Another deer season ended this weekend, experiences filed away in the vault of memory. I’m at an age where my remaining days in the field number less than those already spent, and I find myself driven by a curious urge. It’s very difficult (some cynics would say pointless) to explain hunting to those who do not hunt. But because hunting is so important to my general happiness and well being, I’m going to take a shot at it (pun intended).
Many non-hunters conflate hunting with killing. That’s a silly notion; anybody can kill – all you have to do is watch the news for proof of that. While killing is a part of hunting, it’s only a small part. If you do things just right, you might have an opportunity to take the right animal, the right way, at the right time. But, in fact, the vast majority of my large game hunts end without a kill. No, hunting is mostly about something entirely different. For me, hunting is about the quest for the numinous. So, gentle reader, if you do not hunt, I beg your patience, and ask that you read on.
Before delving into the mystical, we must deal with the prosaic. There are many types of hunting; each offers its own unique experience. The fast action of upland bird hunting is very different from the patient stalk of the still hunt. For this post I’ll restrict myself to close-range ambush hunting of large game, and we’ll start with the mechanics of the same.
Large game animals, e.g. deer, perceive the world differently than we do. Our primate sensorium is dominated by excellent 3D binocular color vision; we excel at discerning discrete, motionless objects against a busy background. Our sense of hearing is limited; our sense of smell even more so. Conversely, deer have limited binocular vision, and they are partially color blind. They excel at motion detection, but have difficulty discerning static objects. Their hearing is sharper than ours, and their sense of smell is much better than ours. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, our experience of reality is far different. We humans experience reality through the lens and filter of language, and are keenly aware of the flow of time. Deer, on the other hand, live in the now.
These differences in sensoria and perception lead to an interesting phenomenon: Objects plainly detectable to humans are in many cases ‘invisible’ to deer, and vice versa. Understanding this is the key to successful hunting. When it comes to deer, if you are odorless, silent, and motionless, you are effectively invisible.
Odor control is tough, but mostly only because we are so nearly scent-blind ourselves. Some hunters prefer to mask their own scent with a cover scent. This can be effective to some extent, but even when the cover scent is overwhelming, there’s always an undercurrent of your own human stink (and/or wood-smoke from your campfire). And if the cover scent is foreign to the animals, that alone will end your hunt. I prefer to simply have as close to no odor at all as possible – scentless soaps, shampoos, deodorants/antiperspirants and detergents are wonderful things.
Silence goes with stillness; ‘nuf said. Well, almost enough. South Texas deer country is characterized by heavy brush, most of which is generously equipped with spines and thorns. Moving silently through thick Texas brush country is challenging to say the least, and makes still hunting (stalking) very difficult. Thus, ambush-style hunting is the norm in Texas.
Motion is the toughest thing to eliminate. We hunters love our camo, but in truth hunting camouflage is mostly for hunters. A camouflaged object is difficult for the human eye to discern against a like background, even when moving. Bambi, however, cues mostly on motion. It doesn’t really matter what kind of camo you are wearing, if you move abruptly, you are busted. Conversely, I’ve hunted in blue jeans and a plaid shirt, and as long as I held motionless, I went undetected.
Hiding behind cover masks your motion; this is why blinds of all sorts are popular. In a blind, motion discipline requirements are minimized. Elevate the blind above the ground, and place it some distance from where you expect to encounter game, and there is basically no need for motion discipline. This largely explains why hunting from an elevated box blind, sitting behind a high-powered rifle, is so prevalent in Texas.
When hunting from an exposed tree stand or tripod you have to eliminate motion the old fashioned way: you have to be still. And if, as I much prefer, you are hunting with a close-range weapon like a bow or a pistol, you have to be really, really, ridiculously still. And you have to be really, really, ridiculously still for extended periods of time. And this, curiously enough, is when the magic happens.
Being still, like so many worthwhile things in life, is simple, but hard. In stillness you must come to terms with your own body. Holding still is painful; tree stands and tripods are not Barca loungers. Weight-bearing body parts begin to ache; joints stiffen; even a simple itch becomes a mild torture. Time crawls and the urge to move becomes almost unbearable. But if you stick with it, if you master yourself, something wonderful happens. Aches and pains first become numb, and then recede to insignificance. Time doesn’t stop, but its passing becomes irrelevant. The rhythms of your own pulse and breathing become pleasures in and of themselves. Colors seem to become more vibrant; your hearing sharpens; you become keenly aware. I don’t know enough about meditation to know whether this qualifies as a Zen state, but it’s probably as close as I’ll ever come, and it is very satisfying.
While this internal transformation is progressing, something equally interesting is occurring in the external world. If I tell you I’m going to be in a certain tripod for the evening hunt, you don’t have to see me to know I’m there. Animals are different. They register your presence when you walk up to the tripod, and hide. But once you become effectively invisible, their limited recall comes into play. After forty minutes or so, they literally forget about you. The world forgets you are there.
Just as you are entering that state of heightened awareness, the wild kingdom begins to carry on as usual. Small mammals and birds emerge, and they have their own little world. Voles, ground squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits, armadillos, raccoons – they all go about their business, peacefully (mostly) interacting with each other. Turkey, dove, quail, sparrows, assorted finches, cardinals, woodpeckers, roadrunners, etc., do the same. Occasionally a fox, coyote, bobcat, hawk or owl will happen on the scene and inject an element of terror. Even as the small animals are living out their little lives, the large animals carry on their own dramas. Few sights can match the spectacle of two mature bucks battling for dominance during the rut.
And all this happens with you as the invisible participant. You are deeply a part of it all (and never more so than in that concentrated instant in which you squeeze the trigger). You feel the magnificence of the Creation deep in your bones, and sense the nearness of the living God. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and you understand what the ancients meant when they talked about the fear of the Lord.
The lesson this teaches is that it’s not about you at all, not even a little bit. In fact, it’s not even about us (humans). There’s a great, big, truly awesome Creation out there, and we, as individuals and as a species, are only a tiny part of it. It puts your own trials in perspective, not to mention the machinations of those pesky pols in Washington. The next time Obama makes you nuts, just remember, this, too, shall pass.
My Saturday afternoon hunt was a classic. I sat in a pop-up ground blind (basically a cramped, one-man tent) positioned about 20 yards from the feeder, with my Ruger Super Blackhawk Hunter revolver in .45 Colt in my hand, loaded with my own handmade hunting rounds. (Those would be 250 gr. Hornady XTPs over 6.0 gr.s of Hodgdon TITEGROUP in Starline brass with CCI 350 magnum primers, if you must know.) A front had blown through, and the afternoon was crisp, clear, and still. It was so quiet I could hear the whirring staccato wing-beats of dove flying overhead. I’d spread out some wild game feed as an attractant, and I was surrounded by game. Deer congregated all about, a mix of does and fawns and young bucks. Several dove and a covey of quail milled at their feet. A doe walked by me literally close enough to touch; I could smell her, but she didn’t smell me. As the shadows lengthened a mature eight point sidled through the brush and paused at the edge of the sendero, taking in the idyllic scene much as I was. With the rut past his natural caution and reticence reasserted; he never gave me anything resembling a clear shot. As the sun set he melted back into the brush. Twilight colors slowly faded, save for the brilliant red splashes of the male cardinals. A pair of cottontails and an armadillo emerged from their burrows. Still I waited in the hope that our local cohort of feral hogs would make an appearance. It was not to be. About the time Jupiter winked on in the eastern sky it was too dark to see my sights, and my hunt was over.
All in all, just about perfect.