Illustration by Sara Wilde
We started with walks in the woods. When he was real young, my father gave him a hatchet (a family rite of passage from infant to toddler). His enthusiasm for wild swings and near misses soon rid our forest of the rotten, broken and weak. Always on our romps we studied signs of game, whitetail deer in particular, and fantasized about successful hunts, the potential for the upcoming season, and inherent dangers.
Then, suddenly, he earns his tag and his twelve-year progression from thumb/index finger to dart gun to BB to .22 is about to get bloody real. My boy shoulders the muzzleloader’s 150 grain charge and wields the power of the 30-30 lever-action. He makes me proud. His excitement and ambition gets me out in the field when I should be making money for his post-secondary education. Yet it’s coming near the end of November, we’ve put in many hours and because of the weather (of course), we haven’t seen diddley. Or, is the old man all talk and no action…
The branch breaks right under our stand. Ghost-like that spike buck appeared at 17 yards with its kill zone square behind a mature aspen. We were busted. Of all the luck, a good shot was never presented, rather a snort and flap of the tail. I was choked, but my son was insistent we try again the next day. And so, on November 20th, he shot his first buck, and this is what I took away:
Let the child lead. Down the path, into the blind, along the blood trail and to the kill, let them find their direction. Hunt at the child’s pace and rediscover your sense of curiosity. Or fast forward a few years and consider this good practice for the slow stalk of a retiree in pursuit of day-old bread and hard candies.
I did not let the child lead because in my mind that’s stupid advice and our journey had ventured only a few steps down the wrong path. Then the boy chimes in to question my sense of direction and make reckless use of the word “lost”. I barge ahead and deploy curse words to help cut through the understory. What could have been a lesson on keeping your cool and practicing your navigation skills becomes my impersonation of the principal from Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video. Let the child lead.
Have the talk about taking a life, about the meaning of life, about making the most of it. Feed into their sense of awe about the beauty of the animal, the wildness of the setting, and how fortunate we are for hunting opportunities. Also, act rude, talk vulgar, eat junk, drink freely, get dirty and awful smelly because you can here and no one will stop you (just don’t tell Mom).
When taking pictures, remove the blaze orange vests, hats and miscellaneous accoutrements. Otherwise, future historians may interpret this as evidence that deer in our times were taken by tubs of orange drink, and this is bad messaging. Though orange drink may have the nose and body of doe pee, scents and attractants are not permitted in Manitoba. Even in small quantities, orange drink is poisonous and again, not a lawful method for taking deer.
Uphold the belief that a knife should always be at the ready, and when there’s a deer laid out before you in need of gutting and you gets all twitchy like in quick-draw, first give pause, thanks, and admiration. Show respect to the animal before butchering it into meat. Share your thoughts on the hunt before being consumed by those of steaks, roasts, jerky and ground.
If I knew then what I know now, I’d be negligent instead of ignorant. When presented with a good shot, my son did everything right and that buck dropped within sight. Perhaps, I didn’t ruin him after all. Perhaps, our hunts together taught me a thing or two about myself. It sure was something to draw those lines of blood across each of his cheekbones, and later my father arrived to share in the moment. I didn’t shoot a deer this year, but it feels like my best season ever.
John salutes the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association, indigenous groups, and others who are trying to be part of a solution to dangerous night hunting.