Deer Hunting Essays

Dear EarthTalk: Hunting seems to be a real controversy among environmental advocates. Can you set the record straight: Is hunting good or bad for the environment?
—Bill Davis, New York, NY

Like so many hot button issues, the answer to this question depends upon who you ask. On the one hand, some say, nothing could be more natural than hunting, and indeed just about every animal species—including humans—has been either predator or prey at some point in its evolution. And, ironic as it sounds, since humans have wiped out many animal predators, some see hunting as a natural way to cull the herds of prey animals that, as a result, now reproduce beyond the environment’s carrying capacity.

On the other hand, many environmental and animal advocates see hunting as barbaric, arguing that it is morally wrong to kill animals, regardless of practical considerations. According to Glenn Kirk of the California-based The Animals Voice, hunting “causes immense suffering to individual wild animals…” and is “gratuitously cruel because unlike natural predation hunters kill for pleasure…” He adds that, despite hunters’ claims that hunting keeps wildlife populations in balance, hunters’ license fees are used to “manipulate a few game [target] species into overpopulation at the expense of a much larger number of non-game species, resulting in the loss of biological diversity, genetic integrity and ecological balance.”

Beyond moral issues, others contend that hunting is not practical. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the vast majority of hunted species—such as waterfowl, upland birds, mourning doves, squirrels and raccoons—“provide minimal sustenance and do not require population control.”

Author Gary E. Varner suggests in his book, In Nature’s Interests, that some types of hunting may be morally justifiable while others may not be. Hunting “designed to secure the aggregate welfare of the target species, the integrity of its ecosystem, or both”—what Varner terms ‘therapeutic hunting’—is defensible, while subsistence and sport hunting—both of which only benefit human beings—is not.

Regardless of one’s individual stance, fewer Americans hunt today than in recent history. Data gathered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its most recent (2006) National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, show that only five percent of Americans—some 12.5 million individuals—consider themselves hunters today, down from nine percent in 2001 and 15 percent in 1996.

Public support for hunting, however, is on the rise. A 2007 survey by Responsive Management Inc., a social research firm specializing in natural resource issues, found that 78 percent of Americans support hunting today versus 73 percent in 1995. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that “hunting has a legitimate place in modern society,” and the percent of Americans indicating disapproval of hunting declined from 22 percent in 1995 to 16 percent in 2007.

Perhaps matching the trend among the public, green leaders are increasingly advocating for cooperation between hunters and environmental groups: After all, both lament urban sprawl and habitat destruction.

CONTACTS: The Animals Voice, www.animalsvoice.com; HSUS, www.hsus.org; National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/fishing.html; Responsive Management Inc., www.responsivemanagement.com.

EarthTalk is produced by E/The Environmental Magazine. SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

 

Photograph by Jim Golden, Illustration by Tavis Coburn.
Not every trip into the deer woods ends with a deer, but hunters always come home with a new story. Because stories are everywhere in the wild. Some are short, others are epic, but they're all special because they remind us of everything we love about deer and deer hunting. That's never more valuable to remember than now, when most deer seasons are over. With that in mind, we've devoted our second annual collection of great stories to deer. The writers were given titles named after various phases and moments of a deer hunt and asked to share their best story. Their accounts are grouped into chapters that represent the most elemental stages of a deer hunt—Anticipation, Pursuit, and Harvest. Individually, the stories are all enjoyable in their own way. But when you read them together, the narrative builds from tale to tale. Collectively, they tell one great deer story.

The Drive To Camp by Thomas McIntyre. Photo illustration by Nick Hall.

At the top of Mountain Pass, the glare in the rearview was like the afterglow of a device gone off in a long-­overdue airburst above the coastal city. Then the interstate descended the Nevada side of the Clarks, leaving the Joshua trees behind; and the glare sank away, the highway flattening out and running straight as a ballasted railroad across the dry lake bed, the desert air growing slaty with the dusk progressing toward night. At last light, in the next lane, was another pickup with a camper top or a load in the back lashed under a tarp. A Jeep CJ crammed with gear, jerry cans on the rear and a rifle rack mounted inside, came up and slung past. As the headlights came on, the traffic buttons glowing like cats' eyes, the lights of Las Vegas mounted ahead.

It was like the Dust Bowl exodus in reverse, two generations later. The real Californians, the ones with roots going back before the war and the displaced sharecroppers' westward migrations, had their places to hunt in California. For the rest, in their tens of thousands, the way to the deer was a matter of returning the way they came, at least as far as Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. And everyone went through Las Vegas.

I was one of those Californians with multigenerational roots; but my people were not hunting people, and there was no ranch or mountain cabin. I heard the Colorado hunting stories, though, told by my father's friends, and I wanted to travel with them to hunt.

This, then, was my first journey on the mule deer highway. Although I didn't know it, I would follow it almost without interruption for 15 years.

By dawn we would be driving the trucks across the Utah-Colorado line. In Grand Junction, we'd take rooms, buy our licenses and supplies, sleep overnight, and the next morning be working our way upward through the axle-deep mud left in the shaded draws by early snows to churn out onto Skinner Ridge. Among the Gambel oaks and piñons and mountain mahogany was the campsite the older men had used throughout the '60s, and that was where we pitched the surplus pyramid tent for cooking and the wall tent for sleeping.

Into the wall tent we would bring the folding beds and sleeping bags. The tables, worn and whittled on, would be set up in the pyramid tent, and then the pots and pans, knives and forks, cups and plates, in the old U.S. mailbag, went in, along with the Coleman stove. Boxes of groceries followed, and it would already be time to start sorting through them for dinner: thick steaks, fried potatoes, salad with the inevitability of Italian dressing.

The lanterns would be lit and we would eat. After the meal there would be the washing, while for some there would be gin playing, and for others, vodka drinking, a Bloody Mary with tomato juice, or a red beer. On the table would be the radio with the AM and FM and shortwave bands. We would try to tune in the news or a game, then listen until the station faded away, before extinguishing the lanterns and going to sleep.

The stars would be out in the morning in abundant acuity; and the sun, coming up over where the ridge bluffed out, would find me still-hunting into the wind along a trail. On this trail, or another in a different side canyon running off the ridge, the memory vague now, I would jump and kill my first mule deer buck, no more than a forkhorn, then hurry to find one of the older men to show me how to field dress a deer, and to help me drag it back up the trail to where we could lift it into a truck.

In the afternoon, with the tagged and dressed buck hanging in a tree by its rack and October light cascading through the yellow leaves onto the stained canvas, the music or the news report on the big radio would be interrupted by the Buckskin Network, relaying emergency messages to the hunters scattered across the ridges and mountains. Phone home, the messages said, and you felt for the ones whose names were read, not just for what might be waiting on the other end of the line, but for having to come off the hunt, to leave the real buckskin network of hunters.

All that lay ahead, though, as did the older men growing into old ones, and their trips on the highway concluding. Then I would have to find other places to hunt my deer, and others to hunt them with. Now it was about driving through Vegas, registering under the incandescence of downtown at the Golden Nugget—where they held a contest for the biggest buck—before eating the prime-rib special and topping off the tanks.

The city lights would be behind us as we drove away from Las Vegas. And the headlights of the trucks would assemble with us in the sable night as we were bound for what we desired, what we could not seem to locate in California.

The Fight by Scott Bestul. Photograph by Adam Voorhes.

It was the first week of November—the heart of the seeking-and-chasing phase, magic time. So I stood up, bow in hand, as soon as I heard the mincing steps of a deer. The sleek head of a doe emerged, her forehead and eyelashes dusted by snowflakes. She shook her coat clean and looked down her backtrail as I heard heavier, shuffling steps—and spotted the chocolate antlers right under my stand.

The doe was still staring behind me, and when I followed her gaze, I saw three more bucks walking into bow range—a forkhorn, a small 6-point, and a tall-tined 10 with a white rack and a sorrel face. The chocolate-horned buck instantly laid his ears back, bristled, and stiff-legged it toward the 10.

Most fights—man, dog, or deer—start with some preliminary bluster. Not this one. The chocolate-horn lowered his head and crashed into the antlers of his rival so hard it sounded like a 2x4 cracked against a telephone pole. The impact drove the white-racked buck back, his hooves scrabbling over the snow-dusted oak leaves. With a groan, he dug his hind feet in and pushed back.

For nearly 10 minutes, just 20 yards from me, the bucks mashed antlers, pushing with a force that would roll a small car. Twice they stood in a seeming stalemate, their flanks exposed and heaving—and it occurred to me that I could slip an arrow into one of them. But each time, the bodies quickly shifted, and the opportunity vanished. Almost relieved, I let the show unfold.

Physics won the day. Although the white-racked 10 seemed stronger, each time he'd shove, the ­chocolate-horn deer would slide his back legs slightly more uphill until he had the advantage. Finally he drove hard downhill, twisted his head, and flipped the 10-pointer on its side. Once, twice, three times chocolate-horns plunged his tines into the exposed ribs. Miraculously, the white-rack popped to his feet, then whirled to flee. Chocolate stabbed him once more in the hams and chased him out of sight.

The woods fell silent. The doe, the reason for the fight, wriggled nervously into some brush. The two smaller bucks looked briefly at each other, and then followed her up the long, tangled hillside.

The Hog Barn by T. Edward Nickens. Illustration by Graham Samuels.

I turn off the hardtop and follow the headlights as they sweep across the soybeans, and there it is, low and ghostly white against the big timber. The hog barn. It's dark as sin this morning. No sign of a truck. Scott must still be on the way.

The big doors screech in the old tracks, so loud I flinch. I've opened these doors a million times, but I still half expect some crazy owl or rabid opossum to come flying out. My headlamp beam lights up a hodgepodge of gear inside, then flashes on the laminated pin-in map. Peering close I start the obsessing—plotting the approach to the stand, drawing imaginary whorls of wind through the woods, recalculating the deer's likely movements from the oak ridge to the swamp thicket.

An outside light jabs the dark interior, little stilettos knifing through holes in the walls. Must be Scott. He knows where I am. We're meeting at the hog barn.

It's been this way for years, every time we hunt. For us, every day in the woods begins and ends at the hog barn. It's where we plan the hunt about to take place and dissect the hunt that's over. It's where we change clothes, skin the deer, chew the fat, commiserate, celebrate. Every hunt begins and ends with a shibboleth, anchored in this most prosaic of structures.

Meet you at the hog barn.

Leave the chain saw in the hog barn.

Are the keys in the hog barn?

See you back at the hog barn. Good hunting.

This morning is no different. Scott and I talk in hushed voices, pull on knee boots, grab backpacks, mute cellphones, agree on how long to stay in our treestands. Then it's into the woods. No reason to run a light. We both know the way. Scott disappears into the dark like vapor. We can plot and plan all we like, but whatever happens over the next few hours is the great mystery of deer hunting. Except for this: We'll hear about it at the hog barn.

The Emergence by Dave Hurteau. Photograph by Adam Levey, diorama design by Geahk Burchill.

I'd seen only his dark form shrink away down the long length of a ryefield at dusk and then bank west onto a grassy lane that divided a knob, with hardwoods on one side and a mess of saplings and ragweed on the other.

I knew exactly where to kill him.

The next day at noon I hung a stand on the wooded edge in the fork of a silver maple and waited. For hours, there was nothing. There was the deserted, grassy lane; and the byway of deer tracks running its length; and the faint trails cutting in perpendicularly along the knob, through the ragweed, between the saplings, every one raked bare and shredded.

It was early November, not quite 5 p.m. The northwest wind, which had been flipping red leaves silver-side up, settled. The fox squirrels stopped thumping in the litter. The jays quit their shrill piping. And there he was.

He didn't weave through the saplings or step onto the grassy lane. He was just there. Twelve soaring, clean points—180 inches, give or take. Fourteen yards away, facing me, front legs standing on the lane, rear ones in the weeds, whose edge I'd hit with a rangefinder.

Right then I felt as though I hadn't climbed into my stand but had levitated there and was still floating. More than that, I felt certain I was going to kill this giant. When I reached for my bow, the stand made the faintest creak. The buck lifted his head and stared beyond me. I froze, thinking that like many deer only vaguely alerted he'd soon flick his tail and keep coming. I'd let him walk by and arrow him quartering away.

But he just stood there and stared, for an honest five minutes…10 minutes…then he spun, as if on a heel, and slunk back into the ragweed and saplings. Fifty yards away and out of range, he circled over to the sunlit side of the knob, stepped broadside into a small clearing, and stood there for the longest time—muscled and giant and perfect—as if to show me what a whitetail buck could be, and exactly what I couldn't have.

The Walk In by Bill Heavey. Photograph by Peter Rad.

Nothing beats the feeling—your heart full of hope and anticipation, your senses already working overtime—of sneaking into the whitetail woods in the dark-dark. Electricity and flashlights have made us such strangers to darkness that it takes an act of will not to push that button and destroy the night. But the less light you use, the less you disturb the woods. The best is when there's just enough light from the moon and stars to follow a path. There are other advantages to operating in the dark. One is that reduced vision makes your ears work that much harder. The biggest, however, is that darkness forces you to do something that animals do constantly and that humans almost never do in daily life, which is to move as though you have all the time in the world.

As the Lone Biped of the Forest, your normal cadence—even if you're walking in slow motion and pausing every few steps—is the woods' equivalent of a fire truck's siren. I always take a walking stick, the better to sound like another deer browsing its way back to bed. Whenever I've been pinned down by does or listened to unalerted deer under my stand, they always seem to move in an odd number of steps. Now I do the same. I'll take five or seven steps (including stick-steps), pause a couple of beats, move one or three more, and do a longer pause. Sometimes, as I do this, it occurs to me that I may be hunting really effectively or, equally likely, have just become eligible for free ­mental-health counseling.

I've bumped countless deer on my way in and know too well the heart-sink of hearing hooves crashing madly away through dry leaves. But there have also been times when I snorted back, stamped my stick a few times, and was taken for another deer. It's not hard, and because so few humans ever try it, it's not necessary that your snort be pitch-perfect to fool most deer. I roll my tongue, purse my upper lip out, and exhale sharply. Mine is lacking in the musical note of a real deer's snort, but I'm pretty good on the air part.

When I finally arrive at my tree, it may be bright enough to see, but my first priority is still making the least possible amount of noise. I figure the deer that can see me have already done so. It's the nearby ones that may be shielded from view that I'm focused on. It's possible—if you're careful and your tree's circumference is less than your wingspan—to attach both platforms of a climber and secure a tote rope to your bow without moving your feet. I attach my climber at the maximum height I can pull myself up to from the ground, inchworm slowly to my desired height, screw in the bow holder so the bow's grip is just above waist-high, and try to become one with the bark and branches.

The Campaign by Scott Bestul. Photograph by Adam Voorhes.

I had skipped school to deer hunt before, but always from the other side of the desk. This time, as a third-year English teacher, I told my principal I had a dentist appointment and would be late for a November workshop day that only the students had off. "Fine," said my boss as I stared at my shoes, "but you'd better be in that classroom by 11 sharp."

The real excuse was Picket Fence, a whitetail I'd first seen on a calm late-October morning when, after hearing the deep uuuuurpp! of a buck dogging a doe, I looked out across a broad valley and spotted his white, perfectly symmetrical, 12-point rack from 300 yards away. I grabbed my binocular and watched him for 10 minutes as he pushed the doe along the far hillside. He was the biggest buck I'd ever seen.

Later, when I walked over to investigate the chase scene, I found the hillside trashed with rubs and reeking of scrapes. This was part of his core area. He'd be back. I hung a stand in a ­double-trunked white oak and left. When my head hit the pillow that night, all I could think about was Picket Fence.

At dawn, in my new stand, I thought I heard his distinctive, guttural grunt. I grabbed my bow and stood as a young doe bombed past. Hearing another, softer grunt, I turned to my right and spotted a second doe weaving through the brush above me—with a buck trailing close behind. Squinting through the cover, I made out only 8 small points. The tension left my shoulders. Then, for no reason, I turned to my left and there was Picket Fence, his tall, white rack sliding through the brush 60 yards off. I grunted, but he seemed bent on reaching the ridgetop—a favorite bedding area for big bucks.

My job kept me from hunting during the next week, but I was back in the same stand Saturday morning, marveling at the blowup of buck sign since my last sit, confirming that I was still in Picket's wheelhouse. I didn't see him the first morning, but on Sunday, around 11 a.m., I heard leaves rustling 60 yards to my left and turned to see a pair of agitated does wriggling through a patch of cedars and into the open woods. Picket was shadowing them, taking a step, pausing to read the does' body language, licking his nose. Suddenly, he snapped his head up, spotting a small buck chasing another doe up the hill, and bolted off in pursuit.

The does flicked their tails in unison and stepped confidently down a trail 30 yards out of bow range, giving me the clue I needed. While I'd been sitting in the thick stuff near the hottest sign, does were now cycling and Picket was walking where they did. At the end of that morning's hunt, I moved my stand to a clump of basswoods, out of the thicket and overlooking three pounded trails.

The following Friday was my "dentist" hunt. It, plus the weekend, was my last, best chance before gun season began. I was in the basswoods in full dark, plotting out my hunt to the minute while waiting for the sun. I needed 15 minutes to reach my car, 10 to change clothes, and 35 to race to school—an hour total. By 9 a.m. I hadn't seen a deer. At 9:30, I was still working on a skunk. At 10, I decided that it was just one of those mornings.

I crawled down, gathered my gear, and took three steps toward my vehicle. And there, standing like a lawn ornament at 40 yards, was a huge doe. As we locked eyes, behind and above her I could see a set of unmistakable antlers. One more minute and Picket would have followed her right under my stand. The doe stomped her foot once, backpedaled uneasily, and whirled. Picket never saw me, but he followed the doe. And I got to my classroom at 11:15.

That night a front moved in, full of cold rain and November wind. I sat in the basswoods again the next morning, but I knew Picket wouldn't show. Deer seem to shun those hardwoods in bad weather. I sat a field edge in the evening, in a maybe-I'll-get-lucky stand that produced a lonely nubbin buck. Tomorrow would be my last shot, and the weather forecast was little improved.

The morning barely dawned, the sky only shifting from black to gray. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but as I settled into the basswoods again, I knew I was just marking time. Then I remembered my second encounter with Picket, the morning he ignored my grunt call and beelined to the ridgetop bedding area. I gathered my gear and scrambled down the tree.

The hike was steep and tangled but wet; the ground and even the brambles that tore at my clothes made no sound. Topping the ridge, I dumped my pack and shed every piece of nonessential clothing, as well as my boots. Down to a ball cap, shirt, camo pants, and wool socks, I grabbed my recurve bow and started sneaking.

Ahead, at 60 yards, was a brushy bench just off the ridgeline, a perfect place for a buck to hide. With the wind on one cheek, I slipped forward 30 yards along an old logging road, then dropped to my knees and glassed the cover ahead. Then I crawled another 5 yards and glassed again. In the middle of my next move, I spotted a single white beam against the thick dogwood. Picket was looking downhill and away. I nocked an arrow and edged to where I could see a clear lane to the buck's ribs, 20 steps away. As I raised the bow, beginning to draw, a doe exploded from her bed next to Picket. His great, gorgeous head swiveled before he careered off the bench in a flurry of mud and leaves.

Five days later, within the first couple of hours of the gun-season opener, Picket came trotting, pretty as you please, right under a stand, chasing his last doe. "My son Scooter killed a monster," the owner of the neighboring farm told me that weekend. Then he described the rack: "Tall, heavy, bone white, unblemished…it netted 173." If I felt a twinge of envy, I don't recall it now. A 15-year-old kid I knew shot a Booner; I was happy for him. And he was thrilled. But when I talked to Scooter, I sensed that, at the time at least, he didn't fully appreciate how special a buck Picket Fence was.

But I did.

The Blood Trail by David Draper. Photograph by Yasu + Junko.

The rifle seemed solid in the shooting sticks, crosshairs steady. The shot felt good, one where you almost expect to see the buck flop. Instead, he bolted, clearing a four-strand fence before disappearing into a windbreak that lined the CRP field.

Andre, my guide, saw a hitch in his gait, and we agreed: The buck was hit, but not well.

Soaking into the rusty barbwire was only a speck of blood. Across the fence, where he landed, was a bit more, lightly splattered in the dead grass. Every hunter who's ever shot an animal knows there's good blood and bad blood. This was bad blood—the spotty, bright-red droplets of a flesh wound, each one nagging that you alone are responsible.

During the next few hours, between specks, occasional vivid splashes on the monochrome landscape would make me think, Maybe he's lying just up ahead. At one point the buck had stood in an island of big bluestem, no doubt watching us work out the details of his trail before limping away. The blood that had pooled in his tracks gave me some hope.

But then the trail lined out, crossing a huge pasture—and all but disappearing. I hate to admit it, but without so much as a glimpse of the buck, we talked about giving up then, rationalizing that maybe the wound wasn't as bad as we thought. Instead we broke for lunch.

It was a full eight hours after the shot when we picked up the trail again. The pin-size drops led to an abandoned corral packed shoulder-high with tumbleweeds. In the thick cover I had to stoop to work out the blood trail, which had begun to wander back on itself, like that of an animal getting ready to bed down.

"There!" Andre shouted, as I heard a rustling in front of me. Fifty yards ahead, antler tips plowed through the brush. In the tunnel vision of the scope all I could see of the buck was a spot of hair where his head and neck met. At the crack of the rifle, the buck crashed.

And just like that it was over—the deer's suffering, the eight-hour tracking job, my own personal torture. After missing a shot that I should have made, I followed up with one I probably couldn't make again. It didn't make everything right. I didn't feel good. But I've never felt so relieved.

The Tradition by Anthony Licata. Illustration by Peter Gamlen.

It was an unusual deer camp. There were 12 of us—some friends, some strangers, all business associates—hunting blacktail deer on Alaska's Kodiak Island and living aboard two 50-foot boats. At night we tied up and packed into one cabin for a communal supper. After everyone had a drink or two and had eaten enough grub to take the edge off, our host and leader, Doug Jeanneret of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, would announce: "All right, it's time for High and Low."

The rules are straightforward: Everybody picks his high and low moments of the day and shares them with the group. But the results are not so simple. Identifying your most meaningful experiences forces you to think introspectively about your day afield. You learn surprising things about yourself and about your fellow hunters.

I heard my companions talk about the highs of reaching the top of a mountain that rises straight out of the sea. There was the sight of a fox, bright orange in the sun, trotting across the tundra and of a brown bear scratching its back against an alder bush. We shared lows of blown stalks, brutal hikes, and scary beach landings in heavy surf. There was the huge boar brown bear that galloped in front of two guys, all three of the predators after the same deer. It could've been a high or a low. For one hunter, the high of the solitude and peace he found in the Alaska wilderness was followed by the low of missing his young son.

The highs and lows that really resonated caused people to raise their drinks in tribute.

After Kodiak, I brought this tradition to all of my hunting camps (and, on special occasions, to the family dinner table, where my young son loves it). It's always a hit for one simple reason: Hunters crave stories. These days it's too easy, even in deer camp, for people to retreat to the TV, computer, smartphone. High and Low keeps the ancient campfire tradition of storytelling burning, even on a boat in the Gulf of Alaska.

The Gun by Keith McCafferty. Photograph by Fredrik Broden.

It is a long way from a movie theater in North Carolina to last light on the last day of the deer season on a Montana mountain, but that's where this story starts, with the curtain coming down and the credits coming up, and a date by my side whose name I've long forgotten.

"He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better," the narrator said in Jeremiah Johnson. "He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn't go no better."

The movie made such an impression that in two years' time I would set my compass as my hero had—due west, turn left at the Rocky Mountains—and try to do Johnson one better by building my own rifle, and a .58 at that. I drove a chisel through my palm while inletting the lock, and the first time I fired the rifle, the recoil split the stock and bloodied my nose. But my pilgrimage would not be derailed by matters of such inconsequence. I might have been born a century too late to follow Johnson's example, but the West was carved from rock and the rock was still there, and the last of the great country falling from the peaks, and I was determined to pay homage to those who pioneered the trail by hunting their way, the hard way. No reach-​out-​and-​touch-​them magnum, no scope cranked to 10X to shoot across the canyon. That wasn't hunting. Hunting was tracking game with your nose to the wind—one chance at a range where you saw nostrils quiver as you thumbed the hammer, and every bite of venison a sacrament to a time gone by.

I brought down my first deer on a slope of the Continental Divide while camping in a converted bus with my parents, who were so worried about their son that they followed him just to make sure he had a place to come out of the cold. My father was a hunter, but the blood didn't pound for him the way it did for me; he would think about the difficulty of packing an animal out before taking the shot. I thought of it after the smoke cleared enough to see the deer lying on the snow, the road a good 7 miles down in the valley. Right about then a friend with a stout back would have come in handy, but like Johnson I made my own way in the mountains, and as my father had had open heart surgery, he could offer little more than moral support as I packed out the boned meat.

Never again would I turn my eyes East. I married, moved to Montana, and began to raise a family on the animals that fell to the Hawken, staying on the high horse of principle born of celluloid film. But unlike Idaho, where I had shot that first deer, my adopted state didn't have a muzzleloader season, and I found myself hunting country where everyone else packed centerfire rifles. Those men didn't have to worry about how far down to pull the front blade into the V-notch. It didn't take them 45 seconds to reload, nor did anyone with a modern rifle have to discharge it every night, so that the next day began with a charge of fresh powder. Most important, smokeless poles spoke when you pulled the trigger. The Hawken sometimes didn't, especially on damp days, but also because the hammer did not fall quite squarely onto the percussion cap—an error of being off a fraction of an inch when I inletted the lock.

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