It's hard for me to believe but I shot my first mule deer nearly a quarter century ago. Every moment of that first shot and kill remains with me today. All the confusion about whether to shoot or not to shoot that preceded that first shot is still in my memory. Eye to eye I saw the deer and it was a rite of passage moment.
My father and grandfather before him had hunted deer. I'd been raised on venison. That day my older friend Bill Mewhort had taken me along and pointed me to where he thought I'd likely find a deer. Bill Mewhort was a friend I'd made earlier hunting the same terrain. He'd invited me along on this hunt and I was glad to accept the invitation. . I now know that you don't just take anyone along on a hunt. Guides charge thousands a day if only for the horror of teaching greenhorns the basics of the hunt.
It was North Vancouver Island, hill and forest country with lots of streams. We driven up the night before and set up camp north of Sayward. We'd shared stories around the campfire and slept as only one can sleep in the fresh outdoor air of early dawn. Bill woke me in the dark and we had coffee and breakfast before heading out. We drove the truck in the dark away from the camp. In the dark he shut the engine off. In the dark he quietly set off in one direction while pointing me to go in the other. Eventually, I'd taken my place hidden in brush, a fallen log for a rifle rest. I was looking down into a clearing. I stayed perfectly still. Sure enough, an hour, maybe two later, the deer stepped out into my sights. I'd watched the sun come up before that, colours filling the morning sky before the blue took over. I'd stayed stock still unmoving as Bill had told me. Even then the deer saw me as I saw him, our eyes connecting like lovers across the room. A young spike, at most 75 yards away.
I had a Browning 30:06 with a Leupold scope, 150 grain bullets then. The deer was facing quarter on to me standing still just watching. As Bill had taught me, I thought "Aim for the centre of the centre of the centre". It was his mantra. "Aim for the centre of the centre of the centre." Bill always said. "Say it to yourself" he'd say.on every hunt," "Aim for the centre of the centre of the centre. It will slow the buck fever and make sure your shot is steady. And always use a rest. You'd be surprised at how many fellows miss their shots because they're shaking so badly with excitement."
Keeping perfectly still, letting my breath out slowly, I squeezed the trigger. The explosion of sound was deafening. The buck dropped. I sprung up and ran stumbling through brush to the deer, surprised at how camouflaged it was still there on the ground. I stared at it with astonishment. It was a magnificent animal. It was my first kill and I was speechless with the size. I only stared for a moment.
Though the deer was dead I sliced the throat deeply regardless. My dad had told us a story as kids of his friend losing a deer when he was about to field dress it and the deer jumped up and ran away. His bullet had just grazed the deer's head. The moral of the story was always make sure the game is dead. It's doubly true for bear.
I was shaking. It's a mixed feeling, sorrow and satisfaction. I've felt the same thing killing a fish. There's no pleasure in the death of another. Yet there's that sense of accomplishment and completion. As the heart beat slows and the full realization entered I was aware I'd shot my first deer. Alot of paper targets, soda cans, rabbits, ducks, geese and upland game birds had preceded this deer. But this was the first big game animal. As I set to field dress it benefitting from my surgical experience, text book diagrams I had in my head and the instructions Bill had given me, I realized just how big this was compared to anything else I 'd shot. Birds and rabbits are a meal. The deer fully dressed was about 60 or 80 lbs of fine eating meat. About a third, sometimes more of an animal is fur, bones, guts and such. A 120 game will give somewhere between 60 and 100 lbs of meat after the butcher is through. Island mule deer are smaller than their mainland cousins. Those mainland deer I've shot have resulted in a hundred to two hundred pounds of venison in the freezer. And there's nothing in my world that tastes as good as venison stew. Island deer are more plentiful and being lighter,easier to haul out of the woods.
So much of the quality and taste of the meat depends on the care taken in field dressing. The deer is sliced carefully from sternum to pelvis with real care to avoid catching the bowels and spilling bowel contents into the body cavity. Bowel contents contain enzymes. Enzymes digest and taint the meat. And whatever you do, you don't want to nick the bladder and spil urine all over the cavity. Even if you're by a stream and can wash the carcass insides out as thoroughly as possible, it's best not to let any juices touch the meat. It really does affect the taste.
I pulled all the guts out on the down hill side. It's amazing how much bowel animals have. I carefully removed the liver and put this to the side.I've learned to always carry a green garbage bag for bringing back liver and heart. I don't keep kidneys. Anything that I don't harvest will be quickly found by wild animals so nothing is ever wasted in the woods.
Carefully cutting in a cirrcle around the outside of the diaphragm I opened the upper cavity to be able to clean out the lungs and pull out the heart. A slice at the neck freed the heart arteries and ligaments allowing me to get the heart, which is mighty fine eating indeed. I always leave removing the bladder to the last. I probably should do it first. it's the most difficult and delicate task. Bill's big for carefully coring aroudn the anus and pulling the bladder out through the 'arsehole'. He's shown me how this is done since several times. Despite my surgical training and skill I've never had his finesse after I've shot a big animal. More often than not I carefully open the pelvis by cutting the ligaments away then breaking it back so I can lift the bladder and urethra out that way. If I remember correctly I did it Bill's way that first time. The whole object is to avoid getting uric acid on the best meat cuts, the rump roasts.
The worst deer is gut shot with all the bowel and bladder contents spilled inside. Hence the reason for heart shots and head shots. It's a further reason for why some people don't like 'wild' game because it tastes bad. I've had that experience and known that the hunter who shot the deer didn't know what he was doing. Other times ,though its what the deer have been eating on and the terrain that can give a wilder taste. Getting the field dressing done quickly helps to lower the core temperature of the kill quicker. The sooner the meat is hung in a cold freezer the better the taste. Some deer I hang and butcher myself but mostly I've enjoyed taking the game to a wild game butcher where you have to show them your license and cut tag so they can record the information for inspectors.
Field dressed I dragged the deer by an antler through the grass to the road. You can't pull deer backwards because the hair will act as a brake. You have to pull it head first. I had a quarter mile to go to the truck and figured it would be easier walking up the logging road with the deer over my shoulders than dragging the fresh kill through the dirt. I hadn't counted on the blood from the body cavity pouring down my wool jacket and trousers..
That's when I came upon Bill. I had my first deer wrapped around my shoulders, blood all over me, with my rifle slung over my back and I was walking up the gravel side road to the truck. For years after Bill said he was sorry he'd not had a camera because he'd never seen anyone looking such a mess with such a huge grin on his face. There was no doubt about it too. I felt great. I felt almost like I would explode. When I dropped that 120 lbs or so of deer in the truck I was ecstactic. Despite the blood Bill gave me a great bear hug. He's a big barrel shaped man with a balding head.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" he said.
"Sure does," I laughed.
"Well, no one can say you're not 'blooded' after that," he said joking about my appearance. The sun was high and it was already hot for autum. I stripped down to the waste and got down by the stream to wash the blood off my arms and chest and face and hair.
"You're not any prettier, but at least you're presentable." Bill said. "If you hadn't washed yourself off I was thinking of telling you to ride in the back of the truck with the deer."
Bill and I would hunt a dozen or more times after that. Now I've lost count of the deer I've shot. I live for venison stew and love cooking wild game every which way myself. I've probably shot 30 deer since then. My dad and brother and all those friends of mine who love the taste of wild game have shared my table for hearty healthy feasts and fine dining. When I was a kid and my mom said we were having liver I was the last to step forward but today after every hunt it's the liver and tenderloins we have first thing back at the camp. We're all thankful for the life the deer gives in turn and as hunters we're all more connected to the reality of nature and life than anyone can be whose meat comes packaged in cellophane from the supermarket. Hunting I show deer the respect that life deserves and the relationship between hunter and prey is sacred in the wild. Not quite the same for the consumer.
I'm thankful for my grandfather, father, brother, and old friends like Bill who have taught me the ancient ways and shared their secrets and skills. Of coures I'm thankful to God for wild game and this great country of Canada, as well..