Many people remember harvesting their first deer; it is just one of those memories that sticks with you for a long time. It is typically bittersweet and an experience like no other. It requires a relatively high amount of determination and grit to get through. This is because most deer rifle seasons fall into colder weather and aren’t the most comfortable to spend all day sitting behind a ground blind or high in a tree stand.
Beyond the mental fortitude, money, and time there is one cost to hunting that many non-hunters may not consider. This cost being that we have to take a life. Many non-hunters reading this may debate clicking off of my article right now because of this statement, but I will continue to elaborate so please give me time. Most people don’t enjoy killing things just for the sake of killing (I know I don’t!), this demographic includes hunters as well.
Hunters do everything they can to avoid bad shots and wounding animals. That is because it feels horrible to know that you caused another animal a slow and painful death or life changing injury for no good reason besides your own blunder. Many people will give up hunting because of a single bad shot on a big game animal. A mistake like that requires you to do what many people are unwilling to do… take full accountability for your actions.
Buying prepackaged/processed meat from the butcher or grocery store gives us within city limits a false sense of guilt/cruelty free food. It is easy to dissociate the pack of processed sausage links or pound of ground beef as an animal that was once living and breathing within the last few weeks to months. We don’t know how healthy the animals was, what its habits were, what it ate, or how it lived. All we know is that it has a best buy date and it cost however much per pound.
I find it sickening to see people waste animal products bought at the store or at catering events where they just throw away all of the leftovers. Factory farming has removed the amount of sacrifice that used to be intertwined with eating meat. For most of human history humans had to look their meal in its eyes and say “it’s you or me today pal”. To me, I look at my meat products as if it were Jesus Christ himself. I catch myself spreading this mindset when I see others waste meat. I typically will mutter things like, “did you know that animal died for you?” I do this as I find it disrespectful to the animal’s life.
I hold that animal’s life as a gift. It is not without sacrifice that we are all here today. There are people on their deathbeds right now who understand the statement I just made and would really tell you to appreciate every gift given to you right now as it can be taken away at an instance.
After this food movement within the last 10-20 years, I have been slowly moving towards a more sustainable and ethical perspective to eating meat within the last few years. My senior year of college I became what I would describe as an “ethical vegetarian” where I would eat meat only caught or sustainably harvested/raised (excluding certain holidays) , though I would still eat store bought dairy products and eggs.
I didn’t mind the vegetarian food I was cooking and actually lost 10-15lbs of weight despite already being pretty athletic and lean. I was able to eat a few fish fillets every now and again, but due to my lack of hunting skills, money, and land to raise my own meat, I was stuck eating beans and rice or kale soup night after night.
I eventually went back to eating meat a year after starting the diet out of convenience for myself given my current living arrangements, though I have been slowly moving towards eating local meat. As the title states, I also got my first deer this year which was pretty big news as I now have a good amount of knowledge when killing and butchering any hooved animal, plus it makes up for all the years I spent getting skunked (coming home empty handed) and eating “tag soup”.
1. Reflecting on Past Seasons
As I mentioned previously, this wasn’t my first time attempting to hunt for whitetail deer. I had tried for the last 2-3 years, but was unsuccessful. This was due to many things, mainly my busy schedule while in school, lack of knowledge on public land, and mistakes made along the way. I deem these past seasons as my “learning seasons” because I had a lack of mentorship in the field and was forced to make my own mistakes.
It takes a lot of time to learn how deer interact with a certain piece of land or property, but deer are similar to humans in a sense that they practice routine rituals unless motivated by danger or reward to do otherwise. Once I picked up on some patterns such as when deer move, what resources/habitat were important, food, and preferred trails it becomes less of a guess as to where the animals would be.
One of the hardest things for me to do was to scout land prior to the hunting season as I would go to places in the end of summer and there would be far too much growth and cover to see what was really going on. When it was time for the hunting season in late fall-early winter I noticed that a lot of the area that was once covered in dense cover was now chopped down or left a mess by the people managing the plot. It is frustrating to be at the will of a random worker and you are realizing that your previous plans were now up in flames as you begin walking to your blind/stand in the cold dark mornings.
You find a lot of good spots for certain species when actually hunting for another type of animal. Life is funny like that a lot of the times. A lot of guys joke about how when they are out deer hunting they see more squirrels, coyote, or turkey than deer on some days, but when they are out turkey hunting in the spring they see more deer. It is a funny observation.
Beyond scouting, knowing what gear I needed one season and didn’t have or what gear I brought, but didn’t use was very important. It is tiring carrying around a huge day pack, especially when you realize almost half the things you brought weren’t needed or could have been left back in the car. I wrote a blog on how to start hunting as an adult, within it I list some resources and ideas that helped me become a better hunter which I will link here if you are interested.
It is important to learn these lessons early on so that you don’t make the same mistakes later in your hunting career, it is best to do as much learning and preparation as you can online or with bools, but understand that there is no better teacher than doing it yourself or with the help of a mentor.
2. How I Prepared, Prior to the Hunt
Prior to opening day of the antlerless rifle weekend, I made sure to get my car filled up with gas and pack it with extra clothing in case I got wet or needed more layers beyond what I already was planning on wearing. I also made sure my first aid kit was supplied and ready for whatever ordeal may occur.
I then went and checked my hunting bag to make sure the gear in the bag was for deer hunting and not from dove season or turkey hunting in the spring. After, I got my rifle out and coated my barrel with a layer of gun oil to help protect it from any condensation or dew that it might brush against. I then packed it away in the case and took 5 bullets from my box of ammunition and put them in a sandwich bag and into my hunting bag.
Before bed I packed a lunch, double checked my hunting license and tag were signed and accurate, looked at weather/wind directions for the next day, then I made sure I went to bed early so I would be able to wake up at 4 AM and actually enjoy my hunt.
3. Opening Day
The hunt started off with me getting dressed and filling my cooler with ice. I was eating instant oatmeal as I did these things as to “save time”. I then loaded the car and drove to my hunting spot. I had hunted this spot in the spring when turkey hunting and saw a lot of deer so I decided it was worth a shot to try and hunt it for deer season. I arrived at my spot, and then got my headlamp and gear ready to go as it was cold and still very dark outside (about 5-5:30 AM).
By the time I was ready to lock the car and move another pair of hunters attempted to pull in to the lot where I parked, thankfully, they let me have the spot to myself and decided to try another area. I then walked the edge of the field with the wind blowing my scent away from where the deer were bedded up. I continued to walk the edge until deciding on a little cutout near the edge of a corn field that was surrounded by a new growth forest with a creek bed and the stunted growth of a shaded portion of corn on the outskirts of the dense field.
I then walked a little further back into the woods and got settled in and loaded my rifle while trying to be as quiet as possible due to the thick amount of leaf litter (about 5:45-6 AM). Next, all that was left to do was wait for shooting hours and be as quiet as possible.
As time passed and shooting hours were upon us I could begin to hear the sound of shots being fired in surrounding pieces of land around me. One usually sits with impatient eyes waiting for a deer to just appear in front of him/her in hopes that he/she will have the opportunity to add to the symphony.
About an hour or two after the start of shooting hours, an adult doe stepped out in front of me about 70-80 yards or so standing broadside. The deer caught me off guard and stopped right in its tracks as soon as it saw and heard movement coming from my direction. For some reason it didn’t run away immediately, making me question if she really knew I was there or not. I tried to quietly move so that I could shoulder my rifle and rest it on a fallen branch in front of me for added stability, but my nerves got the best of me.
I was so worried about spoiling this opportunity I ended up rushing my shot and missing clear over the deer. After missing I remember seeing the deer look confused and then slowly ran back into the woods. I recall feeling scared that I wounded the deer. I waited for 10 minutes and got up and checked to go see if there was any sign of injury such as hair, muscle tissue, blood, bone, or feces/bile, and there was none thankfully. It was a clean miss.
I walked back to my hiding spot in the woods and waited optimistically for another opportunity to redeem myself for making such a rookie blunder. I was worried that I would only be given that one opportunity for the day, but I had faith I would make it work. Not twenty minutes after my missed shot a yearling buck with tiny antlers walks 10-20 yards to my right from the woods and slowly disappears into the corn field. I now know that the hunt is far from over.
Another 10-15 minutes passes and I remember seeing an adult deer come to the edge of the corn and lay down. I couldn’t properly identify if the deer had antler or not so I let the deer pass as to prevent breaking the law. 10 minutes after seeing the mystery deer in the corn vanish I saw 3 turkeys fly down from their roosts and disappear in to the woods. I recall hearing a lot of hen calls during this time. Then almost out of nowhere a doe comes out of the woods 30-40 yards to my left. The doe is walking away from me and slows down about where I missed the first doe.
I then decide that I have the skill to take the shot and make a good kill. This time I was more focused and determined on not letting this opportunity slip away from me after all my hard work. I aimed right behind the doe’s right armpit and lightly squeezed the trigger letting it surprise me when it went off.
After the shot, I immediately tried to look for the doe and didn’t see it standing up or running away. I was worried it had run into the woods. As soon as I looked again with some binoculars in the area and stood up I realized the doe fell right in its tracks. I made a good shot and she died quickly and humanely. I can remember her head slightly rising and her feet and tail slightly moving/twitching moments after the shot.
I unloaded my rifle and left the bolt out and began walking towards the doe as soon as she had moved on to the next life. I brought my hunting bag and called a friend who was in the area as to come help me move the deer with his cart. After I reached the deer I touched her body, gave gratitude for her sacrifice, and looked at the exit wound of my shot. I then finished filling out my paper tag and taped it to her hind leg as is the law. I then waited for my friend to show up. It was now about 10:30 AM.
4. The Butchering Process
After my friend helped me drag the deer from the field closer to my car, he helped me gut the deer for the first time and gave me some pointers at getting the tenderloins out. He then kindly offered to take my deer back into town via his truck bed. From there he dropped it off in my possession where I hung the deer and started the butchering process on my own.It was a long process skinning and quartering the deer, but I learned as I went and feel confident I could do it way more efficient if I had to do the process again.
I am so grateful to have gained the experience of harvesting my first deer. I still have a tag for another buck or doe during the general rifle season or the late season antlerless season. I have used all of the knowledge learned from books, mentors, and my time spent in the woods. Time spent in the woods is irreplaceable and freeing from the shackles and chains that is modern life.
For those who understand the reasoning behind hunting thank you for being open minded to the stance even if you don’t hunt yourself or like it for that matter. In recent years I find it harder to sympathize with individuals who view me as lesser because of my passions and interest of connecting with my food and doing what I can to make my life more sustainable/self-reliant.
No longer will I stand by and let my hands be painted red by someone who pays someone else to take the blame for their indulgence in red meat and poultry. Both require death, both require sacrifice. Hunting is in our DNA so embrace it and give thanks to the animals who keep us alive.