The best way to prove that you are a) “not-from-around-here” and b) a city slicker is to pull up to a loading dock with your Chevy HHR after having just bought six bales of straw (or was it hay? That’s the second best way to “prove” yourself) from the cashier at your local farm-and-feed store. Two employees were helpful in loading the car but looked at me funny while I crammed the last bale into the passenger’s seat, pale straw shedding all over the floor mats like a mangy dog.
To their credit they were polite enough not to ask about my intentions or mental state. They might not have believed me, anyway.
So a few hours later, and a thorough cleaning of the insides of the car, and I had an archery lane set up in the basement, nestled in a narrow piece of space in the corner. It isn’t much; about twenty feet long, it’s not going to replace an outdoor range for target practice. But it’s kinda cool to be able to head downstairs and pop a few arrows through a paper plate whenever I have an extra minute.
Here in the Madison-area I have yet to find a suitable outdoor range that doesn’t require me to own a large tract of land or join a local hunting club. In Milwaukee there are still two maintained public archery ranges, one located not too far from Pulaski High School and another near the golf course in Whitnall Park. Somewhere around the beginning of high school I discovered target archery, using my dad’s equipment that dated from the 1960s; back when Shakespeare still made bows in addition to Ugly Stiks, and cedar shaft arrows were available for 50 cents a piece. I shot a B-9 Rocket fiberglass bow bare-fingered until the tips of my shooting fingers turned deep purple and the string-slap created a thick welt on my bow arm. I shot it until the original cedar arrows and their crimped points literally exploded. I should probably be lucky that the forty-year-old string didn’t snap and take out an eye, or worse.
I never got very good– the bow was probably too powerful for me at the time– but I just enjoyed being out there, and the ongoing challenge to improve my mechanics and aim kept me coming back. Since leaving Milwaukee it’s been difficult finding a place to consistently shoot, but I still enjoy the solid thwack when a field point bursts through a paper target. The sound is oddly satisfying.
When my wife and I lived in West Bend I tried hunting.
People think it’s difficult to get into fly fishing. I would argue that it is equally difficult, if not more so, to go hunting. I come from a family of casual anglers and non-hunters. There are hardly the level of resources available to the first-time hunters, those that do not have a family lifeline to lean on, compared to the first-time angler. Hunter’s safety? Hunter’s safety teaches you how not to blast off a toe. An important life skill, I will admit– I still have ten little piggies to wiggle– but it doesn’t help you bag shit. It’s also designed for ten-year-olds, and nothing says “late bloomer” like being fifteen years older than everyone else in your group.
(Also, as an aside: I wasn’t the only “old” in the class. I remember a heavy set man with a shaved head taking the course. I remember he wasn’t able to handle the rifles and shotguns during demonstration or the field day, instead carrying an air rifle or a BB gun or something similar. I’ve always wondered: was that guy, like, a convicted felon, so he couldn’t touch a real gun? Some questions we’ll wrestle with to our grave.)
So I set out to figure it our on my own, much in the same way I went about fly fishing. It was not the same.
I struggled to wake up before dawn. I learned to appreciate coffee. I bought camo and blaze orange clothing and an used Mossberg 500 shotgun from a somewhat sketchy local sporting goods store. I wandered aimlessly though fields of tall grass, without a dog (probably like an idiot), trying to spook pheasant. I set up pathetic sets of cheap decoys in small potholes and blared lousy duck calls (probably like an idiot), trying to bring in ducks. I crashed aimlessly through the woods armed with slugs (probably like an idiot) in the hopes of spotting deer. I never came close of shooting a toe off, but I did once nearly dump my kayak in frigid weather while looking for ducks, and once accidentally dialed 911 from my phone while crawling across a patch earth because… well, i don’t even remember (but it was probably done like an idiot).
I never actually “hunted” everything. I came close three times.
The first time: walking along the high banks of a muddy stream, I came across a coot, ambling slowly against the current and completely uncaring to my presence. I could have shot the damned thing. But it was a coot. And i may have been an idiot, but not a fucking idiot.
The second time: after some time I discovered a small section of wetland where, if I managed to walk in before dawn and sit there until sunrise, I could usually catch a small group of ducks– teals and mallards, mostly– on the water. The first couple of times I scared them off by failing to properly conceal myself. Finally, I managed to position myself so I could slowly shuffle along the water’s edge, concealed by a bank of cattails and sedges. I found a pair of mallards dabbling, creeping as close as I believed I could get without spooking them.
I stood up. Like clockwork, they took flight, and with luck their path was toward me. I raised the Mossberg to my shoulder and fired off two rounds. Both missed horribly and the ducks were gone.
Those were the only two shots I ever took with the intention to kill another living thing. I can’t say I regret either.
The third time was special. One, because it was with a bow in hand. Two, because it was the first.
It was during deer season. After a while I took to heading to one particular patch of public land late in the day and climbing a ridge that overlooked a good portion of the property. There was a trio of young oak trees that grew together, their marriage of trunks offering an natural tree stand that was an easy climb. I would get up in the crotch of this tree and lay against one of the thick branches, waiting.
One evening I heard a faint shuffling of leaves on the ground. I peeked around the edge of the thick branch and spotted a young deer cautiously making it’s way through the copse of trees where I sat. It was antlerless, and clearly unaware of my presence. I pressed my back hard against the tree and lay motionless for some time, trying to divine it’s movements by sound alone. After what felt like a long time– but was likely only minutes– I reached for my bow as I felt it was my opportunity to make a shot.
I slowly swung the bow around the thick branch and found the deer had become very much aware that I existed.
The deer lay itself in the grass, trying to disappear. I did the same, trying to appear innocent. Not long after the deer jumped up and took off. I never had a chance.
That is my most memorable experience hunting. It still is the closest I’ve even been to another species: not in distance, but in soul.
It was after all of that funny business that I just decided to stick to fishing.
I still keep up with the archery though, too. And I’m a better shot now. Recently I purchased some new small game heads, and have given some thought of stalking the woods along the Wisconsin River in search of critters. Not for sport, but as the responsibility of a meat-eater to understand how the sausage gets made, literally.
I figure I have time. My hunter’s certification is always good, after all. Hunter’s safety is like riding a bicycle, really: once you learn how not to shoot off your foot, it kinda sticks with you.