Deer Hunt

This post is by Nat, who joined Adam Brack on a deer hunt last Sunday morning when we were staying with Jane Shepard in Panama City Beach. Adam is Jane’s son-in-law, married to her daughter Erin.

Here is Nat’s story:

Within twenty minutes of our arrival at Jane Shepard’s place in Panama City Beach, Adam told me he had errands to run before dinner. Would I like to come? I said why not. It was a good chance to get a lay of the land. We drove to Adam’s office, a golf instruction building on a short driving range adjoining an 18-hole course. Inside, he showed me tools that he uses to help golfers develop more sound, consistent swings. He moved from one instrument to the next in the way a salesman points out another product on a shelf. He grabbed some venison sausage and a half rack of Coors from his fridge to bring back to Jane’s.

Over dinner, Adam shared his love for hunting and the sausages that came from a doe he shot last month. He told us that sometimes he brings his daughter Emery with him to sit in the blind on his hunting lease some fifteen miles from town. Emery is four and Adam boasted that when she sees deer along the road now she says let’s shoot it and put it in the truck. After dinner Adam asked me to go hunting the next morning. I agreed to meet him outside of Jane’s house at 5:30. He said we would return by 11 at the latest, in time for him to bring his family to church. He gave me a few details about the land his lease is on, told me he had tags for the deer if we did shoot one, and emphasized that it would be cold. After finding out that I had never been hunting before, he asked if I had ever used a rifle. I told him I had, in target practice. Apparently that was good enough. He told me to think of hunting as a video game, just like Big Buck Hunter. I decided to bring a camera and the telephoto lens, and mentioned to my dad that I may just take photos if I happened to see a deer.

A racoon being cleaned on the Apalachicola dock.

Why did I choose to go? After seeing photos my Dad took in Apalachicola of a raccoon being skinned I grew more curious of the hunt. Two twelve year olds walking around with .22s in their hands along a bike trail in St. Marks also led me to wonder about hunting and its popularity in the south. I had an idea that learning to take down and clean a deer would be good survival skills. Mostly I was drawn to Adam’s passion for hunting. But did I truly want to kill a deer?

When I awoke the next day I felt more awake than usual. We passed two gas stations in darkness until we finally reached an open one. The attendant was standing outside. As we went in he joked that all the deer were gone, it was so cold they had fled south. I guessed he knew we were going hunting by Adam’s full camouflage, the four-wheeler on our trailer, and finally who else is awake at 5:45 on a Sunday. I had on all the layers I’ve got, a green raincoat, and work pants. Because of my outfit I was to hunt from the condo, where the deer wouldn’t see my colors. What Adam calls the condo is a raised blind with a five step slanted ladder leading to a weathered plywood door. A bent nail keeps the door closed.

Before we left the truck, I watched as Adam loaded a black powder rifle. Hunting with this rifle allows him to hunt a longer season. It also means he has to reload new powder and a bullet from the barrel end with a ramrod before every shot, like a musket from revolutionary times. He handed me a lever-action rifle akin to the only one I’ve ever fired and I pulled my camera and lens onto my lap while we seated ourselves on his ATV.

Without passing more than a few words, I climbed off of the machine and up into the blind. As he drove away I watched his silhouette vanish around a bend in the road. I gave myself something to do by removing the wide-angle lens from the camera. With the telephoto in place, I began to adjust my seat so that the lens could sit directly on the sill of the small window cut into the east-facing wall of the blind. Over the next hour I sat patiently as sunrays poured onto the needles of the roadside pines. Adam shares the hunting lease with eight other men, and each has their own tract. The St. Joseph paper company leases land to hunters in the region as another way to profit from pine plantation soil.

Sunrise from the blind.

A curtain of fog rose and fell and billowed like smoke as condensation parted from the trees and grass. I took deep breaths between the times I blew on my hands to keep them warm. I picked the gun up once to place a squirrel in the crosshairs, leaned my head over the top of it and squinted my left eye into the scope. The metal of the rifle was ice to the touch so I placed it back in the corner of the blind. I lifted the camera to my face and snapped photos of the changing light. I saw through the lens different patterns in neat pine rows. I drank small sips of water not because I was thirsty but for something to do.

When I first saw the doe out of the corner of my eye, I thought it was a fawn. I knew deer in Florida were smaller than those in Minnesota, but this one looked too small. I sent a text to Adam that said I see a fawn. Does it have spots? No, no it doesn’t. I waited. I don’t know how long.

I don’t recall reaching a decision, but set down the camera and reached for the rifle in the corner. Two more does eventually wandered onto the path blazed for an ATV. With the rifle in my hands I forgot about the cold. My heart rate felt normal but I could hear the beating louder than usual. The deer seemed to take turns looking up with long ears perked at where I sat. I picked out the largest doe of the three in the crosshairs. I waited for what felt like ages then slowly began to pull the trigger. Nothing. I placed my thumb on the hammer and pulled it back until it clicked once, twice.

After I pulled the trigger the second time I don’t know if I moved or put the rifle down. The echo from the shot hovered all around me. The doe was still moving, but she was down and I knew then that I had taken her life. I waited again. I told Adam by text what I had done before unlatching the door and stepping down the ladder. Adam wrote back that he would come in 15 minutes. I wrote one more text to him that said ok. I feel strange.

I paced uncomfortably around the doe for several minutes, then knelt down next to her and touched my open palm to her chest, where I thought her heart to be. I moved my hand slowly over her fur towards her hind legs. She was innocent in a way I had never seen an animal before. A lump formed in my throat as I bowed my head and considered what I had done.

The photographs I took of the doe’s lifeless body will be all that remain of the deer once the venison is gone. Somehow, the act of documenting my experience after the doe’s death has given me peace of mind. The last thing I wanted to do was take a photo standing over the deer. But capturing the image of the doe that I saw before I leaned over to pet her is important to me now.

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4 Responses to Deer Hunt

  1. Suzanne says:

    Gulp. I offered a few prayers for you and the doe when I heard about this.
    In some cultures a young man will shave his head and go out to hunt when he “comes of age”. Thanks for sharing your experience dear one. Your picture of the sun rise and the deer are beautiful. Love, M

  2. John Eakin says:

    Nat–I found your account very involving because I have never hunted, although I went to a camp where we regularly had target practice on a rifle range. I admire your openness to this experience. You capture your state of mind, giving yourself up to it, yet also with misgivings. Drinking water even though you weren’t thirsty, and a moment of decision that “happens.” John

  3. Nan says:

    A fine story Nat. I was right there. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Nat says:

    Thanks, dear family, for your responses. In some way I think you were all there. I think you are there in my memories of childhood that help guide me through a reflective process.

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