over and over, with the occasional “oh fuck” thrown. My regret and horror at what I had done quickly eased into relief that she had gone down so quickly, which then became disbelief that I had actually finally done it. Though I sort of never wanted to do it again.

My hands quivered deeply and uncontrollably, all the while feeling like tiny worms were crawling beneath my skin. It’s hard to overstate the amount of adrenaline coursing through my body at that time.

EZ: “You did it!!”
Me: “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God. Fuck. Oh God, oh God, oh God.” I’m sure I was a joy to be around just then.

Once I had calmed down enough to negotiate the rock outcrops between my fallen deer and I, we started down toward her. The adrenaline had mostly subsided by the time I got to her. I was still feeling a little unsure and a little freaked out, but I had stopped the mental ward act, for the most part. Eric immediately got to work. “Stop,” I said, “I need to…” I removed my glove and laid my hand on the side of her chest. “Thank you,” I told her. Then, after that moment, I was fine, ready to get to the earthy business of field dressing and fully resolved with what I had done.

Although the bullet had passed through both lungs, killing her very quickly and humanely, it had also clipped the edge of her stomach. This is certainly not ideal, but isn’t the end of the world either. Eric, who’s field dressed an deer and an antelope (I was present both times, but it doesn’t really sink in until you do it), guided me along and told me what to do. I am one who always errs on the side of caution a bit, so took my time and took great care with all my cuts. I did everything except cutting around the inside of the pelvic bone to free the back end of the digestive system. I just felt too clumsy for that. We released all her entrails onto the ground, a treat for the coyotes, and cleaned her out a bit with all the water we had.

She was light and save for getting her out of the steep draw, it was an easy drag back to the truck. As we drove back home, the elation set in. I had finally done it. This has been a goal of mine for close to two years and I finally achieved it. I’ve been interested in hunting since I had a high school/early college boyfriend who hunted and started to learn what hunting was all about. So I guess you could say that this has been an at least latent desire for close to 10 years. Now, it’s done. I’ve taken my first deer and experienced all the joy and fun and disappointment and desire and horror and satisfaction that comes along with it.

I can say now, that hunting is an amazing thing to do with your time. It’s so often characterized as some testosterone sport in which drunken rednecks drive their ATV’s around and try to shoot the thing with the biggest antlers with no respect or regard for the animal, the law, or ethics. Hunting can be easily perverted, but from my conversations, I can say that the average hunter has a deep love of wild lands and the animals that roam there. They respect the animal they harvest from long before the shot, until the last package of meat is pulled from the freezer. Hunting is emotional, earthy and real. It is the only way that we humans have to meaningfully interact in nature rather than merely observe it. And I love it.

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The Beginner’s Mind

My husband and I started hunting last year. We are both adult onset hunters from non-hunting families. EZ even spent most of his life as a vegetarian (Montana cures vegetarianism, in case you were wondering). Our good friend, R, of horribly accident prone fame, taught us to hunt. Fortunately, he seems to have much better luck with hunting than with seemingly more innocuous activities, like car camping. R is a passionate, ethical, and competent, life-long hunter and we were very lucky to learn under his tutelage. We hunted many days with R our first season, but for all the time we put in, I had one second worth of a shot all season. I hesitated and ended the season empty handed. EZ got a nice doe early on in the season.

This last Friday, Eric and I went here to hunt:

This beautiful little spot is along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. It was chock-full of mule deer. They all hung out high on the sides of buttes. The lack of trees and the wide, open spaces meant that the deer always knew where we were except in special cases. From across the valley, we spotted about 15 deer hanging out in the bowl of this butte.

So we snuck up the right, front side of the butte, as viewed in the picture. By the time we climbed up there (we had spotted them from over a mile and a half away), there were only two does left. One about 220 yards from me and the other 150 yards away or so. I was on a rock outcrop, so I found a rather awkward, but effective enough way to brace my body, laying prone. One rock was supporting my chest and another held up my hips. My legs were strewn akimbo over a jumble of other rocks. Comfort is of little concern in moments like this. I tried to find a good rest for my rifle and ended up with my hand braced over a pointy rock and the rifle resting in my hands.

I eyed both deer in my scope. I decided that the closer one was the more reasonable shot for me. I flicked off the safety, having chambered a round just before I’d crested the hill. I looked at her. She seemed aware of my presence, but unconcerned. My brain started churning. “Wow, she’s pretty scruffy. Wonder if she’s sick. Maybe I should pass on this shot. But she’s fat. Really fat. She’s fine. So what is that, like, a hundred and fifty yards? So how much will the bullet drop [Note: I shoot a .270, so the answer is hardly at all]? I think I should be riiiight there [moving crosshairs]. But her coat… that one book said if their coat’s all messed up, don’t shoot it. But she’s so fat. Whatever. Shoot it. [starting to pull trigger] Oh dang, when I start pulling my heart is thumping on this rock and it bounces me a little. But I’m staying well within the kill zone. Oh shit, I wish someone would just come here and tell me to shoot.”

I looked over at EZ, who was stationed behind the crest of the hill about 15 yards away from me. He gave me a goofy two thumbs up. “Oh, what does he know? He can’t see her. He can’t see how scruffy she is. She’s fat, Kim. She’s healthy. Just shoot her.” I tightened up on the trigger again. And at that precise moment, she took a step. I released. She took another step. And another, then she started the all four legs bounding that they do. I tried to whistle to get her to stop. But I found my mouth dry and unable to whistle.

Then, she was gone. Over the rise and out of my life. Her partner followed quickly. I collapsed on my awkward perch. Head hung down between the rocks. I felt my eyes begin to sting as I rose back up and cleared my cartridge and flicked the safety back on. It was over. The only decent shot I’d ever had and I pissed it away turning mental cartwheels around the problem. I was so angry at myself. Eric walked over and asked what happened and I dissolved into tears. If you ever hear anyone say that there’s no crying in hunting, they’ve never hunted with me. When I’m around, there’s a lot of crying. I’m generally not too much of a crier, but the quiet intensity of the situations hunting presents is like no other activity humans undertake. When that intensity releases, I cry.

This scenario, from what I’ve gathered, is something almost every neophyte hunter encounters. Hunting, in particular the moment of the would-be kill, at least the first time, reveals and intensifies one’s weaknesses. In everyday life, I’m a little on the over-thinking, indecisive side. In that moment, indecisive and overthinking were ALL I was. The moment crystallized my weakness. I’ve heard stories of other hunters who let off a few willy-nilly shots their first time that land nowhere near the deer. I imagine that they might be a tiny bit impulsive or excitable. Anyhow, from the folks I’ve spoken with (and here in Montana, there are plenty of hunters to relate their ‘first-time’ story), every body has got their weird thing they do the first time they have a real shot. Whether or not they were successful in actually pulling the trigger and getting their animal seems largely dependent on whether they have someone by their side encouraging them or not. They all tell me that once I pull the trigger that first time, I won’t have this problem again.

So, I am disappointed in myself, but hopeful that I will overcome it and get my deer this season.

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Someone recently said to me, “I love animals too much to hunt.” I hunt (I’m kind of a crappy hunter, but that’s beside the point for now), so I was a little flabbergasted by the implicit judgement in that statement. To me, hunting and loving animals is not antithetical.

I buy all my beef by the quarter from a local rancher whose beef is entirely grass-fed, hormone-, antibiotic-free. She doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides and she only uses spot herbicide treatment on one particularly insidious type of weed that only exists on one remote corner of her ranch. I need to nail down local sources for my chicken and pork (of which I don’t eat much), but all that I buy is at least organic, pastured, or hormone/antibiotic/pesticide-free. I am picky about my meat. Very picky. For as frugal person as I strive to be, one might question why I willingly dump so much money into meat.

Maybe I read too much about food production, but I simply cannot stand the industrial channels of meat production. They are very hard on the environment. They produce sick animals and tainted meat. They are cruel and they are disrespectful to the very animals that sustain us. I can’t stomach it. Most people follow these same channels of thought and the logical conclusion to them is to become vegetarians. I respect this conclusion, but I feel that from an evolutionary and human health standpoint, it’s simply not healthy. (Also, with my particular allergies, my diet would be woefully incomplete without animal proteins).

When I started hunting, just about a year ago, I gained a new respect for the animals I eat. I am not the sort of purist that claims that if you can’t kill an animal, you don’t deserve to eat it. However, when you work hard countless hours to find a good, ethical shot at an animal. When you take an animal. When you slice it open and field dress it. When you butcher an animal that weighs more than you to stock your freezer, you can’t help but respect your food. You respect what that animal gave and your own work. You know what it takes to get living flesh to the table.

If one eats meat, the process from living animal to meat on your plate something one should at least be aware of, I believe. You should know the journey an animal took to get to your table. You should give thanks for the Earth’s and God’s bounty that brought such important nutrition to your table. You should be at peace with the life that animal lived and the death it had. If you are not comfortable with it, you should seek out meat from other, more ethical sources (check out http://www.eatwellguide.org/, http://www.eatwild.com/).

I take the same approach to hunting that I take with purchasing meat. I deeply believe in ethical hunting. I have and will again decline to take shots that I’m not nearly 100% sure I can make, or shots that I feel have any reasonable chance in wounding or killing an animal I can’t retrieve. Honestly, if I just don’t feel right about something,even if I can’t explain it, I don’t shoot.

I have two wonderful dogs. The old guy, Barry, is gun shy and has zero instinct, so he’s merely family. Stanley, our German Shorthaired Pointer, has incredible instinct. He loves ‘im some birds. Now, he hunts with us in addition to being a member of our family. He is so happy when he’s out after birds. And there is no greater bond I’ve ever experienced with a dog than the moment when he brings you a bird that he scented and pointed and you shot. You are a team at that point. Dependent upon one another and grateful for the service the other provides. It adds a whole new level to the human-canine bond.

What I am getting at is this: I am not greatly driven by emotion in my regard to animals other than my dogs. I am not prone to nostalgia. But my respect and love for all animals is great. Even greater, however, is my love and respect for nature, as opposed to the individual. I am not perfect, but I am steadily, consciously, moving toward a relationship with nature with which I can be at peace.

I didn’t catch what dietary persuasion this young lady hails from, as starting a debate on hunting would have been out of place in the conversation, but I bristle at this argument (that hunters love animals less than they do) from any less than a strict vegetarian. If you are willing to give up good nutrition and your species’ role in nature, ok, you might love animals more than me. You probably value the individual animal over nature as a whole, but you probably really love that animal! However, one tells me that they love animals too much to hunt from behind their Big Mac or industrially-produced chicken breast/pork chop, he or she is a) woefully ignorant or b) a damn hypocrite. And that, my friends, is that.

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