Hang out with hunters and you’ll hear it, probably sooner than later: If you need to kill in order to have a successful hunt, you’re not a hunter, you’re a killer.
Being in the woods, the reasoning goes, is an end in itself. You learn the animal’s habits and habitat. You learn how to make sense of the signs and the noises around you. You learn the value of taking time off from civilization.
This is stuff and nonsense. What you really learn is how uncomfortable it is to sit in one spot for a very long time. You learn how adept deer are at giving you a wide berth. You learn that your own thoughts aren’t such great company.
Other commitments prevented me from spending more than about five days out in the woods this deer season, but only part of me would have wanted more. The other part definitely had to wash my hair.
Normally, I use audiobooks to enliven tedious tasks (and there are a lot of them around here). Give me a good book, and I can face just about anything. Hunting deer, though, you’re supposed to be attuned to every noise. I tried an audiobook, at low volume, with only one ear plugged in, but it became clear that I wouldn’t notice a deer until I took an antler in the gut. So I had to leave Anthony Bourdain at home.
Which left just me and my brainwaves. Earlier in the season, in Vermont, Kevin and I were hunting a patch in our friend Dave’s back yard, so we could stay out for a few hours, come in for a bit, and go back again. Last week, though, we went to opening day of the annual hunt at Otis Air Force Base, and it was sun-up to sun-down.
The Otis hunt is one of the best deer bets on Cape Cod, which has an abysmal deer-to-hunter ratio (abysmal, oddly, for both hunters and deer). The base is closed to civilians all year, and opens for one week to allow hunters to cull their substantial white-tail herd.
Otis is 22,000 acres, but not all of them are open. Since it’s an active military base, there are areas with unexploded ordnance, clearly marked with scary signs and definitely off-limits. This should please any hunter committed to the idea of fair chase, as it creates vast safe havens for the animals you’re trying to hunt. Although deer only read at a third-grade level and ‘ordnance’ probably trips them up, they get the gist and go running for those areas at the first sound of shotguns.
Still, opening day is usually a good day. So we went.
Kevin and I arrived pre-dawn, but hadn’t counted on the long line of trucks waiting to register. By the time we got to our chosen spot, the sun had been up for almost half an hour, and we paid the price. As we hiked into the woods, we saw two bucks, already on the run from the chaos that was descending on them. We didn’t have a shot.
And those were the only deer we saw. We were in the woods for eight hours, with a break for lunch, and all we had to do was think.
I cycled through just about everything I could think of to think about, and it was still only mid-morning. So I cycled through it again. I thought about the looming due date of the magazine article I wasn’t working on. I thought about whether we really want to get two Scottish deerhounds. I considered whether a post about not shooting a deer could possibly be interesting. I wondered what Kevin was thinking.
All that took about fifteen minutes, so I did some work on my all-purpose acceptance speech (Pulitzer, Nobel, Oscar, whatever), which is getting pretty good. I planned what I’d make for dinner. I figured out what I’d jury-rig to try to get the chickens to stop roosting on the nest box dividers. I wondered what problems Kevin was solving.
Then, having run through everything practical, I fantasized about actually getting a deer. I wondered out what we’d do with it, given that it was a little too warm to hang it in the garage. I developed some venison recipes. What could Kevin be thinking?
We packed it in a little after sunset, when there was just enough light to get us out of the woods. As we hiked back to the truck, Kevin said, “So, were you thinking about sex that whole time, too?”
“The whole time?”
“Sure,” he said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And then paused. “Well, I also thought about that boat for a couple minutes.” (We’d gone to look at a bigger boat the day before.)
Maybe that’s a consolation prize for not getting a deer, but I can’t imagine it’s enough of one to elevate the experience to “successful hunt.”
Although there are things to be learned in the woods, no one in his right mind would go out in the freezing cold and sit in a tree stand, or behind a rock, or in a blind, for hours on end if there were no prospect of venison. I gotta believe that a successful hunt is one in which you bring home dinner.
Luckily, the idea can’t make me a killer until I actually kill something. Which won’t be this year.