Today I shot my first deer. Like, ever.
I grew up around hunting, but never got around to hunting for venison because when I was a kid, my father's hunting was more than sufficient to fill our freezer each year. There were a good five or six years solid, during my childhood, that venison was the only red meat served in our household. Later on my father found it difficult to spare the time and expense involved in maintaining his share of a hunting club's lease and upkeep on a tract of timberland, and by then I was busy finishing high school and going on to college. Hunting was never really a priority for me after that; I tended to live in places that made it inconvenient to pursue my interest in doing it, and as an apartment-dweller it would have been troublesome to store the meat from whatever I did kill (and I've never been interested in trophies, or even in the "sport" of the thing). And honestly, good rifles are just expensive enough that I wasn't interested in laying down a bunch of money for a rifle, plus the aforementioned time and expense for membership in a club (and a public wildlife management area was right out). So, years passed. Decades, in fact.
A couple of years after I got married, my wife and I moved to her hometown in rural northern Louisiana, where my father-in-law is still the largest commercial peach grower in the state. I think that there are roughly four to five dozen deer currently in and around his property, which is about 400 acres (although only about a quarter of that is planted in peach trees). And then a couple of years after we came up, my father died and I inherited his rifle, which is a left-handed bolt action chambered for .30-06. And like him, I'm a lefty. Under the circumstances, it's easy for me to go hunting if I'm so inclined. It hasn't been convenient for me to do so until this year, mostly because I've been busy remodeling my house and getting the grounds into some semblance of order. But I finally have the leisure to feel okay about taking time off to go and sit in the woods with a rifle. And that brings us to today.
I don't know if any of the rest of you are hunters at all, but hunting and hunters show up pretty often in fantasy and RPGs and I am reasonably sure that at least some of you are not hunters and have never broken down any animal for food, much less a sizable one like a deer. So I thought that it might be interesting if I described what it was like to hunt, kill and gut a large mammal, from the perspective of someone who just did it for the first time. If you're squeamish, I think now would be a good time to stop reading, because this is not going to be a sanitized account.
There're lots of ways to go about hunting large game, but I and everyone I've ever known rely on still hunting, which entails waiting in one place until your chosen quarry shows up, at which point you shoot it. In Louisiana, most people do this from a stand, which is a platform or blind that is elevated above ground level. Deer have excellent visual acuity for spotting movement, but they don't ordinarily look upward. So the elevation improves your chances at raising your weapon, aiming, and firing without the deer spotting any telltale movement. In Louisiana (and many other states) it's legal to hunt over a food plot or a pile of dry corn or some other thing that deer find tasty, provided that you are on private property. On public lands, this is absolutely forbidden, and anyway it would be a waste of effort because other hunters would come in and take advantage of your work in establishing such a site. There are hunters who consider such methods unsportsmanlike, but the practice is widespread in Louisiana. I can see merits to both sides of the debate, but I'm not personally invested in the "sporting" aspect of the thing. I'm in this for fresh venison. For those who are interested in the finer points of this topic, I can elaborate if requested. Suffice it to say that I have been hunting both away from and over feed plots since a couple of days before Halloween, and today's kill was only the second deer that I've had a clean shot at. The first one was not over a food plot; this one was. I missed the first one, about a week ago, because I was so excited that my hands were shaky. Basically, my anecdotal experience is that there isn't really a huge difference between the two methods, except that a food plot tends to mean the deer holds still for longer. I care a great deal about whether I kill my quarry humanely, so that's a point in favor from my perspective.
You don't need to be an especially good marksman to hunt for deer; most shots take place at ranges under 100 yards, and often much closer. A typical "deer rifle" is fitted with a scope, so provided your scope is adjusted properly and the deer isn't moving at a run, you're virtually guaranteed to hit it unless you screw up like I did with my first attempt. Nerves are a big deal if you're excited, either because you're a newbie or because you're interested in trophies and are looking at a large, mature buck. I don't know exactly what I did wrong, but I flubbed my first shot, most likely by jerking on the trigger.
Today was better; my kill fell in its tracks, exactly where it was when I shot it, in about as auspicious a first kill as I could ask for. This is actually somewhat uncommon; unless your shot goes through a deer's heart, which is what happened in my case, a deer typically runs some distance, often 50 to 100 yards, after which you must go into the woods after it, relying on a blood trail to suss out its resting place, and then drag or carry it out. I cannot really claim any special skill; I can shoot a consistent 3-inch group at 100 yards, if I have a place to rest my arm and I'm not excited. That makes me a poor marksman by competition standards, but as I said before, you don't need to be a really good shot to hunt for deer. So this was mostly luck.
After making my shot, I walked out to the deer and inspected him to be sure he was dead. If he hadn't been, I'd have dispatched him, but there was no cause for me to worry; he died almost instantly. My deer was a young buck, probably about a year old, and I had taken him for a doe because his antlers were basically vestigial, making him what is called a "button" buck. They were really nothing but bony, fur-covered knobs above his eyes. Looking down at the freshly-killed animal, I had a moment of real sadness because they really are very pretty creatures, even in death.
But I consoled myself with the fact that I will enjoy quite a few suppers from him, and also with the knowledge that in six months or so, he would be happily chowing down on my father-in-law's peach crop.
One of the things you find out when you hunt for creatures is that they can be much larger or smaller than you expect them to be. My deer was smaller than you'd think; white tail deer usually don't get much bigger than 160 lbs. where I am, although recently someone killed a 200 lb. buck from the same spot where I shot my little fellow. I estimate his total weight at roughly 100 lbs. If I had to, I'm sure that I could have slung him over my shoulder and packed him out of the woods, but instead I called my father-in-law, who showed up with a four-wheeler and a trailer to haul him away to a spot where he had a winch to hoist up the carcass. At that point, it was time for me to gut the deer. Technically you can rely on a game processing house to do all of this stuff for you, but there's a substantial extra charge for gutting an animal. And it's not hard; it's just messy and smelly.
Speaking of, gutting is the point where you really come to grips with the enormity of what you've done as a hunter. This is something that I was familiar with already, because I've hunted squirrel and other small creatures before. Gutting a deer was really just a matter of degree, but it certainly forces you to confront the idea that you've killed a living creature and are going to eat its muscle tissues. A little squirrel or rabbit isn't any big deal; dressing out small game is not totally bloodless, but you don't wind up red to the elbows and reeking of slaughter the way you do when you cut into a deer.
The process of gutting an animal is really simple: you take a sharp knife (I just used the folding knife that I carry on me whenever I'm outside of my house), find the soft spot right under the deer's sternum, and pierce through into the abdominal cavity. Then you hook a finger inside the hole and use it to prevent the blade from slicing into the animal's guts while you run the knife all the way down to its genitals. After that, you spill its guts out, and (if desired) harvest any organ meats you care to eat. Any illustrated guide to butchering your own meat will tell you this. This description of the process leaves out a few details, though.
The first missing detail is that guts are hot. Like, uncomfortably hot. Steaming hot. And although I just said that you "spill" them out of the animal's body cavity, that's not strictly accurate. You really sort of rip them out with your hands. Guts are squishy and slippery, and you have to tug quite firmly to get them loose from the membranes that hold them in place inside the abdomen, but not so firmly that you rupture them. If you perforate the guts, then you're going to have a bad time because of the smell, which is somewhere between vomit and feces, depending on where the hole is located. Removing them from the carcass is a necessary step, and it is a (ha ha) visceral experience in its own right. So this evening I was literally elbow deep in a corpse's body cavities, rummaging around to make sure that I tore its innards lose from the inside of its abdominal wall. There were some really hairy noises involved in this enterprise.
The other missing detail is the aroma. Even if you don't put a hole in the gut, there's still going to be great deal of blood inside the carcass. You've just shot it, after all. Large quantities of hot blood give off a weirdly sweet aroma that isn't really awful, but can't really be deemed pleasant either. And once you get the bulk of the guts out, you still have to remove the bladder, genitals, and so forth. All kind of gross, and you have to be careful not to puncture them. And then you have to cut out the creature's anus. There will be poop. You will squeeze it out of the corpse's anus like greenish toothpaste. I can't dress this up and make it not be disgusting.
You also have to open up the chest cavity, which is harder than taking out the guts, but easier than it sounds—it's hard for a surgeon because the patient has to be put together again afterward, but we don't care about such things. Since any mammal's sternum is a bone connected to its ribs by a piece of cartilage, you don't really need any special equipment; it can be sliced with a sharp knife. Doing so allows you to spread the ribs open, slice through the diaphragm, and then jam your hand up as far into the deer's neck as it can go, after which you reach in with your knife and slice through trachea and aorta in one go. Afterward . . . well, again, there's no delicate way to say this: you literally rip out the animal's heart and lungs. If you're into offal, they both are edible (and heart can be quite good), but most of the time both will have been damaged by having been shot. This tends to leave them mushy and unappetizing, and in my deer there was actually a sizable chunk of the heart that was simply missing because I had shot it away.
After sluicing most of the blood and other fluids off of my skin, the deer, now in a state known as "field dressed" was ready to go into the back of a pickup truck to be dropped off with a game processor who will break it down into steaks, roasts, and ground meat. This is something that you really can do yourself, especially if you have a hacksaw ready to hand and have a working knowledge of which cuts of meat come from which parts of the carcass. But it's been fairly warm out lately, and meat is perishable. If I am lucky enough to make a second or third kill later in the season when the weather is cold enough to support it, I may butcher my own meat, but today it seemed better to gut the carcass and send it to a professional with a walk-in freezer and a bandsaw.