The second Thursday in November has just passed. In most of the country, thoughts will be about the big feast that comes exactly seven days later, but not in my part of the world.
This coming week does include American Thanksgiving. Big family meals will be held that day, and swarms of people will go charging out to shopping malls on Friday.
But in West Virginia, another holiday takes precedence: “buck gun season.” This coming Monday, the woods be filled with more loud booms than the Fourth of July. Organic protein and “horns” will be the prize, and a few more forest destroying cervids will be removed from the population before the coming winter turns them into twig chomping fiends.
When I was a child, all sort of people came into the rural districts, often people who had grown up in the area but had gone into the industrial parts of Ohio for work. Ohio’s deer season, “shotgun only,” came later in the year, but West Virginia’s came the week of Thanksgiving. If one wanted to visit the family for the holiday, why not come a few days early and drop a buck for the freezer?
It was such a big event that the school was out all week, not just Thursday and Friday. We received a truncated Christmas vacation, but school attendance during that week would have been terrible. So the district let us all out.
And the tradition continues. I don’t know of a single school district in West Virginia that stays open the week of Thanksgiving.
In fact, virtually every college or university in West Virginia has a week-long holiday this coming week. It is that big a deal.
And it’s not like the deer are massive trophies. The state has antler restrictions in only a few public hunting lands, and in most of the state, there will be many young bucks taken. Because the “antlerless” firearms season occurs at the same time, button bucks will be taken as well. When that many younger bucks are removed from the population, the number of mature deer with nice racks becomes much lower.
But this is a state that allows the hunter to take six deer a year. If you have a family who owns land and have two hunters who have resident rights to it, you’re talking potentially twelve deer killed a year, which could feed a family of four fairly well.
I come from a family of deer hunters, but they were not venison eaters. When I was a kid, every deer that got shot was given to a relative or someone who couldn’t hunt. My grandpa, who loved to hunt everything and would have us eat cooked squirrel brains, wouldn’t even field dress a deer. That was my dad’s job, and for whatever reason, if my dad or my grandpa even smelled venison cooking, it would make their stomachs weak.
I never had this problem, and in the last few years, I’ve learned how to cook venison properly. I much prefer the meat to beef, especially when we’re talking leaving certain steak cuts rare. These deer have been living well on acorns, and their flesh has that oaky, rich taste, which some call gamey. I call it delicious.
I’ll be in the woods early Monday morning. I don’t know if I’ll get anything. The odds are usually against my killing anything that first week. I don’t have access to the best deer bedding grounds, and the hunting pressure means they won’t be moving into the area where I hunt.
My favorite time to go is Thursday evening, when more than half the local hunters are at home watching football games and digesting turkey. I would rather go through waterboarding than watch a football game, so it’s not big loss for me.
I am a naturalist hunter on the quest for meat. My ancestors in Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain hunted the red deer and the roe thousands of years. They got their meat from the forest.
I am doing the same.
And if you really wanted to know what I think of deer, I’d have to say that I love them. They are fascinating animals. This particular species has been roaming North America virtually unchanged for 3 million years. This animal watched the mammoths rise and fall. It was coursed by Armbruster’s wolf and the American cheetahs. It saw the elk come down from Beringia– and the bison too. It ran the back country with primitive horses and several species of pronghorn. It quivered and blew out at jaguars and American lions that stalked in the bush, and it dodged the Clovis points of the Siberian hunters who first colonized this land.
The white-tailed deer thrives so well, but this coming week is the beginning of the great cull. Fewer deer mean less pressure on the limited winter forage, which means healthier deer in the early spring. Better winter and spring condition means that does have had a chance to carry fawns to term, and mature does usually have twins if the conditions are good. Healthier bucks get a better chance to grow nice antlers for the coming year.
A public resource is being managed. Organic meat raised without hormones or antibiotics is easily procured, and stories and yarns are being compiled for exposition that rivals any trophy mount on the wall.
I know deer stories, including ones about the people I barely knew and are no longer with us.
My Grandpa Westfall once went on a deer drive for my great grandpa, who was getting older. He valued his clean shot placement, as many of those old time hunters did, and he would not shoot a deer on the run.
But as he grew older, deer hunting became harder for him, so my grandpa decided to jump one out to him.
My grandpa went rustling through the brush to drive one into my great grandpa’s ran, and he happened to bump a nice little buck and a few does that went running in his direction.
Expecting to hear rifle shots, my grandpa was a bit surprised to hear nothing. So when he approached the deer stand, he saw my great grandpa sitting there.
“Did you see those deer?”
“I ran three out to you. A buck and two does. Why didn’t you shoot?”
“I didn’t see or hear any deer.”
“Well, you should have at least heard them.”
“Well, if there were that many deer coming my way, they must’ve had their sneakers on.”
He didn’t want to tell my grandpa that he appreciated the effort, but that deer drives were against his ethics. He shot deer cleanly, or he didn’t shoot them at all.
These old men will be with me when I’m out on Monday. I go in their memory, participating in the Great West Virginia Deer Cull.