BILLINGS – The signs are getting hard to ignore, despite the fact I don’t see as well as I used to.
This hunting season I didn’t fill a single tag. Not one, despite a week’s worth of hunting. Now it’s becoming evident I may have walked past the game I was supposed to be sneaking up on.
This point was hammered home with a large wooden mallet when I was hunting with my nephew. I wandered through the woods all morning without seeing a single deer, not even the flash of a white-tailed deer’s tail as it ran away. When my nephew and I met up, he immediately spotted a deer peeking over a hill behind me. After we walked together for less than an hour, he saw another three deer.
“You still see movement, right?” he asked at one point.
“Of course,” I responded. But what I should have said was, “Well, only when I’m not looking down at my feet to make sure I don’t trip and fall.”
Standing in the fading light on the last day of my hunt, I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. My thoughts drifted to the dark side.
“I should just give up hunting,” I mused. “I’m clearly no good at it any more. My luck has run out.”
Then I heard a branch snap to my left. My heart raced with hope. Maybe I’m not as ready as I think.
I later remembered this was the first year I had carried my game tags on my cellphone, as opposed to the old paper versions where you have to cut out the dates via small notches and physically attach a tag to the carcass. My friend pointed out the phone was probably sending a signal only big game could hear, scaring them away as I approached.
“Ha! I’m not incompetent after all,” I realized. “It’s technology’s fault. Isn’t everything technology’s fault these days?”
Seriously though, when should a hunter call it quits? It’s not like a professional sport in which the coach or manager will tell you that your touch and technique have diminished. Maybe a friend or spouse might offer such advice, but it’s a hard pill for a person to swallow.
Others have obviously done it, or aged out. Montana big game license sales for residents have dropped compared to 10 years ago, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks data. Almost 23,000 fewer resident adults are buying a deer A tag. More than 15,000 resident adults are choosing not to hunt elk. Nonresident hunting tag purchases, on the other hand, seem to be more stable, although at a much lower level than resident hunting.
I’ve been hunting for half a century. More off than on when I was younger and moving around the country, but pretty steadily for about 30-some years. So it’s hard to walk away from something I enjoy on so many different levels.
Glass half full
Here’s what has always kept me going:
First and foremost, I like being out in the woods, walking around, exploring off trails. More recently, I’ve taken to frequent naps in the sun or shade, nestled on a bed of grass and pine needles. I swear it is the most restful sleep I get. What’s more, I don’t feel guilty about it like I might if I was sitting in the recliner in front of the television.
Second, there’s great camaraderie with all of my hunting friends and associates. The fall is made for exchanging texts and photos of outings, good and bad. We laugh and share the sorrow of good hunts and bad. Hunting keeps us connected and gives us some wild tales to recount over cold brews.
This year, for example, one buddy had to drag his deer halfway back to the truck. There was no snow on the ground. That’s exhausting work, but he couldn’t quarter and carry it out because he has a bad shoulder.
Instead, he drove to a nearby town, had a milkshake (Wilcoxson’s ice cream, no less) to recharge, and returned with a game cart to wheel the buck back to his vehicle. That’s dedication, and a bit of wildness for a soon to be 63-year-old lone hunter. But what a great feeling when he opens the freezer door and pulls out one of those small, white packages of frozen game meat. It’s like having a full wood pile when winter is settling in, an old-timey sense of comfort for the caveman in our brain.
Food for thought
Which brings me to another reason I like to hunt – it’s hard to beat good game meat for flavor. My dad wouldn’t eat venison when I was young. He claimed he ate too much of it when he was growing up, but I think everything back then was fried to well-done. It was probably like chewing shoe leather.
My family goes through venison burger at a rapid rate – meatballs, hamburgers and shepherd’s pie are all favorites. The steaks are great on the grill or in stir fry. My son likes them pounded flat, dredged in bread crumbs and quick fried. It’s hard to beat a good chicken-fried venison steak.
Hunting is like gardening. How often do you go to the store, buy a ham or roast and offer to share it with friends or neighbors? It’s not typically what we do. But hunters are often sharing their hard-earned meat.
What’s important is that those receiving the gift recognize all of the toil and sweat that went into providing that little white package. Gardeners are much the same, sharing their produce with pride because of how good it tastes and the care it reflects.
Luckily for me this season, my nephew’s buddy was kind enough to share his deer.
The crazy thing is, I think I have pretty good eyesight for a guy old enough to qualify for a Social Security check. Sure, my hip, knee, calf and shoulder are screaming in pain at the end of a long day. Aleve has become my new best friend. But there’s also something oddly rewarding in that discomfort, an awareness that you’ve done something even if it was unsuccessful. When I look back at how far I used to walk, it is disheartening I can’t cover ground like that anymore, but at least I am still out there trying. Right, coach?
And there are always moments that keep me coming back, like hitting one good shot on a golf course makes me think I could someday shoot a decent round.
One of the moments this season came on the last weekend of archery season. I finally got into a dozen elk. There were three bulls in the bunch, bugling and squealing at about 70 yards from me in a clearing. Seventy yards is too far for me to shoot, and there were trees between me and where they were walking.
I tried to sneak two shots through the branches as elk drew closer and failed. Then I called in one of the bulls to about 10 yards, but he never looked away allowing me to draw back the bowstring. When I turned my head to gauge the distance, he bolted and my heart sunk. Immediately, I started replaying the scenario in my head about what I could have done differently. Then again, what a cool encounter I had just experienced. That bull could have kicked my butt if he wanted to, pretty wild when you think about it.
Another moment came toward the end of the rifle season. A white-tail buck walked right in front of me as I was messing around with a doe decoy to lure in a buck just like him. As I moved for my rifle, he sauntered off. Again, frustrating and exciting at the same time. A weird mixture of emotions.
So what’s the answer to my dilemma, kind reader? Should I retire my rifle, sell off my bow and arrows? Or should I keep struggling on? Maybe it will depend on whether I draw a coveted tag in the spring, but first I will have to apply. Perhaps just one more season to prove this year wasn’t a fluke.
Getting my eyes examined and a new pair of glasses might be a good idea, too.