My thoughts on everything from albacore tuna to zebras
| …scratch that. Long ago when I was young (I was never little) hunting, in Pennsylvania, was different. I can still remember my excitement as a child, walking home from school and seeing the various deer hanging from trees, ladders and garage rafters, sporting racks of all shapes and sizes. Somewhere there is a photo of me sitting between the huge (for a five year old) antlers of a buck killed by one of our neighbor’s sons. I can still close my eyes and see my Dad, dressed in his traditional red plaid Woolrich hunting pants and coat walking out the back door of the house carrying his trusty 30-30 Marlin in pursuit of whitetail deer, or, even earlier in the year, dressed in canvas pants and coat, in pursuit of cottontails and grouse, the beagles running excitedly ahead of him. It was an exciting time. It was a different time. It was a time in my life when the anticipation of fall for hunting wove magically into the excitement of Christmas, and back again to the mystical winter hunting of snowshoe hares. And I hadn’t even picked up a gun yet.
When I was twelve and legally able to hunt, that excitement had become almost unbearable. This was before the advent of hunter education so my safe gun handling training and hunting ethics training came at the hands of my father, my uncle, my cousin and various hunting buddy neighbors. I could not have had better teachers. We hunted public land. We hunted private land. We hunted land that we had no idea who owned. It was an unwritten rule that if the land wasn’t posted, you could hunt it.
I can remember my first hunt with a borrowed 410 shotgun, where after seven shots I managed to bag my first game, the wily gray squirrel. I remember numerous rabbit chases, both with and without dogs. I remember sore feet and wet smelly dogs. I remember lovely frost covered mornings and laughter at shots missed or shots made. I remember the first time, at age thirteen, pulling the trigger on a twelve-gauge shotgun and I remember the excitement of the gift of my first deer rifle, a Remington 35.
But as much fun as small game season was, it was merely the practice round, the prelude to deer season. Back then, deer season took two forms, two weeks of buck season, followed by two or three days of doe season. For buck season, if it had antlers, you shot it. For me, deer season amounted to only two days. Both Saturdays of buck season, for unlike many of my fellow adolescent hunters my parents did not believe hunting was a reason to take a day off from school or work. The schools at that time agreed with him, so I had the misfortune of being one of the only boys of legal hunting age that was actually in school on the first day of “buck season”. So along with the excitement I remember the frustration and disappointment. For the first six years that I hunted deer I never fired a shot, except at the practice range. I never even saw a buck in season, except hung in someone’s backyard or strapped to a vehicle. I endured the schoolyard tales of hunting success from those that had been allowed to play hooky, aptly called the deer flu, and I posed for photos with someone else’s deer.
If the truth is told, I very nearly gave up hunting at that point. For even though I was successful at small game hunting, that all-important set of antlers that I could claim as my own eluded me. I looked often at the one and only six point rack that hung at our home, the one and only buck my Dad had shot up to that time. It hung next to the head of a very respectable walleye, the victim of a home taxidermy experiment. In years to come I would surpass both the six point and the walleye, but at the time each was a lofty goal, an unachievable goal, in my mind. At the time I didn’t give up hunting because I didn’t want to disappoint my Dad. For some reason I felt I had to hunt. It was part of who we were. There was of course, the peer pressure thing, and in retrospect, that also played an important part in my continue to hunt, frustrated as I was. There was also something else, something inside of me, growing; a restlessness that could only be calmed by spending time in the woods, on a river or a lake. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, I was, quite simply, falling in love with the natural world.
I remember cold wet miserable days. I remember knee deep snows and stuck vehicles and ice-cold streams too deep for my boots, which I only found out the hard way. I remember climbing mountains and watching sunrises and sunsets and wondering if I would make it back to the car before it became too dark to see. I remember devouring each and every hunting magazine I could lay my hands on, the most important being, of course, Outdoor Life. That magazine took me on more successful hunts for all sorts of wild game across North America and beyond. It was the young unsuccessful hunter’s salve, the medicinal ointment for the aches and pains, the frustration, the miserable weather and the lack of success. And, most importantly it offered up the chance, through its advertisers, to anyone, with the desire and the money, to pursue these very same animals in far away exotic places, such as British Columbia and Alaska. There was even a place in Pennsylvania where I could hunt wild boar! And so I dreamed. One day I would be a Big Game Hunter and travel the world matching wits with all sorts of animals.
As I grew older and more independent I added weapons and skills to my repertoire. I became a bowhunter. I learned to hunt doves and I chased turkeys through the hollows of northeastern PA but the antlered whitetail continued to elude me. I began to take the first day of buck season off from school or work and I started to hunt doe. Soon I was bringing home venison on a regular basis, but never the antlered variety. Sure, I started to see bucks in season and I even shot at a couple. The operative part of that of course is “shot at” I marveled at the fact that when you looked at the hunting season and fishing season calendars there was always something “in season” throughout the year. I attempted to utilize each and every one of those days.The outdoors was one of the few places I actually felt at peace.
As years went by, I started to develop my own set of hunting ethics. It was a blend, a mixture of the influence of other hunters from my youth, the effects of my education (I pursued a career in environmental protection) and my own thoughts and opinions. It no longer became important to me to “harvest” an antlered deer. The dream of Big Game Hunter was relinquished to fantasy and I began to hunt for my own enjoyment and relaxation, and I counted each successful hunt as simply a day spent a field rather than by the meat in the freezer or the antlers on the wall. I had become comfortable, relaxed and felt I no longer needed to prove to anyone, myself included, my prowess in the outdoors.
But today, some 30 years after I first stepped into the woods with a gun, I find myself rethinking, questioning, why I am out there, and the future of hunting in Pennsylvania.
(To be continued)