Fifty years ago this month, I shot my first deer.
Big deal for a 16-year-old.
And big deal for ANY Iowan, given it was only the tenth year of Iowa’s modern deer season. Hunters took only about 5,700 whitetails that season, and the total deer population in the state numbered fewer than 22,000.
I hunted deer back then sort of like I hunted rabbits – by wandering around some Warren County field edges and brushy ravines, hoping to stumble onto my quarry. As luck would have it, a couple of yearling bucks popped over a ridge, then stopped within range of my little 20-gauge. I took a shot, one deer dropped – and I stood there congratulating myself on my skill.
OK, the following half-century has taught me a few things, such as it isn’t always that easy. Even with the explosion of Iowa’s white-tailed deer population – it topped half a million a few years ago, with an annual kill of nearly 200,000 – deer can remain elusive.
That’s what keeps a deer hunt exciting – even several decades and several dozen deer later.
Nearly all of those deer have ended up in the freezer, and on our table. No, I haven’t ever killed a wall-hanger trophy, although I have passed up shooting at a couple of beautiful bucks. It might spoil the fun if they were lying lifeless on the ground, instead of playing hide-and-seek in the woods.
While waiting in the deer blind for just the right fat doe to feed our family, I regularly watch eagles, turkeys, dozens of smaller birds, and the occasional coyote. How fascinating to observe a fawn or a little buck as they wander slowly along, nibbling grass or simply pausing nervously to study their surroundings.
Often, a deer the color of tree bark mysteriously appears in front of you, taking shape from among the forest of tree bark. The only clue may be the shine of a brown eye, the flick of an ear, or the twitch of a tail.
And there’s hardly a better excuse to get up before dawn than to see whether you can be in the woods, sitting quietly, when the first whitetails begin to stir. Often as not, the deer win the game. With a sharp wheeze, then the thump of startled hooves, a deer bounds away in the darkness as you approach. You then must tip-toe to your tree or blind, hoping not to scare any more deer.
Once you’re settled, it’s easy to get caught up in the sounds of the woods – from yelping turkeys to screeching red-tailed hawks to leaf-digging squirrels to chattering chickadees. You may jump at the BOOM of other hunters’ shotguns across the valley – but the sound reminds you to keep watch on the trail. Maybe – just maybe – the distant commotion will push the deer your way.
You THINK you know what to expect – yet every hunt is different. Iowa December weather may dictate shirt sleeves or a snowmobile suit. The ground may be covered with crackling dry leaves or two feet of snow. You watch the tried-and-true trail – only to have the whole herd sneak in behind you. A carefully aimed shot gets deflected by an unnoticed sapling.
My son has had a couple of decades to share and savor such joys – and frustrations. It’s become a family ritual to try to anticipate the annual unknowns.
Can we teach my grandkids a few of those subtleties? Perhaps. But they’ll mostly learn by tagging along, orange-clad and ear-plugged, to hunt with Dad and Papa. Then they can experience for themselves the challenge of sitting still, the majesty of an eagle, the staccato of a pileated woodpecker – and the heart-pounding excitement of a deer walking ever-so-slowly into gun range.
And I hope THEY can relive those adventures for another 50 years.