Dear Milk Streeter,
I met the president of The Old Rabbit Hunter’s Association in 1987. He moved into town in the early '80s, working construction. He lived down the road in an old blue Cape Cod that had snakes in the basement and an elderly female ghost who appeared at the top of the narrow stairs from time to time.
Mr. President introduced me to the art of rabbit hunting. When he was a kid, this was more provisioning than sport, since his family needed the meat. He always had dogs: Moose, Bucket, Bernadette, Nellie, Jack, Nick and the like. Moose got lost during a hunt, and Tom knocked on doors the next day; his dog started barking in a garage while the homeowner denied hearing anything. A threat was issued, and Moose was repatriated.
Mr. President, a man who takes to many outdoor sports, is also an avid deer hunter: bow, crossbow, rifle and black powder. He has a story for every corner of the woods since he has hunted there most of his life. The enthusiasm builds during the fall, leading up to Antler Eve, the day before the start of deer season. He begins to check the weather. He goes into the woods looking for hooks and scrapes. He reports on the deer population. He sights in his gun. He checks his gear. He replaces the battery on his four-wheeler. He starts to speak a shade faster, and his eyes turn brighter.
Mr. President was born in Connecticut, but he hunted Vermont in the late '60s and '70s in a small cabin in the hills around Newfane before he moved to town. There were long lines of traffic from out of state, a wait to get your license at the country store or the town clerk’s office, and then many folks headed up to camp or stayed in rooms in cheap motels after a game supper at the local volunteer fire station.
There were a lot of hunters, but also a lot of deer. Back then, if you sat for an afternoon (nobody used tree stands; you sat on a stump) you might see 25 or 30 deer. Today, you can sit all day and see nothing except squirrels and chipmunks. Whether it is the lack of farms in southern Vermont, a change in the food supply in the woods (although last year we had a bumper acorn crop; this year it’s beechnuts), or the doe permits that were issued back in the '80s that killed off too much of the breeding population, we’ll never know.
I headed up to my cabin on Antler Eve and walked the woods for a half-day to check for scrapes, hookings, deer paths and other signs. I saw a doe and her two fawns down by the apple trees on the way up to the cabin and then two large doe and what might have been a buck. But I saw little else; the woods offered scant signs. Mr. President showed up around dark. He celebrated the day with more than one PBR; I’m the bourbon type. The big stone fireplace was throwing off heat, the candles flickered on the mantel, and we told stories about other hunts. That time the local hunter was shot at by an out-of-towner, the bullet went through his backpack so close that the heat burned his skin. The game warden who was shot in the leg by a poacher. And our neighbor Mike, who once shot over 15 times at a buck high up in a meadow while standing by his dairy barn. He had to run home to get more bullets.
The ritual of opening day never varies. One of us makes a hunter’s breakfast: pancakes, bacon, a plate of scrambled eggs done like they were in the old days, plenty of hot black coffee and a roaring fire. It was cold, in the teens, but warmer than the single-digit predictions. Each of us set out just before 6 a.m. Mr. President was headed to his shooting shack (his son, Nate, built it for him a couple of years ago; it has a portable propane heater inside for single-digit weather). I headed toward my tree stand.
A lot of folks who don’t hunt think that it’s just about shooting. Well, I’ve had more than one season where I never shot once. It’s about becoming part of the woods. When you are first getting started, every rustle of a squirrel is a deer walking; every falling branch is a big buck. Many years ago, I heard incoming footfalls—a large animal, to be sure—and it turned out to be a porcupine. You start out stupid and the woods educate you.
A half-hour later in my stand, a dark brown, almost black-coated doe skidded by just below an embankment. I waited, and a bit later, she reappeared and stood about 30 yards behind my tree. Tom had told me that during a rut, if you see a doe, just wait. A buck is likely to be nearby. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a compact 8-pointer appeared, coming up the slope, stopping about 80 yards away, cautious as always. (A buck might stand for an hour downwind of a meadow just to make sure there is no danger.) He was partially obscured by trees, but I had seen the rack and took my chance. He jumped and wheeled and ran down the hill. I thought I had missed. I found him about 50 yards down the hill; it was a clean shot.
As anyone who hunts knows, the real work begins after the hunting. Some hunters can field-dress a deer in just minutes; it takes me closer to 20 or 30 to get the job done. And then I looked up and realized that I had a long drag up the embankment and back to a spot where we could drive in a four-wheeler to carry him out. The trick is to pull head first so the antlers don’t get caught in the underbrush. With a buck drag, you can wrap the front legs up near the head and tie the whole thing up with a plastic handle for pulling. But after 20 yards, as the hill steepened, I realized I was in deep. Mr. President once spent most of an afternoon dragging a deer up the far side of Green Valley, a steep incline. He still remembers it—not fondly.
So, I called Mr. President, who was happily ensconced in his shooting shack. He didn’t pick up, but I left a message. A half-hour later, sure enough, I heard the put-put of his four-wheeler, and we started the long haul. Mr. President is an old hand, but the problem was that the two of us are on the older side of young. There we were, two old guys, huffing and puffing, straining to get the buck up a hill. One, two, three—pull! One, two, three—pull! I don’t think either of us have enjoyed rest stops more than that day.
I weighed him at Sherman’s Country Store; he was 135 pounds dressed. A medium-size buck for our part of Vermont. Two years ago, Skip Wilson’s wife shot a 215-pounder behind their house. I think that set a record.
We dropped him off down in New York state to get him turned into steaks, stew meat, roasts and hamburger. Tom and his wife Nancy will get most of the meat; I’ll take just what I can use over the winter. I like the backstrap (the tenderloin) cooked hot and quick on a grill; rare inside. I’ve also heard that some folks sous vide venison to keep it moist. I’ll mix some of the burger with ground pork and spices for burgers and try some long winter braises, as well. Tom told me that one winter, in the early '80s, he and his family lived off bear meat that a friend had brought down from Maine. He hasn’t taken a bite of it since.
Deer season takes you back. That evening in front of the fire, Mr. President remembered his early hunting days. A bunch of guys stayed for a week in camp and there were some pretty ripe socks by the end of the stay. Sharp cold, deep snow, thin rubber boots and a double layer of long johns under blue jeans and a wool hunting jacket. They hadn’t invented high-tech hunting clothes and nobody could have afforded them anyway. If you shot a deer on opening day, well, you still stayed the week, hoping to put a second buck on someone else’s tag.
Hunting season is wood smoke and pancakes, black sky mornings, a carpet of crisp, frosted leaves, the sun rising, illuminating a dark hollow, and the sharp sound of deer moving through the woods. And, most of all, there’s someone there to help you drag a deer of the woods and share stories at the end of the day.
I had just thrown another log on the fire to warm up Mr. President, who had been sitting on the edge of a pasture until dark and was cold to the bone. He put down his PBR and said, “Next year, we should plant some alfalfa in the Le Shane pasture. It would be good for the deer.” He had that twinkle in his eye.
He was already looking forward to next season.
P.S. Thanks and apologies to Gordon MacQuarrie, author of Stories of The Old Duck Hunters, the best collection of outdoor writing ever published. If you would like to order our new cookbook for the holidays, a limited number of signed copies are available.