What does the heart of a hunter look like?
For me, for any hunter, I assume, an hour spent in the woods is better than an hour spent anywhere else.
We live such busy, distracted lives.
But in this place, there is no rush. Time slows down. There is only the moment right in front of you. This is where I feel most like me. Here among the animals and the trees, there is no need to perform. I feel closer to God here than I do anywhere else. Small moments. Each one seen, heard, felt, and appreciated. Peace.
When I settled into my stand that October day, that feeling was what I was searching for.
The minutes seemed to tick by all day, my sanity slowly eroding with each one. Four-thirty couldn’t come soon enough. Being stuck home in quarantine with four kids is not for the faint of heart. By four fifteen, I was certain I wouldn’t survive hearing “Mom” one more time. I traded my yoga pants for camo and grabbed my bow. I kissed the kids goodbye and was already halfway to my stand by the time my husband pulled into the driveway.
It was an unseasonably warm October day, and the air hung still and thick. The mosquitoes were in full force. They had already proven themselves in the front yard where I had carved jack-o-lanterns with the kids earlier that afternoon. I brought along the thermacell to ward them off. I settled into the familiar stand, not expecting anything more than a couple of hours of peace and quiet.
As a new hunter last fall, this spot treated me well. I observed a bachelor group of bucks pass by at 75 yards during one of my first sits. Though they remained out of bow range, the adrenaline was like nothing I had ever felt before. I have been hooked ever since. The stand is nestled midway up a sloped hillside, veined with five-year-old logging cuts, on a 40-acre parcel of private land that only I hunt. Last season I saw deer with a dependable regularity traveling at midday down the upper logging cut to my west in the direction of Wild Goose Pond. Often, they would loop back to my east on a lower cut picking up acorns and nibbling at sapling beech trees as they went.
I had a fawn in range a few times and once a spike, but I never sent an arrow.
When September 15th rolled around this year, I was chomping at the bit to get back out to my “honey hole.” I had been slinging arrows and obsessing over deer hunting podcasts all summer. (Thanks for keeping me going Hunt Suburbia and Big Woods Bucks!) My bow was sighted in, I was ready!
But, as it so often goes for hunters in the northeast, I sat and waited and waited and sat- nothing. Hours turned to days and days to weeks. I saw no action. I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed because I was. I was all in on this spot. I had other places to sit, but I expected this spot to be just as plentiful with deer as the year prior, but it didn’t seem to be the case.
So I made the decision to pivot. I began focusing my hunts on a more hopeful area a few miles down the road. My husband and I both hunt here, and he harvested a great doe during his second or third sit. But, my hunts remained more like bird watches.
I carefully hoist my bow up over the metal edge of my stand, promptly knocking an arrow as my husband had taught me. I hang the bow on the hanger at my left and attach the thermacell on the stands chair back behind me. Then quietly fold down the black canvas seat, I sink into it, slowly exhaling the day’s stress.
As it always does, if you sit still enough and quiet enough for long enough, the woods gradually come alive around me. Chipmunks and squirrels skitter about collecting the last acorns other morsels of food for the day hidden beneath a bed of damp leaves and fallen trees. The chirp of a lone cricket floats through the air, a fading song of summer. Yellows, oranges, and reds twirl gently to the ground. The chickadees have already turned in for the day. A crow cries at a startling volume directly above the rust-hued canopy. Momentarily distracted by the crow, I miss the first tentative movements of a large red-brown doe on the south end of the tree island that begins at the skirt of the invisible 20-yard line directly in front of my stand. She takes another step swishing her tail nonchalantly, and I am aware of her presence.
My breath catches. A deer! Finally, a deer!
Adrenaline pumps hot through my body as I incrementally rise and retrieve my bow from its hanger. She is out of range, but I want to be ready if she heads my way. As I straighten into a standing position, I hear the tell-tale crash of brush on the upper cut to the west. I don’t know what makes that noise, but every time a deer comes into that cut, they crash in, in the same seemingly ungraceful way. Another crash. Two, at least two more deer. Still focused on the doe at the far end of the tree island- another pump of adrenaline surges through my body. I can hear the two working their way slowly down the cut in my direction. But I don’t dare turn my head; only my eyes shift- expectantly.
In time white ears poke through the bushy west edge. A black nose sniffs the air. A big, beautiful doe steps into a sparsely forested area to my right. All eyes are on her as I silently shift my body in her direction. Completely unaware of my existence, she meanders her way through the trees stopping here and there to graze, on shrubbery- just out of range. The second deer, equally large with a deep tan coat, follows in her footsteps. Forgetting about the more distant island doe these two have my full attention.
It is only me, the woods, and the secrets that they hold.
I watch them intensely, praying they will head in my direction. Itching to drawback. Just ten yards closer, I think. Time stands still. They work their way around the sparse patch and then into the lane to the right of the tree island, still just out of range. I am captivated by their presence. They take their time munching on leaves and buds, sometimes disappearing altogether into tall overgrowth. Only the wiggling tops of the brush reveal their location. Eventually, they move on, well out of range, out of the overgrowth, and into the tree island before finally disappearing from view. I exhale slowly, relaxing my grip on my bow.
A flicker of white catches the corner of my eye. Deer. Another deer! Moving just my eyes to the right, I see a dainty, surprisingly dark grey doe. I can’t help but smile. They are at home here in this seemingly unimportant patch of woods, and I am at home with them. An unseen spectator.
A snapping twig from the tree island turns my attention back in front of me—movement in the tall overgrowth where the big does have been—another snap. A figure begins to emerge—another pulse of adrenaline. I ready myself as the new deer closes at a steady pace, 45 yards, then 40, then 35, 30. It stops broadside. But I don’t draw back. Its small dark tan body stands at attention, perfectly still, white ears pricked in the direction of the grey doe. The grey doe raises her head, and in a flash, the 30 yarder dashes to her side, splays its front legs, lowers its black nose, and begins nursing roughly.
The irony does not evade me. As I watch the doe and her fawn nuzzle and connect, I am overcome by gratitude. All those hours and days and weeks without any action are no longer a disappointment. Instead, I am witness to something so pure, so undeserved of being seen by man (or women in my case!) Surrounded by nature, by deer, in a place, and a situation that not many people ever get to experience, it’s truly surreal.
For a long time, I watch them, the doe and her fawn, and the other does too, which have returned to the tree island. The group weaves in and out amongst the trees and cuts until darkness turns them to greyscale, and my eyes begin playing tricks on me.
My hunt is over. I return my arrow to its quiver and bow to its hanger, still in a state of bliss. Then, as I start contemplating how to get out unnoticed, the herd emerges one by one, dark shadows trickling from the tree island to congregate around my stand. A large, orange hunter’s moon peeks through the half-bare branches to the east. Quietly I listen to the soft rhythmic munching of the deer beneath me, and for the millionth time that afternoon, I am in awe. Overcome with gratitude.
This is the heart of a hunter. It isn’t always about the animals we harvest, but rather it’s about these kinds of moments in the woods. Moments where all your senses are heightened, and you are fully aware and fully present. So entirely in tune with yourself, your surroundings, and your Creator. So fully you. Moments where you are so struck with awe and humbled by God’s creatures and creativity. I could never fully explain the depth to anyone who hasn’t felt it themselves. But if you know the feeling, you’ll know what I mean.
Though I didn't get my first deer that hunt- I still brought home something pretty special!