Most of us can probably identify with the little boy who, when asked by his teacher to name the seasons, replied, “Dove season, deer season, duck season, varmint season, turkey season, and summer.”
Growing up in Central Texas, I didn’t so much identify with that boy, I was that boy. The end of deer hunting season, particularly, brought a melancholy far more traumatic than the beginning of the school year. More than once I considered writing to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., asking for special permission to hunt deer through January. I fantasized receiving a Mission Impossible-like tape recording from the executive director, which would say, “Go ahead, just don’t tell anyone,” before self destructing.
Conversely, of course, the beginning of the hunting seasons was the highlight of my year. The dove opener was the warm-up, and the general deer season the main attraction. The anticipation of my daily after-school hunts on our 30 acre place, my Remington model 788 .222 in hand, was usually so intoxicating I had no idea what I was supposed to be learning in school.
Until I graduated from high school, my deer hunting season lasted about two months, which was about eleven months short, as far as I was concerned. When a friend suggested bow hunting, I remember wondering why I had never thought of it before. Having another whole month to hunt deer was like having Christmas twice every year.
Previously filled with nothing but preparation and hope, my Octobers became a magical gateway to a different world, where sound, scent, and movement were amplified to a new level. As a rifle hunter I had pursued deer since I was nine years old. As a bowhunter I became involved with them, almost to the point of developing a personal relationship. It was the equivalent of leaving the bleachers at a football game to play quarterback on the field.
But the transition from rifle hunter to bowhunter is much more complex than just buying a bow and some arrows. The required preparation increases exponentially, but more important is the change in mindset. Being still and quiet is good enough for a rifle hunter. A bowhunter must be as immobile as a statue, and not just quiet but silent. The rifle hunter can hide; the bowhunter must disappear.
As with most worthwhile pursuits, the process of learning to be a bowhunter is freckled with unexpected rewards. A new awareness of nature and its inhabitants is the beginning of an education no classroom can provide. The only way to really learn about that environment is to become part of it.
Sitting rigid in an oak tree one evening, I watched a squirrel make his way toward me in fits and starts. He came up the bole of the tree in a spiral of short, quick spurts, stopping suddenly every few feet to scan for danger. He scampered onto the limb where I sat watching, my backside resting on a conveniently lumpy knothole, which I finally realized must be his home. When he stepped onto my foot he realized something was wrong and froze. We were eye to eye for a few tense moments before he fled to a far limb, where he sat and scolded me for the rest of the evening.
Another time a squirrel jumped onto my head from above and sat for half a minute before moving on, evidently without ever realizing I wasn’t part of the tree.
The most rewarding part of the process, though, is being almost within arm’s reach of deer, without them realizing it. Many times I have sat within ten yards of several deer without being detected, the pounding of my heart so loud I was sure they must hear. Such experiences, without question, are their own reward.
The educational process took me about five years. That’s how many seasons I hunted before I finally managed to arrow a deer. When I heard the broadhead connect, when I saw the doe fall, when I realized I had finally, after countless hours of practice and scouting, actually shot a deer with a bow, I was shocked. I became aware that I had never really believed I would ever succeed, that the time I spent bowhunting had been an enjoyable deception that had suddenly, unexpectedly, paid off.
No doubt you’ve read hundreds of hunting stories about first deer. So had I. But that first deer with a bow was many times as exciting, and rewarding, as my first deer with a gun. I think I finally understood what Dr. Saxton Pope meant when he said, “It is not the killing that brings satisfaction; it is the contest of skill and cunning. The true hunter counts his achievement in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.”
I had killed many deer with a gun, but I had never before earned one.
Enjoy your October. It’s the best season of the year.
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who spends way too much time indoors. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org