I hunt like a girl

I can count on one hand the number of hunting seasons I’ve missed since I was about three years old. When I was little, I just tagged along. Dad would leave the pick-up running so I’d be warm, and I’d eat candy and drink soda while I waited for the men to come back. I remember feeling like I needed to at least look for deer, so I would have something to report upon their return. Just tryin’ to be helpful. But usually I crashed from the sugar and fell asleep across the binoculars and ammunition boxes that were scattered around on the seats of Dad’s work pick-up.
When I got a little older, it became my job to “walk the bottom”. Two people would sit at the end of a draw and wait for the rest of us to walk it, pushing deer toward them. The walkers would spread out, with one person walking the top of each side, one person walking the middle of each side, and one person walking down through the bottom, crawling over dead branches and wading through creeks. The person walking the bottom made a lot of noise, got a lot of exercise, and saw very few deer. It was a perfect job for me.
When I was in college, my dad gave me my first rifle, which to this day is one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. It’s a small .243 with a good scope. It has almost no “kick”, so I wasn’t scared to shoot it, and the size doesn’t weigh me down. I didn’t know it then, but it’s a pretty small gun as far as deer rifles go. But that’s ok. It just means I have to be a good shot. And so far, I have yet to shoot at something and miss.

My rifle

But I don’t want to mislead anyone. I don’t deserve any praise. Because the truth is…

I hunt like a girl.

Every time I raise my rifle to look through the scope, my heart starts racing. I’ve only killed two deer… only shot twice. And both times, I was terrified. Scared to pull the trigger. Scared to miss. Scared to not miss. Scared for the deer. Scared to make a fool of myself. But I suppose that’s part of the reason people hunt—to overcome the fear. (Try getting a man to admit that.)

I get cold faster than the men do, or at least I start complaining about it sooner. My feet freeze in the South Dakota cold and I start wishing for hot coffee and a fireplace. It’s a production when I have to go to the bathroom, not only to find a place out of sight of all the men and their binoculars, but to get out of six layers of clothing and… you get the idea. I have not and will not ever “gut” my own deer. I couldn’t saw through the pelvic bone if I tried, but mostly, I just don’t want to. I may have just killed a wild beast, but thankfully, the men recognize that I’m suddenly a damsel in distress once it’s on the ground. And I’m happy to let them be my heroes.  🙂

You see, the real fun of hunting for me is not actually in the hunt. It’s in everything that comes along with the hunt, such as the whispered conversations I have with Dad as we sit in the snow and wait for the sun to come up and the bowls of chili we eat around the dinner table to thaw ourselves out. I look forward to deer season all year long because it’s time with my dad and brothers and family friends that I cherish. Dad beams when his kids are home. It’s his livelihood—his ranch—that brings us together for a common purpose. It’s the time when we bond together for a shared goal. We scout and plan and strategize. And while we do that, we eat and drink and laugh at stories from deer seasons past. It’s our family and our time. And while each hunt is an opportunity for all of us to bring home a trophy, we always make it mostly about one person. “Let’s get Dan that monster whitetail. He’s overdue for a big one.”

I remember the first year I hunted to kill—the year after Dad gave me my rifle. The whole weekend was about getting me a deer! After a day and a half of missed opportunities, it was the afternoon of the second day. It was our last hunt before sundown, and we would be leaving the next day to drive back to Denver. I felt pressure to not let everyone down after the effort they had put into helping me. We had our plan. The deer would be coming out to eat before sunset, and we were going to put ourselves in position to see them on the alfalfa field. There were four of us on the hunt: Dad, my big brother Dan, our friend Troy, and myself.

We parked the pickup at the top of the hill above the alfalfa field and walked, out of sight, down to the haystacks near the field. We must have spotted two dozen deer as we walked slowly, quietly into position. And then we spotted it. … The Big One. … The one we were hoping to see. My heart raced. We huddled and Dad whispered the plan to us. But before we could execute it, The Big One took off. He dropped into the draw near the alfalfa field and was out of sight. We started running to where he disappeared, hoping to see him come up on the other side. And we did! We crouched in the snow, watching him slowly climb the hill on the opposite side, waiting for him to come into a clearing.

And then he stopped. Broadside. And Dad said exactly what I was praying wouldn’t be said. “Pam! Shoot him!”

I took my gloves off and settled into the snow, stabilizing myself. I drew up on him and found him in my scope. He still looked tiny. “Dad,” I whispered. “How far away is that??”

“You can shoot him at that distance,” he said.

I looked again. No better. Shit. Deep breath. Holy shit. Ok.

I tried to remember everything I’d been taught about shooting a gun. Very little emerged through my adrenaline clouded consciousness. Let out all your air, I remembered. So I did. But that was no good because then I had no air. So I took a deep breath and held it. And aimed. And prayed. And fired.

The deer bucked. HIT!! As soon as the men confirmed that I had hit him, they all opened fire. World War III erupted on Dad’s ranch. I didn’t fire another shot. I froze. They all emptied their rifles while the deer slowly made its way up the hill and out of sight. None of them could land a second shot. The Big One was wounded but not even scared. But there’s a rule on Dad’s ranch. You never leave a wounded deer without exhausting all efforts to put it out of its misery. And so the hunt was on and chaos ensued. Dan sprinted nearly a mile back to the pickup and came tearing across the prairie to pick us all up and take us across the draw to where we last saw the buck go out of sight. Dad nearly fell out of the pick-up when Dan punched the gas before he was able to close the pick-up door. We bounced around with all the guns and binoculars and ammo, speeding across trenches and ditches, where no vehicle should go. When we got to the other side of the draw, one-by-one, we bailed out of the pick-up to try to pick up the deer’s trail in different places.

I bailed out last. And saw The Big One! This time he was running. I fired and hit him again but he kept running. Dan fired his last bullet at him and missed. Then he grabbed my gun out of my hands and ran after him. I just laughed at the ridiculousness of it. Dan fired and hit him this time but still didn’t stop him! Finally, Troy fired and hit him, and it was bullet number four that brought him down. It was my deer… but it was our kill.

We went home that night wired from adrenaline and high on success. It was a shared victory and a story that would be told for years to come. We even named part of the ranch after that story. The place where I sat in the snow to take my first shot became known as Copper Hill because of all the bullets that were fired there. As the story spread over the months to come, the neighbors teased me about running the town out of ammunition. I just smiled and reminded them that I only fired twice. And both shots were hits. Blame the men for the rest of it. 😉

My next deer hunt went much better but was much less exciting. One shot, meat. I learned my lesson after the first one. My little rifle is not meant to kill a deer at 350 yards. Or 400 yards… or 450 yards. (The distance grows every time the story is told.)

I leave on Friday to go home for another hunting season and I can’t wait. This time my brother is bringing his little boy, who is old enough now to sit in the pick-up and eat candy. Dan is passing the tradition on through the generations, and I look forward to doing the same with my kids. I hope I have a daughter.

So she can hunt like a girl too.

Deer season 2010

Maybe it'll be big enough next year