80 Years of Hunting

One man's roadkill is another man's trophy.

…and counting

by Teresa Mull

It all started, as so many providential things do in my smalltown life, at our gun club. It was there I met Ed, with whom I became better acquainted later from seeing him at church, and who I learned is a brother-in-law to Kevin, who’s been my friend since I don’t remember when (it is, in fact, a very small town).

And so it came to be that, after several years of small talk with Ed, I found myself standing in the trophy room of Ed’s 90-year-old great-uncle Tom…without Ed.

Though Ed’s presence would have been welcome, it wasn’t much missed for the scores of eyeballs—unblinking and unignorable—staring at me from every angle. Tom’s place “is like a Cabela’s,” Ed had told me, which it is. But I wasn’t prepared for the 3-D illustrated hunting book I was about to step inside of, wherein every animal sparks a story.

There’s a record elk from Colorado, a monster moose from Manitoba, and numerous caribou; an oversized Canadian lynx and a scraggly coyote Tom shot back in 1966. The African wall is covered in kudu. Tom got the huge hog after his wife found his Mexican javelina to be lacking and told him, “I want you to get a big hog like Dave’s” (a hunting buddy). So Tom dutifully returned from Texas with a beast tipping the scales at 425 pounds.

Hanging out among the big shots are whitetail deer, a mallard duck, a raccoon, and a lifelike beaver who used to live in the pond behind Tom’s house. Tom didn’t shoot him; he was killed by a car, and Tom got special permission from the game commission to have him mounted.

By far the star of the show is the grizzly bear, taken on one of Tom’s eight trips to Alaska (Halfway Mountain was his spot) after a lot of patience.

If you can’t go on safari to Africa, find a friend who brings an African safari to you.

“I love Alaska,” Tom says. “It’s my favorite place, but it’s very deceptive. There’s not moose everywhere. There’s not bears everywhere. Some places, you’ll go a week and not see an animal. I used to spend a lot of time with the pilots and ask them, ‘Where have you seen moose? Where have you seen bears?’ And they would tell you because they wanted your business.”

Tom was a hall-of-fame wrestler-turned-coach in his younger days, and he hunted “the cheapest way I could.” To get his grizzly, “I waited a long time—for years—till I got a canceled hunt. Somebody paid the down fee but couldn’t go. It would have cost close to $20,000, but the guiding company didn’t want to lose their money, so I got the hunt for $4,995.”

The moose dominating the fireplace display took Tom and his brother Carl six hours to butcher and three days to pack out. On that same trip, Carl shot his own moose, and Tom watched it fall from across the mountain. He tried guiding Carl through their walkie-talkies—“You’re going right toward it!”—but at such a distance, “What I thought was 100 yards was a mile.”

Tom got a brown bear on the eighth day of a 23-day hunt in Siberia and fished for trout and salmon the rest of the time. “They have the best trout in the world!” (news to me). “There were streams all around us.”

Tom says his wife was very generous and understanding in his hunting pursuits, but didn’t want any animals in the main part of the house.

Tom is from my hometown, and he grew up poor. He helped milk the cows by hand until he was 15 and the family got both electricity and a milking machine. He only had two shirts throughout high school, which he washed nightly and ironed on a stove and eventually handed down to his younger siblings to wear when they became skin-tight (he jumped a lot of weight classes as a star wrestler).

Tom’s foray into hunting was spurred by his poverty, in a way.

“I sold Cloverine Salve,” Vaux recalled, “and if you sold so many of them, you’d get a prize. Well, believe it or not, I sold enough Cloverine Salve, I won a little .22. They called it a ‘.22 Favorite.’ It was just a little single shot.”  (Ed. Note:  The famous Stevens Favorite)

Back then, the deer that seem now as numerous as the people in our neck of the woods were “few and far between.” But one day, when Tom was about 10, his grandpap said he had seen a deer down at the end of one of the fields.

“He said, ‘Come down and bring your .22.’ .22 shells for a box of 50 at the time was 11 cents, and that was a lot of money.”

Tom shot a doe in the head with the .22 and killed it.

“We had deer meat for a long time, and any time somebody would eat a piece of deer meat, they’d thank me for it. It was really hard to get.”

Tom went on to become a great slayer of groundhogs, though none appear in his trophy room. “I probably shot more groundhogs than most people, but I never had them mounted. I was too busy eating them.”

Tom still goes hunting each autumn. He has a deer stand behind his house in the woods “with windows all the way around it, and a very comfortable chair. I could fall asleep in it.”

He also has a shed containing, he estimates, “three times as many animals, unmounted.

“I don’t have room to have them mounted!” Tom laments.

So long as Tom has room in his head to store the hunting stories he’s accumulated over the years, I won’t complain.

Teresa Mull is still waiting for a deer she shot 18 months ago to come back from the taxidermist and is wondering if this is normal?  (Ed. Note:  It is.)