It’s been said the kill is not the best part of the hunt. But the hunt itself, the anticipation, the preparation and possibly the recollection are what we enjoy most. While the kill may actually be the climax its duration is so short and the result so final, it can never be best. Most agree we enjoy the hunt even without the kill but lacking it, your freezer will stay empty.
I know no one that would starve without venison. And yet, time and again you will hear hunters say, “It was just a spike.” or “Since it was the last day I settled for the fork-horn.” Even trophy hunters make concessions when they cannot connect with the one they want. They may use the excuse of a desire for tenderloin but you know, like they do, wild protein can be had much easier through an antlerless tag and it will taste every bit as good.
Many may not actually realize why they settle for a buck that may be under their expectations. It may be the true reason is too “moody” for campfire conversation. But if you’re a deer hunter and you have ever taken a buck you know. You may not understand it and likely you will not be able to explain it but you know because you have felt it. Not when he dropped at the shot or later when you saw the smile on your proud father’s face. And it didn’t happen at the check station when the old-timer by the wood stove said, “That’s a pretty good buck!”
It happened the first time, and it will happen every time from now on, when you first kneel down and reach your trembling hand out and touch the buck’s antler. That exact moment can never be repeated. It’s your time and it is the buck’s time. That first touch of antler, no matter how large in size or score, is when you feel his spirit. His wild. That touch, not the shot, is when you make him yours. Your buck. Your antler.
Nothing can duplicate it. Not touching the rack of the big eight-point your brother killed on the old home place, not holding the antler of the first buck your son takes or fondling the rack of the world record on display at some hunting exhibition.
There beside your buck, with the wild under your feet and all around you, with the sky blue and endless and with the air sharp cold in your nostrils, when you first touch his antler you feel it. It feels good and it doesn’t make a damn if anyone else is watching or not.
Hold it tight and hold it as long as you want for when you let go, the buck’s spirit and that moment are gone and a memory is as close as you will ever get. There is no use trying to explain that feeling, it will be different for everyone.
That feeling with all the pride, sadness, joy and pain it might bring, is yours. You are not required to share or justify it with anyone, anywhere, ever. You ended the hunt, you ended the deer and you and you alone deserve the gift the antler will give.
All antlers hold the same power, from a spike to heavy antlered brute. Never under any circumstance touch the antler of a deer another hunter has taken until he has experienced that moment. That moment, that touch, belongs to the hunter. He has earned it. He deserves and must live with whatever it gives him.
Yes we all deer hunt for different reasons. It gives us an escape from work, leaky roofs and broken washing machines. It lets us experience the campfire and the camaraderie of other hunters. We get to feel the bark of the hickory and hear the crackle of the brook and it lets us celebrate and revive the ancestral spirit that is imbedded in our DNA. But when you take a buck and touch his antler for the first time you know why you are a deer hunter. You know why antlers of all shapes and sizes are placed on walls and woodsheds. You know why you stayed on stand in the bitter cold and rain. Bust most of all, you will feel.
Some day, hopefully a long ways down the trail, you may be too old and too tired to hit the timber again. As the leaves turn and the winds cool you will remember and you will wish that just once more you could prowl the old pear field, climb the mountain, set the stand and hunt the buck. But more than anything else you will wish you could – just one more time – touch antler.