Not long after I started to learn how to shoot, I started to accompany my grandfather on hunting trips. I couldn’t carry a gun until I was 12 and had completed a hunter’s safety course, but I was allowed to go with him before then. At first, he took me duck and goose hunting. We could hunt ducks right on the lake they lived on, and the area around the Horicon Marsh in Central Wisconsin was a prime goose hunting area. The night before we were going out, I could barely sleep because I was so excited. That always made it a bit harder to wake up at 3am, but I didn’t really care if I was tired in the morning. We got up, Grandpa made coffee and hot chocolate and filled our thermoses, and we jumped in the car to head to our destination. It was always cold in the crisp Wisconsin fall mornings, but my grandpa had lots of warm gear for us, and even when the down jackets and foot warmers weren’t doing the trick, I could still shrug off the discomfort in favor of the magical experience of being out in the wilderness before dawn.
I loved every bit of it. We set up decoys in the dark, positioning them to look like they were feeding on corn in the field. I settled in to my tiny canvas tripod seat in a goose blind built along the edge of a cornfield just as dawn broke, keeping my face down so the camouflage bill of my hat covered my skin from the aerial view of the birds. I sat in silence with my grandfather as we waited for the unmistakable honk of geese flying close enough for him to take a shot. I listened to him blow on his goose call to draw some birds in when it was slow and we weren’t seeing any geese that were in range. He filled my thermos cup with steaming hot chocolate to help take the bite out of the cold when it got to be too much. Inevitably when he put his gun down and rummaged around for a sandwich in his bag or to fill up his coffee cup, a single goose strayed close to us, catching us by surprise. Sometimes he reacted quickly enough to get in a shot and other times he just managed to spill his coffee trying. He generally bagged a goose in the morning, and we packed up to go have lunch before we headed home.
As I got a little older, I went with him on deer hunting trips, too. We rarely hunted in the immediate area, so these were longer trips – a couple days sometimes, depending on how quickly we got our deer. The whitetail season in Wisconsin runs for one week – the week of Thanksgiving. It can be bitter cold by that time of the year in Wisconsin, and the experience of deer hunting was entirely different than bird hunting. We often went with a handful of people – my grandpa’s brother and some guys from his family, and sometimes my mom and step-dad came along. It was even more important to get out into the woods well before daybreak so everyone could settle in and have a lengthy period of silence before the sun came up. Deer are generally nocturnal, so they can hear you as you set up in the woods, and they’ll catch your scent if they’re downwind from you. Things like the wind affected where we each set up, but we always had a well-defined plan that everyone was aware of. Each of us knew where all the others were so no one ever shot in a direction that would be dangerous.
In most cases, we spread out quite a bit, trying to strategically cover a large area, working as a team, with the goal of each person filling their quota. Early morning passed in stillness, and these hours spent alone in the frozen woods were some of the most relaxing moments I had while growing up. As the sun rises, so do the sounds of animals in the forest. My senses seemed amplified as I noticed tiny sounds and saw all kinds of birds as they moved from tree to tree – woodpeckers, the occasional kingfisher if I was near water, a whooping crane off in the distance across a field. You rely first on your hearing when you’re trying to spot a deer in the woods – the crack of small branches as it walks quietly through the forest or the scrape of leaves against its body as it pushes through the brush. When you spot a deer, you have to make a few split second decisions – first, do you have a clear shot? Are there many branches in the way, or tree trunks that obscure your view? You can’t move because the deer will notice you, so if these obstacles are in your way, you wait – tense, but silent – hoping it will move so you can get a shot in. Next, has the deer spotted you? If it has, you cannot move at all, because even slight movement may spook it. If it hasn’t, and isn’t looking in your direction, you can slowly move to get in position to take a shot.
I learned early on that it’s never worth it to take a shot you’re not pretty confident you can make. There is no worse thing to a hunter than to wound an animal and cause it to suffer if it gets away. In the event you do end up wounding the animal, you have an obligation to track it, find it as quickly as possible, and end its suffering. Many people who don’t grow up in a culture that values hunting as I did don’t realize how much a hunter values the animal he or she pursues, as well as the environment those animals live in. I was taught to be utterly grateful for the animals and place a high value on their lives and their deaths. We field dressed any large animal we bagged when we hunted, and then it was carefully butchered by a professional, and packaged for us to take home and eat. Smaller animals, like birds, we cleaned and butchered ourselves. I was also taught that conservation was highly important, and many of the lower middle class families that lived where we did gave money to charities that were dedicated to preserving the habitats these animals lived in.
There was one year of hunting that was particularly memorable. We went hunting for whitetail deer in the Southwest corner of Wisconsin, and I shot a large doe in the middle of the morning on the first day of our trip, from the spot I had been in since the early morning hours. Around mid-day, we changed our tactics. Deer bed down in tall grass to sleep during the day. We positioned a few guys who hadn’t yet shot a deer in strategic locations at the end of a grassy field that was surrounded by woods. Then a handful of us spread out in a line at the opposite end of the field and began walking slowly across the field. This is called “driving.” Our goal was to spook the sleeping deer so they’d get up and run away from us in the direction of the other guys at the end of the field. This type of movement can be effective, but also dangerous. Everyone has to know exactly where everyone else is, and the shooters at the end of the field need to make sure they don’t shoot in the direction of those driving the deer towards them.
A few others got deer that day, and we were all together in the woods ready to field dress the animals before we took them into town to register them and have them butchered. My grandfather was a little concerned about how I’d respond to the act of field dressing my deer. It’s not an activity that is for the light of heart, or weak of stomach. The reason you do some initial dressing in the field is that it’s important to remove things like the intestines and bladder because leaving them in place can poison the meat.
It’s not a simple task, but my first opportunity was a success. I wasn’t afraid of what I had to do – I had learned it was a part of hunting to properly take care of the animal right away. My grandpa had to help me with a few of the knife cuts because I wasn’t strong enough to open up the chest, but I had no problem diving in and pulling out all the entrails according to his instructions. I was probably fifteen at the time, and he spoke with pride later about my calm and methodical work, which left me covered to my elbows in blood, while a 30-something guy in our party was off puking in the bushes. His pride didn’t end there, though. He still swears to this day that I nabbed the biggest doe he’s seen in his 50 years of hunting experience. That year for Christmas, he had the hide of the deer tanned and gave it to me as a gift.
That year was also the first time I went with him to Wyoming on his annual big game hunt. This was the most exciting thing I’d ever been able to do in my life, and I couldn’t wait to go.