Adrenaline subsiding, I reloaded my rifle and trudged uphill to where I’d shot the whitetail buck a couple of minutes ago.
I knew the drill: If you fire at an animal and it runs off, wait a bit, collect yourself, reload and then follow. No sense rushing. You’ll never outrun a deer.
The half-foot of snow on the ground should make this easier — if I actually hit anything. Sure enough, among the tracks, a couple drops of blood stood out against the white background. I stepped off the abandoned logging spur and into the thickets.
I didn’t have to go far. Just inside the line of trees and brush, I caught sight of the buck. He was bedded down, still alive. He looked at me, 50 feet away, and didn’t move.
A heavy mix of emotions hit me. It wasn’t exactly pleasant. I was proud, sure, that after years of hunting I’d finally bagged a deer. But I felt guilt, too. Mostly, what struck me was the permanence of the act. Soon, that deer would be dead, forever, and I would always be the one who killed it.
At 36, I was no stranger to hunting. I grew up in western Montana and North Idaho, where hunting is as normal as wood heat and driving an old pickup. Long before I was old enough to hunt, I’d walk through the woods bird-dogging game for my dad, mom or older brother. I’d seen more dead deer than I could count. I was never squeamish about them.
But there’s nothing like doing it yourself, and there’s nothing like your first time. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that anyone who eats meat should have to face that moment, to feel what it’s like to kill an animal for food. If you accept the toll, then keep eating meat. If not, you should be a vegan.
That moment almost didn’t happen for me.
An hour earlier, I’d been ready to throw in the towel on the 2012 hunting season. I’d spent the last several days sloshing through mid-November snow and tangles of North Idaho brush. I’d seen a lot of sign. I’d even had my cross hairs on an animal that morning before realizing it was a calf moose. No deer.
My feet were wet and cold. I was demoralized. A change of clothes, a hot meal and an episode of “Homeland” sounded like a pretty good alternative to more cold and wet.
My dad talked me out of it. Let’s try one more time for a couple of hours, he said. I’m glad I listened.
I stepped back into the woods not caring so much about whether I got a deer. I just enjoyed the scene — the snow-muffled sounds, the squirrels and birds skittering here and there, the shadows inside the tree line.
I abandoned everything I thought I knew about deer in the area. I went above the road instead of down the draws below it. I happened on an old logging spur where the going was easier.
After a few steps along the spur, I heard something moving in the brush to my right. It was getting closer. My heart sped up a bit as I unslung my rifle.
Suddenly, a face appeared in a tiny aperture in the brush just on the edge of the spur, not 10 yards away. A deer’s face. A doe. She was just standing there, looking at me.
I pulled the rifle up, put the crosshairs on her face, then slowly swung them left toward her chest. Big mistake. Game animals have an uncanny sense of danger. I guess that comes from being hunted.
The doe bolted just as I slid the safety off. She ran uphill through the trees, then darted left across the logging spur.
I was sick. Finally, I’d had my chance and I blew it. Please don’t let that hesitation be the last thing I remember from this season, I begged.
Luck was with me. Luck, and the rut. Boys can be pretty stupid when they chase girls, and deer are no exception.
Maybe a minute after that doe fled, a young buck appeared about 100 yards above me on the spur, ears perked up, walking right toward me. I don’t think he could see me, since I was kneeling in some small trees, but he knew I was in the area. He looked curious.
When the buck was 80 yards away, I brought the gun up again, safety already off and finger over the trigger guard. I couldn’t get a clean shot because there was a tree in the way. There’s always a tree in the way.
The buck kept coming at a steady, if wary, pace. At about 40 yards, he made the biggest mistake he could’ve. He turned sideways, facing to my left, and stopped.
This time I didn’t hesitate. I put the scope to my right eye, saw fur in the crosshairs and pulled the trigger. The gun roared. Then, nothing. The deer didn’t fall or flinch. He didn’t run away. He just stood there.
Rising to my feet, I pulled the bolt back, ejected the shell and chambered another round. Still, the buck didn’t move. I brought up the rifle again, a little calmer this time. I saw the buck’s chest through the scope and fired another shot.
This time, I was sure I’d hit my target. A red spot appeared just behind his left shoulder. His trance broken, the buck ran into the woods.
Doubt set in over the next minute or so.
There’s no way I missed at 40 yards, right? Right? Had I actually seen that red spot? Were my eyes playing a trick? What if the deer was wounded but kept running and I never found it? I’d heard plenty of those stories.
The deer didn’t keep running, at least not right away. He couldn’t have gone more than 50 yards before he bedded down.
After I found him in that stand of trees, I watched him for a minute. He was quiet. I didn’t want him to suffer, so I raised my rifle again for one last mercy shot. I shouldn’t have.
Apparently, the buck had figured out what an aimed rifle means. He jumped up and ran full-speed down the hill. I groaned. The last thing I wanted was to delay the inevitable. And I really didn’t want to lose the deer in the woods with nightfall just a couple hours away.
The buck stopped and lay down again about 100 yards below me. I approached slowly, and he fled again. This sequence repeated itself a few times.
At one point, I texted my dad (I was getting a weak signal) and told him what was happening. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember he seemed concerned.
Finally, the buck stopped. I tracked him through the snow to one last bed. I approached him slowly and he didn’t move. He must’ve been exhausted.
I watched him briefly from about 15 yards away, but again, my conscience got to me. I wanted it to end. I aimed my rifle at his head and fired. I wish I hadn’t. There was no reason for it. The buck was probably in shock and would’ve died soon without pain. He certainly wasn’t going anywhere.
I must’ve shot lower than I wanted, because the deer started thrashing after I fired. That was the worst. I don’t mind killing animals for food, but I hate the suffering.
I ran up and fired another shot, this time into his skull from two inches away. The buck stopped thrashing and lay still, gunsmoke seeping from his nose and mouth. I sat down and sighed. At last, mercifully, it was over.
I still hunt. My dad and I go every year. I treasure those memories more than almost anything.
I’ve shot two deer since that buck in 2012. With each one, the pang of guilt is shorter, less pronounced.
The last one, a nice three-by-four whitetail, didn’t bother me at all (except that it took my dad and me a couple hours to drag it to the car). Those deer provide a lot of meat, the healthiest you can find, for me, my family and friends. Someday, I’ll get an elk.
I know people who think hunting is barbaric. Maybe so, but it forces you to confront the brutal consequences of your appetites, instead of sheltering you from the reality that meat comes from animals. It’s a lot more humane and environmentally friendly than factory-style farming. Over the past century, hunters have been one of America’s most powerful forces for conservation.
When you hunt, you experience nature in a much different way than when you’re hiking or camping. Nature is a puzzle to be solved, not a scene to be taken in. It’s a closer, more intense relationship.
I never take that privilege lightly. Hunting is hard. It’s often discouraging. It’s expensive. But the reward is great. You always learn something about yourself, whether you want to or not.