Dramatic climaxes in life are largely the product of fiction; T. S. Eliot was right about the end of things more often than he was not. High action, struggle, courage, sacrifice: It’s what we want to happen in the great moments of our lives rather than what actually does. Such were the circumstances in which I finally shot a buck in California, closing out my 2014 deer season here in the Golden State.
This is not to say I didn’t put my time in. I hunted nine full days in two zones — failing in the first, thereby forfeiting my first tag — in five counties and with eight different people. I walked more than 75 miles in that time, from sea level to 7,300 feet in the High Sierra. I hunted farms. I hunted cattle ranches. I hunted the mixed oak-manzanita woodlands of Lake County and the conifer forest of Kingvale. Every day, the same result: Not only no deer, but no real chance at one, either. The closest I came was a forked horn blacktail buck in a manzanita thicket on a mountainside. I could only see his head and neck, and only for a moment. I do not regret passing that shot.
In the end, though, I was alone, close to home on terrain with which I am intimately familiar.
A friend had mentioned that she has deer on her ranch in nearby El Dorado County, and that I was welcome to hunt it. She’d taken a cell phone picture of a young forked horn near one of her outbuildings a few days before, so I reckoned that deer might still be around. She said they typically show up, when they do, in the evenings. So I drove up the hill to her ranch around 4 p.m.
Immediately I bumped a doe with twins. A good sign. Her ranch isn’t large, so I’d also gotten permission from her neighbors to hunt, mostly in case any deer I shot ran off onto the adjacent ranches. I walked around a bit and finally settled on a spot to wait for the buck to show. I’d seen a well-used deer trail through the oaks down from her house, leading past an outbuilding on the way towards a goat pen. There was reasonably fresh scat, another good sign.
So down I sat, back to a scrub oak, surrounded by spent wild oats. And just as it was when I sat under the pine in the High Sierra, I was soon surrounded by a cacophony of birds: Acorn woodpeckers, whose maniacal calls remind me of tiny hyenas; peeping creepers, walking upside down on oak branches; scrub jays — who have possibly the most annoying voice in all of bird-dom, like metal on a blackboard; and some sort of lovely thrush I couldn’t identify. Acorns were dropping all around, and the feast was on. I love the foothills in fall.
An hour went by. Two. I began to feel the twinge of doubt. Would this be the night, or would it be like so many others? I was just thinking about where else on this ranch I might hunt when I heard two things: My friend’s car — she’d be coming back to pick up her son from high school — and the snap of a cloven hoof on dried oak leaves.
I pivoted my eyes to the left and saw a young buck step out into the open; he’d come out of an orchard, not from the deer trail as I’d expected. I shifted my rifle a bit, and he must have noticed, because he stopped. Busted. But then my friend’s car started to come up her long, gravel driveway, distracting the deer. This was a mixed blessing, as now the deer was between me and her car. No shot.
I remained motionless, the car moved on up the drive and the young buck continued walking, down the slope. He had given me a 30-yard broadside shot, but now he was partly obscured behind a giant oak about 65 yards away. Then he stopped, I put him in my crosshairs and sent a bullet through him. If you’ve never shot a rifle, there is an instant where the world explodes and you can’t see anything. Then you return and, if you happen to be hunting, you quickly scan the area to see where the deer has run off to; deer rarely just die where they stand. But this one did, miraculously. I’d never seen anything like it, even on television. One second this buck was eating grass, the next he was in deer heaven. I later saw that my bullet had gone right through his aorta, killing him instantly. We should all go out so fast.
So there it was. Buck on the ground. Meat for the freezer.
I get asked a lot about what I feel when I pull the trigger while hunting. Mostly these questions come from people very far from the whole process of putting meat on the table who are genuinely curious about this ancient pursuit of ours. My answer is that it’s different every time: I’ve been sad, thankful, angry at myself, jubilant at a long journey’s end.
This time was different. Everything had worked exactly as I’d envisioned it. I’d given this buck the cleanest death imaginable, and I was even close to the truck so I’d had an easy haul. The whole affair felt strangely dreamlike, as if I was dissociated from the scene, mechanically doing what had to be done when it needed to be done. There was no struggle, no great long walk in the mountains, no epic shooting or grand story to tell.
Only now that I am butchering this buck into steaks and roasts, ground meat, shanks, offal and stew meat do the feelings flood back. Hunting, fishing and foraging is how Holly and I have chosen to live. This is our path, and every salmon or duck, deer or squirrel, morel, blackberry or walnut we bring home to nourish us helps keep us on that road. May we never leave it.