Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Deer Hunter's Son

(editor's note: I've been mulling over this post since November.  Time to therapeutically write it down. -CMM)

Zachary was so excited about going hunting.  Where did this excitement come from?  From video games?  From a friend? Maybe he has the hunter's gene.
The hunting gene in me is recessive.  My father did a great job of raising me as a hunter.  Our family has a long tradition of hunting told many times in many stories.  I spent many weekends trekking out to a lease  or friend's ranch to hunt whatever was in season.  I knew early on that it didn't interest me; but I went anyway in order to bond with (and further understand) my dad (more on that general subject later [we meet in the middle]).   Hunting in Texas largely revolves around waking up for the morning hunt long before dawn; killing time all day; and then hunting late afternoon to past sunset.  While I appreciate hunting and it's inherent connection to the natural world, I have never been drawn to the kill.  I am perfectly content to observe and occasionally take a shot with a camera.  Some of my most vivid memories are sitting in a tree stand watching the world around me wake up.  I just don't feel the need to take a life from that world. While I feel that my dad is disappointed, I think he tries to understand (that meet in the middle thing again).  It is a part of me, made me what I am- I just don't actively use the skills.
Due to the cost of a hunting lease, I had not been deer hunting since I turned 18 and got kicked off dad's lease.  I had resigned hunting to memories in my past.  But Zachary and an opportunity would bring it back to the present. Zachary was six and was expressing an interest in hunting.  I think it stemmed from his new found interest in guns brought on by cartoons and " fighting bad guys." If hunting allowed him to shoot something, then he was all for it.   Of course his Papa was very excited at this prospect.
Zachary and Papa just after target practice.  Note the ecstatic grin.
Last thanksgiving (2011), the Bakers invited us to their ranch for a hunt to cull some older doe and genetically inferior bucks.  This would be Zachary's opportunity to "ride along" and learn.  I have to admit that I panicked a bit.  After twenty years, would I be able to pass on anything useful and respectable to him?  Maybe I should stay back and let papa take him.  I decided that it was my job as father to be the one to take him.  So we loaded up early Saturday morning and made the 1 1/2 hour drive to arrive at the ranch before sunrise.
Zachary was too excited to sleep.  So- all the way there, dad, Todd, and I advised him all we could to prepare him.  Be quiet.  Be still.  Follow my lead.  You are just watching this time.  If I pinch your arm, freeze.  Move slow.  You might get cold.  Etc.  Zachary took it all in and got really pumped. We got to the "sendera" blind just in time.

got into the blind juuust barely in time
Dad and Todd pulled away after we settled in.   Zachary did incredibly well in the blind.  He would make Papa really proud.  And the ranch did not disappoint*.  Near immediately, doe and trophy whitetail came in all over the place.  I should mention that the Baker ranch is a managed lease- it has a high fence so that it's population can be monitored and improved through selective harvesting.   The end result is that the average deer on the ranch would make most hunters heads spin.  We would be selectively harvesting today.   
While I had explained ahead of time what was allowed to be killed and what was not, Zachary could not wait for me to shoot something.   The older crafty does quickly left, leaving only young does and trophy deer.  Thus- my opportunity came and went pretty quickly.  Not good for the boys' mood.
We heard some shots in the distance; followed by a text from my dad checking up on us.  Really? A TEXT.  From my DAD.  In the DEER BLIND!  A lot has changed in twenty years.  I guess I should have been blogging on the fly from there.

well- if dad can call; I can take a phonecam pic

With the opportunity for a kill gone, Zachary settled down and got cold.  So- we came down from the blind and walked around a bit until Papa came to pick us up. Z was completely down for the rest of the morning.  The fact that Dad had bagged 1 deer and Todd had bagged 2 didn't help matters.  Zachary started to come around with an "Ewww gross!" as we cleaned the deer.  I think he would have poked the guts with a stick had the smell not driven him away.  He just sat in the back seat of the truck watching through a closed window.
The rest of the family came to visit for the daytime hours.    We had a good time exploring the ranch even though the wind had turned blistering cold.  When the afternoon approached, we debated whether to go ahead and go home or to stay for the evening hunt.  Because Zachary was so disappointed about not getting anything, I decided we should stay.  We're already here, right?  
Dad dropped us off at the sendera blind again, figuring it was still the best location for teaching a fidgety 1st grader how things are done.  Just as before,the deer came in relatively quickly.  An eleven point buck kept hanging around like he owned the place; looking after his harem of yearling does.  They all startled a bit; and then went back to eating.  Come to find out, an old crafty doe was circling the clearing to scope things out.  She finally came in.  Right in front of the 11 point.  It's almost like she knew that would  protect her.**  In order to not disappoint z again, I got ready.  Gun in position. Settling in to scope her.  Taking off safety.  Warning Z.  Z promptly goes fetal in the bottom of the blind to guard against the sound.  Just me and the doe now.  Old 270- don't fail me now.  I squeeze the trigger***.
Either the scope was off (not sighted in for 20 years), or my aim was off ( untested for 20 years), or the doe moved ( that has to be it) because I hit her high.  I was aiming for the heart ( easier) but ended up clipping her backbone ( harder but cleaner kill).  This paralyzed her from the shoulders down.  Zachary was so excited, he wanted to jump down immediately.  I told him to wait to see if she got up again; but it was obvious she could not stand.  Zachary won out; we started out toward the doe.  I had another shell in the chamber just in case she jumped up.    She was still as we approached.  When we got close, we discovered she was fully alert but resting.  She started to scramble to try to get away.  We were way too close to use the rifle again; it would obliterate her.  I didn't want to back off again ( sun was setting) but also did not want her to suffer a long drawn out death.  I decided the most humane solution was to speed up her death.  I took out my pocket knife ( a leatherman of all things!****) and approached.  The doe let out the most pitiful cry I have ever heard.  

She was pleading for her life.  

That stopped me in my tracks.  What was I doing? What was I about to do in front of my son?  Z was still there- a look of excited wonder in his face.  He still excited that the gun had been fired.   I continued on- I slowly put my boot on her head to hold it down on the ground.  I reached down and slit her throat.  Bleeding out was the most humane way to go.  The doe's life slowly faded as her blood ran down the hill. I kneeled down and wrapped my arms around Z as we watched the doe pass.  I had huge flashbacks to the hunter scenes in the movie Avatar- and told the Doe that her life was not wasted.  It taught a lesson.  Between Zachary and I, I am not sure who received the bigger dose.
Dad had not even gotten to his blind after dropping off Todd.  He circled back and picked us up for cleaning the doe. It was almost too efficient of a kill- only 45 minutes had elapsed from drop off at the blind to finishing the gutting of the deer.  All of it based on the "peer pressure" I felt from Zachary to perform my fatherly duties as a hunter teaching his son about hunting.  I don't hold it against him; who am I to squelch his new found passion? With any luck, my notions won't hinder him.  He is free to choose his own path- be it on the sidewalk or in the pasture.

I pulled Zachary aside later to talk with him about what happened; to see if he had questions or trauma.  The does cry was still in my head.  He was still so excited that he went hunting.  Excited that we used the gun.  Excited that I killed something.  I asked if the throat slitting bothered him; He seemed indifferent to it, describing it like it happened in a video game and not in real life.  Zachary started to plan his next visit to the ranch and asked " can I shoot next time?"  He has the dominant hunting gene; so I reckon he will soon. -CMM

*. as we were watching the sendera, various deer came and went.  Then out of nowhere, a blackbuck bounded across.  Just like a bonus points animal in one of the arcade hunting games.  
**. Since the lease was managed, the right to shoot the 11 point could most likely be sold to a big-city hunter.  I could not take the risk of injuring (thus buying) that deer.  
***. squeezing the trigger: something dad always told me to do in order to not jerk the gun and miss the shot.  " when it goes off, it should almost be a surprise to you.". I never fully got it until this hunt.  Now it's my turn to teach Z how to ignore the impulse of youth and to just 'squeeze' it.
****. Leatherman: a multi-tooled pocket knife; an industrial version of a swiss army knife.  my dad is fanatical about leathermans.  I have a whole set built out of his castoffs.

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