By Richard Donati
-- I pulled onto the shoulder of the main road and shut off the engine. It was still pitch black outside, and the clock read 4:08. Perfect. I jumped out, grabbed my hat, gloves, head-net, flashlight and bow, and then I struck out for the woods.
It was the first day of the fall bowhunting season for white-tailed deer, and my expectations were high. The hunt took place within the city limits of Manchester, Mass., where only bowhunting is allowed. While scouting, I’d seen several deer every day.
As I entered the woods, my flashlight cast a small thin beam of light on the forest floor. Beyond it was blackness, and the only sound was an occasional owl hoot.
I reached my treestand and climbed the large metal spikes 12 feet to my platform cradled between three large oaks. I sat down on my stool to wait for first light, still about one and a half hours away.
At daybreak, my senses were on full alert. The sky turned a beautiful crimson and dark blue. From dead silence an hour earlier, the forest came alive with the sounds of life awakened.
Gazing around, looking for any sign of movement, I soaked up the early morning sun and breathed deeply. The fragrance of overripe grapes permeated the air. A hundred other subtle scents, from decomposing leaves to fresh wet earth, filled my lungs and head, giving me a wonderful natural high.
The spell was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a twig breaking in the distance. I froze while my eyes scanned the woods for movement. I strained to look through the tangle of vines and underbrush to catch sight of whatever snapped the twig, but I saw nothing. I relaxed, sat back down and resumed my vigil.
At noon, I headed for the field where I’d seen deer almost every night. Reaching the edge, I looked for a spot to sit until dark. I rounded up a small stump, placed it in the tall grass ringing the field and settled in for the long afternoon. I considered it my front-row seat.
The first thing to cause my muscles to tense and my heartbeat to quicken was a small red fox. It trotted out of the brush toward me, nose to an invisible scent on the ground. It passed within a few yards, stopped and looked directly at me. Our eyes met, but I didn't move a muscle. The fox’s small black nose twitched, but it couldn’t smell me. Eventually, it resumed the hunt.
Watching the fox disappear into the woods, I realized we were both hunting, but for different reasons. It hunts as a matter of life and death, whereas I hunt for the experience and pleasure of being in the woods.
When the sun began sinking into the horizon, I noticed another hunter walking across the field. As the stranger approached, my hope of seeing a deer faded. Surely his arrival had frightened away all the unseen deer I’d imagined were about to step out of the shadows.
To my surprise, however, as soon as the other hunter entered the woods on the opposite side of the field, a doe leapt out into the field less than 20 yards from me. Instinctively, I drew my bow and waited for her to come closer.
I stood there in a trance, rooted in place, with my mind abuzz. The doe was only 10 feet from me. In 16 years of hunting, I hadn’t shot a deer. And there I was within spitting distance, and she had no clue.
The doe took a step and lowered her head to feed on the lush alfalfa and clover.
My arrow passed through her in a split second. She faltered slightly, not realizing what happened. She took one step and fell, dead before she hit the ground. From sighting to shot took only about 30 seconds, but it seemed more like hours.
As I stood over her, a great sense of remorse and sadness came over me – not for killing her, because nothing will go to waste, but because the hunt had ended. In that moment, I realized that it isn’t “the kill” that matters. I hunt for the long hours of solitude watching summer turn into fall and to experience nature from a front-row seat.
Caption: The author currently lives in Gardner, Mass., and enjoys hunting in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He’s taken 30 deer and six turkeys in the years since this memorable hunt.
-- Richard Donati
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