Rifle hunting season is upon us in Montana and it’s the talk of the town. For the past couple of months, friends and colleagues have been discussing, preparing, planning and obsessing over where to hunt and their hunting techniques. People have been target shooting and stocking up on new guns, ammo and camouflage. There is a lottery system in pace, whereby you can apply to get tags for certain animals. Most people get two tags for deer and two for Elk. Others who are luckier might get drawn for antelope tags. The tag system is taken very seriously and it is a poaching offensive if you shoot an animal you do not have a tag for. All this talk has been making me very curious as to what exactly is so thrilling about hunting. Each hunt you go on there is only a 10% chance of actually getting something. It sounded like hunting is rather like going for a hike with a rifle. Nonetheless, the only way to find out what hunting really entails was trying it for myself.
Nolan (the father of the family I’m staying with) offered to take me hunting with him on Wednesday afternoon. I spoke with my supervisor at work and seeing as it was hunting I would be doing, he gladly gave me the afternoon off. During hunting season, the office becomes a ghost town – most people take leave.
The event began with an hour drive to a spot where talk of bucks (male deer) had been spotted by folk in the office. We arrived at Sweet water, which is an area of block management. This means that some land is public, some owned by BLM (Bureau Of Land Management) and some by ranch owners who have been paid to open their land for hunting. This is beneficial to all parties involved as wild game is overpopulated. So hunting deer and Elk means less pressure is put on the land by the grazing of the animals.
When we arrived, the first thing to do was get our florescent gear on so we could be spotted by other hunters. Next, it was time to throw our rucksacks on and begin out walk. We strolled across the flat valley bottom before we began our descend up the mountain. It was extremely important to be quiet, so no talking was permitted. We whispered from time to time. On the walk we spotted deer hoof prints. These were fashioned in such a way indicating the animal to have been running. At times we could smell deer but could not see any. It was about 1pm – not a usual time to hunt. This is because deer will be laying down resting. Many hunters go in the morning or evening when deer come out to graze. Although, we didn’t see anything for quiet some time the hike was fun. It was a beautiful area. The mountains were scenic and their snow capped peaks beautiful.
A promising ridge became visible – very likely to be home to deer. For this we slowed down considerably, went on our tiptoes and made as little noise as possible. I felt like I was playing grandma’s footsteps or sneaking in the house late at night. Cautiously approaching the top of the ridge we peered over – no sign of anything. I was not surprised, coming hunting I knew it was unlikely to find anything. Using the binoculars we scanned the area – still no signs.
Regardless, we carried on our hike going further and further into the woods, across watersheds and clambering up valleys. As we decided to walk along one more ridge and then return Nolan spied an animal. He gestured us to halt and quickly go on our knees. Crouching on the cold, spiky, muddy floor we used the binoculars to get a closer look. It was a buck – perfect Nolan had the correct tag. Game plan: we needed to get to the buck without it seeing or hearing us – a tricky affair. There was a tree hiding us, so we were able to creep along behind it. Each step I took, I tactically placed my feet avoiding the crunchy cactuses and the grassy vegetation. We were nearing the buck now. A large stone was placed in a prime position in front of the buck. Here Nolan lay down and set up the rifle, we silently took our rucksacks off. Nolan’s had a metal frame on, which scraped the stone, the buck heard, pricked it’s ears up and looked around. Thank goodness we were able to hide behind the stone and the buck stayed put. I crouched behind Nolan waiting, watching and crossing my fingers. It was not an easy shot. Nolan kept readjusting the rifle and analysing the Buck’ s movements. After some contemplation, the trigger was pulled, an almighty bang made and the buck fell to the ground. A clean shot, we waited to make sure it was not moving and then walked over. The deer had been shot straight through its lower body and was lying on its side – dead. In all the excitement we were still whispering and creeping along until we realised that there was no need. We cheered and then the hard work began. This buck was not a small creature, in fact it was huge. Somehow, we had to get it all the way back to the truck which was about a three hour hike away. It was already 4pm, so we had to be fast and efficient.
The best option was cutting the meat there and transporting it back in our rucksacks. First, the neck had to be cut ensuring it was dead. Nolan said a quick prayer thanking mother nature for giving us this beautiful deer. Following this it’s skin needed to be stripped. My hands were so cold, I could not feel them or use them properly. Nolan said I should warm them up on the deer. So I tentatively placed my hands on the fur, then realised he meant I should shove my hands between the fur and the organs. He was right it was so warm. While it was sticky and bloody I was just grateful my hands were slowly warming up. We continued cutting off the fur and then made a slit along the belly enabling the organs to be removed. First the windpipe, then heart, followed by lungs, intestine and liver.
Now it was time to harvest the meat. The legs were tough to obtain. The lower leg with the hoof on had to be removed first, then the hip joint needed to be detached. This took quite some time and effort but after a while all four massive legs were ready. Next, the back strap, tender loin and neck meat was cut from the carcass. This procedure took a couple of hours. It felt strangely nice to be processing fresh meat. The smell was strong, gloopy blood present and the animals muscles were still twitching but we were being sustainable. Instead of buying shop bought meat, we knew exactly where the meat had come from and knew that the deer had a happy life grazing in the mountains. We were part of the natural food process. In addition, by killing the deer, less grass will be grazed and so the vegetation will thrive, benefiting ecosystems. However, startling it may be to butcher meat, it is also fascinating, I learnt a lot about anatomy too. I think it’s important if we are to eat meat to know the process involved in it reaching our dinner plates.
It was now time to get all the meat back to the truck. Turns out deer is very heavy to carry. I stuffed, two legs and some back meat in my rucksack. I somehow managed to haul it over my shoulders, grab the riffle and then set off, hiking back the way we came. To begin with we were slower on our feet, the deer weighing us down considerably. Once we got used to the weight we managed to go slightly faster. We reached a point where we could go the way we came or attempt to reach the road sooner. I was indifferent and we attempted to find the road. Hiking further and further the sun was beginning to set and dusk kicked in. My eyes adjusted to the dim light and I managed to avoid holes, rocks and the sage brush. Each mountain ridge, steep cliff and bluff looked familiar but then entire landscape was ubiquitous. We would think we knew where we were and then minutes later we were disorientated. Finally the sun set completely and darkness was upon us. I did not have a flash light of course – so we had one between two. We kept walking, with no road in sight – we were well and truly lost. The mountains were eery, shadows of trees and mountains could seen be in the distance and we could hear nothing but our footsteps and chatter.
Although our water bottles were practically empty, we had no food and no cell service, I felt strangely optimistic I knew that we would get back to the truck eventually even if it meant we had to walk all night. We both just carried on, trying our best not to fall over. We reached a barbed wire fence and rejoiced as we had to cross one on the way in. We cautiously lifted the wire and crawled through, only to find that this was not the fence we crossed previously. More hiking followed further more hiking. Then we heard a car meaning there must be a road somewhere near – miracle. We wanted to think the road was in front of us so convinced ourselves that the noise came from there and continued walking. To our dismay there was no road. Time to turn around, it was obvious we were going the complete wrong way. However, the right way to walk was still unknown. The moon began to rise, it was a full moon and provided us with hope. Each night the moon rises to the East and the truck was parked to the east. Time to follow the moon. Out of the darkness we saw a light – humans, there were people around. Again I cheered we were not alone after all. I had recently watched a Ted video regarding hitchhiking and shared the top tips I leant from it. Unfortunately, it turned out this light was a lot further than I imagined. We walked for quiet some time the light appearing not to get any closer. Still determined we persevered. Finally, when we were half way to the light we saw another fence. This time I didn’t cheer, I didn’t want to get excited like the last time for nothing and jinx it, so I kept focusing on the light which we would reach eventually. We clambered through this barbed wire. Lobbing the enormous bags over and then ourselves slithering through a narrow gap. Time for a break, to drink a trickle of water and a sit down. I toppled down on my bag and gazed up to the sky, the stars were out and looked fantastic, they glimmered in the dark black sky. It was hard to get up from this peaceful seat but when we did we were blessed with the familiarity of a near by hill. The truck was definitely near now. By luck, following the moon and light we got on the right track. I even tripped over some old barbed wire we passed on the way in. This, I was happy about because it meant we were relatively near. The last leg of the hike we felt so near yet so far from the truck. The shadow of the tree we parked next to became visible, then we could see the truck itself. After a few more minutes we reached the truck, our saviour. I didn’t know what to do first. I decided getting rid of the bag was a must, I chucked it with all my might into the back and then lifted my arms in relief. My shoulder, back and legs ached but we made it back to the truck with a deer. The journey was not over yet it was still another hour to the yurt. I demolished a fudge chocolate cake in the car. I was famished.
On arriving back at the yurt, I scrubbed off all the blood and guts in a hot shower and crawled into bed. The cold still vibrating through my bones. Before sleeping I lay awake thinking about how much I had learned and experienced on my first ever hunting experience. If I had not kept my spirits high, I know we would not have made it back to the truck. At times it would have been easy to stop and give up but in the long run this would have been harder, we would have got cold, demotivated and in even more trouble. The best thing to do is carry on through the adventure. To me, there was no other option but to continue. Every challenge tests your patience, determination and attitude. Staying calm and positive in this instance helped us find the truck. I am glad I went hunting, although it was hard and cold the feeling of reaching home with deer meat which will last the family for months was very rewarding. The experience as a whole was very unique and memorable.
Top tips for first time hunters:
– Try not to talk while hunting – whisper if needed, hand signals are the best.
-Take a headlight – you never know how long you will be out.
-If harvesting takes too long you can leave the meat there overnight and collect it the next day.
-Do not wash the day before hunting – animals can smell scented soaps, perfumes, deodorant etc. So try and refrain from using these.
-Take a GPS or at least a map and compass.
-Wear old clothes you don’t mind getting covered in blood and dirt.
-Take plenty of sturdy plastic bags to carry the meat in.
-Bring food and water for yourself, it’s hungry work!
-Embrace every aspect of it and have fun.