At the SHOT show some years back there was a buzz among the gun and hunting writers that, in order to promote their new products, one of the big optics companies was going to be taking a bunch of writers to Africa for a Cape buffalo hunt. As the week progressed and the invites were handed out, the aisles on the show floor became a display of who had been chosen, and of those who were not. The guys with the big smiles and their comfortable shoes floating above the carpet had joined the anointed few while the rest of us plodded along wearing our rejection like a flag of permanent defeat. We snarled at anybody foolish enough to speak to us and at night we lined the bar three deep, drowning in the depths of rejection. We wallowed in our unworthiness and questioned the choices that had lead to our wasted lives as we toasted the folly that was our careers and drank to the curse of second place.
But then, late in the show, I got the call. My cell phone buzzed (no true gun writer has enough hearing left to use the ringer) and I was summoned to their palatial booth for an audience with the PR god holding the keys to golden doors.
As I made my way to their booth life was good, in fact, life was great. What a contrast from the night before when I staggered back to my dingy hotel room, pitiful, pathetic and loathing those who were still loudly celebrating their invitations back in the bar.
Today, as I swaggered through the show sneering down at any fellow writers I chanced to meet, I reveled in my superiority. Never mind if they had bought me a drink the night before, that was then. Right now I was going to Africa and they were not.
“Michigan?” I asked, dazed and confused.
“To do what?”
“As I already explained,” the guy said as he rolled his eyes, “It’s a high fence whitetail operation. You can shoot cull bucks and does.”
“What about Africa?” I asked, not liking the pleading sound in my voice but unable to control it.
“Oh that,” he said. “Well, we have one slot left open, but I am not sure who we are going to invite. So, do you want this high fence hunt or not?”
The rest of that day is a bit blurry, but I do remember hiding in my hotel room until after the show and then changing my flight to travel home days later so I wouldn’t encounter any of my peers. I really don’t recall my answer, but somehow I found myself one December day shivering in a frozen blind in Michigan.
It was bitter cold, freeze your nose as you breathe cold. It was exposed skin freezing in minutes cold; spit turning solid before it hits the ground cold. The sky was gray and the air thick with crystallized ice, and the flat, dirty light gave the deep snow a dull and lifeless look. This was yet another in a long string of days sitting in a frigid blind and looking at deer I couldn’t shoot, and the monotony was taking a toll.
I passed the time looking at hundreds of deer and trying to remember why I was here. Something about relationship building with the PR guy and how we would become buddies as a result and maybe, no promises, but just maybe, I would be worthy the next time the company decided to have a big exciting hunt to at least have my name in the hat. It all sounded good, but when at the last minute the PR guy didn’t show it was pretty clear that “male bonding” stuff wasn’t going to happen.
High fence, “deer ranching” is a part of the whitetail hunting matrix and I thought that to have a fair opinion I should experience it at least once. Knowledge is power and I looked at this as a learning experience. Well, that and a chance to shoot a bunch of deer. My almost-buddy had assured me that they needed multitudes of deer “harvested” to balance the herd. I was working on a book about venison and needed meat for R&D. My other goal was to test some guns and ammo. As a full time gun and hunting writer I am usually trying out some new gun and it’s not often I am able to pick the rifle I would be shooting. I had a new wildcat chambered custom rifle that I wanted to inaugurate and when the guy pointed out that this would be a great opportunity to heat up the barrel I guess he found my weak spot. I even paid confiscatory excess baggage charges to the airline just to bring all the ammo I was sure I would need.
Now, my new custom rifle in that high performance wildcat cartridge was sitting in the corner of the blind covered with a thick layer of dust and ice. As this hunt aged and decayed it had remained unfired at anything even remotely looking like a deer. I figured, though, that the ice coating might be useful for science. Taking a core sample would provide interesting insight for any scientist about the social structure and living habits of those brave souls inhabiting a deer blind early in the 21st century. Imbedded in the ice no doubt would be trace leavings from hand warmers, along with a few Cheetos and granola bar drippings. What they would not find is gun shot residue.
The problem was not the lack of deer, but rather the odd rules of engagement. The guys running this deer farming operation are hard core and dedicated. They collect the shed antlers from every buck on the place and then lay them out in a huge building, forming an intricate pattern organized by date and deer. They spend the long Michigan winters measuring every inch of antler and logging the data into a computer to evaluate the antler growth of each buck year to year. From this information they adjust the feed programs, adding a little protein here and removing a few carbohydrates there, all with the long term goal of growing the ultimate whitetail buck.
They have trail cameras scattered throughout the property and they spend all their off time in blinds observing the deer. They catch the fawns in the spring and put tags in their ears that are coded with the time, date and other information. This allows them to look at a tag with a spotting scope and know the deer by name. For me, it was way too “Big Brother,” but for them it was literally a labor of love.
In fact, that’s the problem. I think they secretly were in love with each of the deer. Well, most of them anyway. There were some truly outstanding bucks, big beyond nature and belief and any of these could be shot if you were willing to write a check with a lot of zeros in it. Love was one thing, but capitalism trumps all. Our hunt, though, cost a small fraction of what those high rollers paid and the check cashed in full regardless if we pulled the trigger or not. That made love easier to express itself.
Day after day, I would sit in the blind as an amazing parade of whitetails came by the front window. There were bucks with racks so big that they looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss nightmare. But, they were few and far between. Mostly there were small bucks, big bucks, young bucks, old bucks, spike bucks and button bucks. There were ten points, eight points, six points, sixteen points and bucks with more points than I could count without taking off my boots.
But, with the arrival of each, my guide would peer through his high dollar European spotting scope for way too long while making comments like, “this one is interesting,” or, “get ready, this might be your buck.” But, in the end he always let them walk off.
It didn’t take me long to figure out his strategy. He would let on like this was “the one” to get my hopes up. He would stare at it for a long time, muttering that it was close to being legal and that he just needed to study it a bit longer to be sure, but never actually committing one way or the other, until, finally, the buck would walk off. At first I would say things like, “yes or no, is this a buck I can shoot? Hurry up, he is going to leave. I have him in the crosshairs, say the word.” But, he always stalled until the buck was gone. The pattern never varied and even the dumbest gun writer could figure out sooner or later that he was being played.
The guide showed me a book with an elaborate set of rules on how we could identify a shooter buck. The buck had to have just the right amount of points and the right antler had to score in a slot zone of not too big, but not too small, either. The left antler had its own and different zone and each point and beam had to be not too long and not too short, but just right. Sort of like the three bear’s porridge. The problem was none of the deer ever fit the “just right” category.
As far as I could tell it had to be an eight point, or maybe a seven, or nine, or maybe even a ten if conditions were right. Nothing was clear, except that in addition the buck had to be at least five years old, born on a Tuesday and left handed. In the beginning, I would question my guide on how he could tell the age of the buck. He said that there was a long list of clues that an expert such as himself could see. Clues such as how straight the back was, if the buck had a pot belly and if the face had jowls. He never did tell me how to judge which day it was born or which hoof it preferred, I suppose some secrets they keep for themselves.
One clear pattern was that over the next several days every deer that came in was too young. I saw one that was so stiff and arthritic that he could hardly walk. His back was swayed and his belly potted; his face was loose and gray, one eye was glazed over with a cataract and his left blinker light was on the entire time I saw him.
“Now that one has to be old enough,” I said.
“Nope, he is a two year old.”
I was starting to get a little mad and I said, “Based on the past three hundred bucks we have looked at, every deer on this place is a two year old.”
“Not true, remember that spike yesterday? He was only one and a half.”
“Look,” I said, “If all your older bucks have gone to Florida for the winter how about we shoot a doe or two? I really just want some venison.
“Nope, we don’t shoot does until after you get your buck.”
“But, my hunt is almost over.”
“Hey dude, that’s why they call it hunting!”
This wasn’t hunting, this was shopping for a deer and I hate shopping.
It was the last evening of our “hunt” and I couldn’t even remember if I bothered to load my rifle. We were still playing the game and when a tall, wide-racked nine point came out in front of the blind I didn’t even bother to pick up my binoculars. But, like a used car salesman who keeps up his pitch long after the sale is lost, my guide carried on.
“Get your rifle ready and out the window, I think this might be our buck,” he said.
So I did.
You never know.
Hours later my hands were freezing and the muscles in my arms were spasming from holding the rifle up. My eyelashes had frozen together and it was hard to even see the ice crusted scope. The wind blown sleet had coated me and the gun until we were pretty much a solid mass, which made a very effective camo pattern. I asked for the ten-thousandth time what he had decided about this buck.
“Hang on and quit rushing me; I am trying to score his rack. But, stay ready; I think he might be our buck.”
“You know what,” I said, “I am tired of this. I am going to put my gun in the corner and turn on the heater, even though I am sure we didn’t buy the hunting package that includes heat in the blind. You let me know what that buck scores when you get it figured out. By the way, I already aged him. He is two and a half.”
Later I spotted another buck headed our way. He was a pathetic little fella with spindly antlers and points that were half formed. He was skinny, knobby kneed and google eyed. In fact, he looked like a deer nerd. He looked like he should be selling computers in a Circuit City at the whitetail mall. His body language told me what I already knew, he was the whipping boy of this deer herd. I am sure he has had plenty of deer wedgies and was used to having his lunch money stolen. He was as sorry an excuse for a buck as I have ever seen and I knew before he spoke what the guide would say.
“Shoot that buck.”
“Are you kidding me? We have been here for an eternity looking at this big nine point thinking he was going to fit the ‘requirements’ and now you want me to shoot that pathetic creature while the nine point is still here?”
“Yes, he is not very loveable, is he?”
“What about the nine point that you said you thought was ‘our buck?’”
“He never was, was he?”
“So this is the buck we have been freezing our butts off all week waiting for?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I am not going to shoot him.”
I rather enjoyed the silence that followed.