Zen and the art of deer hunting

Don’t try too hard, some folks say. Desperation can drive the deer away. The less you expect, the more animals you see.

How this philosophy dovetails with the undeniable value of perseverance, I’m not sure. But there may be something to it.

In my first few years as a hunter, I dragged home exactly zero pounds of venison. It was only in my fourth autumn—after I gave up on getting a deer and decided to focus on just enjoying my time in the woods—that my first buck came along.

The next year, I had no expectation of repeated success so soon. Yet a deer came. The year after that, with less time to hunt, my expectations were even lower. Again, a deer came.

There are limits to such luck, however.

This fall, I would be too busy to spend much time in the woods. (Of late, I’ve been too busy even to spend much time in the wilds of the internet. As fellow bloggers can attest, my forays there have left few traces in the form of comments.) I felt sure our freezer would hold no venison this winter. But I promised myself I would get out for a few mornings, just to feel the forest wake at dawn.

A week ago, on opening morning of rifle season, I was doing just that. I had reached the woods a full hour before sunrise: half an hour before legal shooting light.

In the dark, I heard one deer somewhere behind me, its hooves crunching leaves. But its meandering, start-and-stop movements sounded more like a doe browsing than a buck seeking a mate. Here in Vermont, only the latter are legal game in rifle season. Slowly, the animal wandered out of earshot. Probably the only deer I would hear that morning.

No matter. My aim, as meditation teachers say, was to “just sit.” And, as woodland deer hunters say when the leaves are that dry and frosty, to “just listen.”

The rustle of a leaf.

The swishing of wings, as a pileated woodpecker moved from one tree to another.

The sounds of the forest breathing.

I can’t recall ever taking so much pleasure in simply sitting, eyes closed. My mind went still, letting go of its churning thoughts about the next chapter I would be drafting for my book, or about the research I’m doing in grad school, interviewing hunters who came to the pursuit as adults. I was hardly even thinking about deer.

I had been there an hour, listening, when the hoof steps came, moving not into the faint breeze, but with it, so that the animal’s scent was carried my way, rather than vice versa. Again, the sounds stopped and started.

A doe, I thought, maybe the same one.

But when the deer stepped into view, just ten yards off to my right and behind me, I saw antler. And—more surprising—I made out a pair of points on one side. A legal buck.

I saw, too, why the animal’s movements sounded sporadic. The buck was so hopped up on rut-time hormones that he could hardly take a step without stopping to hook a sapling with his antlers or to paw at the earth.

A few more steps, as the buck crossed behind me. An ambling turn that would take him away, yet gave me the chance to raise my rifle unseen. A clear view as he angled off. A moment’s pressure on the trigger.

Crouching beside him, I offered thanks and apology—poor compensation for what I had taken—and thought how strange this brief hunt had been. In years past, I had never even seen a buck on opening day.

The next morning, returning scraps to the forest, I paused by a pair of crisscrossed logs. The moss was festooned with clumps of fine, downy fuzz. Puzzled, I leaned over to look more closely.

Red squirrel. The ephemeral traces of another, winged, hunter’s kill.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Ryan says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughts here Tovar. I love reading someone else’s words about what I have felt so many times and often need the gentle reminder. When I release my breath and allow the hunt to take on whatever form It needs to I remember that I am there to see a weasel cross in front of me, I am there to observe a squirrel preparing its food for Winter, I am there to reflect on my own place in this world, reconnect with the natural world and possibly I am there to hunt and kill an animal.

    Much love to you and Catherine!

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Ryan. I’m glad it struck a chord.

      All our best to you two, as well — no, to you three! Congrats again on your little one. 🙂

    • gary mcclain says:

      sounds like a good hunt: ive had a great year here in Ga. we are allowed 8 does and two bucks i had waited till november for my big buck when one evening hunt there he was 218 yrds out on my range finder i aimed with my 7 mag and hit him just low on his shoulder he hit the ground i did my standard wait 20 min then i started down the tree
      walked over two creeks and up the meadow at about 30 yrds from him i saw it was a monster bigger than i had thought i said out loud ive got my trouphy at that moment he jumped up and ran to me i raised my mag and pulled the trigger but i still had the dead shell in the bolt he fell just feet in front of me and i reloaded the gun and he tried to get up so i aimed on his sholder and pulled the trigger and nothing but a dry fire and the deer looked me dead in my eyes and ran in the woods i tracked him till 10pm that night but never found him … and never saw anymore bucks this year so i took my limit on does for meet in the locker maybe the woods will give me another chance next year
      good hunting Gary

      • Tovar says:

        Thanks for stopping by, Gary.

        In the woods I hunt, I can’t imagine even seeing a whitetail at 218 yards. I’m really sorry to hear about the buck. Personally, I dread the possibility — or, perhaps more accurately, the likelihood — of wounding a deer someday. I’m glad to hear that things went better with the does. Like some other states, Georgia must have a phenomenally high deer population to allow (encourage?) hunters to take that many does.

  2. I think I’m walking away with the wrong message. I know you’re telling me that any hunter worthy of the name enjoys the woods and the hunt, with or without the animal. But then you tell me about getting a buck in the first hour of opening day!

    Tovar, I’m going to try and enjoy the woods. I’ll do my best to commune with nature. I’ll let my thoughts wander and see where they go. But I have to say, I want a deer. I really want a deer.

    • Tovar says:

      If there’s a message here, I’m sure you walked away with it, Tamar. And if there wasn’t a koan involved, it wouldn’t be a Zen thing, would it?

      Best of luck to you in the deer woods!

  3. There is something very real about the impact of “not caring” when you’re hunting. As my friend Josh would say, we humans leave enormous ripples everywhere we go – we’re so noisy and self-absorbed.

    But I think we create more than just visual and auditory ripples – animals can sense our intent as well. Every duck hunter knows this. You can be perfectly hidden with a perfect decoy set-up and ducks will flare just short of shooting range, but if you’re sitting there talking, eating or taking a leak – no effort at concealment at all – ducks will come bombing in.

    A friend of mine who was a Marine and served in Vietnam said knowing this was an important part of his martial arts training – you have to make a concerted effort to hug your thoughts and emotions close to yourself.

    • Tovar says:

      I agree about those non-physical ripples, Holly.

      My uncle and hunting mentor talks about how he avoids looking directly at deer, especially at the eyes and head, when they get close, lest they sense his gaze. When this buck came in close, I tried not to look at him too hard, once I’d determined he was legal.

    • Hoosierbuck says:

      Holly’s observations are borne out by my experiences. Many times I have let a deer come in close, not intending to take a shot, and the animal was at ease and unaware. Then, I changed my mind, and thought I would take the deer. Without any overt movement or sound, I simply changed my mind. The deer went on alert, snapped its head up and scanned the woods nervously.

      I believe humans have this instinct, too, btw. Walking late at night on a deserted street and one shady character steps out of an alley and falls into step several yards behind. The hair on your neck stands up and you feel immediately he’s up to no good. Same deal. The difference? Animals trust their instincts better than we do.



      • Tovar says:

        Thanks for stopping by, Hoosierbuck. Makes sense to me. Whether we call it instinct, intuition, or whatever, animals definitely trust it. For modern humans, it seems to take some learning — or maybe it’s un-learning — to get to that place.

  4. Arthur says:


    You may have just made me realize why I’m having such an unsuccessful season this year. I just need to relax and hunt.

    And, while hunting last night, I did witness success in the deer woods – a hawk carrying away an unsuspecting red squirrel. It was way cool.

    Congrats on the filling the freezer.

  5. Mark Cerulli says:

    Hi Tovar,
    Thanks for the recounting of your hunt and the remarkable success you have enjoyed in recent years. Like you, I have found that the harder I “try” to get a deer, the more I am likely to be disappointed if I end the season eating hotdogs. After too many seasons of trying too hard I now find myself anticipating each deer season with the thought “I wonder what I will SEE this season.” Sometimes there is a deer in the scenery, sometimes there is not, but I have a memory bank full of sightings of marvelous critters that I have been fortunate to encounter; animals that I would never have seen if I had been hurrying and “trying.” I remember a big coyote that leaped onto a fallen log while carrying a raccoon in its jaws, and a great horned owl that swooped down on a grey squirrel that was rustling the leaves only fifty feet away. Those are the real trophies that hang in my mind…and oh yes, I am delighted to bring home some venison steaks if the gods of the hunt send a deer my way.

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Mark, thanks for commenting here! I’m slowly learning these lessons, thanks both to experience and to you.

      Blogging friends, meet my Uncle Mark. The one hunter in my immediate family, he has been an invaluable support in getting my feet firmly on the hunting path. Oh, and he’s also a wonderfully funny guy. 🙂

      • Hi Tovar,

        Just stumbled upon your blog in my never-ending search for venison recipes. I was intriqued by your search for hunters who’ve discovered hunting later in life. I began hunting as an adult and wondered if there’s anything I can contribute. If you think there is, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


  6. By the way, it’s ok to want the deer. Below are some of the rules I follow that I think help my chances:

    1. Never be lazy. The hunting gods appreciate it when you’re drag yourself out of bed on freezing fall days and haul yourself into a tree before dawn.

    2. Always be humble and hopeful. If you get into the woods thinking “this is the day I get a deer”, that will be the day that you do not get a deer.

    3. Always expect the unexpected. It never goes down the way you’ve planned it in your head.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for your comments, Steve. I like your rules.

      Thanks, too, for the offer to talk about coming to hunting as an adult. I may be in touch about that!

  7. heyBJK says:

    Nice post, Tovar! I’ve tried “not expecting” much and didn’t get anything. LOL! On the other hand, I can recall some kills that were unexpected and those seem to be the ones I enjoyed most.

  8. Al Cambronne says:

    Congratulations on the successful hunt! And you are so right. Trying harder doesn’t make them appear sooner. Maybe, somehow, it makes them not appear at all.

    And when they do, they just appear like magic. Not always, but… Sometimes when there’s no wind and the leaves are so dry you can hear a squirrel’s footsteps two hundred yards away, deer appear silently. They’re not there, and then they are. I don’t understand it. How do they do that?

    (One exeption is when there’s incredibly crusty and crunchy snow, like we have here in northern Wisconsin right now. So maybe it’s not magic.)

    Still, maybe there IS a zen koan in there somewhere: “What is the sound of one hoof walking?”


  9. Tovar,
    Excellent recap! There is something to be said for just being in the woods. Each year I look forward to spending time with my family in the NY hardwoods. If I am able to kill a deer it’s great, but I truly enjoy the sights, sounds, weather patterns and just communing with nature. I have taken that for granted and now I cherish it.


  10. LarryB says:

    A fine post Tovar. Full of insight and realities, all blended up nice and Zen-like. Congrats on your success with another nice buck too buddy! 🙂 lb

  11. Joshua says:

    Congratulations on a great buck, a fine article, and a wonderful book to come out soon!

    My deer hunting, too, is often zen, as in – the deer of no deer.

  12. Jim Tantillo says:

    not to sound like a broken record, but here is where understanding something about the play aspect of hunting–including the connections to game, sport, and religion–can help make some of this more intelligible. Focusing too much on results/winning (e.g., meat) rather than on the process (i.e., playing and enjoyment) can make the activity of hunting less rewarding. This is not to say that meat as result never matters, just that it is not the primary reason for hunting.

    Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens is a classic in this area–the connection to Zen/religion is explicit in the work of Romano Guardini (The Spirit of the Liturgy), and a nice recent readable account is Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play. fwiw.

    Anyway. enjoyed the post. hope all is well,


    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jim.

      In principle, I agree with you. In hunting, as in many endeavors, being focused on process rather than product is vital. It can make the experience more enjoyable, meditative, etc.

      Though I think “the primary reason(s) for hunting” varies among cultures, and among specific hunters, we need not disconnect utility from enjoyment. Even in cultures where hunting provides a large percentage of the food, people enjoy hunting. (In his introduction to A HUNTER’S HEART, Richard Nelson writes, “During a year I spent in the arctic coastal village of Wainwright, I was struck by the fact that Inupiaq men lived to hunt as much as they hunted to live.”)

      In practice, however, I just don’t think it works to build our discussions of hunting around a word like “sport.” You and I (and others) could have a useful discussion of “sport,” assuming we agreed on what we meant by it. But in a broader cultural frame, I think the word is bankrupt. I think it has too many other associations — with fair competition between players, with spectator entertainment, etc — to be useful for discussing hunting in a meaningful way, even among hunters, let alone between hunters and non-hunters.

      I know plenty of people (including some hunters) who support hunting yet use “sport hunting” in a strongly negative way, indicating — for example — “thrill killing” or “killing for trophies and leaving the meat to rot.”

      Likewise, I think we need to honor and discuss the “deep play” experience of hunting. But I’m not sure that “play” is a helpful term to use in general discussions of hunting, given the everyday interpretations invited by the idea that “hunters kill as a form of play.”

  13. I am entirely new to the world of hunting, having only just acquired a shotgun. If things go well, I plan to hunt next year. But learning is on the agenda starting right now, and though I know much of that learning must be physical, mechanical, muscle memory, I am too much a reader to not look for posts such as this one. Very nice. Thank you. I’ll be looking over your blog for more in a similar vein.

    • Tovar says:

      Welcome to the hunting journey, Kate!

      If there’s anything that I — as a relative newcomer to hunting myself — can do to be of help, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

  14. Lyingwolf says:

    Yes surprises are great at times , but calling, or predicting an outcome can help one develop that sixth sense of the future. The” ninja feeling” my 15 year old talks about. But when he calls it and it happens and he still fails unprepared , I ask “where’s the ninja now?” “Don’t worry! Ninja In training!” ” This ninjas dad called it! Is seeing into parts of your future easier as you get older or what?

  15. Mark Cerulli says:

    Regarding Hoosier Buck’s observations, I agree…while scouting for deer and moving casually I am amazed at how often I see deer at close range. I wondered about this since I rarely get this close while still-hunting deer, then realized that my attitude is that of a “browser” as in “just looking” and therefore no threat when I am only scouting.
    In regard to the comment about instinct and the deer knowing when we are focusing “with intent to kill”, I go this one step farther in that I firmly believe that deer (and other animals) can feel our gaze if the animal looks at our eyes while we are looking at their eyes. I can “feel” the focus of a person looking at me from a distance where I cannot see their eyes. Working on a golf course and seeing people at long distance, I have often felt the focus of a person’s vision from several hundred yards. The lesson? DON’T stare at an approaching animal’s eyes if you hope to get a relaxed optimum shot!

    • Tovar says:

      In this encounter, Mark, I was particularly aware of that lesson of yours. With the buck so close (10-15 yards), I was sure he would sense me if I so much as looked at him wrong.

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