Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Qualities of Trophies

    There was a time when I defined a trophy as something unique among hunters, a likeness of each one’s personal ideal and definition of beauty. Experience has taught me otherwise. Taking an oversized buck from inside a fence with little effort hardly establishes the kill as a trophy, no matter how unique or beautiful. A trophy is relative—the product of hard work, self-pride, a memorable experience, and beauty on behalf of the animal—but this is easily forgotten. Luckily, every so often, a wise, hermitic, animated reflection of this principle ambles gracefully from his haunts to enlighten us—not that we had forgotten.
    Such is the description of a white-tailed buck that had evaded hunting efforts for years, and that now starred in the fantasies that drugged our brains. My dad and I, since my birth, had spent the lesser part of four seasons deer hunting, mostly without preference to the animal harvested provided it was made of meat. However, the deer that had been showing up on trail camera photos earlier this season contained one deer of particular interest. The landowner on whose property we hunted recognized the buck—now a pompous five-year-old—as one he regretfully passed up the year before, and generously insisted that one of us take him given the opportunity. The sun, quickly rising above the horizon as we sped towards our destination, began to cast a shadow on the potential of our poorly-planned morning hunt.
    A half hour later I was seated comfortably in a tripod blind overlooking a small clover plot, compound bow resting on my lap. My dad was perched on the opposite side of the property in a similar blind, overlooking a much larger plot, cradling a potent muzzleloader with anticipation.
    An hour and a half after sunrise, a black powder charge echoed from his stand. Instantly thoughts and hopeful scenarios, again starring the old eight-point, flooded my mind. I remained on stand, but soon abandoned it as my father summoned me from the truck.
    I accepted what I somehow already knew when he met me halfway—he had indeed shot the eight-point, but needed help in tracking. There had been no visible blood splattering at the point of impact, but a short blood trail ensued just inside the tree-line bordering the plot, and went cold soon after.
    I quickly picked up the rest of the trail as it crossed a bowed cedar and continued, muddling through a dense stand of white pines. We lost it again at a barbed-wire fence that marked the beginning of a neighbor’s property, but soon relocated it, passing under the wire and continuing straight, crossing a creek, and heading for cover in dense transitional habitat.
    In an attempt to relocate the lost trail, I set out in vectors from the last trace. On one route, I neared an island of white pines that broke up a hardwood stand between the two food plots. From the aerial photographs, it seemed that the stand would make an ideal bedding area, and I stood for a time attempting to relate the rest of the property to its location.
    I turned away. A crash broke in front of me. A brown freight train crowned with white beams plowed from a bed beneath the bulk of a pine logjam, his bounding muffled by pine needles, his destination retained.
    The next two hours were spent connecting the end of the blood trail and the bed. Shortly after, the landowner arrived to rejuvenate and to contribute to our efforts; and it proved successful as my dad picked up the trail again on the opposite side of the logjam.
    Two hours more led us a short distance. Our prize crossed yet another creek and struck out for the island of pines, the blood trail running thin. The realization that the buck was likely alive and recovering in his ordinary bedding area began to take hold.
    We were reluctant to give up hope; but the sky turned cloudy, and the sun began to set on our determined effort as we stood, gazing into the pine thicket. It seemed the happy ending we had suspected from the beginning was going to escape; but happiness, like trophies, is relative. Over the course of the day we had had two encounters with a truly magnificent deer; we had experienced his haunts firsthand, sweated through our clothes, and in the end, stood blank-faced and blank-minded, eclipsed by a wall of trees hardly commanding enough to cancel out the buck’s true grit and august character. Those are the qualities of a trophy; and, as far as I was concerned, we did not leave empty handed.

First published in The Rural Virginian


    As November middles out, outdoor publications greet the impending firearms seasons with reports of the latest and greatest hunting implements, putting forth descriptions spiked with jargon that almost overshadows the reason why we take to the woods carrying these prizes. While hairpin trigger pulls, tight bolt cycles, and krypton gas-charged scopes characterize many hunters’ favorite guns, chances are they learned to hunt and shoot with firearms of a much more modest make. Perched alone in a tripod stand on the Muzzleloader opener, I sat thinking about my first guns, and how they shaped me as a hunter.

    I was fortunate enough to have a father that packed me along with him in the fall woods. Our destination was often a mountainous, hardwood ridge littered with Bushytails, or occasionally a wintry cornfield where our young setter would point out the avian inhabitants with ancestral proficiency. For these pursuits, I was entrusted with a smooth-shooting double barreled shotgun whose caliber I never thought to question. It was a true shotgun in that it had to be handled safely and fired safely, always with the safety sliding back into place following the charge, and it certainly did no injustice to the term “boom-stick.” However, it was lacking in what it propelled. A cap gun of sorts, the birds and squirrels that I did lead—maybe—fell to the administering swing of my father. Regardless, I never once shot a dog or a person, and the rush of the flush wasn't lost on me.

    Soon I acquired what Ralphie Parker reverently called “the greatest Christmas gift.” Then, we lived closer to the mountains than we had previously, and I was self-conscious enough to tote my Red Rider BB gun with some newly-granted freedom and explore the mixed-hardwood jungle along the dirt road on which we lived. A short, muddy maintenance road we dubbed the “pump-house road” for the jaded well house that marked the trail’s head was the primary venue for hunting safaris and target shooting. I remember being ordered not to come back without dinner, to which I made the sporting decision that I would take an opossum provided I was eluded by a squirrel—not knowing, of course, of their table-fare. Even so, at most, the BB gun killed a few unfortunate pine bark cells, but never before I had exhausted my efforts until nightfall, and always without endangering anything besides blue jays and gray squirrels.

    We moved again, this time to an undeveloped neighborhood in the Piedmont. It was then that my parents entrusted me with an air rifle. Unlike the Red Rider, my new Crosman was scoped—implying true lethality—and could handle pellets or BBs—an obvious contradiction to Ralphie’s declaration. The pneumatic’s 600 fps could hardly drop a mighty Bushytail. Nonetheless, I was trusted to pursue my hunting endeavors alone, venturing across numerous unclaimed lots, often coming home after dark after losing my silhouetted quarry among the darkening trunks. The Crosman’s chamber was opened by a hard-edged lever, and I can remember a determination, after missing almost a hundred shots, that drove me to rub raw my numb, cracking hands in hopes of finally reaching out to a squirrel scurrying along the branches.

    It wasn't until my tenth year that I was granted an arm of true firepower. The upland preserve season was growing cold and bare in Virginia and my father felt it fitting that I carry my own 20-gauge pump shotgun to shoot over our aging setter. We made two trips to a Southside preserve during that season, on which I harvested my first upland birds, and witnessed again the talent of our now-seasoned four-legged hunting companion. I handled and fired safely my new prize, always instinctively returning the safety to its “safe” position following the charge. It was cold, but, due to conditioning, I never succumbed to the biting metal of the action release against my numb fingers.

    These pensive memories of my early development flow through my mind on the cold muzzleloader opener, triggered by the jaunty squirrels and mockingbirds that slip below my stand unscathed. I sit on the opposite side of an expansive property from my father, with a 12-gauge lying idle on my lap, waiting patiently to check out with a Thanksgiving turkey. The safety is on; the muzzle, pointed to the left. My face is chapped by the November wind; my hands, numb. To think of my own favorite gun, well-balanced muzzleloaders and crystalline optics come to mind, but I find it hard to discount the ones that brought me to where I sit today, both as a hunter and a person.

*First published in The Rural Virginian.