I’m 34 and just went deer hunting for the first time. I’ve almost wrapped my head around that—most people get into hunting either early in life or never do at all, and most hunters didn’t used to be vegetarians.
Much as it’s been outside my comfort zone, I’m enthusiastic about it now. Peer reactions have spanned excitement (“‘Bout frickin’ time!”) and intrigue, to bafflement and disappointment.
For those wondering why I’ve suddenly become this cruel barbarian, I’ve hoisted my otherwise dragging knuckles to type some insight on why 5% of Americans try and shoot animals in [insert current year]. Not long ago I mocked hunting and scorned hunters, so I’ll keep that mentality in mind as I try to improve your opinion.
For anyone interested in hunting, maybe this’ll help you decide if it’s for you. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned, and what wisdom was passed onto me from the half-dozen dudes who graciously endured all my rookie questions. Which isn’t to say everyone’s been encouraging—turns out there are some less-than-community-minded hunters out there as well, trying to shut others out. Hopefully I can spare you some of those interactions.
And, for anyone who’s been hunting since they could talk, I hope this will articulate some aspects you’ve been able to take for granted.
My Dietary “Cred”
My evolution’s hardly prescriptive—I’m not telling anyone whether to try hunting and I’m certainly not telling anyone what to eat. But I want to run through my past self-imposed dietary restrictions here, to weaken the misnomer that all hunters are sadistic animal haters.
I was a strict vegetarian for three years—no meat, no fish. My high school Biology teacher had run down the wastefulness and land degradation of the meat industry, as well as the damage of commercial fishing, and I wanted to be one less contributor. I wasn’t militant or judgmental, just doing what I thought was right, and it helped that I’d always loved veggies. Unfortunately it was probably the least healthy time of my life—I was too young, lacking the discipline and money to make it work well—think cheese pizzas, french fries, shakes, cookies, etc. So after three years I reintroduced poultry and fish to my diet, yet continued to abstain from red meat.
One summer day about two years later, Muddy Udders was on our way to play a private party at some woodsy campground when my mate’s van broke down, just 1,000 feet from the place. We played the show and stayed the night as planned, but we were going to be stuck there another night—two of us would stay with the broken van while the other got a ride back to civilization for parts. Since we hadn’t packed for this, our only food option was the local bar. When we got our second round of bland frozen pizza for the day, this time I couldn’t bring myself to pick off the pepperoni. Unceremoniously, after five years I was back to a wide-open diet.
This remained the case until about five years ago, when a family trip to a farm/petting zoo unexpectedly changed me—the fluffy chicken I was holding reminded me of our cat, the small black cow I was petting reminded me of our dog, and it messed with me. Silly as that sounds, I was suddenly too sentimental to justify eating meat from any animal I wouldn’t personally want to harm, which was nearly all of them. (That very night I declined free pepperoni pizza after a Muddy Udders show.)
I had, however, caught and filleted fish previously, so having already crossed that rubicon I opted for a pescatarian diet. I stuck to this for another year, before slowly opening my diet back up again. In a word, convenience was what got me, and not just for myself and what was available to me (I painfully recall declining a brat while tailgating), but also not to limit what my wife was cooking for our family. The ethical dilemma just kept gnawing at me (sorry), though, so I developed the practice of sparing a thought of gratitude for any animal that’s died for my meal. I also promised myself I’d get into hunting some far off day, to better understand my place in the food chain.
Recurring zombie nightmares plagued my childhood—blame a too-early viewing of “Night of the Living Dead” and “Resident Evil” videogames. The scariest thing about zombies is their mindless compulsion to consume, and although they’d haunted my dreams for years, before that fateful lesson in Biology class I’d never been mindful about the resources—farming, ecosystems, raising animals—that went into my meals. Even bland food merits appreciation when considering what it required—cultivation of agriculture, technology invented and employed, how it was transported.
Further, I’ve tried to view food as a source of nourishment and not just a brief thrill for my taste buds. All that effort and sacrifice…what good work can I do with the energy I get from what I eat? What positive action will that precious fuel, fuel? (No, I don’t remember to run through this thought process at every meal, but I’m glad when I do, and I recommend it.)
My wife and I are aiming to be more involved in the process. We’ve stepped up gardening at our house and at a friend’s plot in town they no longer use. We’ve got logs inoculated with mushroom spawn that’ll hopefully bear blue oysters next year, and do a bit of foraging. And we just got a chicken coop, free, from a neighbor who’d built a bigger one—we plan to raise four chicks next year, and look forward to all the fresh eggs. None of this is groundbreaking; we’re just trying to maximize our ability to produce our own food. And to be as self-sufficient and organic as possible, I’ve now ventured into hunting.
Though my wife fully supports this venture, some friends and co-workers have disapproved my getting into hunting. But why? Why would someone who eats meat, and watches violent movies and shows, be offended by hunting?
Well, I always hated the culture. My impression of hunters came from the lunkheaded, truck-revving types from high school. Guys who managed to scoff at art and trash nature. The target market of “I LOVE ANIMALS—THEY’RE DELICIOUS” t-shirts.
I was proud to have nothing in common with those people, so it’s been humbling to learn not all hunters are like that. The guys who helped me get started are typically in it for the same reasons: they aspire to provide quality food for their families, while revering nature and respecting animals. If anything they’re fascinated by deer and know a ton about them. As one said, “If you’re not at least a little sad when you take a deer’s life, you probably shouldn’t be hunting.”
These decent people are what you’d call True Sportsmen™—taking only what they need, legally and ethically, while appreciating solitude in wilderness. Hunters will sit still and quiet in the woods, immersed, doing little more than watching and listening to nature for anywhere from four to ten hours.
I loved that part of it. 40 hours every week I stare at two large computer screens two feet from my face, then spend my lunch breaks reading, and read more before bed. It felt so good on my eyes to just sort of bathe them in nature for such long stretches.
And the sounds…About half an hour after getting to my ground blind (sort of like a tent for hunting) the woods would start to forget I was there, and between all the strange bird sounds, the fighting squirrels, and howling coyotes, it’d almost get loud around me.
It was incredible to be out there sitting still at sunrise and sunset. I’d close and open my eyes and by faint degrees it’d get lighter or darker. I realize this experience isn’t exclusively reserved for hunters, but I had never sat alone in the woods for so long, nor had I ever woken up that early for anything other than catching a flight.
I’d been building myself up to address my ethical dilemma about eating meat, and apparently this was the year. For so long I had tacitly approved the hiring of an animal killer, while clinging to moral superiority as if I weren’t still responsible for animals’ deaths. I ignored that personal hypocrisy as long as I could.
I’ll also admit that I wanted a gun for home defense. Obviously I don’t think I’ll ever need to use it (I wouldn’t live where I do if I had actual worry), but I love my family so much that I couldn’t justify being defenseless when I didn’t need to be.
Perhaps the biggest driver was the encouragement of my brother-in-law, who was willing if not eager to mentor me, this season, based off the interest I’d expressed. And another one of my good friends was getting back into hunting after a six-year break, and couldn’t have been cooler about helping me get the right gear—most of which was seriously discounted at a local store that happened to be closing. (That timing was also significant to my pursuing this so suddenly.)
Another key factor is my teenage son is interested in hunting, and I wanted to be able to be there for him to foster that interest in a positive (i.e. not lunkheaded) way. I’d only ever shot a handgun before this year, and I wanted to better understand firearms and hunting before he started getting into it. Not that I’m an expert hunter now, or ever will be, but the crash course I embarked on to get ready for deer season, as well as the hours of wisdom I’ve gotten from friends, will be something of a gift I can give to my son, and will help me steer him more to the True Sportsman™ side.
So… Did Ya Get Anything?
Errrr no. Unfortunately not. The big excitement my first weekend was a bird flying into my blind, back-to-back mornings. In fact I didn’t even encounter a deer until my fourth and final day. That morning one spotted me from behind and started snorting and stomping at me, running off before I could even see it. Then that evening at dusk, just outside my range, a couple of does went leaping by, but because of my license I could only shoot a buck. Day three had been particularly cold and uneventful, so I was very happy to finally hear and see some.
Deer hunting’s a lot harder than I imagined. It’s impossible to mask our scent from them, so playing the wind is vital. And their hearing is almost as acute as their sense of smell. One guy I know apparently just shot his first after ten years trying.
I plan on doing more scouting this off-season, maybe even setting up trail cameras. I also plan to do more target practice, as I’d really only had a week to get the hang of it.
Which brings me to the coolest thing that happened from all of this:
The last day possible, I went to an outdoor shooting range to test out my scope/aim, a place I’d never been, and I’m a bit lost, not seeing any staff around. A truck had pulled in shortly after I parked, and two older guys got out. One walked off, while the other sort of stood in the back looking as unsure as I was. After a minute I went up and asked him, “Excuse me, have you been here before?”
He turns and says, “No, sir.”
AND IT’S MIKE FREAKING MCCARTHY! Go figure, he’s there, and he’s about as inexperienced as me, because he’s been coaching football for thirty-some years every fall during deer season. We chatted very briefly about hunting and wished each other luck. Wow! I even somehow played it somewhat cool! (No way could I tell him about Live from Stadium Drive.) I was stupid excited to meet him, though, so shooting accurately with my nerves that fired-up sort of simulated the excitement of having a deer in my sights. Thanks, Coach!
Although I can’t know how long it’ll be until I get my first deer, this thing’s been great so far. I’ve learned a ton about wildlife, I’ve demystified guns, had some new experiences well outside my comfort zone, and have taken steps toward making peace with my diet. In fact I’ve already applied for a turkey hunting license for spring, and who knows? Maybe what I started this year will eventually culminate in enough venison, turkey, duck, and fish to feed my family year-round—an alternative method for us to not contribute to the environmental devastation of the meat industry.
I hope you enjoyed this or even found it helpful. Hit me with any questions at all!
P.S. Killing to live is one mighty paradox. The burden of our position on the food chain leaves few free of hypocrisy. I’m trying to square as many of my circles as possible, and I hope you can too, even if it calls for a very different path than mine.