Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Hunting

It has been a very long time since I last took to the woods with a rifle. I used to hunt fairly regularly. But my opinions on it have not changed.

As I see it, there are three broad categories to hunting: Trophy hunting, meat hunting and varmint hunting. To my mind, the latter two categories are honorable, the first is not.

Meat hunting is honorable, far more honorable than going to the supermarket and buying a shrink-wrapped portion of a critter. The hunter, at least, is intimately familiar with where his or her meat is coming from, as opposed to the supermarket shopper, who usually has barely an idea of what a steer even looks like, let alone how the steers are treated. In some rural areas, the only meat that appears on the kitchen table was taken by hunting.

Varmint hunting is done to control population levels or to stop predation. It can be combined with meat hunting, such as in areas where the numbers of deer have exploded. There once was, and may still be, a predator control law in Vermont that was passed in the 1850s, when the state was a major producer of wool. It allowed farmers to kill predators by any means other than nuclear weapons, which were not permitted only because they didn't exist back then.

I have problems with trophy hunting. It would seem to me that going out and deliberately removing from the population the fittest adult male members of any species is counter to the long-term health of that species. It would be like identifying the smartest students in a college and then killing them so that someone could have a collection of the heads of valedictorians.

I've done varmint shooting to control predators and pests. Not much to say about that, it's what needed to be done at the time. Electric fencing around the chicken coop worked well, too, and was far more reliable.

Opening Day of whitetail season in some states is an unofficial holiday. I lived in one of those states for a time and would go back for years afterwards. We'd meet at the house of a friend who lived adjacent to a forest. It would be full dark, around 5:30 AM. Eggs, bacon, toast and coffee were what was prepared and served up in copious amounts. Everyone pitched in to help prepare, cook and clean up, so that the pans and dishes were washed and the kitchen was clean when it was time to go into the woods. (For those hunters who did not have a place to go for breakfast or who didn't want to make one, the volunteer firehouse served a hunters' breakfast on Opening Day, beginning at 4:30.)

As soon as it became light enough to see, we would make our way into the woods to where each one of us wanted to be and wait for sunrise, which was just after 7AM. Usually, nobody would see a buck, only does. I've had does walk right by me and look at me as if to say "we know you can't shoot us." Every few years, somebody would manage to shoot a buck, which would be dressed out, taken to the game-check station and then butchered.

The bucks were smart as hell. You wouldn't seen them out in the fields during the day from just before the beginning of bow season, through rifle season and then to the end of muzzle-loader season. After hunting season was over, you'd see bucks during the day. One year, I was out in the woods several days after Opening Day. I managed to get a glimpse of a buck and he saw me at the same time. He ran for a few seconds, bounding through the woods, and then dropped to the ground, completely invisible against the leaf litter, rocks and sticks. I tried walking him down, but whenever I got close, he'd bound up and run, weaving through the trees. He seemed to know how long it would take me to bring up the rifle and get a bead on him, for just as soon as I managed to swing the front sight onto him, he'd drop to the ground and disappear. That buck, a six-pointer, also seemed to work it so that the one time I had a clear shot, there was a house down in a valley which was in the line of fire. I gave up then, it was almost sunset.

Another year, it was cold, lightly snowing, and I was in the woods with a Garand.[1] I had been sitting on a fallen tree, which had come to rest against another tree, with the rifle in my lap. It was sort of out of the snow and it was pretty comfortable. A red squirrel's curiosity overcame its caution and it came out to investigate me. It walked down that log, jumped up onto the handguard of the rifle and looked me over. I guess it was satisfied that I posed no threat to it, for it jumped back onto the log and sauntered away.

Snow in November is almost magical, as it often falls with still air. The flakes of a Fall snow are usually fat ones that drift down among the trees and deposit the first coat of white of the season. There is little traffic noise out there, just an occasional vehicle on a paved road over a mile in the distance and the falling snow muffles even that sound. The quiet is only broken by the faint whine of a passing airliner, six miles above. The woods are second or third growth, that entire area was clear-cut in the 18th and early 19th Centuries for sheep and crop farming. The woods began to come back after the Civil War and the building of the railroads, when farmers went to the Midwest to farm land that was neither hilly or filled with rocks. Now there are probably more woodlands in New England since the time of the Revolution.

Several minutes after the squirrel left, I heard heavy steps in the leaves on the floor of the woods. (By Spring, the leaves would have composted themselves and one could move through the woods silently, but that was almost impossible to do in the Fall.) I shifted around, pointed the rifle in that direction, keeping my finger out of the trigger guard.[2] It was a buck and one of decent size, a six pointer. I snugged the butt of the rifle into my shoulder, quietly disengaged the safety and settled the front sight on his chest. As I took up the slack of the two-stage trigger, the thought came to me, or something spoke to me, but either way, the message was clear: "You don't really need the meat." I took my finger off the trigger, thought "bang, I've got you" and clicked the safety on, making no attempt to hide the metallic snick. The buck whirled his head around, saw me, and took off.

The times I went deer hunting after that were for social reasons. I left the Garand at home and carried a 6" Smith Model 29, telling everyone: "Hell, I never see a deer anyway, so I might as well carry something light." But the real reason was that since I wasn't going to shoot anything, the revolver was just for show.

[1]I had some five-round clips for my Garand, which made it legal to use.

[2]Yes, I know, you're supposed to verify your target before you point a gun at it. But if you make that much movement in those woods within eyeshot of a deer, it will see you and be gone before you can fire.