When I was a kid, I liked to hunt. I got a BB gun when I was probably 7 or 8 and I used it to shoot sparrows, pigeons, rabbits and innumerable Coke cans. Granted, I wasn’t exactly filling the freezer but it was fun. Like most kids, I don’t think I really understood the ramifications of hunting in that it wasn’t just glorified target practice. From the BB gun, I moved up to a single shot 20 gauge shotgun that I still have today. With it, I moved from just killing sparrows around the farmhouse trees to actively hunting rabbits, quail and pheasant. I was a decent shot and the rabbit population in particular was affected though that might be related to the habit rabbits have of stopping to make sure you are dangerous which of course you are when you have a shotgun. My grandfather taught me the basics of hunting, cleaning your kill and gun safety. He also taught me that I had to eat what I killed, a rule that only applied to what he considered true game and not things like jack rabbits. This rule led to one of my grandomther’s favorite stories to this day about the night I came in at dusk (in her story, it’s 11 but it doesn’t get dark at 11 PM in Beaver, Oklahoma, even in the winter) and made her fry the rabbit I had just killed.
I never moved from hunting for a little food and the excitement of being out in the field to chasing trophies. In fact, my hunting largely ceased about the time I got to high school. My grandfather would shoot game but it wasn’t something he enjoyed and other than him, there was little hunting experience in the family. My interests went to other things like soccer and band and I hung up the hunting hobby. I partially did this because I had other hobbies but also because I was having philosophical questions about hunting. Namely, towards the end of my nascent hunting career, I got to the point that rabbits fell to the gun a lot more often than they didn’t. I began to wonder how sporting it really was when my success rate seemed pretty high, at least in my own eyes. Of course, I’d also come to a better understanding that hunting meant killing when you were successful and I wasn’t completely on board with the ethics of that situation. Not that it stopped me from eating bacon on Saturday mornings but like most Americans, the distance between the act of killing something and frying it in a pan allowed me to avoid the necessary connection between life and death.
Then in around 2008, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a story about our food, our food supply and the way something goes from being out in nature to showing up on our plate. That story affected how I look at food in ways I never could have imagined. The stories of our food supply especially as it relates to meat was eye opening. One of the lines through the story deals with going out and killing a feral pig and then following that pig through the entire process necessary to get it into a frying pan. An animal like a feral pig or a deer live its entire life free range so to speak in a manner exactly as it should. And so, with that book, began my journey back to being a hunter.
Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I still have that questioning mind when it comes to philosophy and ethics. I’ve seen hunting shows on TV where people are shooting game with a rifle from 500+ yards. To me, this isn’t hunting. It’s target practice with live targets. To each his own of course but I knew that if I was going to take up hunting again, it would at least have to be a challenge in the nature of sport. And so last year, I bought a compound bow and took the first baby steps towards actually providing meat for the table. Last year was largely a learning process, one that didn’t involve as much hunting as I would have liked. However, last month, through my membership in the Texas Archery Club, I had the opportunity to go on a bowhunt with four other men to the Johnson Ranch west of Llano, TX. This is an 1100 acre bowhunting only ranch with two camps for groups of 8-12 hunters. Even though there were only five of us, we were in the 12 man camp and had plenty of spots to choose from.
We got on the ranch Friday evening and situated ourselves in the bunk house. It’s rustic and sparse but far better than having to pitch a tent for the weekend. There is no electricity but there are bunks for 12 people, a kitchen with a gas stove and a bathroom. Mr. Johnson, the owner of the ranch, gave us some tips and then returned to pick us up Saturday morning at 5:50 AM to get us to our stands since only one of us had hunted the ranch before. We didn’t draw for stands and with only five people, we ended up hunting stands 1-8. I was placed in #2, a good stand with sight lanes north across a big clearing and a couple of sight lanes south into the ranch road.
The weather the first weekend of archery season in the Hill Country can be hot and it was this weekend on Saturday. Morning temps in the mid 70s that quickly moved into the 90s during the day made for hot days. I think it had something to do with the lack of game we saw over the first 24 hours but then, as a novice, it’s just a guess. Also, it has been a pretty good summer for Texas in that we’ve had rain throughout parts of the summer. The ranch was pretty green and the deer and hogs had plenty to choose from when it comes to browse. I think that had something to do with a generally slow weekend as well. Spending the morning in #2, I saw 1 doe across the north pasture at about 200 yards, 2 coyotes who slunk around the stand from north to south and a bunch of songbirds. Nothing even sniffed at the corn we’d put out. However, it was a wonderful experience that first morning. There is something primal and wonderful about sitting in a stand in the dark waiting for first light as the natural world around you wakens. In the speed of modern life, it’s a refreshing change to have connectivity other than to nature.
I left the stand at 10 AM having seen nothing to shoot at and returned to the cabin. As it turns out, it wasn’t just me. No one had seen anything to shoot at at all. After lunch, I decided to go out on a scouting walk to see where might be a good place to hunt that evening. I didn’t take my bow because it was 2 PM in the middle of the afternoon and I assumed there would be little reason to have it. I walked the loop of stands 1-8 in reverse order and as I approached my stand from that morning, I saw a large black shape moving at about 30-40 yards out of the corner of my eye. Parts of this ranch that are not hunted have cattle on them and initially, I thought this was a cow that had somehow gotten over the fence. When I turned to look more closely, I realized it was a large boar hog trotting towards a pond. He walked the same route the coyotes had taken that morning. with no bow, all I could do was watch him trot on his merry way. Being unexperienced, I had no idea how big he was but the leader of our group saw him later that night and estimated him at 250-300 pounds. I probably won’t be going on scouting trips without my bow anymore.
I decided to hunt #2 again that evening because of the hog. Plus, #2 is in an oak tree that provides the ability to stand up and look in different directions instead of just sitting the whole time. This ranch has been hunted for 40 years and many of the trees that the stands are in have grown around the welded stands, allowing for larger foot rests and in the case of #2, places to easily stand if you care to. That night was only slightly different from the morning. I did see two deer, a yearling and a doe right at dusk. The doe was extremely wary and after briefly straying into range, quickly moved back into the trees. The yearling ate some of the corn from the road on the south side but I wasn’t sure of the distance. I learned a valuable lesson on Sunday from an experienced hunter related to this issue. When hunting from a stand, it’s important to find your lanes and then mark them off before getting into the tree. This came in handy Sunday night but Saturday night, it meant the yearling left without a shot.
Saturday night, a cold front came in bringing rain that lasted from 1 AM to about 7 AM. This tested our group’s hardcore dedication and found it wanting. We had breakfast instead of venturing out in the rain to sit in a tree. This was probably a mistake as we found out that afternoon that the other camp had most of their success that morning. I ended up not getting into a stand until 7:30. I choose #11 this time and of all the ones I saw, this was the worst. It had two main sight lines but little cover nearby. There was a great deal of tracks around the area but I assume they were all made in the dark. I sat in 11 about an hour and then walked up the road towards 12. 12 is the most remote on the ranch and while it was the middle of the day, I went ahead and sat there for an hour as well. I think 12 would be a good place to hunt from especially if you dragged some corn out and spread it around the hill that it is on. No matter what, it has by far the best views of any stands I saw.
After lunch, I decided to hunt from #10 that evening. It’s a good stand, off the road 50 yards with 4-5 sight lines and right on a game trail from the big feeder on that side of the pasture. I put out quite a bit of corn, measured off my distances ( I learn reasonably quickly) and climbed into the stand at about 4:45. Sunset was around 7:25 that evening and at about 7:10, two deer came in from the south. They browsed on whatever they wanted to in the area other than the corn I had put out. They weren’t big deer but not having any experience with deer in the wild, I assumed they were just small Hill Country deer, something I had been told about. They were moving towards a 15 yard window when I heard a twig snap behind me. I turned to look and apparently their mother had been moving around the perimeter of stand 10. She must have heard me when I turned and all three of them quickly moved on. This was hard lesson number two in a weekend of hard lessons.
Nothing else came in that evening and we returned to camp. The next morning, I was back in stand 10 at 6:15 AM. However, none of my corn had made it through the night. At first light, I turned to the east and saw a small deer, another yearling, browsing in one of the main shooting lanes. At the same time, a doe that I presume was its mother moved into a shooting lane on the north side of the tree. In the end, I didn’t take a shot at either. The doe would have been a good shot and I knew the distance. Apparently, I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the actual moment of pulling back the drawstring. I think it would have been different with a buck but who knows. The city boy in me seems to still sway some control.
Not 10 minutes later, a group of five hogs moved out of some trees in the distance and made their way to the feeder to the west of #10. Having passed on the doe, I held my breath hoping they would come my direction. They weren’t large, probably 50-60 pounds each but my entire hunting journey began because of pigs and I was going to shoot one if they came into range. After 5-10 minutes they did start to move towards me. As they moved into range, I made another rookie mistake and pulled the bow too soon. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to hold the bow at draw until they got into my range and so I rested it on my leg at full draw, waiting for them to come closer. When they finally did, I made my second to last rookie mistake and forgot to take the bow off my leg for the shot. I put my second pin on the shoulder of the largest one and released the trigger. The bottom wheel, resting on my leg, caught my pants and yanked the bow down. The shot embedded harmlessly in the dirt 10 yards in front of the pigs.
Luckily, pigs are a lot less wary than deer and they only ran about five yards. I couldn’t believe it but after 30 seconds, they regrouped and came back in. I nocked another arrow, put the pin on the hog again and released. And here’s where we get to my last rookie mistake. I’ve never shot from a stand. I aimed too high for the distance and the arrow embedded in the dirt immediately behind the hog. After two shots, they were decidedly less hungry and ran off at full speed.
The moral of the story is that hunting is pretty hard when you’re within 30 yards of a large animal for the first time both from a concealment perspective, a logistical perspective and a “can you really decide to kill that animial” perspective. I learned a lot last weekend and I’m already looking forward to my next hunt. I’m disappointed I didn’t have more success but perhaps my expectations were far too high for a first real hunt. All in all, the experience alone was worth the trip as being out under the stars with a good group of guys was awfully rewarding.