Growing up, I never got along that well with school, but I always loved to read and especially loved to read hunting stories, which were their own genre back then. Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows – a fabulous book about a boy, his dogs, and their coon-hunting adventures in real-world nature – was required reading in my fourth-grade class, despite the fact that two major characters are disemboweled and one dies from starvation. My partner teaches fourth-grade in a semi-rural school and her kids are now reading Gregor the Overlander, a book about a city kid who falls through a grate in his apartment building into a fantasy world full of giant cockroaches and rats. Nothing and everything has changed in the last 30 years.
Anyway, thanks in part to authors like Rawls, I grew up and became a writer. I got my start writing hunting stories for weekly newspapers. Many of my pieces had a how-to bent, complete with excitable punctuation (“How to Bag the Biggest Buck of your Life!”), an homage to the Field and Stream columnists I admired and a byproduct, I suppose, of growing up in a family of teachers. I’m tempted to make fun of my 20-year old self for having the audacity to think I was qualified for the gig – it’s a little like the high-schooler who tells his mother he’s dropping out of school. (“And what do you think you’ll be qualified to do with a tenth grade education?” “Teach ninth-grade.”) But I’m not sure that’s fair. In some ways, young me deserved the platform. I was a driven hunter with a handful of good bucks to my credit; more importantly, I had the certainty of youth on my side, which I’ve come to recognize as its own immeasurable asset. In the book Moneyball, Billy Beane, a highly touted baseball prospect who had all the natural ability in the world, recalls being benched in favor of teammate Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, who was half as skilled and twice as ignorant. Beane basically thought his way out of the league – he studied so hard he psyched himself out and couldn’t hit anymore. Dykstra didn’t think much at all and went on to have a storied career. In one memorable exchange, Dykstra – a rookie – is getting ready to go to bat with the game on the line and asks Beane who the pitcher is. Beane looks at him incredulously and says the guy’s only one of the best pitchers in the history of the game. None of it registered on Dykstra’s face, who shrugged his shoulders, sauntered up to the plate with a chip on his shoulder as big as Texas, and promptly delivered the game-winning hit.
Deer hunting’s kind of like this in that the more you know, the harder things can be. As you age, you find that early successes are not easily replicated and that what you’d thought were sure-fire tricks were mere hints, at best. You develop an almost reverential respect for the deer, who over time prove themselves to be remarkably adept at staying alive. If you’re not careful, you can become Billy Beane; furrow your brow because the wind’s swirling or because it’s too hot or because the rut is in this phase or that, wondering if you should go north or south and whichever way you choose second-guessing yourself. Whereas when you’re young and Lenny Dykstra, you simply announce that you’re going to go shoot a deer and head straight out into whatever direction you’re facing.
Bow season opened on a rainy Saturday this year. It was a miserable Nor’easter type rain – vertical at times, with a nasty, swirling wind. Had I taken advice from my younger self (During the pre-rut, hunt concentrated food sources!) I would have been in the lowlands where the oaks and hickories were masting at bumper rates. But the oak woods I hunt are full of chipmunks this year, whose scoldings pulse like asynchronous alarm clocks and wear on you after a while. They’re close to town, too. Close enough to hear vehicles on the highway, roosters kerr-ker-rueing on the old Rice farm, the teenagers down in the Hidden Valley gravel pit filling the sand full of shot. As I age, getting away from things has become more important than playing the hunting odds, something I suspect is somewhat universal. “I don’t care if I even see a deer this year,” said my brother recently. “I just don’t want to see people.”
And so I found myself in bigger woods, high up in the Green Mountains. I spent Friday night at camp with my dear friends Jamie and Hiya, then headed out early Saturday morning to hunt in the driving rain. I walked for a mile or so into the wildest country I could find and took a stand in a copse of old-growth hemlocks, the land steep enough here to have kept the skidders at bay. The brown and deep-green color pallet seemed somber compared to the festive deciduous foliage. The only flashes of color were wine-red shelf fungi and glowing shards of milk quartz that rose from the earth; chalk white like old bones.
I nestled into a crevice that afforded me a bit of protection from the wind, a 180-degree view, and a couple choice screening trees that would allow me to bring my bow to full draw. And then I tried not to think of the rain, which was heavy enough to run through my pants and down my legs, or work, or any number of personal threads – good things and bad, important and otherwise. A friend was having marriage trouble and losing weight. The Patriots’ offense line had been a sieve since they traded Logan Mankins. My ex-wife wrote to say our cat had died. One of my old tips was to pick your hunting strategies based on conditions. (If the tracking conditions are ideal, track! If they’re not, sit!) But as you get older it gets harder to compartmentalize and leave your domestic life behind when you enter the woods. Sometimes you’ve got to keep moving to escape your own head.
You can track deer in the rain on bare ground fairly effectively if you know the country you’re hunting. You have to be able to pick up on subtle clues to find the track – an upturned leaf, a dent in the dirt. Oftentimes you need to use your fingers to touch the finer details. You have to know enough about deer to ascertain the sex and scenario – a buck is going to act differently than a doe/fawn group. And you have to have a portfolio of past experiences that’s expansive enough to help you predict where they’re going. At this point your brain takes the available clues and creates a story; you then follow the storyline to the deer.
If you’re not of this world this probably sounds like a load of mystic bull, but you’d be surprised at how often it works. If you’ve ever picked your way along a familiar forest path on a pitch-dark summer night, your feet and your ears and your nose taking over and somehow seeing you through to an open meadow and faint star light, it’s the same sort of instinctual, animal thing.
I gave up my stand and soon found a pair of tracks scuffing through the hemlock duff, bounding at first then slowing to a purposeful trot. They looked like they were left early that morning, so I followed them down the mountain into a forest full of red maple and beech. My story was that they were a doe and a yearling and they were going to follow the curl of the hill and hold in a hardwood flat where I’d pushed doe/fawn groups many times before. As a younger man I didn’t shoot does; a relic of the don’t-shoot-the-mothers ethos prevalent among Vermont hunters in the 1980s and probably a macho streak that wanted to put big antlers on the wall. These days I still can’t shoot a doe who’s with young-of-the-year, but the yearlings and older ones are fair game. Hunting’s more like gardening, a bow more like a hoe.
Twenty minutes later, I pushed the deer: a doe and a yearling. They ran downhill, tails down, into the wind. The deer aren’t spooky on the first day of archery season, and so I trotted parallel to where they’d gone, hoping they wouldn’t go far. About 100 yards on, I turned downhill and stopped at a vantage point overlooking an old patch cut that had come in to hay-scented fern. I took a knee and looked left to where I figured the deer might come sneaking to try to get my wind. A full minute later I noticed that both deer were already there – about 30 yards away at the far edge of the opening, standing motionless and watching me. I squared my torso and drew my bow. I blew the peephole clear of water – the rain was still just pounding down. I’d never be able to follow a blood trail if this deer wasn’t hit cleanly. My last thought was: don’t you dare shoot her in the belly. My brain heard loud and clear and the arrow went flying harmlessly over her back.
The deer bolted; one headed north, the other south. I went to the point where they’d separated and found a good spot where I could see in all directions. I’d wait here to see if they’d returned to join back up – a decent play in these types of situations. This was a trick I didn’t know when I was 20, and so age and wisdom might have ruled the day after all.
But as I sat there in the rain waiting for that doe to come back I felt myself beginning to lose. I was cold and hungry. Hiya would be back in camp, where there would be a fire in the woodstove and an afternoon playoff baseball game on the radio. “Don’t give up!” was one of my 20-year-old pearls of wisdom. When I was rereading those early columns, it was the tip that seemed most hackneyed. And yet at that moment this piece of wisdom shone in its intended glory, and I was able to remember myself more sympathetically. Basically an earnest kid who didn’t like to lose. Really the only trick I knew back then was to stay out chasing deer all day while the older guys sat in camp and played cards. But you know, that can be the best trick in the whole book.
“Don’t give up,” I thought. Said out loud, maybe even in my 20-year-old voice. But I did. I shivered against the rain and unnotched my arrow and walked uphill toward camp.
It was a good tip, kid. That was a nice piece.