A Love/Hate Relationship

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Big game hunting has not come easy for me. As a young girl the idea of “killing Bambi” didn’t sit well and joining Dad and big brother for Deer Camp, in a tent, in November, in Minnesota only added to my disenchantment. But I picked up a bow in high school and began to come around.

However, it seemed I made about every mistake in the book, twice: ranging from my rookie days of not having an arrow nocked right away in the stand, to making a heart-breaking shoulder shot on a nice buck, making poor stand choices, and everything in between. Added to this is an unexplainable anxiety that surrounds big game hunting, and a fear of failure, something I don’t cope with well. I’m usually an emotional mess come deer season.

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Moving to North Dakota, being exposed to lotteries and western big game hunting, and an increasing drive to source our own food, I picked up a rifle for the first time. Something I had sort of internally looked “down on” after seeing countless bucks within rifle range from the bow stand. But when I ate tag soup on a western North Dakota whitetail doe tag my first year of rifle hunting, I formed a new outlook. I loved the wide-open landscape and ability to be mobile, maybe too much, sometimes bumping deer from growing impatient. I realized while getting a bow drawn back with a deer at 20 yards presents its own set of challenges, so does getting an ethical shot opportunity with a rifle, especially with enough time to settle in and calm my shakes.

Last year I finally christened my .308 on a mule deer doe. We watched a group of about six does drop into a little cut. We quietly winded through it when my husband said, “there they are.” They heard us and began to bounce up and over a butte. I dropped to my knees. One paused on the butte just long enough for me to slowly squeeze the trigger. Fortunately, it was over quickly. I quartered a deer for the first time, and we packed her out the mile back to the truck. I soared through the rest of hunting season, proud of the meat I contributed to the freezer.

With no antlers to my name yet, I took a risk and applied for a whitetail buck tag this year with my second choice, my first choice going towards the coveted North Dakota badlands mule deer buck. My husband and I were both successful in drawing.

I went into the season with my usual anxiety. It was slightly settled as I prepped for the more auxiliary components of deer camp, baking chocolate chip zucchini muffins for early mornings, and making venison Zuppa Toscana and venison Sloppy Joe’s for dinners. I reminded myself that I am more than proficient with my rifle, and it’s really about frosty sunrises and the unpredictable events that ensue.

The season opens at noon on Friday here in North Dakota and trucks are parked at their spots well before. After a slow and very warm afternoon/evening sit we opted for a different piece of public land on Saturday morning. Despite a mild opener, I was wiggling my toes in my boots to circulate blood when a deer head poked its way out from the very cut in the butte, we were using to conceal ourselves. She was probably at 20 yards. Even without a doe tag in my pocket, the shakes began. As I attempted to calm them, I noticed she seemed out of breath and almost wheezing, I presumed she had just been spooked, but she then turned and faced us both at 15 yards, blood dripping from her neck.

Tears welled in my eyes. I hate this. Sometimes I absolutely hate this. What am I doing out here, how can I enjoy doing this to such beautiful animals? She stared at us for almost ten minutes, as if asking us to end it, and we couldn’t. Finally, she trotted off, I hope she made it. With the pressure to remain still now gone, I let the tears run.

I don’t have the answer to these mixed emotions, but they exist, and they are sincere. I don’t love killing animals, especially big game. In fact, I hate it, proof the two emotions can sometimes be so intertwined. But I love everything else up until that point so deeply. And when the post-kill emotions have faded, I certainly love easting venison Zuppa Toscana back at camp.

The look in that doe’s eyes will no doubt stick with me, just as that shouldered archery buck has. But I think it comes down to the fact that I’m going to eat meat and as awful as ending a life is, at least I’ve faced it. I’ve taken ownership of those decisions and I’ve been forced to process the emotions that surround an ethical kill, and the ones that surround a mistake, and that’s how I can continue to do this and continue to be proud to be a hunter.

Cayla Bendel

Cayla is a conservation professional that resides in North Dakota with her husband and pudelpointer, Finley. Together they enjoy avidly hunting, fishing, and otherwise frolicking their way through the seasons.

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