Back on the hunt
I have been hunting for about a dozen years and have three deer to show for it, but I don’t regret a minute of hunting. As my friend Steve reminds me, “A day in the woods is a good day.”
This past deer season was my first back in the woods since the pandemic, and in the past decade I had exactly two deer to my name, both button bucks (male deer with no antlers). These were great personal victories but small potatoes in the world of hunting. Some of these years of hunting consisted of only one day on a weekend; another year I went both bow hunting and several days of gun hunting and still came out of the woods empty handed.
The world and personal upheavals of the pandemic and post-pandemic life made it imperative I get out of town and spend time alone in nature. I took the days off from work and hoped beyond hope that I would be able to do it—past years and past jobs I’ve had to cut my hunting trips short and work on days I had planned to take off, an unpardonable sin in the real world if the real world worked right. But this year I managed to do it.
I go hunting in Connecticut. My Connecticut friends got me into hunting and it’s where I keep my shotgun (I don’t have a permit for a gun in New York City—getting a permit for a gun in the five boroughs is more expensive than buying a gun). There are also more plentiful woods in Connecticut.
Heading to Connecticut also means connecting with old friends. I remember when my friend Steve’s oldest daughter was still in utero; now she is acting in films and planning her first tattoo.
The night before your first day of hunting is a poor sleep; memories of past missed deer and the prospect of returning empty handed weigh on your conscious, preventing the restful night’s sleep you want. Alarms set for enough time to get into the wood before legal hunting time, which is one half hour before sunrise.
Hunting makes you get up at a crazy early hour of the morning on your day off from work when everyone else is asleep. I found it’s possible to forgo the morning coffee. The frigid air and the urge to get out hunting is an effective wake-up of its own, and the surge of adrenaline at seeing a deer (or what you think is a deer) is enough to keep you awake through the day.
After having some quick snacks for breakfast and drinking a can of soda for the caffeine, I dressed and forced my feet into hunting boots, gathered my gear, and headed out. I first had to defrost my truck—first frost of the season and I didn’t think I would be scraping my windshield that early into November but it was New England in the fall. Another pickup truck sailed by on the dark road as I was getting the truck ready—Are they going hunting also? Will they get a better spot by the side of the road, and do they know my favorite hunting spot? My fears were unfounded. I drove to the entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest and was the first one there. I walked into the woods alone, wondering how odd a spectacle my truck with New York license plates would be for local residents driving by or heading into these same woods to hunt.
Out in the woods, it’s sometimes hard to focus on finding deer so early in the morning and not marvel at the beauty of the forest in the early morning, pre-sunrise light. Human beings are not meant to be boxed in by glass and concrete. We are of the Earth, and we diminish ourselves the more we remove ourselves from it. Being surrounded by natural beauty is a human need; just being within view of a river can make sitting in a city office much more bearable.
Being in the woods is the drastic reset your body needs. But the marvel at the natural world wears off a bit as the sun comes up and the imperative to get a deer kicks in. This is why you are here: you don’t want to return empty-handed even if you are getting much-needed time in the woods.
When you hear gunshots going off around you—some closer and definitely in the same state forest, some farther away on private land—the urge of the hunt surges again, and you get more restless. This is where I have erred in hunting. Staying in one place for so long and not seeing any deer gets the wanderlust going, and powers up your self-doubt on how well you’ve selected your hunting spot. Did I pick the right spot? Why are other people finding deer so close by and none are coming here? Did I make too much noise? Are there better hunting grounds elsewhere I can get to?
On my second day of hunting, I caught this wander bug and decided to see if I could find better places to hunt. The upside is that I found a good spot; the downside is that I walked around too much and the one deer I saw that day was one I scared away by hauling myself through the leaf-crunching woods. I also discovered an old illegal hunting camp set up on public land, a big no-no. It looked like it hadn’t been used for a while, with man of the structured dilapidated or filled with water and leaves.
Finally settling in on a spot at the end of the second day, I heard the sound of running feet and saw a dog chasing a deer through the woods. A large white dog was barking and giving chase, and my heart raced as I aimed at the deer that was heading my way. As it got closer, I realized that this fast brown animal was in fact another dog; the sound of its collar jingled as it got closer. I lowered my shotgun and cursed whatever idiot owner let their dogs loose in the woods during deer hunting season. The rest of hunting that day was quiet save for the sound of those dogs, who likely chased away any deer that would have come my way. That day was another wash.
You realize how much of a city person you are when you go out into the country and do country things. What do you mean a supermarket closes at 9 p.m. on a Friday? Closed on Sundays? Are these people insane? I drove to Robert’s Food Center, a supermarket where I had my first on-the-books job for less than $4 an hour (not as horribly cheap in 1987) only to realize that they carried no Pepsi products at all, so I had to drive to downtown Madison’s Stop & Shop to stock up. I later messaged Robert’s to ask why they carried no Pepsi but have not yet heard back.
Every time I go hunting, I’m reminded of the sweat and grit and cold that goes into it, and how I quickly forget about this rough unpleasantness the rest of the year. Before I made hunting a regular event, I had a romanticized view of it. I dreamt of expansive adventures where I would collect large trophies and other relics from my travels in the wild. I fantasized about being some kind of contemporary Hemingway and shooting exotic game and then retiring to my tent to sip brandy and draft powerful novels. In reality I mostly return with sore muscles, cuts and scrapes from brambles and thorn bushes and a pile of muddy clothes.
On my last day I parked myself at a spot I had found earlier that I named Anunnaki Rock. “Anunnaki” is a name given to a race of extra-terrestrials that conspiracy theorists credit with helping build the pyramids or creating or cloning human life on our planet. This spot features a large boulder shaped like a large alien’s head. A tree has fallen on it, so it appears that the alien is being smacked in the face with a baseball bat; a sad but fitting metaphor for how we would treat intelligent life on our planet.
When I got there, I kicked leaves out of my way so I could pace back and forth soundlessly throughout the day. There was a natural ledge I could sit on and still get a nice, elevated view of a good swath of woods, but my area of coverage was greater standing and I stood and paced around most of the day.
The day remained cold and at certain times of the day I heard gunshots going on elsewhere in the woods; it sounded like everyone was having better luck than me. I paced relentlessly but quietly. Around 2 p.m. that afternoon, Steve texted me to ask if I’ve seen anything. I had not, and told him that I was considering coming out of the woods early and getting a head start on the drive home. Steve said he was going to go into the woods for the last few hours of hunting. I figured that if Steve was going to hunt until the end of the day (hunting ends at sunset, which is usually around 4:30 p.m.), then I would hunt also.
A half hour later I heard one of those blasted dogs again, I kept looking in the direction that the barking was coming from, on the chance that the barking was sending a deer my way, and if not then maybe to give its owner a piece of my mind if they were heading my way.
A deer bounded in my direction from the sound of the barking, and I raised my shotgun. It saw me and stopped short. I found it in my scope and pulled the trigger.
A shotgun blast is loud and unless you go shooting frequently you do not get accustomed to it. The deer took off and ran past me. I thought my race to get zeroed in on the deer again caused me to miss, I watched the deer head past me about 30 yards and then come to a stop. The buck stood there for a second and then fell over.
A sense of glory and relief washed over me. My hours of cold frustration in the woods had paid off; I had done it! I got a deer.
It’s customary to give the deer time to make sure it has died. That is both respectful and practical. Respectful in that you let the animal be alone in its last moments, surrounded by the woods rather than probing hands of our alien human race. Practical in that if you approach a deer that is dying, it will sometimes get up and run away for a bit in a panic fueled by a last rush of adrenaline, or, worse yet, gore you with its antlers. After at least 10 minutes of the deer not moving, I slowly made my way toward where he had fallen. Approaching it from the back (the customary practice to avoid startling a deer that may still be alive), I confirmed it had died. It was an antlered buck that would be a four-point deer but one of its antlers had been damaged. Nothing you would have mounted but it was another buck, and I was proud of getting it. I set about field dressing it.
Again, a reminder from my friend Steve about the post-shooting part of the hunt: “Everything from pulling the trigger to eating it on a plate is a pain in the ass.”
Field dressing a deer means removing its internal organs. It had been six years since I had shot my last deer, which was only the second one I ever got, so I still feel new to field dressing. But despite my confusion and frustration, I managed to get the deer field dressed and was ready for the worst part of hunting: the drag.
I was deep in the woods on the far side of a ravine split by a stream. The majority of my drag was uphill, and I also had to carry my shotgun and backpack out of the woods also. The drag started fine since I was going downhill, though there were brambles and prickers that could not be avoided. I had to drag farther than I thought in order to get to a part of the stream that was shallow enough. I carried over my gun and pack first—the backpack is blaze orange so easy to see—and then brought the deer. The deer got heavier since it now had water weighing down its coat. I was going uphill now. I took the gun and backpack and scouted ahead a bit, finding the path of least resistance, then walked back and dragged the buck to my gun and backpack. Through more brambles, scraped by a low-hanging tree branch, and over a stone wall, each more tiring and frustrating than the next. I kept this pace up and took my time so as not to throw out my back or trip and fall (dragging a deer out of the woods with a broken ankle or sprained back wasn’t going to happen) and feeling every one of my 50 years.
Throughout the drag I banked on things becoming much smoother once I finished the uphill portion and found the main path that I would take to get back to my truck. A deep sense of relief washed over me when I reached this path. There was still a long way to go. I changed methods again and put the backpack on my back, taking an antler in one hand and the shotgun in another and went faster that way. That became very tiring and then impossible to navigate around the ruts and puddles that dotted the path. I kept taking my time and taking frequent breaks. At one point while dragging the deer to the next stop I tripped over a small rock and fell backwards. It was past sundown now. It was 2:30 when I shot the deer, it was close to 5 p.m. by the time I got the deer to my truck, with my friend Steve helping me drag the deer the last 20 yards or so. We got the deer into my truck and headed back to Steve’s house.
Hunting has been the adventure I need more than the adventure I had envisioned as a younger person. I had dreamed of hunting as a manly affectation that I would indulge in on my way to being a literary icon, surrounded by dashing young flappers and a devilish halo of cigar smoke. I wound up downing Diet Pepsi in my friend’s shack, taking puffs of a store-bought cigarillo, but could not have felt better about life.
Here’s to the hunt.
Enjoyed this piece immensely.