Even with the leaves damp and quiet, I heard the buck coming. And even through the branches and brush, I saw enough antler to know he was no off-limits spikehorn.
When he stepped around the big hemlock twenty yards away, my rifle was up.
In the periphery of my mind, the antlers registered: maybe six points, probably a little bigger than the five-pointer I had shot some fifty yards from here, the year before.
But I wasn’t watching his head. I was watching his body, looking for a clean shot at heart and lungs. And I was simply thinking “legal deer.”
I had seen a couple of does in archery season and would have killed one if I’d had a good opportunity. Now, in rifle season, the only legal game was a buck with forked antlers. I wouldn’t get to the woods many more times. If I wanted to bring home venison this year, this buck might be my last chance.
When he came around the hemlock, he kept walking. I prefer to shoot at a still target. And there was something about the angle I didn’t like, his chest almost directly toward me—technically a fine shot with a firearm, but it didn’t feel right. Then he slowed and turned. He was nearly broadside when I squeezed the trigger.
As he staggered and went down—my bullet through his heart—the thought occurred to me: He was big.
As a vegan and staunch anti-hunter, I had seen trophy hunting as the lowest of the low. Animals shot for their antlers? Living beings reduced to measurable possessions? Kills competitively compared by size? Yuck.
Later, as I began exploring the philosophical terrain of hunting, I realized that hunters kill big animals for a variety of reasons. Some are, indeed, fixated on possession and competition, sometimes not even wanting the meat. Some seek out older, bigger, wilier animals to challenge themselves as hunters. Some, like my uncle, welcome the occasional large animal as an unexpected gift.
I realized, in short, that when I saw a pickup going down the road with a big, dead deer in back, I had no real idea who was behind the wheel or what his or her motives were.
When I reached the fallen buck, I was shocked: eight points, four on each side, spreading half again as wide as the five-pointer from the year before. Bits of bark and wood were ground into the base of the antlers, from rubbing against trees.
The buck was heavy. Even with help from a friend, he dragged hard. At the check-in station two miles down the road—a simple scale behind a convenience store—the field-dressed deer weighed in at over 190 pounds. In some parts of North America, that’s not an impressively large whitetail. Here, it is.
Now I was the guy behind the wheel of the pickup with the big, dead deer in back. Now I was the guy being congratulated by strangers, their admiration for the magnificent animal displaced to me. I shook my head and shrugged.
“I just got lucky,” I told them. I wasn’t out to bag a big buck. Just legal venison.
Yet I did keep the skull and antlers: As things of stark beauty. As a reminder of that hunt. As a reminder of the biggest deer I ever expect—or feel any need—to kill.
And, the night after the kill, as I drifted off to sleep, I did wonder: What would it feel like to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the massive buck some hunters swear they’ve seen roaming these hills, the one whose shed antlers people say they’ve found, seven or more points on a single side? Would I kill such an animal, or would I simply stare in awe?
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli