Gerald Almy: Success on the Massanutten Mountain Range
Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of the author’s story of his first successful deer hunt many years ago in Shenandoah County.
In some situations, dawn-to-dusk hunting is worthwhile. But here on the steep Massanutten Mountain Range behind my cabin on the Shenandoah River, I know these deer mostly bed during midday.
The terrain is so sharp and inaccessible that few hunters are out pushing the deer around during midday breaks or while conducting drives. A short pause in my hunt and trip back to the cabin for lunch restores my spirts. But soon I am back on stand, this time climbing slightly further up the blade-sharp mountain slope.
Gradually, the cold takes its toll. Pain is often an integral part of deer hunting, a lesson every sportsman learns early on. Icy blasts of wind numb the face. Muscles ache, stiffen, and cry out to stretch.
Time passes impossibly slowly. My watch says I have been here two hours this afternoon. It feels like six.
The day is a battle and I do not give in. The warmth of the cedar cabin would feel good. Even getting up to stretch and take a short walk, “still hunt for a while” would be relief. But I do not give in.
The senses work at a pitch of heightened awareness that is impossible to reach when the body is moving. Immersed in the forest and its inhabitants, we become part of the scene and gain the conscious predator’s incisive vision of life and death.
And though my legs ache and sinuses burn as I watch a scarlet cardinal flit from bough to bough, it is the mental challenge of the watch that weighs heaviest. The mind cries out for diversion, movement, relief from the draining effort of studying the terrain.
A patch of gray. Movement up the mountain. It is the deer I saw yesterday. Convinced it is likely the doe and fawns I saw before, I do not raise the Marlin rifle. The deer works parallel to me, traversing the mountainside leisurely, browsing on shrubs and stray acorns 70 yards away. Trees block her head as she nibbles, walks, nibbles, walks.
Then suddenly the deer is in a clear spot.
It is not a doe, but rather the buck whose antlers had rubbed the small saplings I’d seen shredded to a burnished orange hue further down the slope.
Tree-polished bone, ivory-white on the deer’s head, catches the glint of the sun. It is a deer I want to take. It will be my first buck, my first deer ever. But the whitetail is moving now. It is a poor angle. I do not shoot. Surely, I hope, he will angle down again and follow the faintly outlined trail bisecting the leaves below me.
Now he is gone, disappearing around the curve of the knoll.
Have I erred, not to take the quick opportunity? No, too much chance of wounding him. Doubts. Always doubts and second guesses. It’s the nature of hunting, as many things in life.
I am torn. The activist in me wants to arise and attempt to sneak around the knoll and fire a quick shot before the young buck sees me. But I know that is the wrong choice, doomed to failure or a wounded animal. The deer would see me first and be running before I could fire a careful shot.
I am “stand hunting” – watching immobile from a carefully chosen spot. And that is how I will claim this deer if it is meant to be.
Twenty minutes later – a seeming eternity – leaves rustle. A twig breaks. It is the deer. The young buck. He is just appearing again from behind the curve of the knoll, walking a trail that will take him directly below my stand.
His face is both handsome and soft, strong and gentle. The deer is incredibly close, barely 20 yards away. The rifle is nearly mounted on my shoulder now.
He browses casually, takes a step toward me. He senses nothing out of place.
For three years I have hunted these mountains, known the thick welling in the throat of frustration, the burning red face of defeat. The final crystal moment of the kill will now flood my senses. It is the culmination of years of effort, the cold hours and long days of hunting, that make this instant so powerful.
As I gaze at the buck, waiting for him to clear one last sapling, for his chest to fill my iron sight, I see life in one of its most beautiful forms. But I also see impending death. And I affirm it. There will be no sadness, I tell myself, no remorse. There cannot be, no matter how hard it is to hold those emotions back.
Whether through disease, starvation, the fangs of coyotes, or a bullet, some deer will die every year. This will be one of them – faster, more humane than the alternatives. That is my goal.
Hunter and hunted are bound with the bond of death. In confronting the death of this deer, I acknowledge my own vulnerability.
But the hunt is also an affirmation of life. In dragging out, skinning, and preparing the meat for future meals, I will assert the value of this deer’s life. And will do so with every meal I take, every moment I spend remembering the hunt.
The buck has cleared the saplings now. He is close. The sight is on his chest.
Fighting the trembling, I squeeze the trigger.