The Deer That Got Away
By Mike Cramer
Perhaps the most renowned philosopher to examine hunting has been the 20th Century Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. In Meditations on Hunting, Ortega y Gasset says the game animal is that which is searched for, that which is not there, and when suddenly it is there it is a shock and the hunter is changed. All of his focus and energy is directed toward the game. It is as if nothing else exists.
I went deer hunting for the first time yesterday, and although it did not turn out the way I or any hunter would want it to, still it allowed me to experience what the great Spaniard was talking about. I am not sure I can call myself a hunter yet, for although I have been hunting (more than once) up until yesterday I had never actually shot anything. Yesterday I did, in fact, get off a shot, but we never recovered my deer. However, in the moments surrounding the shot I felt the intensity that Ortega y Gasset described. Sure, it might be because he had put the suggestion in my mind when I read his book, but I don’t think so. I agree with those writers on hunting who believe that at the moment of the encounter between hunter and prey, the hunter touches some primal instinct within himself, suppressed by six thousand years of civilization, but still lurking deep in the subconscious. I know. It sounds like a bunch of pretentious nonsense, doesn’t it?
Yesterday was the first day of gun season. It was my first ever deer hunt. We were hunting semi-private land in New York. My friend Brian knew a guy who lived adjacent to a small plot of forest in the foothills of the Catskills. It was a long, narrow forest running up the side of a high hill. It had a clear-cut, now overgrown with brush, running through the center of it for overhead power lines. The woods on either side of the power lines belonged to a developer who had wanted to build houses there, but had been blocked by the town and the neighbors, who wanted to preserve the woods.
The power company owned the clear-cut. People living adjacent to the woods had permission to hunt there. It was great land, the type we city dwellers can only dream about, where you can knock off from work early, go sit a stand for a couple of hours and have a real chance of seeing a deer. To get to this nice little forest I had to ride a train to the Bronx, spend the night at Brian’s in Yonkers and then drive another hour and a half up here to the Catskills. I’ve got a big plot of forest near me too. It’s called Prospect Park and it doesn’t have a lot of deer.
The weather was miserable. The rut was supposedly in full swing, but it was unseasonably warm and it was raining hard. Two storms were moving through, one right after the other. The first had hit right before dawn. As Brian and I were driving out to the site, a torrential downpour pelted Brian’s van, so that we could hardly see ten feet in front of us. However, it being my first deer hunt, I wasn't going to let anything get in my way. We knew the woods would be pretty crowded. There were to be five in our party alone. I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing a deer.
Our host was Big Mike. He lived in a condo at the bottom of the hill and hunted this land almost every day in season. He was a real New York character. He was big and gruff and looked a bit like a heavier Dave Attel. He had a cocky “Get the *F* outa heah” attitude and spoke with a thick New York accent. Our guide (for lack of a better term) was Big Mike’s buddy, Little Mike. Little Mike had that happy-go-lucky New York Jewish guy thing going. He was short with curly hair and an almost angelic face. He was friendly and outgoing and didn’t seem to have a care in the world, which probably had something to do with his trust fund.
We parked in a guest parking lot at the bottom of the hill and walked in. Because of the proximity to the houses and the number of people expected for opening day, Brian and I were both using shotguns with slugs. Brian had his 12 gauge J. C. Higgins pump, while I was using his 20 gauge Mosberg, We didn’t expect any long shots. I’d heard that in these thick hardwoods you were unlikely to get a shot over fifty yards.
Brian looked more like a hunter than I did. Underneath our rain gear he was wearing three different types of camo while mine was uiniform. However, his raingear was an old East German Military camo rain suit, so on the outside he matched. I had on a yellow rain slicker. In spite of my trusty Wollerich felt hat, I looked like a Gorton’s Fisherman. Little Mike made me feel a bit less conspicuous. He had on camo pants with carpenter’s knee pads, a very nice black rain coat with bright red and blue accents, and a double bandanna set he used to form a kind of Ninja face mask. He looked like something out of the Road Warrior.
While Big Mike puttered around in the condo, made breakfast, and stayed out of the rain, Little Mike led us into the forest and gave us our instructions. “Don’t kill the first deer you see,” he said. “They come through here in a herd. That first deer will be a doe. It’s almost like she is on point. Let her go. About a half an hour later will be a whole herd of does with one or two bucks. So let the first doe pass.” This was directly contradictory to our instructions from Big Mike, who had said “if you see a doe, shoot it.” However, Big Mike and Little Mike didn’t seem to agree on anything.
As power line trails often do, the area acted as a funnel for deer moving through. Like much of New York and New England, the woods were criss-crossed with old stone walls. Little Mike placed us inside the forest next to the main deer trail, in a natural blind created by one of the stone walls and a big deadfall.
“Now, when they come trough here,” he said “just let the first one by. Don’t move a muscle and he won't notice you. Then the rest will come through later.”
Brian, who is always playing the “yes, but” game, was incredulous. “They’ll totally see us” he said.
“No they won’t. Just don’t move. Even if they do see you, they won’t care so long as you don’t move.”
“There’s no way” Brian said, refusing to believe.
It’s Brian’s biggest problem. He refuses to believe that good things can happen. He contradicts everybody and always concentrates on what can go wrong. I’m sometimes amazed he gets out of the house in the morning.
Mike shrugged and headed back to his blind, mentioning something about me not killing Brian. Then Brian and I took our positions. Immediately he began eating. Carrots. A juice box. He never stops eating. Or making noise. Finally he finished and settled in. “I’m done now,” he said, likely because my exasperation was showing. Then we waited.
After awhile the rain began to lighten up. I looked around me. The woods were pretty thick. Behind us was the edge of the woods and the power lines. On the other side of the trail was a large tree with an unused tree stand made out of 2x4s. I quickly decided that it was a better place to sit, having a view of both the trail and the power lines, but it looked like it was about to fall out of the tree at any minute.
We heard the first gunshot within twenty minutes. It was in the distance, away up the hill, not in our little secluded wood. They say that the 80% of the deer taken in a given year are shot in the first four hours of the first day of gun season. Brian raised one finger as if to say “one” and smiled. About fifteen minutes later was a second shot. Two. Then three. The fourth shot sounded like it was fired right above our heads. The rest of our party was away down the hill, but this one (probably) came from uphill. It was like a crack of thunder that was incredibly near, targeting the lightning rod on your own building. CRACK!
We were supposed to be paying attention to the trail, because that was where the deer would most likely be walking. However, I kept looking over my shoulder at the clearcut behind us. I have been preparing for this day for two years by reading books and magazines and by watching hunting shows. I seemed to recall something about “hunting the edges” which, where we were placed, was what we were doing, but I wanted a view of the deforested area behind us. That was the actual edge. We were about twenty-five yards into the forest. So, I kept looking over my shoulder.
A noise startled me to my left. I looked and saw to graysquirels running down a log, playing. Another sound. It turned out to be the rustling of leaves blown by a sudden gust of wind. I closed my eyes and began to listen carefully to the forest: to the songbirds, to the wind, to the falling leaves. Then I opened them again and stared up and down the trail in each direction. We’d been in the blind for hours now. By back was hurting. My neck was hurting. However, I was bound and determined to keep hunting and not complain.
Then, all at once, that which is not there suddenly was. I looked over my shoulder toward the powerlines and there was a deer. It was about forty yards away, feeding down the tree line at the edge of the clear cut, just where I had expected to see it. It was as if it had appeared by magic. There had been no warning of its approach. I hadn’t smelled it like Little Mike had said I would. It didn’t grunt or stomp. It was just there, as though by magic, lazily munching grass off the forest floor, so close it seemed unreal.
I was surprisingly calm. I had expected to experience some form of buck fever. I had expected my pulse to rise and my breathing to quicken and my hands to shake, but none of that happened. It was the most natural thing in the world to see this deer hear in these woods forty yards from my fallen log.
“Deer” I whispered to Brian. I heard an intake of his breath but he said nothing. He just looked over his shoulder toward the new arrival.
It was then that I felt what Ortega y Gasset had written about. There was a tension in the air from that hadn’t been there a second before. All my senses were heightened. All my focus was on that deer, but I was calm. I was probably calm because I wasn’t going to shoot. Little Mike had said to let the first deer go by and that is what I intended to do. Nevertheless I eased my gun off safety and got the deer in my sights, just to be prepared. This was not a tiny deer but she was certainly not big. She had a coat that seemed to be going to gray in this light and a bit of white around the muzzle. I saw this clearly as the deer continued feeding until she was dead even with us and about 25 yards away. Brian was easing his gun up as well. Then the deer stopped and looked right at us. We didn’t move and apparently we didn’t register as a threat. After a moment the deer bent down again to continue with its snack.
That’s when I noticed that some of the sticks in the brush behind the deer were moving along with its head. And that’s when I realized that they were antlers. They weren’t big at all. I am sure (as was Brian later) that it was a fork, but it could have been a spike. The antlers were at least six inches long and seemed a bit longer. It was definitely a buck. As he turned up hill to munch on what must have been some very tasty grass he gave me a good broadside and I centered the sights on a spot right behind his shoulder. I was going to let the first deer go, but that first deer was supposed to be a doe. This was a buck. The gun leapt in my hand.
I don’t actually remember making the decision to shoot. It wasn’t an accident, but it was almost as though something other than conscious thought had taken over. My mind simply said “buck=shoot” and so, without considering it or weighing options or analyzing the situation I did. I shot. My shotgun made a loud BLAM, perhaps the loudest thing I had ever heard. It was as though that primal instinct, the focus of which Ortega y Gasset spoke, had reached out and touched me. It had said “right there: that is your prey. Take it.” And so I did. Maybe I can call myself a hunter after all.
I hate to put it this way, but it all happened just like it is on TV. The buck did a high mule kick and took off through the forest. As it reached the trail Brian got a shot off with his 12 gauge, which missed high. The deer leaped one of the low stone walls and was gone. It was like I was watching an episode of Whitetail Country. The only thing missing was the background music.
As soon as the deer was gone Brian, God knows why, was on his cell phone calling Little Mike. He sounded as glum as always. “Yeah, those shots you just heard were us. Val (my nickname) “shot at a deer but missed. He took off through the forest.”
Say what? No way. “I did not miss” I told him. He wasn’t listening. Instead he was calling Big Mike.
“Yeah,” Brian said, “that was us. We saw a buck and Val took a shot and missed. I tried to shoot, but he was moving too fast and I missed too . . . I don’t know, maybe fifty years . . . Yeah, he got away.”
“He did not. Tell him I double-lunged him.”
“Yeah, Val says he lunged him, but I don’t think so. He just ran away.”
“Give me that damn phone” I said. “Hey, Mike, it’s Val. I hit it. It was about twenty five yards, not fifty. It was a good shot. He was definitely hit, did a big mule kick and then took off. We’re going to wait awhile and then track him.” Mike said okay, to let him know what happened.
I hung up and said to Brian, “I didn’t miss.”
“It looked like you missed to me. He ran off.”
I said “you don’t know a thing about deer hunting, do you?” As though I was some kind of expert from watching all that TV. Brian had been deer hunting before, but had never shot one. He thought all deer just dropped in place like people do in movies. “Deer don’t just fall over” I said. “Unless you hit them right on the shoulder or sever their spine, they will run off and die later. We need to wait awhile and then go track him.
That’s what you do. Most of deer hunting is trailing the deer after it’s been shot.”
“How long do you wait?” He looked doubtful. In Brian’s world when something gets shot it falls dead in its tracks.
“At least half an hour,” I answered.
“Seems like a long time” said Brian. “I still think you missed.”
And that’s probably why we didn’t wait half an hour. I wanted proof. “Come on,” I said “I’m going to look for blood.” I unloaded and climbed over our log, Brian in tow. We poked around where the doe had been standing looking for sign. It was hard because some of the leaves blanketing the forest were bright red. It was Brian who found it.
“Here’s some blood” he said. It was just a few drops splattered over a big leaf, but it was proof that I had hit, not that I had needed any. I was sure as to where the slug had gone. A few feet along I found some more blood, then some more. We were walking toward the trail now. For the life of me I couldn’t remember where the deer had been when he crossed it. After the fourth or fifth splotch of blood I lost the blood trail. I wandered up and down for a minute while Brian kept wandering forward. Knowing that the deer had leaped the wall I walked in that direction, but still I didn’t see any blood. All of a sudden, I was way off. Either that or the deer had stopped bleeding. After a few dozen yards we crossed the wall and went down an embankment to the edge of a creek.
“The creek is the edge of the property,” Brian said. “We’re not supposed to cross it.” There had been no sign since before the trail, which was a ways back behind us. I turned around and walked back to our blind. I wanted to get a good look at the view to see if I could recall exactly where the deer had disappeared. I couldn’t. Then I walked back to where I’d marked the last drop of blood (with a red maple leaf stuck on the end of a broken off sapling). Then I started circling looking for more blood. Then I stopped.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “we know he crossed the trail. We saw that. Wander up and down the trail and see if you can spot some blood.” I started a bit below my last mark and, bent over scanning the ground, I walked up the trail. Then, there to my left, was a huge splotch of blood. I don’t know how I’d missed it before. This wasn’t the few drops of blood we had been seeing, but a big puddle. About three feet beyond that was another big spray, and then another. The blood trail was suddenly very easy to follow. I saw Brian coming from down by the creek.
“Forget it” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear your cell phone ring? I just left you a message. I found some blood down by the creek. The buck definitely crossed and Big Mike said we absolutely cannot follow it. We have to give up.” Brian uses his cell way too much when he’s in the woods.
“No way,” I said. “I don’t care if we can’t retrieve it. I’m following this blood trail all the way to the creek. It’s good practice.”
So I did. We kept on the blood trail, and it was obviously coming out in spurts. I must have hit an artery. At the stone wall we found blood splatter where he’d leaped over. Then the trail went into a little thicket. Just inside we found more blood with a big glob of something that looked like fat. He was blowing something out of the wound. There was no way this buck wasn’t going down. From there he had turned 90 degrees right. Then he had headed down to the creak. We found more big globules of blood, and then even found some drops of blood in some still water. We were at the spot Brian had found earlier, where the deer had crossed over. We were at the end of our trail.
“Damn,” said Brian. “I hate to leave the deer like that.”
“Me too,” I said. “If he was right there I’d go over and get him.”
“Here,” Brian said. “Hold my shotgun.” He handed it to me and jumped the creek. I saw him wander downstream a bit then turn around and come back.
“He went into somebody’s back yard. There’s a house and a barn down there. I don’t want to trespass any more than I already have.” He was right. We shouldn’t have gone that far. But, we also should not give up on the deer. We turned around and headed back toward the blind. As we did so I saw Little Mike standing silently like the ghost from the Blair Witch Project. He slowly walked over to us.
“I was going to let him go,” I said, “I really was. But, when I saw antlers I shot.”
“What, was he a four pointer? Six?”
“Just a fork,” I said.
“You did the right thing. When a buck walks in front of you, you’ve got to shoot. I would have.”
“He jumped the creek,” I said. “Big Mike said not to cross.”
“Seems a shame” said Brian.
“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re Big Mike’s guests. We have to play by his rules.”
“Big Mike knows his neighbors,” Little Mike said. “If he says don’t go over there then we shouldn’t go over there.”
Little Mike headed down hill. He had a wedding to get to. Brian went back to Little Mike’s spot. I went back to the fallen log. I sat there and watched the rain fall.
Ours were the last shots we heard that day, but I did see some other things. There was the squirrel that came right up to me, within three feet, and stared at me from a perch on a broken tree. There was the hawk soaring high over head, probably looking for that same squirrel. There was a single leaf, falling from the top of one of the highest trees, turning slowly as it fell, helicoptering down onto the forest floor. It looked like a shot from a Kurosawa film.
I don’t think we pushed the deer by going out when we did. The creek wasn’t very far, maybe two hundred yards or a little more. The speed he was going when he jumped that wall he didn’t stop on our side of the creek, no way. Still, I wish we’d waited a bit longer before going out to look at that blood trail. Big Mike said that the people on that side of the property never gave permission to hunters to track deer. It was a no starter, and he’d just as soon not have the hassles of arousing their ire, so we should let it go. We hoped that the deer would make a nice meal for somebody, but knew that he was just going to crawl into a bush and die. At least we knew it wasn’t going to suffer long. It was going to die pretty quickly with all that blood loss.
I know that the ethical thing to do is to track a deer until you find it. A hunter never gives up on a fallen deer. I’ve read all that. However, a hunter doesn’t trespass either. And, we were Big Mike’s guests. I will probably regret not going to knock on that door for a long time to come. I wasn’t particularly sad. I certainly wasn’t worried that the deer was going to languish for a long time and suffer. The amount of blood it had lost it was going to expire quickly. The only thing to feel bad about was not finishing the hunt, not having any meat to put on the table.
Even if I don’t have meat, I still have a story and a hunting story is as much a reason to hunt as the meat. It is the story of how my first deer got away, of how I took the shot, of how I followed the blood trail, of how I became, at forty-four, a deer hunter. It’s a good story and, even though I don’t like the ending, it is one of which I am proud.
Copyright 2008 by Mike Cramer All rights reserved.