I went on my first deer hunt when I was 29. Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, I didn't have any exposure to hunting as a child. None of the adults in my life hunted, and I never thought about hunting until I took a college course called "Man and Nature," which included a section on animal rights and meat production.
I stuck with a vegetarian diet for about a year after that. Then I decided that since I still wanted to eat meat, I would be most comfortable with killing and eating one wild animal. I thought that better than eating pieces of hundreds of domesticated animals when the only thing about their lives and deaths I was certain about was that they came in plastic wrappers at the supermarket.
I didn't have the chance to learn to hunt until ten years later when I moved to Missouri. I talked with people who hunted deer and found out that they had learned to hunt from their fathers or from male friends who had helped them.
I was fortunate enough to draw an any-deer permit and was able to borrow a rifle from a special program at one of the Conservation Department's facilities. As an added bonus, they let me practice at one of the shooting ranges and taught me the basics of gun safety. Still, I felt that
I didn't know enough about deer hunting and how to do it safely.
Luckily for me, the first "Becoming an Outdoorswoman" course took place that September. About 100 women attended and had the opportunity to learn about everything from falconry and fishing to wild edibles and muzzleloading. I took a short course in hunter safety and rifle marksmanship. I found out that I was a good shot and left the course with much more confidence that I would not hurt myself or someone else.
I still needed a place to hunt and began asking people I knew. Eventually I found a place on a friend's land. He walked me around his property and showed me where other hunters would be on opening morning. He also showed me a site I could use and talked about deer movement through that area.
I read all of the books I could find on deer hunting and picked up a handy pamphlet on field dressing large game to carry with me that first day of deer season.
I awoke at 3 a.m. on the first day of the deer season. I bathed in vinegar water and dressed in cedar-scented camouflage. I did not know if any of my morning preparations would increase my chances of bringing home a deer, but I was using a lot of hints and tricks that the books had revealed. Having cleaned the rifle the night before, I selected a handful of shells and packed up my car with a tarp, my canteen, a knife, the field dressing pamphlet and a few other odds and ends.
After a brief stop at a 24-hour convenience store, I arrived at my spot 45 minutes before sunrise, parked my car and stepped onto a dark and quiet road. I fiddled around with my gear, then started a short hike to the woods. I walked in a big circle, crunching leaves as I went, and wound up back on the main road twice, about 100 feet uphill from my car. I walked back to the car, thinking that I had scared away any animals within a quarter-mile. Then I took a last look at my map and struck off again as the sky was beginning to lighten.
When I inspected my deer stand it looked awfully high, so I opted for a nice spot on the ground. I bent down some nearby saplings and cleared oak leaves from a 3-foot circle. The soil was damp and cold and stuck to my hands in little pieces.
I sat down and leaned against the tree. I used my canteen cover for a seat and laid my rifle across my legs.
I heard rifle shots in the distance and knew it was 6:30 a.m. and the season had opened. I sat there completely still for several minutes before a flock of birds spotted me and decided to let everybody in the neighborhood know I was there. One sat right over my head and shouted shrill alarm calls. The birds finally left, and after it was quiet I began to doze off.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw two unmistakable deer ears twitching over the top of a pile of brush about 20 yards away. The ears moved off to the right. I tried to breathe normally and turned to look around my tree. There was an opening in the deer's line of travel, just over my right shoulder. The deer was still moving, and I switched the gun to shoot left handed, pressing into the moss on the side of the tree to help steady my aim.
I sighted into the space beyond the wood pile and waited for the doe to appear. There was nothing in my mind but the opening and its potential to hold the approaching doe. When she reached the opening, she made a quarter turn toward me and took another step, one ear facing me directly. I saw her through the sights, aimed and pulled the trigger. My adrenaline was up so high that I actually thought I saw the bullet leave the muzzle, but I don't remember hearing the shot.
The deer was out of sight, but I could hear her crashing off down the slope. I felt the damp earth beneath me again, and the rest of the world came back into focus. I fiddled with my gear. Wait ten minutes, I told myself. Safety on, I stood up and released the spent cartridge. I wasn't sure what to do next.
After ten minutes, I walked to the spot where the deer had been standing. There were crimson dots on shiny brown leaves that led off down the hill. There was a small spill of blood where she had jumped over a fallen tree trunk. The leaves started to look churned up as if she had staggered. She had run less than 100 feet. Her body was crumpled at the base of a tree and her eyes were facing away from me.
She seemed to still be breathing, and I thought I could see the rise and fall of her side. Actually I was breathing so hard that I was the one rising and falling. I had to brace myself against a tree to see that she was no longer moving. I reached down and touched the doe's neck. She was dead. Then I rolled her over and saw blood on her side behind her shoulder and on her chest a little right of center. I tagged the deer and went to look for someone who knew how to field dress deer.
None of the other hunters had come back to my friend's house, so I went back to the deer, took out my pamphlet on field dressing large game and propped it open with a stick. I took out my new knife and set to work. They left a lot out of the booklet's description of the process, but by 8:15 a.m. I had done a respectable job. I found that my shot had gone through her heart, so she had died quickly. I dragged the deer back to my car on the tarp and stowed her away in the hatchback.
After visiting the check station I took the deer to another friend's house, where he showed me how to butcher a large animal. Based on his instructions, I processed the deer myself and stored about 40 pounds of steaks, roasts and ground venison in my freezer.
Deciding to deer hunt was a process that took years for me. It's not something that everyone wants to do, and I think that the reasons why people hunt are as varied as the people who do it. Deer hunting is not something that I take lightly, mainly because killing that doe was an unforgettable and not altogether pleasant thing for me. Still, I'm glad that I took the time to learn some new skills and to get to know all the people who helped me hunt.
I no longer live in Missouri, but I plan to continue deer hunting. I look forward to meeting a new set of deer hunting friends and continuing to take responsibility for the meat that I eat.
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