The psychological and physiological impact of hunting never ceases to amaze me. What happens to the human body and mind when you find yourself in position to harvest (the politically correct term for "kill") wild game.
About three years ago my wife and I moved to a rural part of Hamilton County where whitetail deer are seemingly as common as the sparrows that visit your bird feeder. Few days pass that we don't see deer in our own field or even walking through the yard. When we first moved here, every deer we saw was an event. We would continually announce to each other, "There's a deer in the front field," or, "There's a deer out back." Now, however, we don't bother making announcements. When I look out the kitchen window and see a deer, I might study it momentarily to determine if it's a buck or doe. Then I quickly return to loading the dishwasher.
The deer know the difference as well. If I'm on the porch, they may keep an eye on me, but they will continue feeding. But if they see me off the porch, they're a different animal, bounding back into cover post haste.
And I still hunt. The fact is, folks need to hunt in our area to keep the deer population in check. But primarily I do it for the adrenalin rush I feel when I see a deer with a gun in my hand. I don't understand why, but the switch from being a "watcher" to being a "hunter," does indeed bring about an astounding psychological and physiological change in your body and mind.
My first deer hunt was in 1966. My first kill came in 1968. Not a single hunting season has passed since that I haven't made at least a few trips to the woods in search of venison for the freezer. You do the math.
For the first time in my life, however, when I see deer almost every day, I understand even better what it means when a hunter picks up a weapon with the intent to take an animal.
Nowadays my favorite deer hunting spot isn't far from the backdoor. It is just barely out of sight of the house. That way it sort of feels like I'm in the wilderness even though I could probably yell loud enough to ask my wife to bring me a cup of coffee (not that she would).
But when I'm in the woods, gun in hand, seeing a deer becomes a totally different experience. It is very likely the same deer I saw the evening before and barely glanced at while loading the dishwasher. But when the time comes that I decide to convert that deer into a steak on the grill, my body changes.
It is called buck fever. Hunters know it well.
On Monday the buck walked out of the woods 100 yards away and immediately my body changed. My heart rate sped up dramatically, my respiration increased, the world seemed to go into slow motion and I had tunnel vision. Nothing existed in the world other than that buck and my gun sights.
But 100 yards was beyond the accurate range of my old-style muzzleloading rifle. I could only watch as the buck meandered up the ridge and out of view. It took a few minutes, but my heart rate and breathing almost returned to normal... until I saw the buck coming back down the hill quartering in my direction.
The switch flipped again and my body functions went into overdrive once again. It has happened to me enough now (after 56 years) that at least I am aware of what's happening. I can physically try to silently "talk myself down off the ledge." But as that conversation began inside my head on Monday, I marveled at what was occurring. If I were standing on my front porch not so very far away and my gun was cased in the closet, none of this would happen. But now my heart races and time stands still as the buck continues quartering my direction.
He crisscrosses through the overgrown field, slowly growing closer. He is still not as close as I'd like, but he steps into the open. His winter coat glistens and small antlers glow in the morning sun. My hunter's instincts seem to literally scream in my ear, "Shoot now!"
I follow the instructions. I don't consciously remember pulling the trigger. I only know a massive cloud of black powder smoke boiled from the barrel of my Hawken. For a few seconds I could see nothing. When the smoke cleared, the buck is gone but I felt as if the shot went true.
Before I can begin to go and track the deer, it's important I reload. In the aftermath, however, my hands tremble. I must concentrate to ensure the new load of black powder indeed goes into the barrel. After seating another bullet, I fumble to place another percussion cap on the gun. I drop the first one and must fumble for a second.
I am 68 years old. But the loss of motor control had nothing to do with age. It was 100 percent the result of buck fever.
The tracking went well. The buck didn't go far, then the work began, definitely bringing a quick end to any remnant symptoms of the fever.
Still, as I do the necessary work to turn the buck into food for my family, I marvel at the fact that "the fever" continues to hit me now exactly as it did more than 50 years ago. I guess if it ever quits happening, that is when I will quit hunting.