Each week during hunting season our newspaper features an advertisement I specifically seek out. Time after time, it showcases a different local youngster in the outdoors dressed in orange and presenting their harvest, usually a nice bulky buck with a tantalizing rack and enough meat to stuff the freezer for another year.
Two weeks ago, it was 12-year-old Dylann, who shot a beautiful whitetail west of Kalispell on her first hunt. My reaction, as it usually goes, was a resounding sigh: Her first hunt!?
I’ve lived in Montana my whole life and consider myself an avid outdoorsman. But I am a terrible hunter. Downright awful. I make Elmer Fudd look like Teddy Roosevelt. I’ve literally killed as many deer with a vehicle as I have with my rifle (two, just in case you were also wondering how bad of a driver I am).
It’s not that I’m a poor shot. I’m actually quite proud of my marksmanship, credit to those formative years of playing Duck Hunt on my neighbor’s Nintendo.
I’ll happily brag about this fact, but what good does it do if I can’t prove it in the field? No joke, I’m still carrying the same box of .306 shells I bought seven years ago. Luckily bullets don’t expire, otherwise I’d be spending a small fortune at our local sporting goods stores.
My lackluster accomplishments are not due to a lack of effort. When I embarked on this great pursuit in earnest in my late teens, a respected woodsman told me that I needed to truly earn my harvest. Venture off trail and away from roads into the deep forest, he said. Silently scan the horizon and look for signs. Patience. Persistence.
Fourteen years and several hundred miles later, I’ve seen more chipmunks than deer. I’ve often wondered if I am genetically predisposed to scaring off big game. Maybe I have a certain smell that alerts wildlife to my presence. My friends would certainly say so. Or maybe I’m supposed to be crawling? The mind of a tortured hunter can quickly deteriorate from buck fever into delirium.
Yet I can’t stop. My faith has been tested but I’m still a believer. I cherish the time spent in the outdoors adventuring with friends. Just recently, after waking at 5 a.m. and spending the entire day walking up and down the nearby mountains, myself and a friend enjoyed several moments of gazing at our surroundings. It felt satisfying. The fact that we barely once lifted our sights at a buck didn’t end up mattering; it actually became a running joke throughout the day.
For me, despite my overwhelming lack of success, hunting is an important tradition. It reminds me of my mother, who sat with me through hunter education courses when I was a teenager. She didn’t particularly care for the practice but wanted her son to learn the ethics and safety of venturing afield. It connects me with my father, who gave me his old hunting rifle and told me to someday pass it along to my son or daughter. By purchasing licenses year after year, myself and other hunters also support wildlife and habitat conservation.
So even though my losing streak in the hunting season lives on, I’m not discouraged. It’s not about the harvest, it’s about the chase.
But if you see me in the woods and you’re dragging out a trophy buck, don’t admit it was your first hunt. Just lie to me.
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