One of the most delicious things about hunting, for me, is the utterly visceral sense of excitement that takes control of your mind and body when you spot game. That mixture of adrenaline, awe and possibility is utterly intoxicating. If it were available in liquid form, I'd inject it without a second thought. And I loathe needles.
I got a tantalizing hit of the stuff yesterday when I was taking the train home from work. The train tracks run through a thoroughly urbanized area for the most part, but my stop is adjacent to Aerojet, an aerospace and defense company that covers nearly 6,000 acres of largely undeveloped land.
The land is, of course, loaded with game - infuriatingly so, because Aerojet doesn't allow hunting there. Something about not wanting stray bullets to hit giant tanks of jet fuel, or somesuch. Whatever.
I'm used to being taunted by large flocks of turkeys picking their way around the park-and-ride lot. But yesterday I caught a glimpse of something stunning. The train was approaching the station. I had just shut down my laptop and was looking out the windows to avoid staring at the idiot young thug wannabes who'd been giggling about fights and girls for the past 20 minutes.
As the train slowed, I looked across the top of a fence and saw a rack, bobbing. A huge rack.
"Holy f..." I exclaimed, my head whipping back for a long second look.
It was a 5x5, easy.
Now, for all you people who live in whitetail country, that might not sound very exciting. But seeing a rack like that here is pretty rare.
And for me, it was fleeting. As I drove away from the station, I craned my neck in vain, hoping to spot the big boy again. But I would have to be content just to text and email everyone who might care about it, meaning Hank, one of my students who hunts and a friend who works at Aerojet.
When I got on the train after work today, all I could think about is getting another hit. I chose a seat where I might get a good long look at that spot near the train station again. Crazy to even think that way, but just in case.
As the train approached my stop, I shut off my laptop, cranked my head to the right, scanned the fence top, and I'll be damned if I didn't see that rack again.
Or, I should say, those racks. Lots of them. For the love of Mrs. Claus, it looked like Santa's reindeer were having a little party over there.
I got off the train and waited anxiously for it to pull away, to see if I could get another glimpse of the bucks. I couldn't, so I started to walk toward my car.
Then I quickly veered right toward that fence line. It was completely involuntary. I peered through a break in the fence, only to see another fence a few feet beyond it. Dammit.
I stepped back, set my backpack down, took off my nice sandals, lifted one bare foot to a horizontal bar on the fence, and heaved myself - gently - to the top of the fence.
I trembled, then froze. Staring back at me from about 20 yards away were seven bucks, every single one of them forked horn or better, which is to say, legal in these parts.
Bachelor group! I'd heard of bachelor groups. I'd never seen one though - not at any distance, much less this close.
Big Boy was staring straight at me, making it a little hard to count points, particularly in the fading light. But when he turned, it was clear he was at least a 5x5.
He was surrounded by forkies, and another more mature buck who might've been no more than a 3x2, but he had incredibly long antlers. From where I stared, they appeared to cross each other gracefully, like Celtic design. He was beautiful.
I needed him to stand up. I needed my camera. I needed photos that I could enlarge and examine and admire.
But all I had was my aging phone, with its incredible 1 megapixel frame. Most of the images came out crappy, like the one at the top of this post. Poor lighting, slow shutter speed. This was the best I could do:
These deer stared at me for the longest time, unconcerned. They know they're safe there, though they were so close that I realized I could've taken the shot off-hand and made a perfectly clean kill, which is saying a lot, because I'm not particularly steady. And I was perched on a wobbly fence.
I realized as all these thoughts were running through my head how funny they were. I'm not particularly obsessed with racks, because it would be impractical to have such an obsession in California. But this buck was rare and close, and buck fever claimed me as quickly as it would a 12-year-old boy.
And the whole thing about admiring these beautiful animals while looking at the spot where I'd send a bullet. Broadside target. Perfect... It reminded me of Hank when he'd just started duck hunting. For a time, every time he saw a bird in the sky, he'd raise an imaginary gun, lead the bird and pull the imaginary trigger.
I'd chide him for being boyish, for his first impulse being "Kill!" I hadn't started hunting yet. I didn't know.
Eventually, I came down from the fence. Then got back up again. Then came down. Then got up again. The sight was electric. I didn't want it to stop. If I can't have it, please please please let me just keep looking.
But I had cats waiting to be fed at home, and a former student waiting for a letter of recommendation, and a duck in the fridge that I needed to cook for myself. I got down from the fence one more time, strapped my sandals back on, then sauntered back to my car grinning, still basking in that delicious feeling.
I need to bring a real camera tomorrow - they're probably just going to keep hanging out here at this time. Wait, I need to call Peg and John to see if I can hunt their property this season. Wait, what I need to do is ask them if they've noticed deer congregating in a particular spot at a particular time.
Oh, I really hope I get a deer this year. Any legal deer.
Holly A. Heyser is a former newspaper reporter and editor who went on her first hunt at age 41 and immediately fell in love with the honesty, grace and humility of acquiring food the hard way. She has combined her two loves - journalism and hunting - in her current job as editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. She also does food photography on the side. Click here to contact her.
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