Is it a rack, a weight, a score-breaker for the videos? Or a winter’s meat, a tradition, an unending tie to the life-filled land.
by Chad Mason
From the February/March 2009 issue
After a long stretch of bitter cold, a southwesterly breeze finally brought the temperature above freezing, and the unobstructed sun made every solid thing feel warmer than the air.
With only one day left in the January doe season, I called Aldene to ask if I could wait out the evening next to a bale on his place.
“I’ve been seeing some big bucks farther north,” he said, “over by the big pond.”
“Antlers won’t do me any good now,” I said. “Is anything still using the corn or the alfalfa on the main ridge?”
“Oh yeah,” he assured. “There’s been six or eight does up there every day, late of the evening.”
So it was settled. At quarter past three I backed my car into the open gate at the lower end of the hay field. From there I hiked up to the west around the top end of a gully, then back east to the downwind side of the field. The cut stems of alfalfa speckled the sun-softened snow from beneath, and deer trails cut ragged lines between the bales. At numerous locations deer had scooped the snow aside to reach the withered leaves.
Along the way I paced off the distance from a bale on the ridge top to the bale where I had chosen to sit. It was about 200 steps, and this gave me a visual compass that I could swing in my mind to size up the possibilities on anything that showed. From my position I could see the entire hayfield, most of the adjacent corn stubble, and into the tops of several timbered gullies. I sat on a small foam pad to keep the snow from creeping into my bones, and then I leaned back against the sun-dried bale with a rifle across my lap. From then on, hunting for me would consist entirely of staring into the sunset and waiting to see which would appear first, deer or darkness.
Down at the house I could hear Aldene’s tractor running and a dog barking. Once in a while a car rumbled past on the gravel road, and from the north came the low thunder of trains bringing coal from Wyoming. About 25 yards behind me, the neighbor’s cows nibbled hay through the horizontal bars of a round rusty feeder, and I could hear them chewing whenever the breeze lulled.
In these parts, deer aren’t the sole reason for the land’s existence; they live as interlopers on an economy and its people, who belong here as much as the deer.
Our deer live in the scars of a wounded landscape slowly healing. Two fields crown the main ridge of Aldene’s place. The larger field is planted to alfalfa, and in winter is dotted with tawny round bales. The smaller field rotates annually between corn and soybeans. At the lower margins of both fields, the gullies begin as faint dips in the loamy prairie and slump down quickly to vertical banks. Long ago these gullies might have been swales in a grassy savannah, but now the gashes torn open by erosion have filled with cedars, cottonwoods, multiflora rose, dead elms, rusted plows, car bodies—and deer. All these, given the chance, will become soil again by those patient processes through which the land smoothes its own skin. When such wrinkles persist on the land’s face, they mean we’re working her too hard.
Some of the adjacent farms are worked by neighbors who introduced me to Aldene. They let me hunt, too, so I have no shortage of access for now. But absentees own an increasing proportion of the county. In this township alone the county plat book now shows owners from Illinois, Missouri, California, and Kansas. An unforeseeable confluence of whitetail genetics, advanced capitalism, and aging farmers with indifferent heirs has broken a pattern of generational succession that seemed so permanent in its time. Now, much of the county has come into the hands of wealthy outsiders interested solely in making big deer even bigger, and has thus become inaccessible to those of us who actually live here.
South of Aldene’s place, a large parcel was recently purchased by an outdoor television celebrity whose name you would recognize if I told you. They videotape their kills down there and practice “Quality Deer Management,” a practice that includes, among other measures, diligent surveillance and a forest of yellow signs heralding a sorry fate for All Ye Who Enter. Twice, while hunting on foot near the boundary, I have been approached by a young man rolling slowly through the trees in a spotless four-wheel-drive pickup. He’s a very pleasant young man, “just checking on things,” and on one occasion he even helped me gut and drag out my deer. But I always wonder how the hell he knew I was there.
Since that property went under the yellow signs a few years ago, the number of large bucks has increased dramatically throughout the area. But the change is viewed with ambivalence by some of us who have hunted here long enough to remember the days before QDM. For us, the significance of a big deer consisted at least partly in its very improbability. If you got a big buck, you got your picture taken. The rest of us looked at those pictures and wondered when our turn would come. The wondering inspired our hunting, and now we wonder what hunting could possibly mean in an age of diminished wondering. We look at all those big bucks now, and see them as hunting’s version of so many silicone boob jobs: visually arresting, but blurring an important distinction between significance and mere size.
I killed one of “their” bucks last season on the property I hunt, a modest eight-pointer no QDM practitioner would consider a “shooter.” He came from the south, crossed the property line, and stood facing me in a meadow a hundred yards away, staring stupidly. I took careful aim and shot him in the throat with a muzzleloader, dropping him in his tracks. I guess he had been passed up enough times to acquire the false impression that people with guns aren’t hungry. He hung 10 days in a cool shed before I butchered him, and every ounce was as delicious as filet mignon.
Of course it could be that my aversion to QDM is nothing more than the bitterness of being jilted. Perhaps in these changing times we locals glimpse a kind of exile for past sins. Maybe providence is evicting us from the land and giving her to outsiders who will restore her youth. As I said, we’ve worked her pretty hard. The QDM property certainly looks like a whitetail paradise. In fact, there seems to be no other reason, besides the deer, for the land to exist. It has large prairies of bluestem and switch grass, early successional timber from recent clearcuts, well managed hardwoods and protected creek banks, not to mention the hidden plots of engineered clover that I know must be there. The soil must be reveling below, at last enjoying all the Sabbaths we owe it.
If only they could find a way for people to belong there, too.
At half-past four a dark shiny lump appeared in the corn stubble. I thought it was a deer’s back, and had no sooner thought so than it was suddenly attached to a head, erect and alert. The doe was alone, ambling slowly toward me. I swung the compass in my mind and guessed she was 150 yards away, maybe 175. She turned broadside and began to feed. When I eased the rifle onto my shooting sticks, her head came up.
With the hammer back, I peered at her through the scope and waited for her chest to emerge from a tangle of bent corn stalks. She stood at the center of a small circular world separated into quadrants by a black cross that converged at her heart. She lowered her head again to feed and stepped forward, exposing her chest, as my finger tightened on the trigger. At the crack of the rifle she ran
off the edge of her little world.
I lifted my head from the stock and saw her darting away to the north. Then she turned and headed back the way she had come. When I found her again in the scope, she had stopped. She wobbled on her feet, and I figured she was probably done. But I wanted to be sure, so with the cross on her shoulder I squeezed the trigger again, and she collapsed.
I trudged across the snowy corn stubble to where she lay, motionless on her side. Her belly faced me as I approached, and I noticed she was a buck. Kneeling, I rubbed his forehead and felt the nascent buttons that someday could have granted him a brief cameo in one of the neighbor’s wildlife snuff films. He might have been really something, if I hadn’t killed him.
He was a pretty little deer. The first bullet had passed through his chest an inch behind his shoulder. The second went through the top of the shoulder blades and nicked the spine—this I determined after dragging his entrails out onto the snow. Then I turned him belly-down to drain while I rubbed snow over my hands to clean them roughly.
For the quarter-mile drag to the car, I took the sling off the rifle, opened the small forward loop, then cinched it down over the deer’s neck, catching his front feet, too. Thus arranged, he slid across the snow behind me and erased my footprints in a shallow trough of red and white.
At home I backed the car up to the shed, and my wife gave me a thumbs-up through the window. The tenderloins tore easily free from the hanging carcass and went into a bowl of cold salted water. Once inside, I sliced them into small chunks and tossed them with olive oil and Greek spices. They fell briefly into a hot iron skillet, filling the room with the sweet aromas of garlic and meat. We ate them medium-rare, and they were really something.
Two days later, after warm temperatures melted the last of the snow, Aldene called to say he had found my knife by the gut pile and would put it in the kitchen window until I came down again. I told him I’d see him before turkey season, for sure, and would trade him a beer for a knife.
Chad Mason writes and lives with his wife and three daughters in south-central Iowa, where they eat a lot of deer.