Confessions of a Meat Hunter
The thought never crossed my mind to let the forky walk. By the time I could have asked myself to begin the debate, it would have already been too late. The thrill of seeing a buck – any buck – still grips me after 15 years of repeated exposure, and with great effort I calmed my nerves, steadied my rifle, and let it bark. I’ve never been one to patiently sit behind the trigger of a loaded gun with a buck in the crosshairs. I headed over to my downed buck and enjoyed the culmination of another successful hunt that would provide tasty steaks for my family. It was opening day, and the rain drizzled down at the end of the exhausting hunt as it had been doing for most of the day. The small buck, and the doe he was with, had been the only deer I’d seen in the rugged canyon country. A small buck, sure, but one for which I had endured the elements. The canyon I was in – an extension of the deepest gorge in North America – had provided the foundation of a difficult hunt and the area had experienced some flash flooding a few years prior stripping the land of vegetation in many places. This made for difficult footing and combined with the rain, it made hiking a challenging task. I was provided with more than one incident that caused me to consider the possibilities of trying out for the Olympic luge team. All told, by the end of the hunt I had hiked, and slid, 7 miles and experienced nearly 5,000 feet of elevation change. Proud? Excited? You bet I was. Apologetic for shooting a small buck? Not in the least.
I’ve been a meat hunter since taking my first steps in the woods. Raised on a staple of mashed potatoes with white country gravy and venison, I had never been able to accept the thought of a year without venison. And, coincidentally, I had never given myself a chance to suffer through a year on domestic meat. My father had shot his fair share of nice bucks, having hunted south-eastern Oregon prior to Measure 18 that banned the use of hounds for cougar hunting, but I don’t remember much about the antler size of the animals he brought home from his hunting trips. Mainly, my memories are centered around the dining room table the night he was scheduled to return. I would fix my eyes out the big picture glass window on the one lane gravel road in front of our house in anticipation. Each car that would rattle noisily down the road – which was not many in our part of the country – would raise my hopes and my heart would leap thinking, “Maybe this is the one that will turn into the driveway bringing Dad home with his week old beard stubble, meat for our table, and stories.” Yes, the stories. It was these stories, magical and mystical stories from the backcountry, that fed my hunger for the outdoors.
Long after the stories were over, my imagination would put me in the woods with my dad and the experiences that were never mine, but shared with me and locked away in the imaginative part of the human brain that is especially large in an 8 year old, drove my passion for hunting. That, and, of course, Mom’s delicious meals of venison rolled in flour and fried in a hot skillet of butter. There were pheasant hunts in the fall, of course, and getting up at the crack of dawn in the summer to sit in the old shed overlooking an abandoned pile of barn boards in hopes that a rabbit would feed out from its haven and within range of my bolt action, open sight .22. Those experiences were the driving force behind my interest in hunting, and they’re the moments that all these years later I look back at with great fondness in recognition for what they instilled in me: a passion for the outdoors and a palate that craves wild meat.
Roll the clock forward to the present, and I’ve begun to rack up an impressive amount of kills for a one-state hunter with a tight budget. I’ve shot a buck every year I’ve hunted in my home state of Idaho excepting one. And, every kill has been a tender forky. I’ve managed to be successful elk hunting as well, but included in my collection of elk kills, among the spikes and cows, are a smattering of mature bulls. I mention this to point out that when it comes to deer, I haven’t pulled the trigger on anything larger than a forky. And this had never bothered me.
In the past couple years, I’ve noticed a subtle change. Every year I’d unabashedly shot the first buck I’d seen, and never had that been larger than a forked horn. A couple years ago, I noticed that when talking with fellow hunters, I tried hard to avoid telling them that I’d never shot anything but a forked horn. To do so without lying became somewhat of a trick, and sometimes led to having to come out with the bare naked truth, although I always admitted it with a sheepish shrug to hide an illusion of embarrassment. It never bothered me before, but suddenly I was trying to hide this fact because when I faced myself with the truth, I decided my being a meat hunter made me, somehow, less of a skilled hunter. Where did this feeling come from? Why would I begin to feel like less of an accomplished hunter because all I’d ever shot were forked horns? It isn’t like my hunts had been handed to me on a platter. Some of those hunts that had netted me a forky had been gruelling hunts physically. Take the forky on that rainy day in the canyon, for instance. That had been a miserable day full of rain, cold wind, steep sidehills, and rocky bluffs. I know many hunters wouldn’t have attempted that hunt in those conditions. It certainly wasn’t a ten day pack-hunt, but it was a far cry from driving the backroads and shooting the first buck that I spotted. A few hunts had taken a fair amount of mental discipline and better than average stalking. I’m not ashamed of my abilities – I am confident, having grown up in the outdoors, that I am at least a hunter with average skills. Yet, the admission of my killing small bucks was making me feel like less of a hunter when measured against my peers. And, that, more than the act of actually shooting the small bucks, was making me uncomfortable.
As I have ventured into writing about my outdoor exploits and then started to receive compensation for typing out memories from my excursions, I began to feel like I had an image to protect. What would readers think if they found out the articles they’ve been reading were written by a guy that has never had the discipline to pass up a forked horn? And, therein, I believe, lies my answer. I’ve never felt bad upon pulling the trigger on Disney’s favorite son – a small buck gets me just as excited today as it did when I shot my first buck as a wide eyed 14 year old. I’ve built a life in the outdoors and have dabbled with a career in it, and, yet, I’ve packed this admission around like a dirty habit for no real reason. I’ve been afraid that admitting my meat hunting style would destroy any credibility that I’ve spent valuable time building despite the fact that I’ve never been verbally attacked by another hunter, and I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually known another hunter to chastise my practice of shooting the first legal animal I see.
A person can hardly watch a hunting show anymore without noticing a clear emphasis on antler size. The same could be said for many publications and websites. Our society is infatuated with large animals. And, when it comes to hunting shows and publications, I’m part of the crowd. I love seeing big animals as much as the next person, but I think it is also important to keep in mind that meat hunters make up a large percentage of the hunting industry. Meat hunters buy camo, bows, and gadgets. I know that in an age where the hunting industry has boomed due to TV shows, magazines, and websites devoted to antler worship, I am not the only one that has fought with feelings of inferiority.
My name is Tom Sorenson, and I’m a meat hunter.