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The Bittersweet Almost
Is the greatest thrill of our outdoor pursuits in success, or in possibility?
Hunting and fishing aren’t just about what we’ve done. It’s about what we could have done, and what we might yet do. It’s also about what we take away from our endeavors — beyond harvests and trophies.
I’m still a new hunter, and I do many things the hard way. But something I realized very quickly on this incredible journey is that there are no true failures. There are only learning experiences. Everything that happens in the woods and waters is a sublime lesson.
I often take time to reflect on the “bittersweet almost.” Mistakes, misfortunes, bad calls…are they what could have been, or what was meant to happen? I am haunted by the deer I let walk, the one I wounded, and the one I didn’t find in time.
The first time I ever went deer hunting, I had a borrowed rifle and an hour before my shift at the farm began and walked out towards the woods. As the world woke up around me, I watched a beautiful six-point buck cross right in front of me, strolling slowly and perfectly broadside. His antlers were golden in the morning sun. It was an ideal dream scenario. I would have had the bragging rights. The respect. The clout. Most of all, I would have had a buck.
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But I didn’t take the shot. He wasn’t the deer I was after. I could have taken him. Perhaps I should have. But I was requested by the farm manager, who granted me the awesome privilege to hunt there, to consider targeting mature does. The bucks didn’t stick around the property, but the big matriarchs lingered there in huge groups, grazing and resting between breaking fences and gorging on neighbors’ corn.
The following year, I set my sights on an enormous, sleek-bodied doe who was spending time in one of the eastern fields. I saw her and her group in the morning and by my break at noon, they were still there. I took a shot. The deer all bolted. It was very cold, so I figured I’d just find her after work.
A few hours later, I bumped two deer in the brush as we moved cattle into that field. Neither looked injured. When my shift ended, I returned to the spot and found the snow darkened deep red. I followed the trail as best as I could — for ten hours of desperate searching in the winter marsh. I never found that deer. It seemed she’d crossed the brook and left the property; the last I ever saw of her was one watery drop of blood in the slush. I will never know where she’d been hit, or if she lived. All I know is that she suffered. It pains me to this day.
But still, I beheld great beauty. My flashlight beams lit up thousands of hoofprints lacing the snowdrifts, revealed in glowing blue like secret messages. I got to bear witness to their world and it told me, You will never stop learning.
In the spring of that winter, I managed to stalk a herd of does and sneak up to them using the treeline and hill as cover. The ground was trodden soft by cattle to silence my approach; I crawled on my belly through manure to brace my muzzleloader on a vine and take a very long shot.
The sound scared the cattle and they began thundering around in their adjacent pasture. I searched my field, but not theirs — they were agitated enough. I didn’t even think I’d hit the deer. Two days later, my coworker and I found her, surrounded by curious cattle. The weather had grown unseasonably warm. Her hair was slipping and her eyes were gone; scavengers had opened her jaw and her backside. I had to watch her rot on the compost pile for the rest of my time on the farm. She hadn’t even run far.
The bittersweet almost can be hard to swallow. But its wisdom is unparalleled. Since then, I’ve slung a sledgehammer of a surf rod til my arms gave out, only to see a single striper speed after my lure, meet my gaze, and vanish from existence right as the waves broke onto the shore. I’ve had the largemouth of a lifetime on the fly, three times — and had her snap my tippet and slip off the hook, the reedy shallows frothy from her fury. I’ve riled up a gobbler on a lonely mountainside and lost him. I’ve missed shots. I’ve gotten lost. I’ve had deer stomp and blow at me, wind me, stare into my blind. But every time, I cherish the birdsong, the solitude, the breeze in the leaves, the smell of wet earth and gunsmoke. The power, grace, and intelligence of our fellow creatures.
Nothing but experience can truly prepare you for what might transpire when you have a weapon in your hands and yearning in your heart. To harvest nature is to be forever humble, to forsake expectation, and to accept what happens to you — and because of you.
Want to learn how the deer hunt works in other parts of the world? Check out this article on hunting roe deer in Germany!