I just may have found the future of hunting this past weekend, along with a reminder that this deer hunting stuff is harder to master than I imagined.
The story starts almost a year ago, when Anne Barrow of The Kitchen Mirror, emailed me wanting to know if I’d be interested in hunting deer on Catalina Island. For those of you who don’t know Catalina, it is a 40,000-acre island off the coast of Los Angeles largely owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy. What’s not owned by the conservancy is a playground for rich SoCal types.
I was excited about the idea of hunting another Channel Island — I’d hunted elk on Santa Rosa Island in 2006 — so I started to make plans to come on down. Those plans fell through, but I told Anne and Charlie de la Rosa, who would be my guide on the island, that I’d be sure to make the trip in 2010. Last week I finally made the trek.
Stepping off the ferry, my first jolt was Charlie. In my mind’s eye, he’d be a grizzled, fifty-something islander, weathered, scruffy and a little gray. Maybe he’d chew tobacco. The real Charlie is an energetic, 29-year-old scientist who’s only been guiding a couple years, although he might indeed be a little scruffy and is rumored to occasionally smoke a pipe.
Charlie proved to be the highlight of the trip. He is as psychotic about foraging, hunting, and eating the whole beast as I am, and, being something of a scientist (his job on the island is to kill invasive plants), the conversation was never dull. Geeky, maybe, but never dull. He definitely brought out the science nerd in me, and I soon found myself lacing my usual string of dirty jokes with quips about forbs and made-up Latin names for the various critters we saw all around us.
We headed out a few hours after I stowed my gear, and Charlie explained the point of the hunting program on the island. Deer are not native to Catalina, but rather than exterminate them, which is what the government will do to the deer and elk on Santa Rosa next year (a goddamn tragedy), the conservancy uses hunting to keep the deer herd small enough to not harm the island’s ecosystem. It’s not managed for giant trophies like Santa Rosa.
That means I could shoot does, something rare in California. Basically the only deer I couldn’t kill was a big buck — those they like to keep for hunters willing to pay a trophy fee. You can’t eat antlers, so a doe, or button buck, was fine with me.
We soon found deer, and I put a stalk on a doe just before dark. I butt-crawled my way to a branch I could rest my rifle on. I had the cross-hairs centered on the doe — but she was facing me, so I’d need to shoot through the brisket to hit the vitals. Not a shot I like. And it was the first night… so I decided to play. I stood up. “I am here to shoot you, Miss Deer,” I called to it. ” So stand still.” I took a few steps toward her, and, like I expected, she ambled off.
On our way back to the ranch, I noticed something. Quail. Lots of quail. Actually, that’s a lie. SHITLOADS of quail. More wild quail than any living human has ever seen before. We saw coveys of more than 100 birds, and Charlie said that wasn’t even a really big one. They were everywhere. Sadly, they are protected.
When we got back to the ranch, I realized it was a bunkhouse for all the young scientists who work for the conservancy. None was older than 35, all were deeply enmeshed in their fieldwork — and most of them either already hunted, or were planning to soon.
It was the most unusual setting for a hunt I’ve ever been in. Yes, there was a set of antlers over the fireplace, but that was about it in terms of hunting paraphernalia. Here was a bunch of young, highly educated people who were coming at hunting for all the right reasons: conservation, a desire to be self-sufficient, and a need to control the food they eat.
And they are all into food — I didn’t see a Pop-Tart or a frozen dinner anywhere. Foraged herbs hang from the windows, and a bowl of native Catalina cherries sits in the living room. They all eat venison, as well as the fish that teem in the waters around the island. Charlie even makes his own beer, which was damn good.
That first night we ate lamb Charlie had gotten from one of his friends, whose family raises them in Corning. I brought some wine and some fresh chanterelles. It was a feast. Charlie started making plans to go fishing after I filled my tag and shot my deer. I was hopeful, but I don’t count chickens so quickly.
Dawn the next morning found us in a place officially called Gallagher’s Canyon, but for me it will always be the Valley of Death.
This is what went down. Charlie and I were glassing the canyon, which you can see is incredibly steep — and deep. I spotted a doe on the canyon floor, eating some leaves. I motioned for Charlie to come over, and once he spotted the deer, I started to get into position for a shot.
By then the doe had sat down. It did not know we were there. I had all the time in the world, although my heart was slamming the inside of my chest. Putting the crosshairs at the top of the deer’s shoulder, I pulled the trigger. And the world exploded.
The deer was not dead. Charlie said shoot again, and when I found the deer in the cross-hairs again, I saw it was limping. I’d shot the lower half of the front leg. How?! No time. I shot again. Missed. I reached for another shell… and found I’d left them in the truck!
Huge, horrifying mistake. If I’d had a third shell I could have killed that doe. Second mistake? Charlie had forgotten to bring his rifle, so he could not back me up. I ran to the truck for more ammunition– my first running steps since tearing my Achilles tendon back in December — but when I returned, the deer had walked into deep cover.
How had this happened? I’d felt good about this shot, unlike the fateful shot I’d made on Spork the Deer a year ago. Was there a twig I’d not seen? Did I jerk the trigger? Maybe the steep downward angle changed things? A million questions raced in my head.
But instead of chasing the doe, we sat down and waited. Maybe I’d shot her better than I’d thought, Charlie said. If we waited, we might find her dead in the canyon. Even though Charlie’s only been hunting as long as I have, guiding makes a huge difference: He’s been on more deer hunts in the past several years than a normal hunter experiences in a lifetime. So I listened to him.
After a while, we descended into the canyon to look for the deer. I was having a tough go of it. My Achilles is still not 100 percent, and this was one of the steepest hillsides I’d ever tried to walk. I couldn’t do it without the very real possibility of rupturing my achilles again, and a tear at the bottom of that hill would be a disaster — although it’d also be deliciously ironic, with me and the deer I’d shot sitting, crippled, at the bottom of the Valley of Death.
Charlie went in alone. I sat on the rim of the canyon, helpless. It was a terrible feeling, and it got me thinking about the messiness — both literal and moral — of obtaining food.
I practice at the gun range so these sorts of shots don’t happen. Yet I’d made two in a row. As Phillip said last year, and Charlie said that day, it happens. To everyone. I’d started hunting in part to avoid the cruelty of industrial meat production, yet, with few exceptions, the death of a cow in a slaughterhouse is faster than all but the best shots from a hunter; it’s the life before the death that makes industrial meat so cruel.
Even vegetarians are not innocent. Habitat that once supported thousands of animals, insects and native plants is destroyed to plow the fields for their soybeans, and those vegetarians who eat factory-farmed eggs support an undeniably cruel system. We all have blood on our hands.
Only mine is literal — visceral, really. I’ve taken solace in the notion that my skill as a marksman makes the animal’s death a decent one. That solace evaporates when I fail. Suddenly I become an agent of cruelty, and I have to live with that.
Charlie never found the deer, which was still moving and still eluding him many hours later. Our best hope is that it will survive as a “tripod” deer; I’ve seen several such deer live for years. It’s not pretty, but it’s the best hope I have.
I did not want to hunt again the next day. I’d lost confidence in my shooting, and there is the ethical dilemma about whether a lost deer should count as your tag. In the end, however, Charlie convinced me to give it another go. The point of the Catalina hunt is to kill lots of deer so they don’t destroy the island, he said. Besides, we didn’t really know if I’d actually inflicted a mortal wound on the doe.
So we went out again one more time. I was nervous. I was content with the possibility of coming home without venison in the cooler, but I was frightened about the prospect of wounding yet another deer. I’d also told Charlie I really did not want to hunt in a place so rugged I could not help recover a deer if we had to chase it, so he took me to a spot that was hilly, but not ungodly steep.
We weren’t at the spot more than a few minutes before Charlie spotted a deer on a distant hillside. I spotted the deer, too. Like the doe the previous day, this one was lying down. I hesitated.
The deer was looking at us, so I was certain we could not get much closer. Charlie used a rangefinder to check the distance: Exactly 200 yards, nearly twice the distance of the previous day’s shot. But this time I could use the door frame of the truck to steady the rifle, and I am a very good shot with this kind of rest.
So I decided to go for it. Charlie had his rifle this time, ready to back me up. I had plenty of shells handy.
I stared at this deer in the scope. It wasn’t alarmed, wasn’t moving. Still, it was lying down, which makes a shot through the vitals more challenging. I nearly pulled the trigger three times before I felt calm enough to place the shot exactly where I wanted it. My mantra when shooting is to “bear down,” which means “keep your head on the scope and follow through once you’ve pulled the trigger. Don’t pull your head off the scope.”
I exhaled and squeezed the trigger. All I saw in the predawn light was a flash of the muzzle in the scope.
“He’s still moving!” Charlie said. What the hell?!
I got the scope back on the deer and it was obviously deeply wounded, but it was walking up the hillside. I shot and missed. Don’t panic, don’t panic. I took a deep breath and thought of all those hunting TV shows I’d watched, where they level a deer with a shot to the spine.
I put the cross-hairs on the deer’s spine and touched off one more round. Again, the muzzle flash blinded me through the scope.
“Oh man!” Charlie shouted. “It looks like you pole-axed it!”
I’d done it. I put a shot right through the spine of a moving deer at 200 yards. Thank God. We later found that my first shot had nicked the lungs, then the liver. It would have died without the spine shot.
Retrieving this deer was a snap. Once we gutted it, the deer was light enough for Charlie to do his favorite carrying trick.
So there will be venison after all.
What can I say about this trip? It was a whirlwind of newness, elation and fascination spiked by the stark reminder that what we do can be an ugly business at times. I met many new friends: Charlie, Annie and her husband Shane chief among them. I saw new plants (I brought back some yerba buena and black sage to experiment with) and had close encounters with one of the cutest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Catalina fox. The hunt itself showed me both how much I still need to learn to master deer hunting — and that my shooting skills are still fundamentally sound.
But most of all, I saw a group of young people who could propel hunting into a new era, where food and conservation — not antler size — are the prime movers. I know that many older hunters seek meat, not trophies, but the public face of hunting always has been big racks, not juicy venison steaks. I’ve long said that face needs to change, that the connection to food — honest food — is the true future of hunting. The people on Catalina give me hope that it just might happen. Someday.