Luck is a strange animal

Main ingredient for deer-track soup

The past three years in a row, I have taken a buck in the first week of rifle season, less than a mile from home, in thick woods with few deer. Each of those years, I was too busy to spend many hours hunting and didn’t expect to bring home venison. Against the odds, though, bucks appeared.

This year, I was equally busy, with grad school and book revisions each demanding maximum attention just as deer season arrived. I was not, however, equally lucky.

During Vermont’s sixteen-day rifle season, I got to the woods on weekends, for a couple of hours each morning. I saw no deer.

During the nine-day muzzleloader season, I did the same. Still no deer.

Finally, on the last day of muzzleloader season, I went to a friend’s woodlot, a place he calls the Hundred Acre Woods. I knew the hunting was better there—the hoofed traffic more consistent and the woods more open. It was there, in fact, that I killed my first deer. Recently, I just haven’t felt I could spare the extra time. Going there adds an hour or more to every outing. At home, I can go for shorter spells, hunting within minutes of stepping out the door.

As soon as I hiked into the Hundred Acre Woods, though, I knew I should have gotten there earlier in the season. In the light of dawn, the snow told of the deer who had come this way over the past three days, beating a path along the ridge.

I sat for an hour or two, then thought I would move to a different spot. The maple leaves and thin snow crust were loud underfoot, so I took only a few steps at a time, then stopped to listen.

Somehow I saw and heard the deer, rather than vice versa. The animal was sixty or seventy yards off, broadside to me, walking.

A doe, I thought.

I had an antlerless tag, but shooting never occurred to me: Even if I had been certain she wasn’t an illegal spikehorn, she was moving, the glimpse was brief, and—with nothing to brace against—the shot would have been offhand. My desire for venison and success in the hunt is no match for my fear of wounding an animal. I would much rather regret a shot I didn’t take than one I did. I tried to draw her attention with a few fawn bleats, but she kept walking and disappeared.

With dusk came the end of my chances at venison. I was disappointed, to be sure. I wanted fresh meat in the freezer.

But hunting does not fit into the tidy logic of agriculture and industry, wherein efforts lead to results. Hunting, like angling, is filled with uncertainty: sometimes luck, sometimes lack of luck.

And isn’t that part of the allure? If I had no appetite for the unpredictable and mysterious, wouldn’t I be better off sticking to the grocery store?

Next year, maybe I’ll hunt half as often but head to the Hundred Acre Woods every time. Luck, after all, helps those who help themselves.

This winter, Cath and I will content ourselves with the precious few pounds of venison that remain in our freezer. And, having consulted with friends, we will be re-titling my forthcoming book The Hungry Carnivore.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Erik Jensen says:

    Hardship and the arbitrariness of deer movement can be good for the soul, it is part of hunting, but being scarce on venison really stinks, esp once you get a taste for it…

  2. Eric Nuse says:

    I had similar luck, or lack there of. The only difference was I did see lots of deer, just no legal deer. After 4 years of deer and moose I will be missing venison. But I did have a good year with geese, squirrel and fish, so I will be OK with wild protein.
    Part of the satisfaction of hunting is knowing you can’t count on getting game and it does take skill, effort and luck. My definition of luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. I was ready – where the heck was that darn buck?

  3. Al Cambronne says:

    Luck is a strange animal, and sometimes animals are strangely lucky. Sometimes us hunters are strangely unlucky.

    I suppose the unpredictability and uncertaintly really are part of the fun. If deer always showed up right on cue, then it would, as they say, be shooting rather than hunting. And I guess part of that whole fair chase thing that can be so hard to explain to non-hunters is that this shouldn’t be too easy. But does it always have to be this hard?

    If it’s any consolation, I saw a factoid from Michigan the other day. Average number of full days hunting for unsuccessful deer hunter: 9. Average for succcesful deer hunter: 18.

    Next year…

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting factoid, Al. That seem logical: You can’t succeed if you don’t put in time. That’s why I figured my chances were low these past few years.

      Then again, I have both (A) hunted long, hard seasons and seen nothing and also (B) taken a buck in the first half-hour of the season.

  4. Paul Roberts says:


    Hunt or fish enough and you can begin to fathom the obsessed gambler. Each jackpot can carry him through quite a prolonged dry spell. However, unlike the gambler in front of a slot machine, the hunter/angler can actually alter the odds with intellect and experience.

    Consistent success in hunting requires LOTS of time. The less you spend at it, the more “luck” is required. There are times and places where and when deer and hunter might meet. You have to be there. With experience one can whittle down that time requirement–to a point–but the luck part remains; It just becomes more finely divided.

  5. I can tell you’ve never been a farmer, my friend! 😉

    Maybe you can put the word out to your friends that it’s going to be a hungry winter and they’ll all chip in a few pounds of venison. Or maybe you could make a cardboard sign that says, “hunting sucked – please donate deer meat” and stand on the street corner!

    • Tovar says:

      I wrote a couple different versions of that line about “the logic of agriculture and industry,” Gorges. I know enough farmers and have done enough gardening to realize there’s plenty of unpredictability there, too! Last year, our most fail-safe crop (garlic) failed.

      But I stand by the statement: The logic of agriculture is one of (relatively) reliable outcomes. The entire modern world counts on such predictability for its food. And I think many of our cultural ideas (about work, success, etc) are built on that agrarian foundation.

  6. Tovar, my busy schedule kept me out of the woods all together. I didn’t even renew my license. Of course, the last few year did not produce a lot of in the woods days anyway.

    I fear for the deer this year, though. We have seen them everywhere, and it was a lousy year for acorns in our area. I think it will be a hard winter.

  7. Tovar, I feel your pain! My story was the same — didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, and ended the season deerless.

    I think the unpredictability is what makes it hard. And it’s the fact that it’s hard that makes it satisfying to succeed at it. At least I’m guessing that’s the case — when I actually do succeed at it, I’ll report back.

    Let’s hope for better luck (and more skill, and more time) next year.

  8. Paul Roberts says:

    Tamar wrote:
    “I think the unpredictability is what makes it hard.”

    It’s so true. I was a whitetail hunter for years before coming west, where I now chase mule deer. Talk about unpredictability: large home ranges, widely dispersed forage, eclectic feeding habits, and possibly an anti-predation strategy of randomized movement, combining to create an animal that will drive an “intelligent” hunter crazy, or bore them to tears.

    The empriricist in me, from things pondered during long hours in the woods, has to wonder:

    Unpredictability –lack of control– can elicit anything from uneasiness to downright terror –until boredom saves us, I suppose. I once met that fear head on I believe, in an evolution course, during which the concept of a “natural benevolence” in nature was, once and for all, torn from my center, and replaced with …randomness -something akin to nothingness. I experienced actual terror, grasped my seat white-knuckle, and had to forceably right myself. I wonder if transcendentalism didn’t develop in us as a grasp at “control” in such an unpredictable world that really does not need us. What a horrifying concept for such an obligately social creature. “Mother nature“ we like to say; Although she was just as soon eat us, as nurture us.

    Going back to the gambler, it’s curious how a person can get trapped in such a cycle of obsession. Obsession may not be merely pathology, in and of itself. I’ve wondered if it’s not a hard-wired propensity to stay the course, gone awry. Fishing and hunting, during those dry spells when that “loss of control” bubbles up, I wonder where “directional intellect” ends and obsession begins. Every once in a while I’ve been out there, “putting in my time”, and suddenly had to blurt out, “What the hell am I doing out here. This is stupid!” Success, jackpots, keep us going. At one time those jackpots saved out families. Now…we may justly wonder, “Just what the hell are we doing out there?”

    I can answer that…at least in my present state of understanding. I’m out there to “reconnect”, or I suppose in my case, to stay connected, with my body –just another little speck on Mother Nature’s … shoulder; If I may fancy myself that esteemed location. The transcendentalist in me may not be dead yet. 🙂

    • Tovar says:

      “Just what the hell are we doing out there?” I wonder that sometimes. I wondered it a lot after my first three, fruitless years of deer hunting.

      Yes, I’d say the transcendentalist in you is still kicking, Paul.

  9. somsai says:

    Partially you make your luck. You need to consider the past 4 seasons together. Probably you are fairly skilled and that has allowed you to be fairly “lucky” in a woods of scarce deer. Seventy five percent success speaks for itself.

    Your plan for next year speaks also to making luck. Higher populations push the luck further in your direction. All that said, it’s good to have luck.

    • Tovar says:

      We do indeed play a substantial role in “making our luck.”

      And my success rate sounds great — heck, you can even make it 80 percent (4 out of the past 5 years) if we’re not just talking about the woods right here at home. Just don’t look any further back than that, because then the percentages drop off in a hurry. 😉

  10. Paul Roberts says:

    Tovar, what was different about your first three years, compared to your last three (successful) years -besides luck? What “skills” did you obtain?

    • Tovar says:

      Good question, Paul. I went three years empty-handed, then took bucks four years in a row, then went empty-handed again this year.

      The differences can’t be attributed to sheer time in the woods in a given season. In years 2 and 3, I hunted hard and long, to no avail. In years 4-7, I hunted relatively briefly before taking a deer.

      After year 2, I think I started hunting smarter. For one thing, I started hunting in the Hundred Acre Woods, where things looked more promising.

      By year 5, I was hunting back here behind the house again, but I’d started to recognize patterns — not just with my logical mind but also with some other sense, a kind of “feeling” that a particular place in the woods was a good one. In fact, the bucks I shot in years 5-7 all fell within 50 yards of one another. This year, there was still deer traffic by that spot, just not in the few hours I had to spend there…unless you count the doubly-illegal spikehorn who traipsed through the day after rifle season ended. 😉

  11. john says:

    Sorry to hear of all the unfilled tags, here in Maryland & Virginia our limits are very liberal and even still sucess can often be hard to attain. I am all about the meat yet I always hope to get a big buck- not this year . although the 5 deer I have taken are really prizes when you consider how good my freezer looks !

    • Tovar says:

      Hello, John: I’ve read and heard that there are a ton of deer down there in the mid-Atlantic region. Congrats on the full freezer!

    • Tovar says:

      P.S. Here in Vermont, you would be limited to a total of three deer in all seasons combined. Getting one is uncommon, getting two is very rare, getting three is very, very rare.

  12. Paul Roberts says:

    It’s different all over; And things change. When I began deer hunting in the mid 70s we could get one buck permit. A doe had to be shared amongst a “party” of 5 hunters. As hunter numbers declined, and deer numbers grew (along with vegetation changes), permits became easier to get. I believe, when I left there, a hunter could potentially get 3 to 5 permits a season, which included does of course.

    Here in CO, where I now live, I can get 2 deer permits. No doe permits were available to me this year. Deer densities are low and combined with their being mule deer, it takes some hoofing in steep terrain to find them. I’ve taken them by bow and rifle and this year I took the “easy” route and took my buck (after 5 days of hard hoofing) by rifle. I was darned pleased, and relieved, to have it close successfully. Didn’t hurt that I already had two large pronghorn does in the freezer two. ‘Lope hunting is MUCH easier.

  13. douglas says:

    Hey Tovar, despite putting in a LOT of time this year, I too came up empty-freezered. This despite feeling like I have learned a lot over the last three years of my hunting apprenticeship.

    This year, just as I was getting a little cocky, it seems that all the rules changed. An early snow fall shifted the range for the various species that we can hunt around here. It seemed as the season ended for each species (elk, mule deer, and white-tail) I would finally figure out where that species of deer were hanging out.

    I finished the season hunting for white-tail. As I was trekking around my favourite white-tail haunts I was literally being surrounded by mule deer! I called one in (with a doe bleet) to within 10 feet. Very cool, but no venison to take home.

    I like to think that this year was a good year for learning, and of course I still enjoyed multiple days out in nature. Next year I will try to maintain a greater flexibility in my assumptions concerning the where-abouts of deer!

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Doug, it sounds like you put in a lot more time than I could. If either of us succeeded, it clearly should have been you!

      We only have whitetails here, of course, but your overall comment “as the season ended…I would finally figure out where…deer were hanging out” sounds much like my experience this fall. I should have gone to those other woods sooner. I was just short on time and maybe a bit too confident that my luck would turn closer to home.

      It seems as though you had some great encounters and learned a lot. Good things! And venison next year…

  14. douglas says:

    Ha ha, year! I have the same (sometimes counter-productive) attachment to my “local spot” versus driving for miles to check out something new. Partly I really dislike time in a vehicle, and partly (as you describe) two hours driving is two hours less hunting!

    • Tovar says:

      The woodlot I mentioned is less than 10 miles from here, but the time on back roads, plus the longer hike into the woods, does add up. Maybe we’ll both be smarter and luckier next year, Doug!

  15. somsai says:

    There are many good reasons to hunt as close to “out the back door” as possible.

    For one thing there’s that whole carbon footprint deal

    For another the more local the more familiar you are with an area, getting to know all the little places and when they catch the light or hold the snow, where there is a weasel den, a black bear path, a once a week cougar scent scrape, all are things learned and appreciated even more as one becomes more familiar with an area. There’s more to it than the meat and horns. (still one big tag to fill before Jan 31st.

    • Tovar says:

      Quite true, Somsai. The two places I’m fairly familiar with as a hunter are (1) the timberland behind our house and (2) that woodlot I’ve mentioned. I’ll hunt other places, but these are the places I’ve begun to get to know over the past eight years. I like returning to them, for all the reasons you mention.

  16. Paul Roberts says:

    I’m a “back forty” hunter, by nature, as well as for the reasons above. However, there is value to be found in traveling some. I hunted Nebraska by invitation last year, purchasing two $30 tags, hunted one weekend, and came home with two whitetails. I hunted antelope in Wyoming this year -a 5 hour drive -and had two antelope on the ground before noon the first day. It could also be argued that I left a smaller footprint on each of those trips than a season’s worth of local driving could entail.

    My mule deer and elk hunting are more local. My property borders National Forest, which borders designated Wilderness. I drive 15 to 45min though, as on my literal back 40 the deer and elk are for viewing pleasure, and shared with neighbors.

    Hunting, in general, tends to be costly -in equipment, time, and effort. A walk in the woods is wonderful, but we can do that anytime. When there is a tag in your pocket, things are more serious. Shortcuts, designed to put meat in the freezer exist, but must be weighed against costs and aesthetics. I know a lot of people, even here in CO, who pay $1000 to $3000 to be hauled up into the high country to get their elk. I cannot –will not– do that. To each their own, but, I want to figure it out, and earn it, for myself. As it is, I’ve had some truly amazing experiences with local elk -success by almost every measure, except that I’ve yet to fill a tag.

    • somsai says:

      I think your right Robert, at least in my situation. It took me 16 days and most of two seasons to get my little forked deer. The private land elk was 3 hours from exiting truck to driving away. There’s nature and there’s meat and the two don’t always align. I’d like to help out those Nebraskans.

  17. Paul Roberts says:

    If you talk to corn growing Nebraskans, they’d say they have a serious deer problem. And some fields I saw were heavily damaged by deer, and raccoons. At one point, when we stopped alongside the road to glass a deer, the landowner drove out and said, “What are you standing there for? Go git ’em!”

  18. Kevin Peer says:

    During the 2010 deer season I was distracted and short of time and managed to get out only three times, in an area I had been successful in before, but did not end up shooting a buck (where I live in CA it is buck-only). I could have taken a hasty shot at an enormous buck that was making his way over a fence 40 yards away but like you, Tovar, I was not willing to risk wounding him.

    During the 2011 season I took a radically different approach than I had in the past. A much more intuitive one. I hunted two different areas and had an advantage in knowing that there were indeed bucks that lived there, but I had not done any scouting beforehand to know specifically where. Instead of relying on gathering intel I meditated, and prayed to the spirit of place, to the spirit of the deer, in a version of what my Native American ancestors had done not too long ago, and what my Celtic ancestors had done in the more distant past.

    I moved more slowly than I had the year before, less concerned with covering ground than with paying attention to signs and signals, both metaphorical and symbolic. I allowed my senses, including that mysterious 6th one, to operate as fully as I could. I trusted completely that if the universe and the deer spirit granted that I kill a deer, then I would. It went against every shred of my scientific training in forestry and wildlife management, but so be it. It certainly felt more congruent with my being.

    I was gifted with being able to kill two bucks in 2011. During one hunt I received an unmistakeable sense of guidance from somewhere within regarding the particular terrain I was hunting: “Stay within the tree line and hunt every single second. Make not a single extraneous move.” To make a longer story short, I followed the instruction and was able to kill a very large buck that morning. During the next hunt a raven circled over me as I was making my way down a steep gully. I stopped, looked up and said internally “If you lead me to a buck, I will share it with you.” The raven flew towards a clump of trees in an open rock field, circled 4 times while looking down at the trees, and flew off. I glassed into those trees for many minutes before discovering a beautiful buck staring at me from deep in the shadows of the tree’s lower branches. It came home with me, and the raven got his due.

    Was it the prayer and meditation that led to my success this past year? I cannot say for sure. But it sure felt right, and I enjoyed those hunts more deeply than any hunt that I can remember where I relied entirely on my physical senses and my intellect alone.

    May your “luck”, however you define and generate it, be good for all of you in 2012!

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks very much for sharing the stories of those hunts, Kevin. I took my first deer after letting go of mental effort and choosing to hunt a spot where my rational mind told me the chances of seeing a deer were a bit lower. Coincidence? I’ll never know for sure, but it sure felt right. There was still a lot of mental background knowledge at work, but I like to think my state of mind (or non-mind) had something to do with my success that morning. Then again, there are plenty of highly rational, highly successful hunters out there!

      Thanks for the good luck wishes for all. I know 2012 is going to be an interesting year for me. May your luck and life be full as well, my friend.

  19. As intuitive as I am in some things, it never consciously occured to me to be intuitive in this. Actually, me best year, also my first, was hunted intuitively. After that, my brain wrested control. Thanks for the reminder, Kevin.

  20. Paul Roberts says:

    An uncommon focus is required in hunting -especially so in a non-target rich environment. It may start in the mind as an idea, but it still has to be brought to the body (where “connections” really reside) -not easy to do, or shift in to, coming out of our urban lives.

    My brother-in-law is a longtime Zen practitioner, (and an urban vegetarian). We love to talk bc when I talk of nature and he talks of Zen, we are talking much the same language with constant crossing over points. His “focus” is directed (through his body) to his carpentry, and especially to his martial arts -at the black belt level.

    I’ve heard such focus described MANY ways by hunters of all ilks. Here’s one from, at the outset, an unlikely source, an “Achievement”/ self-described “trophy” hunter, -but I feel I recognize the cross-over: (paraphrased) When stillhunting, most hunters spend 80% of their time looking at the ground. Instead they should spend 80% of their time looking for deer.

    If this sounds like I am discounting the strength of the mind I am not, but calling attention to the part of us that actually DOES the work -our bodies. Our minds are very powerful and with its powers of abstraction, can lead us to distraction seamlessly. Thus the need for purpose and this is realized/actualized through the body.

    • somsai says:

      I still hunt.

      Everyone here does, there are no tree stands, deer are thin on the ground and if you don’t look for them chances are you won’t find them. And yes one spends 80% of the time looking. Look while walking a few steps, stop, glass the extreme edges of what’s visible, look at your next 5 steps, repeat.

      Recently I played a game with a hunting buddy that I often play with my kids. It’s called Spot the Animal. First person to see a large wild mammal gets a point, most points at the end of the drive wins. Small groups such as a herd of elk only count as 1. He was driving, he got 12 points, I got none.

      Now I consider myself ok at spotting animals, and I can tell the age of tracks very accurately, I’ve been looking at animals for quite a while, but my friend is a heck of a lot better, and he was having to watch the road. I probably would have seen some of those animals, maybe. Experience and the ability to see game that is standing very still amongst the trees is an ability that supplements luck.

      Last year I started spotting mule deer bedded down, every rock that looks like a deer, is a deer, until proven otherwise. Every likely place for a deer to chew it’s cud is a place with a deer until I find it’s empty. I’d rather the deer never even knows I’m there. Binoculars give an advantage, I use them.

      Make luck

      • Paul Roberts says:

        Hi somsai,

        Yes, binocs and spotting are big part of the western game. However the above mentioned hunter (a high achiever in the trophy venue) was not talking about spotting, but when actually engaged in covering ground. Eyes up and looking being more important than picking steps is what he was referring to. He said that most hunters he has seen and hunted with miss out on deer bc they simply weren’t looking.

  21. Kevin Peer says:

    My “intuitive” hunting approach last year reminded me of when I made my living as a wildlife filmmaker for the National Park Service many years ago. In addition to using informational knowledge regarding the habitat and habits of the animals I was seeking and filming, I also developed, over time, a very intuitive relationship with the place and its creatures. I felt very much like a fellow inhabitant, rather than a visitor or intruder. I found that this seemed to facilitate a great deal of what Jung called “synchronicity” – meaningful coincidences that sometimes lead me to fortuitous filming situations, and other times, in the case of filming in grizzly country, simply saved my skin.

    I think one of the huge differences between hunting last year and my previous years of hunting is that I felt very much at peace with being simply another predator of the landscape hunting his prey. I felt like I belonged, as much as the deer did. In years past there was always a subtle or not so subtle inner feeling of being an intruder, which made both hunting and the actual taking of like much more difficult and I am sure much more clumsy and unskilled. Well, the killing part is still difficult, but I do it with much less inner resistance than before…

    • Paul Roberts says:

      “In years past there was always a subtle or not so subtle inner feeling of being an intruder, … ”

      I find that hunting asks things of me emotionally that may be counter to my personality and particular moods of the moment. You can’t just make stuff happen. Some peace IS required. But so is aggression, when it’s called for. When to be passive (still and observant), and when to be aggressive (get “invasive” I call it) – “knowing” when – often must simply unfold.

      When one really gets to know the game (the animals and the environment -there are few real shortcuts), we can “predict” a bit more. It’s a powerful feeling. But well in check, humbling, too bc of all the potential variables, and the fact that I for one am not physically capable of dominating the land and my prey.

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