Six weeks in the woods that restore the soul

I don't keep an archery hunting journal, but if I did, a typical edition would read like this:

Oct. 1: Opening Day. Warm; light south wind. In my tree stand by 6:30 a.m. Shooting light came around 7:10. Sat until 9:30. Saw Momma Turkey with her four teenagers, five squirrels, numerous birds. No deer.

Oct. 2: Slightly cooler; northwest wind. Again, in stand by 6:30 a.m. Sat until 9. Worked (in my head) on the novel. No deer. Back in woods, in a different stand, at 6 p.m. Sat until dark (around 7:45 p.m.). Mentally wrote a blog post. Saw a raccoon and a hawk. No deer.

Oct. 3: Warm again. In my stand by 6:30 a.m.. Came up with the first couple paragraphs of a column. Saw four deer, out of range.

Oct. 4: Foggy. In my stand around 6:45 a.m. Saw three deer; close enough, but too small ...

I could go on, but you get the idea. It wouldn't make much of a movie, unless it was an avant-garde film about tedium and/or futility – a "Waiting for Godot" in camouflage clothing.

I hunt with bow and arrow from Oct. 1 to Nov. 14 – not every day, but most days. I've been at it a long time. In a good year, I kill one deer; in a very good year, two. In other words, despite what some people think, it's not exactly a fish-in-a-barrel kind of thing. Aside from the fact that at least a dozen things can go wrong – even when a qualifying specimen wanders within the 20-yard kill zone – it's a pursuit that demands considerable patience and persistence. The fact is, if you don't enjoy sitting still in the woods for hours at a time, archery hunting is not for you.

I once poked fun at one of my friends for chasing little white balls around vast lawns.

“This,” he pointed out, “from a man who climbs into a tree in the dark and sits there in all kinds of weather, doing nothing, for hours.”

After that, I never said a word about his golf addiction.

It so happens that the solitary confinement of archery hunting suits me. I like being the inconspicuous observer of nature. When the subject comes up in a social context, my anti-friends sometimes ask, “Well why can't you sit in the woods and take photos, or toss rose petals, or blow bubbles?”

Well, here's the bloody truth: I enjoy the kill, too. The shot, the blood trail, even the touch of remorse at the end of the trail; it's all part of the package I adore. Put another way, I'm in love with the idea that in 2013 – when, as far as some people know, chicken nuggets grown on trees – I can still go out in the woods with a modernized version of the tool native Americans used, and, employing some measure of skill, get meat for the table.

Of course the kill is only the first step in the process. To complete the job, I must field-dress the deer, skin, butcher and cook it. Taking the deer from field to table makes me feel competent in a way that most aspects of modern life do not. Incidentally, the carcass never leaves my property. An environmentalist might call that zero-carbon-footprint procurement.

A hunting euphemism now in favor is “harvest.” As in, “Joe harvested a six-pointer yesterday.” Like many euphemisms, this one is used to sugarcoat a fact that some find too unpleasant to confront directly; namely, that satisfying the human appetite for meat (and fish), depends on the death of animals. It's a fact, nonetheless, and there is no earthly reason why hunters should feel any more defensive about it than the ranchers producing our baby back ribs.

If you are an anti-hunting vegetarian, I'll never see eye-to-eye with you, but I'll applaud your consistency. If, on the other hand, you decry “Bambi killers” over your veal parmesan, you have some explaining to do.

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Fri, 10/18/2013 - 8:43pm
This is probably the most accurate description of the bow hunting experience I've read. Nice job!
John Schneider
Sat, 10/19/2013 - 9:47am
Thanks, EB, and good luck to you.
John Q. Public
Sat, 10/19/2013 - 11:43pm
The best stories from venison hunters are the ones from the dining room table. They describe to us at great length their elaborate recipes, using all varieties of marinades, herbs and sauces to mask the gamey taste, then finish by telling us how delicious venison is. One thing I've always wondered: Is it legal to use your tag to kill a deer, and then just leave it there for the scavengers to devour?
John Schneider
Sun, 10/20/2013 - 11:31am
I know there are laws against the improper disposal of the parts of deer left over from the butchering, process, John Q. Perhaps your scenario would fall under that umbrella.
John Schneider
Sun, 10/20/2013 - 12:41pm
Although I can't imagine why anybody would want to do that.
John Q. Public
Mon, 10/21/2013 - 6:48pm
Maybe someone likes to hunt, but has no interest in gutting and dragging a carcass, eating venison, or displaying antlers on a wall. Given how many are left to rot beside the road after being hit by cars, I don't see why doing the same thing in the field, with the only difference being the cause of death coming via firearms, should be any particular big deal.
Sun, 10/20/2013 - 2:34pm
It is considered wanton waste and illegal as all hell. You must make every reasonable effort to procure and properly process your "harvest"!!
John Schneider
Mon, 10/21/2013 - 11:50am
Thanks, Peter.
Sun, 10/20/2013 - 9:57pm
I'm going to forward this description of bow hunting to a friend of mine that would totally agree, but hasn't taken the time to share his experiences in print.
John Schneider
Mon, 10/21/2013 - 11:51am
Bill and Mike: Thanks guys.
Mike Wall
Mon, 10/21/2013 - 11:33am
Great article. I enjoy chasing those little white balls but I love setting in my tree stand watching nature go by.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 2:29pm
Hunting is sometimes the most effective reason for sitting quietly in the woods in the early morning hours. I used to get up in the pre-dawn darkness of November to paddle across a lake in a canoe full of decoys, and then sit motionless in the cold as the sun came up and the frost sparkled and the day came alive. If I just saw herons and coots and hawks and chickadees, it was a good day. If ducks came into the decoys, as the hunter I was actively and respectfully a participant in the food chain. The dawn would have been as beautiful if I had gone paddling around in the dark on a lake in subfreezing temperatures to take a photo, but without the impetus of hunting I would never have done it, and I have no non-hunting friends who have.