Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Meditations on Deer Hunting

2012 Wyoming deer regulations - summary map.

    Deer seasons in the areas I hunt in SE Wyoming have all been cut by half, from two weeks to a single week; and now only  bucks are legal game. In some areas bucks must have at least three points on one side to be considered legal.  Mule deer populations have been crashing in SE Wyoming and Northern CO for a number of years. The changes to this years season dates and regulations are the first major ones since I've lived here. The changes are obviously an attempt by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to relieve hunting pressure on the deer populations.  Some people complain that these changes came too late - I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

    For the first ten years after moving to WY I hunted and killed a deer every year.  Never a doe, always a buck but sometimes a spike.  The last mule deer I killed was in 2008.  In 2009 I had a nice shot at a good 3x3 mule deer but I passed.  I was mainly focused on elk at the time.  I had real failures in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. I hunted hard for deer both years and did not kill one.  This year I had a very nice (and unique) 3x3 in my sights for more than 15 minutes and did not pull the trigger.  Still pondering the reasons why.  It turns out that not killing can be complicated.

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Monday October 1, 2012 -  Even with work piling up I managed to get out for a morning hunt.  I hunted the upper reaches of a small stream that flows west into the North Platte river.  The stream bed cuts quickly into the landscape forming a narrow canyon not far from its source. The north side of the canyon is heavily timbered and the south side is mostly open sage country with aspens  filling the draws that drop to the canyon floor. Shots from the north side of the canyon to the south side are, depending on exactly where, somewhere between 150 and 350 yards. It makes for a somewhat long shot - but in the mid-ranges is very doable with a 270 Winchester shooting 140 gr Barnes boat tail bullets.  I'd watched a mature buck feed up the open south slope one morning last year while hunting elk (after the deer season was over.)  On this day I walked a long way after getting a somewhat late start and only ever saw does.

Saturday October 6, 2012 - Hunted the same spot in the early morning with no luck.  Headed to the Platte river valley for the afternoon hunt.  Around three in the afternoon I walked into the wilderness area about a quarter mile from my truck to the rim of an aspen filled draw.  This is big open sage country and was not far from where I killed my best mule deer. As I slowly moved along just below the rim, I spotted a hunter coming down toward the draw through the open sage way up on the the far side. I decided to sit down and in the shade of a low rocky outcrop on the rim to see if he pushed any deer out.  I sat down an set up my shooting sticks to wait. Any deer moving down the draw would have to pass through an opening in the aspens giving me an excellent downhill shot at about 100 years.  The other hunter has seen me and he diverted his path but I still sat and waited.  It was 120 yards to the far side of the draw where the aspens ended and the sage opened up.  Glassing the thick aspen cover with binoculars I hear a branch snap somewhere below me, and then a few minutes later I spotted the rump of a deer.  Ten minutes later a deer stepped out of the sage and then there was a second behind it.  Amazingly, both were bucks, the first was a spike horn and the second a good three by three.  The larger of the two was a fine animal with long willowy antlers of a beautiful orange color.  The smaller buck was half the size.  I sat on the rim and watched them browse their way uphill on the far side of draw - alternating between the view through my scope and through the  binoculars.  Finally, they wandered into the  timber on the far rim and they were lost to sight.  I continued to hunt until dark though I did not see another deer.

Sunday October 7, 2012 - On Sunday I hunted mule deer and elk hard all day in a different area - closer to home where I could shoot a bull elk or a mule deer buck in overlapping seasons.  I did get onto some fresh elk tracks early but never saw the animal.  Other than a mature four-by-four lying dead in the back of another hunters pickup I passed on a remote forest service road - I did not see a deer.

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    So on Saturday, after a textbook perfect hunt, I had what I was hunting for in my sights.  It was an easy shot at close range with no wind off a secure rest - and yet I did not pull the trigger. Why? I'm still thinking about it. There are a number or reasons I can think of  but none provides a really satisfactory explanation.  My first suggestion is that, in the back of my mind, I carry the thought that my wife and I prefer elk meat to deer meat.  Elk populations are up so I, perhaps unrealistically, expect to kill an elk this year.  A second reason is that, although I do not really consider myself a trophy hunter, I have killed a number of deer that were "better" than this one.  Irrationally, I had it in my mind that I would find a fully mature four-by-four buck within the following twenty-six hours before the season ended.  Another reason is that, with deer populations so low, killing a not quite mature deer seemed unnecessary. And also, I was just plain tired. Hunting big game alone is hard work: field dressing and packing out an animal is even more work.  I was dog tired after a long day of hunting on foot in steep country.

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José Ortega y Gasset
  Not pulling the trigger raises the issue of killing or not killing while hunting.  In his book Meditations on Hunting (originally published in 1944) Ortega y Gasset famously wrote: "one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted".  It is true that even though I did not kill that mule deer I know that I surely would have pulled the trigger on a more mature buck - so I would claim I hunted - I think.  My interpretation of Ortega y Gasset's remark is that he was getting at something  else.  Every kill is different and each one builds into a store of experience that cumulatively makes the hunter who (s)he is.  Much of that knowledge is technical knowledge that can not be gained in any other way except by killing.  How well (or not) did the bullet perform?  What was the extent of the wound it caused? How far did the animal go with the wound it sustained and how quickly did it die?  How much blood was lost - was there a blood trail? These are aspects of the hunt that we perhaps prefer not to discuss.  Even hunters ready to discuss the finer points of butchering and cooking game meat rarely discuss these points.  And yet, these technical aspects of actually killing are part of the hunt that can not be experienced without  pulling the trigger. That body of experience is what makes books like John Taylor's African Rifles and Cartridges  or Elmer Keith's Big Game Rifles and Cartridges truly substantial works.  I think this experience is required for a hunter to have hunted.

     In his excellent book The Why of Hunting (which will hopefully be published very soon) Gerard Cox argues that Ortega y Gasset's aphorism applies only to sport hunters in the European tradition from the middle of the last century. These were Ortega y Gasset's audience for his essay on hunting.  It may be unfair to Gerry to publicly argue with is book before publication - but based on not killing this year,  I think Ortega y Gasset's remarks hold more true than Gerry admits.  
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Although I did not kill a deer this year  - and so missed the rich aspects of the hunt that come after the kill - thankfully, the story remains.  And also, there are still two weeks left in the elk season.


  1. Beautifully written. You have hunted and elk season still has two weeks left.Hope you see the elk of your dreams. Isn't hunting wonderful?

  2. Thanks Dan. Yep - hunting is wonderful.