He slowly slid the truck door back in place, performed the ritual gear check adopted as habit and started down a rut in the meandering ranch road.
The afternoon glow was a welcome departure from the previous two days when frigid north winds and light mist made the last week of December a bit more uncomfortable than usual. Amazing how quickly things can change, he mused to himself, reflecting on the old saying about Texas weather and the accompanying 5-minute wait.
Spindly mesquites fluttered in a slight breeze while thicker oaks stood bare, their foliage dressed down for the winter. The ongoing drought that had taken hold of so much of the state and dimmed prospects back in the summer hadn’t appeared to be quite as bad here, he thought, gladly welcoming the aftereffects of the light rain. At least it choked back the dust that always seemed to get on everything.
As he crested a small rise in the rolling pasture, a trio of spooked whitetail does scampered away at half-trot on the horizon, their distress flags waving goodbye to the alien being on approach. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as tough this winter, and most of the bucks and does looked slick, free from negative visible effects of diminished range conditions.
Every pace closer to the weathered tripod stand seemed to bring back a new memory from the past couple of months. Maybe it was the finality of this last hunt of the season or perhaps it was just deja vu, but all the memorable sights, sounds and smells came rushing back.
Over by that cluster of mesquites he had spied a big-bodied, mature buck with tiny horns, the deer not reaching its potential for any number of reasons but nonetheless an impressive specimen.
Down the road, there had been a close encounter with a rustling skunk looking for whatever it could eat around a cocoon of prickly pear pads. Luckily, and with great care, he had avoided a closer meeting by taking a wide arc. Man, that could have been nasty.
And just past that, there had been the covey of quail he’d jumped seemingly every time he hunted this spot, which made sense, what with the manna-spewing feeder in the vicinity and their preferred grassy food sources scarce.
Climbing into the tripod had been tricky those first few times, but after hunting from the raised platform for much of the past decade, the routine became safe and well-versed.
Rifle, with sling removed, a round carefully chambered and safety clicked on nestled in the corner. Backpack contents taken out and donned, including binoculars, grunt tube and face mask.
Taking a deep breath in anticipation and preparation for the three-hour wait, his mind slowly wandered back to November. Opening weekend had been somewhat of a bust on the hunting only because the temperatures mirrored those of August and activity was diminished to either early or late. However, there was the camaraderie of his father and a family friend to count on, and a couple of dinner trips into the small West Texas outpost of a town for the best Mexican food he’d have all year.
Thanksgiving week was the highlight of the hunting year for a number of reasons, mostly because it was a chance to enjoy more time with the whole family and other longtime friends for more than a quick weekend. It’s never easy to see those we care about when they’re spread across various states much less just across Texas, but they all made time again this year to catch up, share stories and even gaze up a time or two in hopes of catching a glimpse of a shooting star. The hunting also had picked up that week and a couple of fine bucks had been taken as the rut kicked into gear.
There still was at least one whopper of a deer that almost everyone had seen on the low-fence ranch that always seemed to give them the slip. Thoughts of that deer quickly brought him back to the present since he still had a buck tag to use, but as the afternoon wore on, nothing materialized. A few weeks earlier, he would have dived into a paperback to fill down time but today was about taking in this special place – the sights, the smells and the sounds – since next season seemed a lifetime away.
The orange orb slowly descended on the horizon, marking the last sunset he’d see this season, and just as thoughts of packing in early crept into his mind, a gray streak of deerskin caught his sight in the motte of oaks from where so many deer previously had emerged. Out of instinct, he cautiously lifted the rifle and rested it on the side of the stand after noticing a tall, wide rack cutting through the brush. Through the scope, he knew it was a fine buck – big 8-pointer outside his ears – but upon closer inspection the deer’s long face and thin build gave it away as a youngster as it worked closer.
The buck sneaked past a fox that also had come looking for a meal before nightfall, the grizzled red and gray creature appearing almost blue in the fading light. Watching the pair interact was a special sight, the bigger but younger animal timidly sizing up a creature it may have never seen before.
He lowered the rifle too quickly and the slight movement caught the buck’s attention, forcing an instant halt and raising of the head and ears. After a few seconds, the 8 decided he’d had his share of strange encounters, offered a half-lifted tail and jaunted through the brush.
And with that, he unloaded his trusty rifle, stowed the gear and climbed down the tripod ladder. A low-slung crescent moon guided him back to the waiting vehicle and the trip back to camp.
It had been a pretty good year, he chuckled, thinking to himself it’s not just about pulling the trigger.
“Why do you hunt?”
It’s a straightforward question, but if you’re asked to reflect deeply on the query, it can be difficult to come up with a profound answer worthy of articulating.
Pose the inquiry to most hunters and you’ll get any number of good answers, ones that should generally suffice standing on their own merit: I hunt because I enjoy the outdoors; I hunt because I enjoy eating wild game and fowl; I hunt because I enjoy the pursuit of deer, doves, ducks or turkeys.
However, those responses and other similar replies are just pieces of a multi-layered pie, the easiest explanations for those among us who share our outdoor passions and the most common justifications when talking to those who don’t.
For me personally, the best summation is uncomplicated and uncompromising: “I hunt because I’m selfish.”
I’m selfish because I enjoy the tradition of hunting and because my family before me hunted, passing the pursuit from generation to generation and instilling a sense of stewardship every step of the way. Grandfather, back when he was younger and chock full of vim and vigor, would rise early from a peaceful slumber, excited about the possibilities of which waterfowl would light into the spread just after dawn broke on the bayou. Army-issue boots, a decent overcoat and a pair of cotton gloves were the only things that kept the brisk winter air at bay, but it didn’t make sense to splurge on such things.
However, the Winchester Model 12 was a valued luxury, providing a game-getter of the first order. That shotgun, like the pursuit it was drafted for, was passed to future generations with the expectation that the inheritance would be shared and given as a gift multiple times over. And so far, it has.
I’m selfish because I want to pass the tradition on to my kids, their kids and anyone else who sees value in such things, leaving at least some scant legacy about where we fit into this world and what truly is important. Measuring your impact on others in your decades spent above ground can be calculated in various ways, but I can think of no better method than the hard-earned lessons learned far from any classroom or formal instruction. The best teachers often may not realize their gifts for bestowing wisdom upon others, which especially is true when the tutorials don’t involve anything that can be gleaned from a manual.
I’m selfish because I yearn to enjoy a deeper connection with the lands and places that are most special and treasured to me. Deer camp is one of those places, and while the look and feel may have changed over the years after comings and goings from various season leases, the fellowship has remained steadfast. The dilapidated bunkhouse near Mason featured indoor plumbing that was anything but reliable while the gnarled aluminum frame supported worn panels that harbored scorpions of at least two species during all hours of the night. And, of course, there were snakes.
The old farmhouse west of Menard sported similar accoutrements, including an ancient icebox dripping with some long-ago stench that never could be fully cleansed. And, of course, there were more scorpions. The collection of tents and trailers not far from the previous farmhouse in the heart of the Edwards Plateau provided plenty of room to get out and stretch though December nights tended to make things chilly, even with propane heaters and their distinctive odorous hiss. And sure enough, there still were things that bit back.
The quaint abode of a former newspaper publisher near Luckenbach was first-class lodging composed of limestone blocks, tin roofing and even central heat and air, something that comes in handy during warm opening weekends and into the icy dead of winter. And, you guessed it, there still was a bounty of vermin looking to get inside.
I’m selfish because I find magic in those days spent afield, something that can’t be unearthed anywhere else. Turkey hunting, in particular, provides Easter eggs just begging to be found. If you sit still long enough, look and listen, there’s no telling what riches you undoubtedly will tote back home, even if they don’t include a long-bearded gobbler. Perhaps it was the time you dozed off during an afternoon sit propped up against a broad cottonwood while gazing across an eastern Panhandle panorama turned emerald green by quenching spring rains. The setting overflowed with commotion as tweeting songbirds and clicking grasshoppers slowly serenaded you to a siesta only to be roused back to consciousness by a trio of inquisitive whitetail does that rustled ripe foliage nearby as they slinked past.
Maybe it was the arid afternoon you spent hunkered down amid the craggy maze of Hill Country limestone and laydowns. As the day tiptoed on, anticipation ran wild, especially since there was no telling what type of critter might materialize right around the corner — perhaps a prying bobcat or even an exotic entrant such as an Axis or Sika deer.
Sometimes turkey treks take you to places you never could have imagined or lead you to discoveries that forged an even deeper bond with your spring surroundings, if even just for a modest moment. In the end, the greatest pleasure is spending time afield with those who also truly enjoy what spring symphonies and sights emerge when you least expect them.
I’m selfish because I enjoy making memories that will never go dark and never be pushed aside. Ask me about what I had for breakfast a couple of days ago or what was said at a meeting last week and you may get a half-hearted response that might not be entirely full of all the right details. Ask me about my first deer and my recall is instantaneous, with details right down to what the well-worn .30-30 felt like in my shivering hands that frigid December morning to how the distinct fragrance of cedar wafted through the icy breeze, nestling in every nook and cranny of the homemade stand.
The ability to quickly reminisce with days gone by in that remarkable detail is the same for my first turkey, first dove and first pheasant. They’re fleeting moments in the grand scheme of things but ones that will stand the test of this lifetime.
I hunt because I’m selfish and because I can’t ignore the need to explore the unknown, including new places within the depths of my soul.
That’s good enough for me.