I didn’t grow up hunting. Dad gave it up when I was about five, saying after he’d shot his 50th California buck, “that was enough.” Instead, we fished. A lot. But I always wanted to learn to shoot and hunt, so I taught myself. Starting out on rabbits and Tweety birds and whatever, I slowly moved up the ladder as I got older.
In high school, I backpacked into the high country regularly and, since there was no private-land access where we lived, but there were a few deer in the local mountains, I decided I’d go get one. Dad loaned me his classic pre-’64 Model 70 Winchester in .270, I loaded my pack up, and off I went during the early August season, when daytime temperatures reached triple digits.
Nobody, least of all myself, thought I had a snowball’s chance of killing a buck. I was blind as a newborn baby. But, somehow, I got one, a barely-legal forked horn. Fly me to the moon!
Little did I know that my education was about to begin. Theory was about to be trumped by reality. Over the next 24 hours, I learned many poignant lessons that have stayed with me to this day, nearly 50 years later. As a service, I’ve decided to list 10 lessons learned on that trip in hopes that it might save a few of you newbies unnecessary pain and suffering.
1. Deer are heavy.
And they increase in weight by a factor of two once they’re dead. This is the scientific explanation behind the term “dead weight.”
2. Dragging a deer is no good.
Do it by the front legs and the head catches on everything, including your pant legs. Drag it by the rear legs and against the grain of the hair increases friction by approximately 1,000 percent. This is why I believe that bucks don’t have antlers for dominance and protection but, instead, to provide idiots like me with a handy handle for dragging.
Bonus tip: Trying to fashion a deer drag out of limbs and parachute cord “Indian style” is ridiculous.
There is a complicated mathematical formula that will help you determine distances of your deer’s location to and from camp. In this case, I shot the buck about a mile from my tent. Amazingly, I had to travel 4.7 miles to get it back to camp. I later learned that veteran hunters refer to this phenomenon as “deer-miles.”
4. When clothes burning is required.
You need to learn how to care for your deer before you shoot it, especially if the nearest person is a long day’s march away and cell phones have yet to be invented. However — and especially in hot weather — deer should be gutted as soon as possible. Failure to do so can result in smells that closely resemble the southbound end of a northbound skunk that, once on your person, cannot be removed with soap and water, only by sandblasting. On your clothes? Burn ‘em.
Make sure you have all the necessary tools to take care of a dead deer in your daypack, even if your chances of success are worse than mine were. Which was a negative integer. After the miracle occurs is not the time to realize you only have one knife, no steel, that you forgot to sign your hunting license and you have no pen.
6. Your lower back can only take so much.
After dragging your poorly-gutted deer 4.7 “deer miles” back to camp over bad ground, two feet at a pull, I could hardly stand up straight. Maybe that’s why I blew a lower back disk 40 years later? Work smarter, not harder. I wish someone had told me that beforehand.
7. The testicles have to come home.
Even backpack hunters are required to have “proof of sex” with the deer when you check it in, which means the testicles you left back at the kill site have to come home with you. Penalty for forgetting in all the excitement? A 9.4 “deer mile” round trip while wondering if you have enough water to last the next two days.
8. Despite your best efforts, even boned out meat will leak blood.
If you want to keep it off everything in your pack, or your cooler, or whatever, it needs to be placed in thick bags — not el cheapo garbage bags that leak like a sieve. Failure to do so can result in having to discard most everything not made of wood or metal once you’re back home.
9. Jeremiah Johnson did not go to McDonalds.
When you get back to town and want a triple McSomething more than life itself, remember that you look and, more importantly, smell like the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Bonus tip: You can get a ticket for bad manners for using their restroom as a quasi-shower.
I don’t care what the magazines and videos say. Dirt, debris, sticks, leaves and a few dead ticks will not adversely affect the flavor of the summer sausage and meat sticks from your first buck. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember meat that tasted sweeter. Ever.
What do you remember about your first buck? Drop me a note at email@example.com and share your stories. I’d love to hear them.
- Expert tips for proper venison preparation
- Field testing the badlands ascent backpack
- When small deer are as good as big deer
Featured photo credit: State Archives of Florida/Barron