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by Gary Smith a.k.a. Gary Last updated: 2011-06-15 20:25:09
I love to hunt — I always have. I love the challenges and I love sitting down to a fine meal of venison, squirrel or other game that I have collected as a hunter. I started hunting when I was six years old (40+ years ago) and I admit my trophy room, okay the entire house, has become filled with hunting trophies. While only one even comes close to record-book distinction, none are any less a trophy to me. After contemplating for some time the concept of a “trophy”, I have discovered that my trophies come in many shapes and sizes. Some, downright ugly by most accounts, are hanging on the wall for all to see; yet others are manifest only in old snapshots or my own cherished memories of hunts with family and friends.
We’ve all heard the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and even though the reference is frequently directed toward a perplexing relationship between two individuals, so it goes with hunting trophies as well. There is little argument that a ten-foot grizzly, a 180-class whitetail, or a 70-inch moose is a trophy in every sense, but only a very small percentage of hunters will ever encounter even a single animal of such record-book proportions.
So, lest we suffer a lifetime of torment having never killed a record-book animal, how do we define our trophies? When we are young of age or short on hunting experience, there are many firsts; the first dove, the first buck — the first buck fever. I remember them all and I imagine you do too. I bet you’re thinking about them right now in fact. These types of events represent certain rites of passage for us as hunters and it is exciting. Can you remember how you felt when you killed your first deer? If you started hunting when you were very young, like I did, I doubt you were any less thrilled at the time than if you had just killed a “Booner”. So, was that first deer a trophy? Mine was and he sported only a small eight-point rack, one that I still have. After a few successful years of hunting, shooting small bucks just didn’t carry the same challenge as the first one. I would still cut off the antlers but they didn’t get mounted on a plaque like the first one or two. As we get older and more experienced those small bucks often don’t measure up to our idea of a trophy like they did when we were younger. To make matters worse, pick up any hunting magazine, watch the latest outdoor TV show or hunting video, and you are guaranteed to see bucks, bulls, or rams of monster proportions. I wonder if we are being conditioned to think that we must measure our success against the ability to kill an animal that will make “the book”. But how can we hope to measure our trophies against some of these giants when, for many of us, such a buck doesn’t even exist in the areas we hunt.
The truth is, the average deer hunter can’t and perhaps shouldn’t even try to measure up to someone else’s notion of a trophy. Instead, come up with a way to put the challenge back into hunting and rekindle the excitement and passion experienced when you first started hunting. One suggestion I have is to look for some new “firsts”; introduce a youngster or friend to the sport. I have two children, a son and a daughter, and thankfully both enjoy hunting and shooting. I have been blessed with being able to watch both of them kill their first deer and numerous other species of small game. I can tell you that my heart was beating just like I was on the trigger when I watched the excitement they experienced. Now they are adults and hunt on their own but I’ll never forget those moments when we shared a hunt and the tradition was passed down. The same thing can happen with any first time hunter. I took my buddy George on his first successful deer hunt several years ago. I had placed him on one of my highly successful stands and he collected a small doe for his first deer. As I “guided” him through the first attempt at field dressing a deer there were several instructions that I was able to impart as the experienced hunter. I was quick to provide guidance like, “I wouldn’t have cut that” or “okay, now stick your finger in that hole and…” Yes, the pleasure was all mine but we both laugh about it today when the subject comes up. Trust me he’ll never forget field dressing that deer and I’m just glad that I was there to share it with him.
Trophies can also be achieved by seeking out alternative methods of hunting or by developing new skills as a hunter. I find many of my trophies have come from the satisfaction of applying myself to further developing my woodsmanship skills. I prefer to hunt with a handgun and haven’t carried a rifle afield for over twenty years. For a few years I carried both a rifle and a pistol because I didn’t have the confidence to leave the rifle at home. That confidence came one day when I took a very nice ten-point from about 30 yards after figuring out what the signs were telling me and anticipating his next move. I was hunting slowly along a well-worn deer path in the hope of success on a late winter day; the odds were not in my favor. As I eased into the area I noticed another deer path, very faint, but intersecting the more well worn trail. This intrigued me and I instinctively followed the secondary trail down towards a creek. I soon found a larger-than-average rub on a cedar tree next to the creek bank. As I started to cross the creek and continue my exploration, I spotted a single large deer track in the thawing mud. It was very fresh and I figured it had been made just a couple of hours earlier. That one indicator led me to believe in my gut that this big boy might come back through around midday. The setup seemed perfect; heavy cover was just ahead and his feeding area just behind me. I hoped my hunch was right and I set up just down wind of where he had crossed the creek. Just before eleven o’clock I caught a glimpse of his wide heavy rack coming towards me and I was ready. Just a few more seconds and I’d have him. One shot from my Contender and he was down instantly. With no question he was the oldest and largest buck I had ever taken at the time. However, he could just have easily been a much smaller deer and I would have been just as skillful in reading the sign and collecting him. The point is not that he was a great deer but that I got on to his game by being a good hunter. I can honestly say this with some conviction because I’ve killed bigger bucks since that December day and they just don’t stick in my mind quite like this one.
In addition to being a hunter I’m also a fairly committed shooter, which is a necessity for handgun hunting in my opinion. Not so much from the competition standpoint anymore but from the pleasure I get from practicing and becoming a better field shot. As a year-round shooter and serious handgun hunter I take no small measure of satisfaction in making difficult shots. I’m no different from the rifleman who gets satisfaction in executing a great shot but there is no denying things are much easier with a long gun. So, when I make a shot that would be difficult, even with a rifle, that animal becomes tied to the event and I consider it a trophy – it’s something I’m proud of beyond the meat on the table or the size of the horns. We all like to show our buddies the big deer, elk or whatever that we killed last season and I’m no different. I especially like looking up at the trophy whitetails that hang over my desk and remembering each one like it was yesterday however there are even more that don’t hang on the wall which I recall with just as much satisfaction.
I love to hunt whitetails and I consider being able to stalk or still-hunt within handgun range of any whitetail to be an extreme test of my ability. There is no question that the environmental conditions have to be suitable but there is also a skill level that must be developed to get close and make that shot. I even take great satisfaction in getting close enough to spot a bedded whitetail before he or she sees me. Sometimes you get a shot and sometimes you don’t – it is about the hunt and the quality of the experience. The opportunity to simply shoot a big deer for the wall can most certainly be purchased if you have enough money and time to invest but unless there is sufficient challenge involved in the hunt itself then the overall experience will be diminished.
If you don’t have access to an area where bucks can grow to be three plus years old or just a poor quality herd, you still have the same opportunity as the guy with a prime deer lease to put a “trophy” on the wall but it’s relative. Look for an alternative method of hunting like with a handgun. The antlers may not be quite as large but you should take no less satisfaction in what you are able to accomplish. In fact consistently killing an elk or deer year after year in some areas is probably more challenging than many of the big-money hunts for trophy animals in far away places. Remember hunting is supposed to be fun, challenging and shared with friends and family. A day in the woods is its own reward and my most cherished hunts and trophies are those that have come from the challenges I’ve placed on my own abilities or those experiences that I’ve shared with others. Perhaps the true measure of a trophy is how we remember the hunt.
Epilogue: Since writing this article a few years ago, I have begun guiding for a ranch here in Texas. I always wondered what it would be like not to be the one shooting. Helping others achieve their trophies is a fantastic experience and I truly love it, almost as much as taking the animals myself. I too get to experience the hunt and excitement even though I'm not the shooter.
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