She was a big old doe, with that long head and thick, squared-up body; she conducted herself with a caution and attention not seen in the younger deer. She was alone with no trailing fawns; they had been weaned and were off seeking their own way, and she was only concerned with the white oak acorns at her feet. Hidden in a pile of brush, just an odd-shaped stump, nothing to worry about here, I watched her, had been watching her, as she had first appeared and while she worked the thicket, first out of range, now closer, now close enough. I had hoped for a shot that she would never detect, but of that I was disappointed; at the moment of truth she suddenly turned her head toward me and the arrow was away and that was that.
The first deer of the year is always for me a jolt back in time to the very first one, decades ago— the nerves, the concentration, the frost on my boots, the first crows of the morning, the sun just painting the tops of the trees. I do not expect anyone else to understand why I am here and what I am doing — if you do not hunt, you cannot conceive the concept. This is one human endeavor that must be experienced, that cannot be told in words. It is life. It is my life.
She wheeled and smashed her way through the brush that was impenetrable, through the blackberry and catclaw that would stop a tractor, and in an instant she was gone, but the crashing I could still hear — then the last crash and silence. I played it over in my mind, seeing it all again and I knew I had done it right. I fished a cigar from my pocket and gave her the time that she, and I, needed.
When the cigar was done I gathered my things and found the blood where she had disappeared. With care I worked out the trail as so many I have worked out in the past, slowly, listening and watching. She left the thicket and crossed the heavily frosted broomsage corner, down, always down, toward the creek. It was in the creek I found her and relief washed over me, and joy and yes, a moment’s regret — but just a moment. She was living and beautiful and now she was meat and it wasn’t really pride I felt so much as accomplishment and gratitude — that’s as close as I can get you to where I was this morning, standing beside 2015s first deer, in frosted grass to my knees, and the sun just hitting my shoulders and two chickadees greedily pecking the blood on the dead leaves. That is a deer hunt.
Story & Photograph by Walt Hampton