By Ford Walpole
The other evening, my daughter English Calhoun and I went still-hunting for deer. Her younger brother Ned was at a friend’s house, so our father-daughter evening would be free of squabbling over who gets to shoot, who sits where, or any other unforeseen, though inevitable conflicts of sibling rivalry.
Now 15, she no longer brings along coloring books or snacks. Hopelessly sentimental, I am saddened by this reality of time’s passing. Now, it is she who glares disapprovingly at me if I create a stir unzipping the pack or fumbling through its contents for something nonessential, a ThermaCell or water bottle. Once the obligatory hunting selfies have been recorded, English Calhoun packs away the cell phones. We have a purpose here.
Our objective provides clarity. These days, we are busy with life, but not as busy as we pretend and we often busy ourselves with distraction. Still-hunting is a welcome distraction — a focused one. We are here to harvest a white-tailed deer, an ever-cautious ruminant that became no less so after the disappearance of its ancestral predator the mountain lion or before the emergence of the invasive coyote.
Though a predator, the still hunter may take his deer in a peaceful setting and the venison will be more tender than that of a deer in flight, full of adrenaline and pumping blood. Indeed, on many hunts, humans in a tree stand are students, healthy voyeurs of the natural world from whence we came.
We had parked the pickup a couple hundred yards from the deer stand. The bench on our stand is ten feet from the ground, an elevation that affords us a proper perspective of our surroundings. On this hunt, we are familiar with our environment, which makes us more comfortable. Invitations to hunt new places are a welcome opportunity. Even so, knowing your surroundings gives you a sense of home and at home is how you should feel in the woods.
With our eyes surveying the scene, English Calhoun and I whisper in meaningful conversation — ideas, writing, religion, the habits of animals. Life is simple in a deer stand. There’s no discussion of school, boring details, chores, friends or social calendars pollute our higher-level dialogue. My daughter and I are eerily alike, a reality leading to occasional fussing from us both. This afternoon, though, we are free of the world’s trivia and this adventure cultivates our bond.
Before us is a pasture of brown grass, crisper than usual in the post-Matthew drought. To our right, a less-travelled road meanders through the woods, an ideal secluded path for recently roused deer to travel. A shallow, brackish canal runs behind us. On the other side of the canal is a dike, beyond which is a brackish pond. An island in the middle of the pond and surrounding marsh provides habitat for whitetails to bed down and forage.
A road through the woods heads straight to our left, before it takes a 90-degree right out of sight before eventually emerging in the field in front of us. The green of the live oaks is contrasted with the golden leaves of autumn sweet gums.
English Calhoun practices resting the rifle on the rest, a two-by-four on edge fastened to the stand. She asks if it is the “critical time” yet, knowing the answer — twilight is upon us. “When the sky begins to glow and looks like it’s not real, you need to get ready,” I have always reminded my children. I emphasize this phrase for a couple of reasons.
First, the critical stage places the still hunt in finite terms. When young people grow restless of sitting still for what seems like an eternity, the end of the hunt is near and soon they will be permitted to fidget, jump, run, talk and yell.
Also, the critical time is when you are most likely to see a deer. Occasionally, deer will appear early into the still hunt, but usually they begin moving closer to twilight; you have a critical 30-minute period that determines whether you will see a deer worthy of a shot; this sighting, though, has no bearing on the success of your hunt.
As afternoon gives way to evening and the sun prepares for bed, nature comes alive. Birds begin to chirp and squawk, squirrels hasten their rustling and frogs croak with more affirmation. Nearby cattle bellow and grunt and crickets and cicadas begin their chorus.
A deer emerges. Occasionally, you watch it walk out from the woods. More often than not, though, it seems your eyes return to a location where they have been fixed but for a split second and the deer is simply there.
This night, a young buck appeared a few minutes too late. English Calhoun saw the motion camera flash. He was there, but the shadowy outline of his brown hide was indefinite, bleeding into the understory.
Through the foggy scope, English Calhoun attempts to watch the deer root at the cob corn with his snout. It simply is too dark to focus on this deer and the others that may follow.
The whites of my daughter’s eyes light up the stand as she whips her head and asks: “Can we hunt again, tomorrow?!”