The deer most people see during deer season are most likely lashed to vehicles, headed for butcher shops. The stories nonhunters hear are often those of successful hunters eager to recount the details of their hunt.
What most of us do not see evidence of, what we do not hear about, are the intensely private thoughts of deer hunters.
I have been talking to deer hunters, and sprinkled among the stories of big bucks and successful camps are the reflections of another kind of deer hunter.
The former deer hunter.
I was talking to a friend of mine, an avid hunter, the other day. I happened to ask him if he’d been out deer hunting.
“No,” he said. “For the first time in at least 40 years, I’m not hunting deer.”
I didn’t need an explanation for that, but he felt compelled to give me one. That’s how deeply ingrained deer hunting is in northern Minnesota’s culture.
He first wanted to assure me he had not become an anti-hunter. He mentioned that twice in fact.
This was his story: He had shot a beautiful big buck last fall, and when he had walked up to it after killing it—well, something didn’t feel right. He stammered a bit, trying to explain what he felt.
I have heard the same kind of story from other hunters through the years. I understood what he was feeling. For some hunters, there comes a time when killing another deer becomes unnecessary.
This is not to say this man won’t hunt deer again. He may. But for now, he’s not a deer hunter.
I talked to another serious hunter a few days ago. He has been out for other species much of the fall. But again last fall, he did not hunt deer. He used to hunt deer, walking about in the woods, tracking, sneaking, matching wits with the animals.
At some point, his group turned to hunting from stands rather than walking. In one of those early stand hunts, another hunter, on the ground, had pushed a nice buck in front of my friend. He couldn’t shoot it.
He felt he had done nothing to deserve that buck. What’s more, he knew the buck had eluded his fellow hunter on the ground. The deer had won the game. My friend couldn’t rationalize taking that animal’s life. He put away his gun and hasn’t hunted deer since. It’s been many years.
Neither of these hunters, I should add, means to say that others should not hunt deer, or should hunt them only in a certain way. These men have just made personal decisions about their own hunting.
I don’t think it’s inevitable that most hunters, after enough years of hunting, will decide to quit hunting deer. I know older hunters for whom taking a deer, or trying to take a deer, is still an essential reason for hunting.
I do think it’s valuable for every hunter to think about the way he or she hunts. Ideally, one should do this independently, away from the pressure of a group.
In the end, each of us as a hunter makes a contract with an animal about what we consider fair chase, about the terms under which we’re willing to take a life.
That’s good. That’s how it should be.
Hunting is often about friends and family and a cherished place and powerful memories. It also involves taking life. It should be undertaken seriously. It merits critical thinking.
Sometimes, in that introspective process, a hunter becomes a former hunter.