I know many of you reading this don’t hunt. But even so, I’ll bet you’ve heard the one where the hunter bags his first buck. How the opportunity came as a surprise after he’d tried and failed for what seemed like so long. How the emotions came in waves as he approached the downed animal: joy, sadness, triumph, in no particular order. The hunter is usually a boy and there’s usually a turn in the story where his dad comes and they hug – the smell of wool as his nose is crammed against his father’s chest. Then some ritual: a prayer for the fallen deer, maybe blood smeared on his cheeks.
And then he’s a hunter.
These stories are resonant because many of us were lucky enough to have some version of this experience. Look, we say, to all who didn’t. This changed me. But life is complicated – hunting is complicated – and things don’t always follow the script.
Hiya shot his first buck last October – 13 yards with an arrow. He’s not a boy. He’s 71. Hunted for almost 60 years but just never connected. He’s a kind and affable man and everyone in camp has rooted him on for decades. So, of course, when the day finally came he was in camp alone. It was a beautiful Sunday morning – picture him ambling slowly out into the dawn, walking into a moment that was going to change him forever. He got within a hundred yards of his ground blind and then changed plans at the last minute, thinking that when the deer came off the hill they’d see the blind, turn, and walk right past him.
He nailed it. That’s exactly what happened.
I was sitting in town that Sunday morning, reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, when the call came. I could hear Hiya’s voice trembling a bit, jangling with nerves and soul. Being a natural storyteller, he took his sweet time getting to the point, burying the lede again and again.
“So then the second deer turned...”
“DID YOU GET HIM!?”
“...and I considered drawing...”
Yes, he’d shot the deer. Yes, there was blood. By then I was already in my truck, roaring towards his son’s house.
These are big woods we hunt, and it took J – the son – and I more than an hour to get up to that little hardwood nob near the top of the mountain. We found Hiya sitting on the tree stump where he’d shot the deer. He told us the story again in rich detail. The deer had “busted” him at 13 yards – look, right there. He’d hung a flag on a tree. They’d locked eyes and he’d fired an arrow into the deer’s brisket and the deer turned and wisped away like a puff of smoke. “I’ve never seen a deer that close,” he said, his eyes shining.
We started following the blood trail, J and I coursing the foreground like a couple of rangy hounds, Hiya walking as far as the last splotch of blood and then standing there as a reference point. The blood was steady at first but then slowed. We slowed, too, eyes straining to pick up legitimate blood as the deer ran through red maple leaves.
Archery is a crude form of hunting. Whereas a bullet breaks bone, and the rifle shot itself can carry a hydrostatic shock wave that can knock a deer’s feet out from under him, the archer selectively aims for a pass-through shot in the front third. The goal is to hit a vital organ, and short of that, to open a hole in both sides so the deer will lose blood and expire. You’re not supposed to take straight-on shots because there’s too much bone to deflect the arrow, and even if you miss the shoulders, there’s a good chance the arrow won’t exit, and you won’t have a very big hole. If the animal bleeds internally you might never find him.
About five minutes into our tracking exercise we saw all this written in the blood. As the trail got harder to follow, Hiya started coursing with us, the triumph draining out of him in clotted clumps. On his knees rubbing red maple leaves to determine whether the crimson was pigment or blood until it was all pigment. Two hours, then three, then four. When we lost the blood trail for good we just started circling, looking for a dead deer. At first this was disciplined, a regular skirmish line. Eventually it was just three men moving randomly. Grasping at straws. Knowing deep down the gig was up but moving fast to avoid having to contemplate the thought.
At dark we met back at the woods road, and I rode down the mountain with Hiya in the UTV. His legs were cramping up and he was in pain – all senses of that word. I didn’t know what to say. I told him this had happened to me once, and I knew what he was feeling. I gave him a clumsy pep talk, telling him that the trick to hunting is to make a mistake, learn from it, then get back up the next day and try again. Even as I was saying it I could tell the words were all wrong. He wasn’t thinking about hunting, he was worried about that deer.
Part of me sharing this is cathartic, knowing that other hunters have felt this pain and will empathize. Part is a public service: here’s a cautionary tale to think about before you let the arrow or bullet fly. Part is just that old riff on how life is often more complicated than any cliché.
That night Hiya stared at the ceiling, grieving for the deer that had a miss-shot arrow shaft flush against his fading heart. This is another way one can become a hunter, though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.