"Far from being a mark of moral failure, this absence of guilt feelings suggests a highly developed moral consciousness, in tune with the life-death process of the natural world."
Mary Zeiss Stange Woman the Hunter
This year a deer called to me pre-dawn from my warm bed and a hot cup of coffee. I had already decided not to hunt that day.
The south eastern part of Wyoming where I live is archetypal mule deer habitat. This is where the high plains meet the mountains, the Snowy Range here and in the next valley to the west, the Sierra Madres. Our property abuts designated winter range habitat. As such, roads are closed and travel is restricted November through March.
Sipping coffee, thinking about work, there suddenly seemed a certain urgency to go to a particular spot, high above the Laramie River, almost on the Wyoming Colorado border. I have been to this place many times, and have killed two deer near there before. By the time I was struck by this urgency, the sun was coming up, and I quickly dressed and gathered together an incomplete kit. I drove out, headed to the spot I'd seen in my minds eye. Ten miles south to the turn off for the dirt forest road and then down the road another eight, passing a couple of other trucks with paired hunters, road-hunting as their trucks crawled along.
Once at the appointed place, I pulled off the road, donned my binoculars and quietly loaded my rifle, a restocked Winchester model 70 built in 1958, two years after my birth. It is chambered for 270 Winchester. I was going to still hunt along the rim above a steep canyon.
Still hunting, the only kind of big game hunting I do, is best described in Theodore Van Dyke's book The Still Hunter: A Practical Treatise on Deer Stalking which was first published serially in The American Field in 1881. To still hunt, you move slowly and as quietly as possible and mostly just look. You take a step and stop and look. And then you glass with binoculars. As quietly as possible, take another couple of steps. Glass again, looking ahead on the treed rim and across the canyon, taking care to inspect the shadows of the aspen thickets that grow in the draws that cut through the sage on the far side. You try to step into the shadow of a tree and to stay off the ridges. I came on three blue grouse, who took little notice of me other than to scurry off twenty yards and then to continue their pecking morning feed. There was a doe and an fawn feeding ahead on the rim. They did not see me and I dropped off the edge into the canyon a bit so as not to disturb them.
Not ten minutes into the hunt, I saw a large and beautiful buck feeding in the sage across the canyon. He was standing full broadside to me brightly lit by the sun which was now well up. Glassing the far side, I had been concentrating on the shadows and had not expected to see an animal standing out in the sun.
I was carrying a rangefinder and measured the distance at 392 yards. A long long way and half again as far as the longest shot I had ever made at a live animal. There was no wind, it was dead calm. I knelt and set my rifle on the shooting sticks and took aim through the scope, still not sure I would try this seemingly absurdly long shot. I watched as he held rock still, head down, feeding on sage. He was a three-by-three buck (three large tines to a side) but clearly larger than other four-by-four deer I had killed before. I load my own ammunition, and was shooting a 140 grain Barnes bullet with velocity clocked at 3000 fps. I had carefully sighted my rifle in just a few days before so that it would shoot one and a half inches high at 100 yards and therefore be just about three inches low at 250 yards, but for the life of me, I could not recall the drop of my bullet at this absurd distance of almost 400 yards. It turns out to be a bit more than eighteen inches of drop.
I held high and squeezed the trigger. The rifle jumped at the shot and after recycling the bolt, when I looked, I could see he was still standing, seemingly unhurt, facing the opposite direction he'd been facing and looking up the hill above him. He was still broadside. Figuring I'd held too high and not certain that he wasn't hit, I took aim again, and squeezed off another round. After the shot, I looked and he was nowhere in sight. I fully believed I'd hit him and that at the shot he'd gone down where he stood, but I couldn't be sure. There was no sign of him in the tall sage. Using a tree as a reference, I marked where I thought he'd on the far side of the canyon.
After hiking down into the canyon, and then up the far side, I failed to find him. After twenty minutes of searching, I realized my mistake, I was keying off the wrong tree. I found him in the sage exactly where he'd stood. My bullet had severed the spine above the shoulder and had killed him instantly.
In the end it turned out to be a very lucky shot and one I did not really deserve to make. Indigenous hunting peoples believe that an animal has to give itself to you before you will be successful. Somehow I can not help but feel that this deer gave itself to me.
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