I am a hunter. I have always been a hunter. My father was a hunter, both of my grandfathers were hunters. My brother is a hunter. My nephews are hunters. Hunting is a way of life for me and like all hunters, opening day holds a special meaning for me.
Today is opening day. As the sun came up it found me on my way to a canyon. I have never been to this canyon; I knew nothing about it except I saw it on a map of one of the large public hunting areas in the TX panhandle. It lies a little more than 3 miles from where I have to park, taking me nearly 2 hours to make the hike because the surrounding country is rugged, steep, and rocky and I am hunting solo. I have to be careful and so I take my time. This type of country is unforgiving on the careless and foolish. I am neither. As I make the hike, I hear coyotes howling and see flocks of geese and cranes making their annual migration. These are things a hunter appreciates.
Once at canyon I begin to glass. I see deer. Mule deer. Does and yearlings. They are safe. Mule deer season does not open for 2 more weeks and the does are protected. They have nothing to fear from me. I glass all of the canyon I can see and find no bucks. But I know they are there because those yearlings can’t happen without them. I know where I will be on opening day of mule deer season. I watch the does pick their way down the canyon. 4 does and 2 yearlings. The lead doe is ancient, grey in the face, muscle tone flabby. She is probably in her last year. A true matriarch. She walks like her feet hurt. I am 57 years old myself. I understand sore feet. As she leads the group down, I can’t help but smile as the yearlings jump and play like young deer do. I am a hunter and seeing young game animals is a good thing for without them the herds will perish.
I take a moment to reflect on myself and my gear. I am quickly approaching my 60th year. My rifle is old. I bought it with money earned mowing lawns when I was 13. It is a plain Remington Model 700 ADL in 7mm Rem Mag. 44 seasons we have shared, and we have taken a lot of game. My scope is nearly 30 years old, a Leupold 3x9. There are fancier scopes now but this one still has clear optics and holds its zero. The ammunition is over 10 years old. I load my own ammo and years ago loaded over 1000 rounds for the 7mm and I still haven’t used it up. I am a hunter, not a shooter. Around my neck hangs a pair of Leica 10x42 binoculars that I have carried for more than 20 years. Like the scope, they are still clear, and I can focus them to my eyes quickly. The rifle, scope and binoculars show their age. They have scratches and dings; they show the results of decades of being carried through brush and brambles. Like the hunter himself, they are no longer pristine but still in the field. In my pack is an old Case XX that has been in use since I was 18. I have no idea how many game animals it has field dressed. It isn’t fancy but sharpens easily and holds an edge well. On my feet are a pair of Russell’s boots that have seen over 20 seasons. 3 times I have had them re-soled. They look like 20 year old boots, scuffed and scraped. But they are well broken in and no matter how hard I walk or climb I know they will not raise any blisters. I am becoming an older hunter, but I remain faithful for that which has served me well. I see no reason to change anything, for I am a hunter and not a gear snob.
Motion catches my eye. A red-tailed hawk drops to the ground in a small patch of weeds and then takes flight, landing in a mesquite about 30 yards from me. Up come the Leicas and I see a mouse in his talons, tail twitching slowly. I watch the hawk feed. The hawk looks at me and I look at him. Clear in the binoculars, I see blood on his beak and the tip of the mouse’s tail sticks out the corner of his mouth. The details on the feathers of his head are strikingly clear and I look in his eyes, one hunter to another. I think about how only 3 things on earth know what just transpired. A mouse who died, a hawk who killed and a man who watched. The endless cycle of predator and prey, life and death goes on as it always has. The hawk must kill to survive because nature has dictated that he be a hunter just as it has dictated that I be a hunter. The mouse is no more, only the hawk and I know it ever existed and in a day we will also forget. Without prey, there will be hunter. They go hand in hand.
The mule deer have fed their way out of sight and I decide to hike back towards my vehicle because it is opening day for whitetails and they live closer to the river. That is where I head, watching a rabbit squirt through the brush. Bird life is plentiful, and I take time to watch the woodpeckers, the sparrows and the mountain bluebird, which is one of the most beautiful birds around. As I get closer to the river I jump 3 coveys of quail. Wild quail. Real quail, not something from a game bird farm. They are good coveys, one has about 15 birds, one has about 12 and the smallest covey has 10 or so. Strong flying birds, wild birds. They have nothing to fear from me. I hunted upland game seriously when I was a young man and have taken many quail. But the modern world is not kind to them, and their numbers have declined. The quail has a hard-enough time surviving without me making it any more difficult. I will not hunt them nor will I tell anyone where they are. I am a hunter and I find joy knowing that there are still places where the wild quail fly.
It is now well past noon and I pick a good spot to look for whitetails. The cover is thick but has enough open spots to catch them moving around. I am hunting solo; nobody is there but me. It saddens me to think of hunting partners that have passed on or moved away. One even quit hunting. I know as I get older that I should find a new hunting partner, but it takes years to get a good one and I just don’t feel like making the effort. Besides not many want to hunt the way I do. They want to sit in a comfortable blind, watching a feeder, trying to take a deer they have been watching on a trail camera. I want no part of that. I want to walk and glass and be surprised by every deer I see for the first time. I could hunt with my brother and nephews, but they live in other states. I find a comfortable spot under a cedar tree and begin to simply watch the world around me. I am a hunter and I have learned to be patient.
While I sit under the tree, a sole hunter blending in, I know I am not alone. To my right and left I feel the presence of my grandfathers, both many years dead. I can hear the raucous laugh of my grandfather Elton. I remember his tales of serving in the US Navy during WWII. So impactful were his tales that they led to me also spending 25 years in that honorable service. I smell the pipe tobacco of my grandfather Floyd and think back to him talking about growing up on the ranch in Colorado. He was a cowboy in his youth. Not the fancy cowboy of Hollywood nor the fake cowboys in the bars of today. He was the real thing, making a living for the family off the back of a horse. I miss them both very much. And I can feel my father behind me. Hand on my shoulder, always encouraging. An honorable man. A respected man. A man with wisdom that I never really understood until he lost his battle with cancer. These men were hunters. It is from them that I came. And when I hunt, they are with me. I can feel them.
The sun is getting low in the sky when I see the deer. Buck. 6 point. He stands about 80 yards away, feeding. It is an easy shot, a shot I have made many times before. The rifle is in my hands, the safety is off. The cross hair of the old scope settles behind the shoulder one third of the way up. All that needs to happen is for me to apply 2 ½ pounds of pressure to the trigger. When I do, I know the firing pin will collide with the primer and a 160 grain Nosler bullet will leave the barrel at 3100 feet per second. I know that if the bullet hits where the scope is aimed it will take out the arteries at the top of the heart and get the bottom of the lungs. It is a deadly shot. No deer hit there can survive. All I have to do is apply a little pressure. The buck is bathed in golden light. He is prefect. Flawless. Sleek and fat. It is opening day. I have a license. He is a legal buck on this piece of public property. All I have to do is apply some pressure to the trigger. He has no idea I am there. He does not know he is being hunted. I know he is being hunted, but he doesn’t. Hunter and prey. I think back to the hawk and the mouse. The hawk had to kill today in order to survive. Without the mouse he will starve. But I still have meat from last year’s buck. I will not starve. It is opening day and I have the shot. But I also have 2 more months that I can hunt. It is a beautiful scene. Hunter and prey. The cycle of life. The buck looks almost like a gold sculpture, shadow stretching out behind him. My finger comes off the trigger. The rifle is put back on safe and the buck disappears from the scope. I feel I have no right to disrupt the tranquility I see before me. I watch the buck until he disappears into the shadows. I will be back next week. Perhaps I will hunt the same buck again or maybe I will never see him again. Either scenario is fine with me. In my mind I hear my father say, “Well Done.” I am a hunter, but that does not mean I have to be a killer on this day. I am content being just a hunter.
I get to the vehicle after dark. I have walked over 8 miles today. I have seen nature. I have seen deer that I cannot shoot and a deer that I can shoot. But I fired no shots. It was a great day. The type day I hope to enjoy many more times as I approach old age. I am tired. My feet and knees ache. I am hungry and I need a shower. It has been a perfect day. Other hunters will understand that despite never firing a shot, the hunt was successful. I am a hunter and for that I will never apologize.
Peace to all. Animosity to none.