As a kid, the concept of killing woodland creatures lost some of its luster the day I shot a squirrel in my backyard with an air pellet gun. It started screaming like a squealing tire, so I shot it again, hoping to end its misery. No luck. It just kept limping and screaming. This moved me to tears. I knew only one remedy for the squirrel’s suffering: I got a shovel from the barn and finished him off with one swift jab.
I am not the trigger-happy good ol’ boy most urban Americans imagine when they think of hunters. I lived a few years in the country, but spent the majority of my life inside town limits. I hunted only once as a child—for squirrels with my dad and brother—and I spent most of the day seeing how many acorns I could collect. But my inner hunter began to stir after I saw Food, Inc. and realized that my diet was killing me. That said, I wasn’t prepared to forego meat altogether.
One night, I stepped into my backyard to witness a small stampede of urban deer running over my daylilies. There they go again, I thought. Deer, rabbits, geese, ducks—I’d encountered them all fairly routinely in my yard or around town. And that’s when I had a small epiphany: I could eat local, all-organic, 100-percent sustainable meat from here to eternity if I took up hunting.
I should tell you that my abilities as a sportsman are more Elmer Fuddian than Ted Nugentesque. I routinely strike out on fishing trips, even when friends take home their legal limit of trout. In 2009, I went gunning for ruffed grouse with my college roommate, Matt. We spent a glorious fall afternoon on 1,200 acres of Northern Michigan woodland, 20-gauge shotguns in hand, ready to blast the first bird we saw. I remember the day well: The sun was out, the temperature hovered just under 60 degrees, and a breeze carried the scent of pinesap. It was perfect. Except Matt’s dog was drugged up (hip problem) and wouldn’t leave the two-track. We spent three hours kicking through the grass on our own only to call it quits early, beckoned by Matt’s 48-inch television and Xbox, where we could play Cabela’s Big Game Hunter and finally get a (virtual) shot at something.
I came to understand that some amount of failure is normal. “It’s called hunting, not getting,” says Tim Bayer, a friend who agreed to school me in local turkey hunting last spring. Still, my haplessness seemed exceptional. Most hunters learn the sport from their family members. Though my dad went for deer every fall, I had more interest in Disney movies and baseball cards and never expressed interest (see: decapitated squirrel, aforementioned). I was comfortable firing a gun but didn’t know a turkey call from a bleating deer. Would I have to bathe in animal urine to disguise my scent? Was Mossy Oak camouflage…or a poisonous plant? Lucky for me, Ohio and most other states offer an apprentice license, a sort of learner’s permit for sportsmen.
The number of hunters in Ohio has fallen by half since 1949, and the state wants every new hunter it can get. In 1991, more than half of Ohio’s 580,000 hunters lived in urban areas. By 2006, just over a third of the now-shrunken 477,000 did. The apprentice program was introduced in 2004 to change that by allowing young, ignorant hunters (me) to pair up with experienced sportsmen who know what the hell they’re doing (Tim).
Tim grew up hunting rabbits and quail with his dad and brothers in Butler, Warren, and Clermont counties. “I would play dog. I would go up to a brush pile and kick it for them,” he told me. Having advanced up the ranks, it was his turn to teach someone. Thankfully, like most hunters, he’s always looking for an excuse to go. We agreed to meet at 4:30 a.m. on the opening day of spring turkey season. He’d bring the shotguns.
Imagine if you can the coming of a spring dawn in a small Stonelick Township clearing. Imagine songbirds just waking up. Now imagine songbirds so loud your eardrums almost bleed, because that is exactly what happens on spring mornings. That was my first discovery as Tim and I sat behind a pile of honeysuckle he had fashioned into a blind the week before. I was antsy, covered head to toe in Mossy Oak camouflage, and couldn’t find a comfortable position to hold the shotgun. As the sun came up, I could just make out the decoys 20 yards in front of us. We heard the sound of turkeys leaving their night’s roost in the trees and flopping onto the ground. Tim nodded to me, and pulled a camo mask over his face. It was time to watch and wait.
Given my prior mishaps and failures in the field, I tried to keep my expectations low. An hour into the hunt, I was watching two white tailed deer graze peacefully when Tim whispered, “Don’t move.” I glanced to my left and almost had a coronary. Eight turkeys were heading in a dead sprint for our decoys. “Your safety off?” Tim asked. I flipped the switch. “Aim for the head. On three.”
Tim counted. We stood. We fired. Tim’s shot took out the lead turkey, flipping him over mid-run. In case you ever go turkey hunting, a word to the wise: There is an uncomfortable amount of flopping that goes on if your shot hits the mark.
My shot went wide. Or maybe high? I’m not exactly sure. I did not expect to be bum-rushed by a horde of young toms. Neither of us are exactly sure how I missed them at close range, but I have decided to blame the fact that I shot right-handed but aimed with my dominant left eye—a beginner’s mistake that decreases accuracy, apparently.
It turns out that harvesting an animal, a phrase some closet pacifist hunter must have invented to avoid using the word killing too often, is but one very small (though exciting) part of the sport. “Every morning I go hunting, I get a beautiful sunrise,” Tim told me. “My dad always said when you walk into the forest, sit down. [If] you’re quiet for a while, the forest wakes back up.”
It’s true. The average city dweller follows designated trails to observe nature; hunters do their best to disappear into it. The thrill of seeing the natural world in its natural state is reason enough to take up the sport.
This fall, I plan on joining my friend Matt on my first deer hunt. Will we bag one? Maybe not. But I’ve come to realize that putting pasture-raised venison on my plate is only one benefit of hunting. At the very least, I will see a Northern Michigan sunrise while surrounded by crisp fall colors. Plus I have a backup plan in case I miss again: If Matt kills a second deer, I get the venison.
Illustration by Mark Matcho
Originally published in the August 2011 issue.