Nature can be cruel, nature can make you smile, nature can bring you to tears and nature can bring you to your knees.
Nature can also test your ethics as a hunter.
The final minutes of the weekend gun season presented me with a decision I had never faced before in 30 years of deer hunting.
With time ticking away on legal shooting time, I caught a slight movement in the woods.
Hunters will understand this more than others, we see in a different perspective. We can pick out something out of the ordinary in the outdoors differently than non-hunters. I guess after spending hours, weeks, months — and even years for the most seasoned hunters — we can find the most subtle difference in what is normally in a spot and what is not.
When driving with my wife, I’ll point out a deer in the distance and she often times poses the same question, “How did you see that?”
I guess when you spend a countless amount of time trying to pick a whitetail out of the woods and brush, you simply learn different tricks to picking out the critters from the natural landscape: the flick of a tail, the shine of an antler, a shadow being cast upon a tree trunk or the ground, an ear, a leg or the hide of a whitetail through the timber.
It didn’t take long to realize the deer standing in the woods had some headgear. He stood just inside the woods for several minutes, creating those anxious moments all hunters know.
His rack didn’t get me excited at all, but ...
Although most years I would pass on this sized buck ... the scarce deer movement I’ve witnessed this year caused me to change that thought process. Between the week-long gun season, a few bow ventures and during the weekend gun season, I’d only seen a spike buck twice and another small buck a couple other times. I’m pretty sure I was staring at the same buck I’d seen the two other times.
Even with over a month of bow season left and the muzzleloader season upcoming, I wasn’t going to play the waiting game and wait for a bigger buck.
This was my chance to fill the freezer with venison for the year.
As I was getting ready for the buck to step out into the field, I noticed a much larger buck behind him in the woods. My thoughts immediately shifted to that buck. Although I couldn’t tell his exact size through the tree limbs and brush, I could certainly tell he had a dandy rack and would’ve been a shooter even in the first minute of the season.
At this point, my thought was the little buck could be on his merry way and we could meet again down the road — hopefully.
I just needed the big boy to take a few more steps out into the field.
But then my focus was again thrown for a loop. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the smaller buck venture out into the field. But I quickly realized something wasn’t quite right.
Each step was a struggle for the little guy. He stumbled with each movement forward, nearly falling down.
He was suffering.
But what about the bigger buck?
I knew exactly what I needed to do.
Not for a split second did the bigger buck have my attention after seeing the basket-racked buck staggering to walk. I needed to end his misery.
It’s a position I’ve been in before a handful of times, having to put down a deer that was incapable of surviving.
After dispatching of the buck, part of me was sad he didn’t get to live a full life, and also spent his final day or days with the hardship of barely being able to take a step.
When the deer-hunting season started, did I want to have to fill my buck tag on a injured buck? No, definitely not. I was hoping to bag a healthy buck with his full repertoire of keen senses.
Instead, my big buck quest is done for the year with my tag filled.
Along with feeling sympathy for the buck, there was also a part of me that was disappointed in not being able to take a bigger buck this year. I had been looking forward to this deer season the moment I took the cap off my muzzleoader last January.
The buck I killed could hardly move, it was pretty much shooting ducks in a barrel. But it was my ethical duty as a hunter to not allow him to continue his anguish.
Would have harvesting a much bigger buck this year changed anything?
Without question, no.
Even if a state-record buck was the other buck with the buck I killed, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to take the buck I did. You could’ve stood Bullwinkle himself 10 yards in front of me in that situation and he wouldn’t have caught my attention.
I cannot imagine the torment I would’ve experienced shooting the bigger buck and watching the injured buck stumble to get away, in agony until he died. It would’ve been heartbreaking and hung on my conscience forever.
If I’m not hunting ethically, then I shouldn’t be hunting at all.
I hate seeing deer injured and struggling to live. On that note, I’ve been guilty of making bad shots that weren’t fatal. It’s my worst fear, like it is for most hunters. I recall shooting a dandy buck many years ago with the crossbow. The shot was a little high and went between his vitals and backbone — no man’s land as it’s called. The blood trail petered out after a few hundred yards and I spent three more days searching for him.
I never found him.
I quite often think about that buck and what happened to him? Usually it’s sitting in my stand when my mind wanders to that night I fired the arrow and watched it sail a few inches too high on the big buck.
How could you not make a better-placed shot?
Did he suffer, did he die, did he survive and live a long life? I’m almost certain the hit wasn’t fatal but that never-knowing feeling eats away at me to this day ... and probably always will.
I used to bow hunt a lot before wounding that buck. Hunting with a bow, you have to be more precise with your shot than with a gun. There’s not as much room for error. I don’t bow hunt as much anymore, mostly because I’m haunted by not fatally shooting that buck and possibly injuring it. A part of me is worried it could happen again I suppose.
No hunter is immune from injuring an animal. You do it long enough, a shot will miss its mark.
I made a bad shot a few years ago during the gun season, hitting a buck low and not killing it outright. I searched for it for a couple days but never found it. That deer I’m certain probably suffered and later died, which still bugs me.
If you want your hunting livelihood tested, wound an animal. At least for me, that’s as tough as it gets. I was ready to quit hunting that season after wounding that buck. Like I said earlier, that scenario will cause sleepless nights.
When out hunting or fishing, I often think about how those of that partake in the outdoors witness God’s creations more than others. There’s been numerous times I stop and pause, enjoy the sunrise, sunset, raindrops falling, snowflakes coming down, squirrels playing or a flock of geese flying.
Sunday night was one of those moments. After killing the injured back, my cousin, who was hunting a few hundred yards away, came over to see what I was shooting at.
After talking for a few minutes, he looked up and said, “Look at the moon.” Lifting my eyes skyward, the moon was glorious, it was bright and had a huge halo wrapped around it.
I would not have noticed this sight unless I was out hunting.
There have been a few moments that stick out from the outdoors over the years. One hunting season, there was a mother doe that had a button buck and doe fawn with her. The trio was recognizable every time I saw them because the button buck was quite the character. He would sprint from one end of the field to the other. He would go on this jaunt two or three times every time I saw them. Why he did this I have no idea. I’ve never seen another deer do that.
One of my more special memories hunting came several years ago. It wasn’t harvesting a big buck, it wasn’t catching a huge pike in Canada.
During the first day of the week-long gun season, I noticed a lone small doe. What made her stick it because she didn’t have a left front leg. I assume she was born this way because it appeared there was never a limb there.
For a few seconds I figured she was suffering, but I quickly learned she could move around just as well as a deer with all four limbs. She looked healthy and was enjoying life despite not having all her legs like other deer. I remember seeing her several more times that week and I enjoyed watching her every time she visited my stand. She was a special deer and was hoping I would see her the following season, but I never did.
I wish I could articulate hunting as well as outdoor star Jim Shockey did while watching the sun rise over the peaks of mountains during a hunting trip in France’s Chartreuse mountain range for chamois.
He portrayed hunting beautifully.
“And when the creator made earth, this was the first morning after,” said Shockey as the sun crested the mountains early in the morning. “That’s what people don’t understand about hunting, this is hunting. Who gets to see this? Who? I don’t see anyone else around, just hunters. All the wild creatures get to see this every day.
“I love this world and I love this life,” continued Shockey. “We get one crack at it, one crack at this life. Your body’s filled with wonder. The words haven’t been invented to describe this world. Look at it. We can feel it, we can’t articulate it, we can’t say it. It’s too magnificent.”
Think about those words and let them sink in, especially during the magical season of Christmas.
Pause, think and reflect because God paints a beautiful picture for us. Hunters just have the advantage of seeing it more than others.