I didn’t grow up hunting or fishing. I was outside as often as possible, but I had no one in my family to take me hunting, though I always wished I had. So, in addition to teaching myself how to shoot and learning the behaviors and habits of game animals I had to learn hunting ethics on my own as well. Learning ethics, much like learning to shoot, is a process.
The first season I went deer hunting, I went without a license, in both Michigan and Indiana. I was told by the folks I was with, “just shoot a doe and I will tag it for you” or “you can have my buck tag only if you shoot an eight point or bigger”. At the time, I thought this was okay because the deer would still be tagged and I was not impeding the population studies of state wildlife agencies. It didn’t seem to be unethical to the folks I was with and they’d been hunting for their whole lives, so who was I to question it?
On opening morning of gun season in Southern Indiana I was in the tree stand well before legal shooting light. It was a crude, homemade platform that required me to stand. I figured as the new guy, I got the shit end of the stick as far as stands went, there was no way I could stand there for hours not moving. I was armed with a simple, single shot, breech load, 12 gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs. I had extra shells in my pockets, but I knew, if I was lucky, I’d get one shot. In the Eastern forests, you’re not going to get much more than a 20 yard shot and I have always been a pretty good marksman, so I felt comfortable with this. I just had to remember to be calm and not rush a shot out of the excitement of killing my first deer.
Where I was hunting was private land right across the road from public land and the whole area is heavily hunted. Usually, after first light on opening day, it sounds like a morning in Fallujah. Deer are pushed from place to place and move around a lot, I knew I was sure to see something. And sure enough, I did.
About five minutes after legal shooting light, I hear something coming from my left. It was soft and slow, and I initially wrote it off as another damn squirrel playing tricks on me. However, what came around the corner was a beautiful, two-and-a-half-year-old, eight-point buck. He stopped right in front of my tree stand, broadside at about five yards. He turned his head to look at me and I slowly raised my gun. We made eye contact for what felt like five minutes but was more realistically about ten to fifteen seconds. He then looked away and slowly walked off as I lowered my gun.
I told myself I was simply not being greedy and that it was mere minutes into opening day and I would see other deer and I wanted to keep hunting. I told myself all I wanted was a meat doe anyhow. Even if I’d heard the expression “don’t pass up on your first day what you’d be happy to have on your last day” I think I still would have let him go. Somehow, even though I wasn’t aware of it yet, I knew it was the right thing to do to walk out of those woods without a deer. I also think it’s possible that if I had taken that shot, I might have regretted it to the point that I never went hunting again, and that would have been a shame.
Not pulling the trigger on that buck is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I never saw another deer that season and I’m glad I didn’t, but it was that deer season, being out there for several days without a license, that solidified my love of hunting. Had I been wiser, I would have just walked out there and sat in the tree stand without a gun and I would have loved it every bit as much. It was on those cold Indiana mornings in those tree stands that I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. It was on those mornings that I learned where I could go to feel completely at peace.
I firmly believe, it was in that in that moment, when I couldn’t pull the trigger, that I became a hunter.