Game Plan: a first timers hunting experience.
Warning: this post contains pictures that some people may find disturbing. To the rest of us, it’s just the reality of life.
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia – a city of four million people. I didn’t know a single person who hunted. There weren’t any stores selling hunting apparel, deer blinds and certainly not guns. I had zero exposure to the concept and tradition of hunting until I came to Texas. I first held a rifle in January of 2016 and had fired it no more than a dozen times. Two weeks later, on my first hunting trip and with my thirteenth shot, I killed my first deer.
I didn’t ‘harvest’ or ‘bag’ that deer – I killed it. It wasn’t a buck or a trophy deer, it was just a 3-4 year old doe, and I killed it to eat it. I killed it because I’m a strong advocate of eating meat, and it was extremely important to me to be able to participate in the complete start-to-finish process of being a carnivore. I had spent time in slaughterhouses in an effort to “get real” about where my food comes from, but I knew that eventually I needed to put up or shut up. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to bolt a steer in order to enjoy a steak, it’s a personal standard I set for myself.
The day after I killed that deer, I used the meat to make venison bolognese. The process of hunting, shooting, cleaning, processing and then finally consuming was one of the most liberating and self-sufficient experiences of my life. I’d imagine it’s the same type of extreme satisfaction you get from growing your own vegetables, only about a million times more intense and significant.
So how does a city girl with zero exposure to hunting culture end up looking down the scope of a rifle to take down her first kill? I gotta tell ya, it came with a bit of doubt, a little hesitation and a few butterflies. Even a few months out, I wasn’t entirely sure I could actually pull the trigger and end a life (which is part of why I was so determined to actually do it and not be a hypocrite). I think deer are beautiful, elegant creatures. I make squee-ing sounds when I see adorable baby animals. I have a dog whom I adore and who is treated better than some humans are.
First, I started by educating myself.
I set out to learn as much as I could from as many different sources. I asked friends for their tips and advice, gathering various opinions on the best place to aim the shot on the deer.
Next up was completing a Hunters Education course, which I took online, as well as procuring my hunting licence, which gave me a limited number of tags and dictated exactly what and how much I could hunt. The most interesting thing I learned as part of Hunters Ed is that it’s actually a legal requirement (in Texas, at least) to take certain portions of the game meat, and that failure to comply can result in a “waste of game” violation. Essentially, Texas is saying that if you’re not prepared to consume it, you have no business hunting it. Cool, I am totally on board with that.
There are many different forms of hunting, with personal morals and ethics making the biggest distinction between them. Let’s talk about Cecil the Lion. To me, hunting is not getting on a plane and flying across the world for the chance to shoot an animal you’re unlikely eat, but desperately want hanging above your fireplace. It is true that money generated from these trophy hunts is also the number one financial contributor to the preservation of these animal, but that’s not my issue to debate. I’ll cast my ethical vote by simply not participating in it.
Within Texas (and most of the United States), there are three main ways you can hunt. Short fence, high fence and public land. Both short and high fence hunting takes place on private land (which accounts for 94% of hunting habitat in the US), and as the names suggest one has fences low enough to allow the animals to come and go freely, whereas a high fence keeps the game within the perimeter of the ranch. High fences are usually used to house exotic stock, privately manage a herd to grow bigger bucks, or allow commercial hunting ranches to offer a “guaranteed chance” to see and have a shot at an animal. Essentially, it comes down to money. Land owners sell leases to people wishing to hunt on their property, and the better the quality of the herd and chances for the hunter, the more they can charge. Hunting on public land is regulated within each state, and is generally considered more challenging than hunting on private land.
The majority of domestic private-land hunting is done from within blinds – a concealed structure to hide you from the prey while you sit in waiting. They can be anything from a few well positioned branches, to a small particle-board hut, to fancy aluminum sheds on stilts. Generally, a feeder is used to bait the deer and a timer scatters corn in the area twice a day. It’s illegal in some states to use feeders during hunting season, and while providing regular food can increase your chances of seeing something, it’s still far from a guarantee.
The type of game that is available to hunt is varied, and seasons are regulated. White tail deer is the most popular game in Texas, but even more obscure animals like Javelina and Chachalaca (yes, both of those are real) have their time in the crosshairs. I chose to hunt deer because they are a species which requires culling and population management. Prior to the settlement of the “New World”, tens of millions of deer roamed the country, their numbers kept in check by natural predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions. These days, controlling the deer population is necessary. Several towns and cities, such as Oxford, Mississippi, have had to put emergency culling procedures in place after the deer population encroached into city limits, resulting in severe car accidents and crop decimation. And so the thinking goes that if you have to kill them, the most responsible and sustainable thing you can then do is use the meat.
Education complete, now it was time to figure out my own comfort zone.
First and foremost, I had to actually find somewhere to hunt. The invitation came from Marvin Bendele, the President of Foodways Texas, whose family has been in Texas since the mid 1800s, and whose short-fence ranch near Castroville has been in the family since their lone-star-state arrival. Marvin’s mom, dad, brothers, brother-in-law and sister-in-law all hunt for deer and hog on the property, and nearly all the protein consumed on the ranch comes from game they hunted themselves.
Next, I knew that to actually pull the trigger, I was going to need to be confident in my own shot. Ethically speaking, I wanted to be as prepared as possible to provide that deer with a quick death, and to ensure I wasn’t the cause of any undue suffering. I knew from asking friends that a neck shot would yield more meat, but was also a harder target suited to a more experienced shooter. So I resolved that I’d rather take a shoulder shot and have the animal die instantly at the expense of losing a little leg meat.
Obviously, no matter which shot I chose to take, I actually needed to learn how to shoot. I’m sure I could have just rolled up to the ranch and trusted in the scope on the rifle when something appeared in my crosshairs, but that wasn’t good enough for me. So, my buddy Ryan took me to a 100 yard indoor range with his 308 and taught me the basics; how the bolt works, at what point the safety should be taken off, the importance of breathing correctly and that the trigger should be gently squeezed, not pulled. My grouping was decent enough to be fatal, and so I was ready.
Southbound towards the Ranch.
Marvin had warned me that sitting in the blinds is exceptionally cold, so I headed to a local outfitter and picked up an epic camo coverall at 50% off. Honestly, I wish it was more acceptable to wear that thing on a daily basis, it’s like walking around in a sleeping bag. I was fortunate enough to be sent some excellent gear ensuring I was properly kitted out for my first hunt; a pair of razor sharp Gator hunting knives from Gerber, a 65ltr Tundra cooler from Yeti, a couple of boxes of Federal Ammunition and Savage Arms even loaned me a ladies .243 rifle (considering I’m quite short, the fact that it was smaller and lighter was much appreciated!). I was now more prepared than most folks are on their first hunts, and so I headed out to Castroville with a fellow lady-badass, Addie, who had never hunted but also wanted to participate in the full carnivore experience.
The ranch has four different blinds spread across the brush – some on stands, some just perched on top of cinder blocks. Addie and I would split up, each accompanied by one of the family members to make sure we didn’t shoot anything too young, or any bucks that they were purposefully leaving to grow and breed. Marvin’s dad first learned to shoot a gun when he was six years old, and Marvin himself still used a rifle he was given as a youth, recalling that he was not permitted to get a scope until he had proven himself able to shoot with open sights. In a strange juxtaposition to all this tradition, technology still had a part to play, with the family trialling a new hunting app that uses the lunar cycles to determine the best time to head to the blinds and which estimates how fruitful the hunt might be.
I came to discover that I preferred the ground level blinds. The stands felt a little too much like prison watchtowers to me – although they yielded more chances at a shot, I felt the height somewhat disconnected me from my surrounding environment. So, I came to favor the blind known as “The Haven” (despite its ceiling being riddled with a healthy population of daddy-long-leg spiders). By the end of the second day, we’d spent four sessions out in the blinds, totalling a healthy 11-12 hours. We’d even tried for an unlikely mid-morning session, with the hunting app giving us false hope that we stood a chance of seeing anything aside from a squirrel getting fat off deer corn.
By this time, I was starting to lose a little faith. Addie had to head back to Austin, and I watched her leave empty handed, wondering if I was due to have a similar exit the next day. I was slightly fatigued, with my lips beginning to chap badly from exposure and constant licking in the cold. I conceded that I may very well have a meatless return to Austin, but that I was equally happy to have enjoyed the serenity and beauty of the ranch, and to have actively watched sunrises and sunsets – something that is definitely not part of my daily routine in the city.
On the third and final morning, we entered the blind at 6.30am, with 30 mins until sunrise. Marvin encouraged me to keep checking the binoculars, though it was too dark to have seen anything through the scope of the rifle. Just before daybreak, we spotted two deer walking across the path, but the light was too poor to do anything about it. Marvin remarked that the deer were being overly cautious, not stopping to feed as they normally would. We watched them nibble at some corn and eventually walk off into the brush, and so we sat for another hour, exchanging the occasional whisper.
I was worried that raising my rifle to rest on the blind would create too much noise, and wanted more experience just peering down the scope, so while there was nothing around to scare away, I lifted my .243 and perched it out of the window. I moved around a little, trying to make sure the butt of the rifle was sitting against my shoulder, and checking the sight of the scope. Serendipitously, as if scripted, a doe walked out from the bushes and right into my crosshairs. I heard Marvin whisper that she was ok to shoot, and suddenly the “buck fever” everyone had warned me about kicked in. That heart racing, adrenaline pumping feeling of knowing you’re about to actually pull the trigger. In the next instant the doe turned broadside, gracing me with the perfect angle for a shot. I focused, paying attention to my breathing and concentrating on the importance of a clean shot and quick death, squeezed the trigger and…
Boom, down she went. Unbridled emotion and adrenaline rushed wildly through me. I barely remembered to reload the gun and look back down the scope, lest she need a second shot to put her down. But she wasn’t moving. I laughed to myself both in disbelief that it had finally happened and relief that I had given her the most humane death I could.
After another minute making sure she was down, we walked over to inspect the scene. I was still elated, freaking out in a good way, A text was put in to the crew back at the ranch house to bring the truck round, I then filled out and attached my hunting tag and we hoisted her up for processing.
They say there’s a thousand ways to skin a cat, and the same holds true for deer. I was cautioned that people will probably have their own opinions and methods of how to process the deer, but this is the way the Bendele family do it, and so was the way I was taught. Any which way, the end result is the same. We started by skinning the doe, being careful to keep one hand exclusively for touching fur, and the knife hand sterile for touching muscle. After skinning – evisceration. Undoubtedly the least pleasant part of the procedure, if only for the hefty sour whiff that comes from cleaning out the cavity. The viscera, organs and remaining skeleton would eventually be hauled back out to the field to feed the coyotes, and anything they couldn’t consume would slowly return to the earth, fertilising the soil around it.
I removed the backstraps and tenderloins which were left whole, and the remaining carcass was then quartered and brought inside for further processing. Whole muscles of a reasonable size that could be salvaged were turned into deer steaks, and any other meat that wasn’t trim was put in a bowl to be ground (optional chili or hamburger size grind, I went with hamburger!). It took a good 2-3 hours for three of us to trim down into edible portions and grind the remainder. Everything was then either ziploc’d or vacuum sealed, with the exception of one backstrap which I offered to my hosts in gratitude for allowing me to hunt on their property.
By the time we were all said and done, the packages of fresh venison filled the cooler with little room to spare, and the head and skin were bagged separately to take with me. It’s a little macabre, but Texas law dictates the identifying features (head and tag) must remain with any meat until it’s transported to it’s final destination. I sure hope no one opened my trashcan the following Monday night…
Hunting taught me a lot about myself and my own comfort levels.
It taught me that should some kind of zombie apocalypse happen, I’m going to be self-sufficient enough to survive. It also taught me that I wasn’t dependent on grocery stores, which invoked some incredible feelings of autonomy and power. It reinforced my conviction to give a shit about what I’m eating, be respectful of the animal’s sacrifice and honor it by using all the meat.
I’ll definitely hunt again – but only on short fence ranches or public land, which is my own ethical comfort zone. In terms of high fences, particularly when breeding programs are involved, there’s a fine line between game and livestock. In fact, the prestigious Boone & Crockett Club will not allow their record book to reflect any entries from trophies shot within high fences (it’s actually pretty interesting, and you can read more about their standards for “fair chase” here).
So far, I’ve cooked up venison bolognese, chicken fried deer steak and a stuffed backstrap, with plans for pastrami and jerky on the way. Those are just some of the many recipes which will keep me well fed over the next few months, and I’m thankful for every bite.
Thank you to Gerber, Federal Ammunition, Yeti and Savage, all of whom provided products for this story.
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