A Class in Ethics

Lessons in the deer woods are not just academic.

[By Jim Mize]

Forestry students at Virginia Tech have to learn about more than trees, and a few decades back, I found myself one fall semester taking physics and calculus. They were curriculum requirements forestry students viewed like castor oil—you just pinched your nose and got them over with. Both my classes were taught by professors speaking broken English, so I also should have been given foreign language credits.

At that time, I was testing a different approach to studying. Instead of cramming all night on the rush of Thundering Buffalo tea, I did the heavy work two days before and relaxed the night before the test. Just being rested, I told myself, had to help me think. So when I got an invitation to bowhunt whitetails the afternoon before my physics and calculus midterms, it seemed like the perfect way to prepare for the exams. Maybe being relaxed did help me think, if not prioritize.

On the way, a steady rain began to fall. With each drop, our odds of finding the deer melted like sugar in the rain.

My state-of-the-art archery gear consisted of a Fred Bear recurve, fiberglass-shafted broadheads with razor inserts, and a three-fingered leather shooting glove. All of this was special-ordered through the local hardware store and delivered on a truck along with mattocks and tenpenny nails. The broadheads arrived so dull, I had to file them to have a decent edge. I wore red, yellow, and orange camo—something I referred to as my clown suit—having heard that deer were color-blind and hunters usually weren’t.

The farm we hunted was 30 minutes from school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A ridge ran behind the house, and crossing it led to extensive patches of hardwoods and small pastures. In front of the ridge, the farmer kept a close-cut hayfield with two apple trees in it. The apples had begun to fall, and deer had left signs of frequent visits. My guess was that they visited mostly at night.

Our plan was to hunt the last few hours until dark. Mike, who had no exams and thought this trip a great idea, crossed the ridge and used a selfclimbing stand to get above a trail we had found earlier. I decided that if the deer were hitting the apples after dark, they might be staging in the hardwoods late in the afternoon to be first in line. So I set up 20 yards inside the woods in a ground blind thrown together with fallen branches and loose debris.

The leaves were mostly off the oaks, maples, and hickories, carpeting the ground in colors matching my clown suit. I watched clouds rolling in from the north and felt a light breeze that stirred the ground foliage where it grew thickest near the edge of the woods.

When the four-pointer came into view, I first saw his head and forked antlers above this foliage. His head would drop down to feed, then spring back up when a branch moved or an acorn fell. He seemed alert but not spooked. At 60 yards, he was beyond my comfort zone for a good shot. But I still had some daylight.

He kept angling my way, dropping his head to feed, popping back up for a look, and then taking a few steps. The path he took paralleled the field but was deeper into the woods than I had set up for. When he reached the point I guessed would be his closest to me, I estimated a 35-yard shot. Drawing while his head was down, I took aim and released.