By Mark Kenyon
A friend of mine, Aaron Farley of RusticMan.com, recently wrote an article pondering the question of if “trophy deer management is ruining hunting.” After reading this article, it got me thinking. I hate the term “trophy hunting” and what it implies. But, I do target and hunt mature bucks. By doing this, am I by definition, actually a trophy hunter? If I’m not hunting just for meat, and rather for a specific deer to provide that meat, what does that make me? How can I justify this? Why do I hunt mature bucks?
Two Ways To The Summit
When pondering these questions, I think back to the last day of my honeymoon this past fall. It was a bright and sunny day, crisp like an apple and fresh like the icy spring water flowing down from mountain top above us. We were hiking to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, and as I came around the bend, my eyes took in a scene straight from National Geographic. A lush basin of conifer greens and granite grays swept up on either side, forming a half-mile wide bowl with a stream of white and whisping clouds of milk flowing over and down from the mountain peaks. Later we reached for hand holds in the blocks of quartzite and schist, and clambered our way up from one lichen covered ledge to the next, straining to stay upright, and with rain and fog quickly socking us in. The glacial cirque rose above and around us, and with each tiny, painful step, we rose higher upon it’s great walls – our goal seemingly just ahead, yet ultimately so far off.
Finally, with a final heave and our last ounce of energy, we reached the summit.
And then we saw the people. And the cars. And the heated gift shop.
You see, there were two ways to the summit. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people took cars, shuttles or a train up to the top of Mount Washington each day, and they got to see the same view as Kylie and I. So why would we choose to climb when we could have drove? Why would we choose to endure the 4,250 feet of elevation gain, which the memory of now burned fiercely in my calves? Why would we choose the slips and falls, the bruised shins, the scratched hands, and the frozen, wet faces? Why put ourselves through this, when we could have driven or rode our way to the top, and enjoyed the same view? Why, when there were two ways to the summit, did we choose the path of more struggle?
I believe the answer to these questions, is the exact same answer as to why I choose to hunt deer the way I do.
A Meat Hunter With A Fickle Trigger Finger
When speaking with non-hunters, very often the question is posed to me of why I hunt. And while the answer is a long and winding one, usually one of the first pieces of the puzzle mentioned is that I hunt for food. From the first day my grandpa handed me a rifle, it was engrained in me that we don’t kill, just to kill. With this rifle came a monumental responsibility, and no living, breathing creature was to be put in that scope unless I intended to eat, consume or use it in some way. Ever since those early days, I’ve carried this responsibility and belief with me. And so, without a doubt, I consider myself a meat hunter.
When I first began to hunt, meat was the only prerequisite, and so any deer composed of living breathing tissue, blood and bone was a target. And I believe and hope this is how it is for most new hunters today. In time though, I learned more about deer and the hunt, and acquiring meat became less of a challenge. No less important, but less of a struggle to obtain. I came to realize that while food was my ultimate desire, the hunt for it and the inherent challenge in acquiring it was almost as important as the meat to the meal.
With that said, I’m now a meat hunter with a fickle trigger finger. I choose to pass on hundreds of deer each year, waiting instead for a specific kind of deer. What some people may call a “trophy buck.”
Wise with age. Wrinkled with time. Brow furrowed and dark, chest bulging, and thick legs like oaken trunks. And, maybe, tall or wide or massive, white, shining, wrapping, curving and reaching antlers.
Yes, all of these traits are embodied in the deer I choose to hunt.
But these deer are not just impressive physically, most importantly, they impress with their will to survive. Their savvy. Their instincts.
Just as a mountain top view would not look as rich if drove there, a meal of wild venison does not taste as rich if not labored, longed and struggled for. This struggle is what a mature buck provides me.
This Is Not Trophy Hunting
My hunt and my choice of quarry are personal, and I would not force this upon anyone, but at the same time I would ask that labels or stereotypes not be forced upon me. Yes, I choose to focus my hunting efforts, plans and projects on mature bucks that some would consider “trophies”, but I am no “trophy hunter.”
If I could, I would wish that phrase away from our collective vocabularies. But sadly, I know many people are ok with that label and might even brag of their prowess in this “pursuit”. If that is you, I pray that you take a moment to reconsider.
The deer we hunt and kill are not mere trophies. These are living, breathing, beautiful creatures – and they are a gift. A gift that needs to be respected and cherished. The precious beat of a heart is not something to be trifled with. The flow of blood through veins is not a blessing to be taken idly. Deer, and all of nature’s creatures, are not mere play things for us humans. They have been entrusted to our care, to be appreciated, conserved, revered and when necessary, utilized with respect.
I’m reminded of a quote from an essay written by Thomas McGuane …
“I was blood from the elbows down and the animals eyes had skinned over. I thought, this is ***damn serious and you had better always remember that.”
This is a serious business we take part in, when we kill another animal, and it should be treated and revered in such a way.
Yes, the deer I kill at this point in my life are the type that will grace my walls. But these are not mere trophies. Rather these are memories.
These heads on my wall are reminders of the long days on stand. These heads on my wall are memoirs of the struggles along the way. These heads on my wall are memorials to the incredible creatures I hunted, and the bumps, cuts, and bruises along the way.
To Climb The Mountain
Meat is the imperative. It is at the core, and inevitably is the most important of the reasons for why I hunt.
But, to truly appreciate the life given to me – to the fullest, I must struggle to lay claim to it. I must feel the burn in my calves. I must endure the granite scratching my hands and the rain pounding upon me. I must fail, and then be forced to look within, and find if I have what it takes to continue.
A climber was once asked why he bothers to climb in the first place, and his answer now echoes within my hunting soul.
“What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.”
Why, when there are two ways to the summit, do I choose the path of more struggle? Why do I hunt an older, wiser, more to difficult deer to kill?
It’s to climb the mountain and then to see, once I have, who I am.