Goodbye to Romance

As I shuffle down the old logging road, I smile at the familiarity of this event. It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Every year — 26 and counting — on this day, I’ve rolled out in the dark, donned blaze orange and headed toward a farm, woodlot or county forest.

And every season since I was 12, I’ve gazed up at the sky, wondered about the events to come and felt that same nervous anticipation. It’s opening day ofWisconsin’s gun-deer season, and it still hasn’t become old.

But as I slip through the woods and climb into the old stand, I realize this year feels different. The excitement is still there, and the sights and sounds of the woods still thrill me.

However, I think I’ve developed an identity crisis. Maybe it started almost two decades ago, when biologists told us we needed to kill more deer. Of course, their science was sound, and they were correct. Deer populations in my home state of Wisconsin and many other areas were exploding; overbrowsing forests, escalating crop damage, increasing the risk of deer-vehicle collisions and screwing up nature’s system of checks and balances.

Or perhaps my perceptions changed a few seasons later, when it seemed like the all-important antlerless harvest numbers began to supercede the mystique and tradition of deer season. The trend certainly hit a fever pitch a couple of years ago, when chronic wasting disease entered our consciousness and deer herds, resulting in more special seasons than you could count and, in some cases, the unthinkable: selective herd eradication attempts.

Before long, it seemed like the sacred traditions of deer hunting — fellowship, wood-craft and meat gathering — had been replaced by an emotionless yet desperate volunteer wildlife-management effort.

It was enough to make the most innocent, awestruck hunter cynical. Maybe a buddy had summed it up days before this deer season. “Yep,” he said, “deer hunting is nothing more than pest management nowadays.”

The Manager Wavers

During this almost-holy day, the statement makes me cringe. But my friend had a point. Game managers wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t accurately estimate herds, document the many areas overpopulated with deer and use their main herd-control tool — hunters — to remedy the problem.

And most hunters, to their credit, have responded well, killing antlerless deer early and often. I feel obligated to do my part and kill at least a couple of does every gun season.  And when I reflect after every year, I often think I should have done more and encouraged other hunters to do likewise.

Heck, that’s just text book modern wildlife management, and it’s the responsible thing to do. Still, the emphasis on herd control seems to dull the shine of deer hunting.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy, but this season used to be reserved for the smell of wood smoke, the sizzle of fresh liver or tenderloins on a cast iron skillet and the day long pursuit of one set of tracks winding through a white North Woods land-scape.

Now, it’s about numbers; the quota, the harvest, the overwinter population and the subsequent fawn crop. I guess I could blame that mindset on the mainstream media, but that’s a copout.

Years ago, I was a reporter in the much-maligned newspaper profession, and I know how media-folk think. The harvest is the most newsworthy item because it affects the most people.

If the kill is higher or lower than expected, it touches everyone, including hunters, farmers, motorists, suburban homeowners, insurance companies and many others.

Sure, we’d like to hear more about a youngster killing his first buck, or a group of deer hunters with a 100-year camp tradition, but that’s reserved for an occasional spot on the features page. The harvest is important stuff on many levels, but the human aspects — albeit usually more interesting — are relatively small.

There’s only one thing that bugs me about that: Nonhunters continually read and hear about hunters as deer-control soldiers — nothing more. Further, they quickly assume that the only reason for hunting is wildlife management.

That message easily leads to dangerous perceptions.Why do people hunt deer? The knee-jerk answer is because deer are too abundant. Why do some folks hunt bears? Because there are too many bears Up North.Why do some people hunt geese? Because non-migratory giant Canada geese foul our parks and golf courses with poop.

So, using that logic, why would folks hunt ducks, turkeys, upland birds and many types of big game? The situation gets complicated.

Those animals are not overpopulated, so there’s no justifi-cation, right? Of course, we know that’s not true. But we are hunters, and most folks are not To many nonhunters — and most mean no harm — hunters aren’t folks who thrill at the sunrise and long to see the flick of a buck’s tail through the popple. They’re just grunts in an increasingly necessary cadre that tries to keep the pesky deer herd in check.

Sorting it Out

I guess much of that perception is true. Hunters are necessary to keep the deer herd in check. We’ve learned the science and embraced our relatively new role as the No.1 predator of the prolific white-tailed deer.

Further, we must continue — no, increase — that role each year. But as I sit in this old stand today, I’ll be damned if that’s how I define myself— or, specifically, how I define my deer hunting.

Sitting here with the bitter northwind in my face, and the white pine treetops tossing to and fro, I’m no statistic in a predator-prey spreadsheet. I’m a game manager, but I don’t get up at 4 a.m. several consecutive days to “manage.”

I’m a necessary predator in the skewed modern ecosystem, but I don’t freeze my hinder for 10 hours in this cold metal contraption because I know my doe kills will help the area’s herd.

Without the wind through the white pines, this day would be far less magical. If no ravens croaked far overhead and no squirrels scurried through the fallen leaves, I wouldn’t be as rich from the experience. And if I didn’t shiver at the cold, warm with the sun and tire with the evening — sensations that let me know I’m alive — these hours in the old stand would mean little.

Most important, if my eyes didn’t pierce the brush, my ears didn’t strain to hear every faint noise and my heart didn’t quicken and pound when I glimpsed a deer, I would find no true purpose in deer hunting.

I hope I never hunt deer out of a sense of duty. I will if I must. But if I begrudgingly pull on my boots and tote a slug gun afield instead of, as MacQuarrie said,“communing with the dawn,” there will be no joy in it.

Romance in Action

My thoughts are interrupted by a flicker of movement to the north. A doe is skirting the swamp edge, slowly picking her way through the birches toward me. Within minutes, she’ll pass 50 yards from my stand. Reflexes take over.

Slowly, I ease my shotgun to port arms and try to pick out an opening in the birches. The wind is perfect, and I’m fairly concealed, so little can go wrong.

Still, my breathing hastens, and my chest heaves in anticipation. When the doe steps behind a towering pine, I raise the gun and try to find her in my scope. Seconds later, she steps into a small opening, and I center the cross-hairs just behind her shoulder.

At the shot, she mule-kicks and speeds southward through the trees. After a few tense seconds, I swear I hear her crash somewhere in the brush. “Got her …I think,” I whisper. I unload and lower my gun, and then climb down from the stand.Yes! There’s blood, and lots of it.

After about 20 steps, though, I lose the trail. Instead of trying to pick out bits of red on the dark duff, I decide to walk directly to where I last saw the deer. As I top the small ridge, I see the doe’s white belly by a blowdown. The hunt is finished for now.

I exhale deeply and try to savor the moment. The game manager has succeeded, but the hunter celebrates.

— Brian Lovett is an award-winning author, editor and photographer from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.