So this has kinda been a long time coming for me. I decided I wanted to start bow hunting aboutone year ago, after a hiking trip to upstate New York led to me shooting archery for the first time outside of gym class. There was a guy in our group who was shooting with us who was from around our area in New Jersey and told me how he got into it a few years back and absolutely loved it. That was the initial push. The first spark was even before that, when I saw a t.v. special about a man who killed all the meat that he ate, and something inside me woke up. That is what I wanted. The caliber of connection that comes along with harvesting ones own meat seemed to me so obvious that that was what I needed to do. The current large scale meat production industry is abhorrent in their ethics and quality, and I will happily get off of that train the first chance I get. Enter hunting.
I had no idea, once I started researching how much I had to learn and invest, how much time and money and dedication it would actually cost to be successful. Unfortunately for me there were no friends (for the most part), no uncles, no fathers, or no grandfathers who could pass me any hunting knowledge whatsoever, so I was relatively on my own. I knew I had to get my hunters license, and I knew I would need all the requisite gear, but most importantly I had to learn how to hunt.
Fast forward to yesterday. I got my license, I am shooting my bow confidently, I have the basic gear. The only thing I was missing was knowledge. I had been toggling with the idea of taking my tree stand out into the woods and setting up. For those who don’t know, a tree stand is a fixture you use to climb up into a tree at a certain spot in the forest to gain an advantage on the game you wish to hunt. My biggest issue was that I didn’t have the deer patterned in the land I was to hunt, or any land for that matter. Many hunters use trail cameras to see where the deer come in and out of in a certain patch of forest, I don’t have one yet. It seemed silly to me, even with my small bit of knowledge about hunting thus far, that to pick a random tree and climb up to sit and wait would not give me my best chances at harvesting an animal.
All the past week I watched Steve Rinella’s Meat Eater show on Netflix. He is typically a spot and stalk hunter, and he makes it look so fun. He can be successful because he is usually hunting wide open land with plenty of opportunity to scan large patches of country to find the animals. He then stalks them carefully in hopes to sneak up on them and set up an ethical shot. In New Jersey, this is not the most effective means of hunting, as you are better off finding the deer, and positioning yourself in a spot where the deer will come to you. But I had enough, I just wanted to get out there and practice my movements in the brush, trying to stay as quiet as possible. I wanted to practice using the wind (the key is to always keep yourself upwind, or with the wind in your face, so the deer can’t smell you). I just wanted to see what came naturally when I threw myself into a hunting mindset. I figure that experience would come no matter what, and I had better just stop making excuses about why I needed to learn more, or have more gear, or have someone take me out and show me everything. This was blocking me. So I went out.
I went to my local Wildlife Management Area just down the road. There were a few guys in treestands around this field that I was sure not to go near. I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s chances while I was dealing with my steep learning curve. I made sure I was upwind the whole time and proceeded into the forest. The experience was amazing from early on. Just being in the mindset to harvest an animal is far different from anything I have ever experienced, and for some reason it felt much more intense than fishing which I had often considered a type of hunting. Trying to stay quiet was impossible, I was walking slowly and carefully in light shoes, and still I was noticed by everything other living thing near me. There was no mistaking my noises, no masking my presence. I quickly found a small holly tree with good cover on the ground and a perfect spot to try to disappear.
It took a while for all the other organisms to forget I was there, or at least to ignore me. A few squirrels ran quickly by. I heard what sounded like two bucks going at it but it was simply two trees knocking together from the wind. When the wind would kick up, it was time to move to a new location. The noise of snapping twigs and rustling leaves from my every step seemed to be muted by the whistling wind through the trees. I learned something! – To cover ground quickly when the wind blows.
Immediately I thought I was a pro. At this point I entered a new part of the forest where the under story was bustling with saplings, vines, and bushes, due to the light from the dying trees above. This seemed like the spot if I wanted to harvest any small game. Deer did not seem likely on this trip, and luckily I brought 3 small game arrowheads. I hear rustling. I am staying perfectly still and quiet. A squirrel pops its head from around a tree, he comes down to the ground. I am watching him move through the bushes, and I estimate him to be 10-12 yards away. All the sudden he comes into a clearing, and he doesn’t see me. I draw my bow, heart beating out of my chest with slight disbelief. I take the shot. He darts once he hears the release, and the shot misses him by almost an inch. Thank god. I was so worried about wounding him, but luckily it was a clean miss. Adrenaline still kicking, I assess what just happened. I felt like the universe was saying — “Okay, pretty good, but not today” — and I simply smiled. From the time that arrow left my string, I felt like I was actually a hunter. It was a feeling (after a year of preparation) like, “Ahhh, now we begin”. I stayed under cover until the sun fell, not really interested at taking another shot, but just enjoying being relatively undetected in the wilderness. I feel like I would have heard that elusive tree fall in the woods if no one was there to here it (I was!). It was like I was looking through a secret window into to the drama of the unobserved woods. I walked back to my truck smiling with vague sense of fulfillment mixed with excitement for the future.
I am so excited to see what is going to happen this year. I am excited to see where I will go with this after 10 years. It makes me feel good to think that some day I can bring my kids out and teach them how to hunt, and tell them stories like yesterday about how I had to learn it all myself. I realize there is some romanticism in the way I view hunting, but in a world that seems to grow less and less romantic by the minute, I cherish this ancient and pure past-time of which I am newly a part. More stories to come.