Sunday, November 3, 2013


Conversing with classmates in middle school, hunting was defined by “treestands,” “30/06s,” and “deer.”  My background was different.  I learned to shoot with a 20-gauge, behind a dog with a nose for birds and a Dad with an aim for them.

The author with his first deer.  Photo by Chris Reilly
        It wasn’t until my family settled in Fluvanna County that deer and I became acquainted.  We purchased property in a developing subdivision, where the woods impressed on me the aura of the “big woods” of Maine that I’d mused over in Field and Stream, if only for my size.

        Dad had long-since split from traditional deer hunting.  Maybe it was my birth, and the convenience that bird hunting afforded for the infant-toting parent.  Whatever the reason, we lacked roots in the sport, and hunted from the ground, against goliath oaks in the woods of the subdividing property.  A 12-guage—a carry-over from pheasant hunting—full-choked and loaded with buck-shot was the weapon of choice.  We saw deer on several occasions, a bobcat once; but none ever came close.  Still, when the sun receded behind the black curtain of pines on a distant ridgeline, the shadows that emerged were enough to suggest a mystery worth coming back to solve.

        Two years later, Dad promised to take me to a friend’s local farm.  There were 40-acres, lots of deer, clover fields, and a tripod stand; and we were invited to hunt.  I was allowed any deer I had a chance at.  It would be my first; and the friend was more than willing to chip in.

        Five hours into the third Saturday in November, my alarm clock barked, and I was up, open-eyed, adrenaline fighting off drowsiness.  Backpack, clothes, food, hat…license—everything was where it was piled the night before, under my tireless, opening-day eyes.

        We braked for deer crossing secondary roads for almost an hour before slowing, turning, bouncing, and parking.  Backlit three-pronged pine crowns were my only perception of place.  I was sweating slightly from the heat in the car and the layers on my body, which were promptly misted with a metallic-smelling liquid.  I was given the padded case of Dad’s Ruger .243 and a cartridge to load.

        “Watch the safety.”

        Away from the truck, we marched through the new moon sky, through tall grass, me in the rear, stumbling, head down.  We were swallowed by trees, but the sky opened up again, and my hands were touched by a cold ladder.  At the top was a cylindrical dome.

        Following directions, I unloaded, climbed to the top, and reported when I was seated.  Dad took a seat in the brush below.  Only one seat sat up top.

        Communication ended for several hours, while the sun peeked out from under the horizon, birds came alive, a breeze lit, and rabbits and chipmunks zig-zagged the lush field of clover that emerged below my perch.

        When my eyes had consumed all of the literature engraved on the barrel, scope, stock, and butt of the rifle, I pointed its lens to the field edges, simulating shots in my head.

        I found new reading material in the tags of the canvas covering when two brown figures emerged at the field edge.  I stuck my head out the side window, angled to the ground.

        “Two does…over there!”

        Dad nodded in approval.

        I slipped the barrel out the window as practiced.  I settled the scope on the lead deer, my heart ricocheting about my rib cage, breath spewing out in gusts.  With confidence, as much as I could bear, I squeezed the trigger.  The deer rolled, and the other bounded away. 

        Relief swept in, and suddenly it was very cold.  The rifle’s barrel rattled in my hand against the frame of the stand.  I had to wait several minutes for my knees to regain the strength needed to descend the ladder.

        On the ground I got a proud high-five, and the indispensable “watch your safety.”  We took a walk towards the animal, down a lane of clover.  It was further than it seemed from the stand—maybe 80 yards. 

        We had another round of high fives, after making sure the deer, now realized to be carrying small bony buttons atop his head, was totally expired.  But the congratulations didn’t last long.  We had work to do—I had work to do.

        The pride felt at having taken my first deer was not completely different from other firsts, but not without a certain feeling of remorse.  It’s a mind-expanding experience, when such a large animal is taken for your own sustenance, one filled with a sense of control and participation in the greater scheme of life, and the understanding that death is a significant part of it.  It’s a mature endowment of practical sufficiency, a rite of passage—one that I will never forget.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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