It is amazing how just a few words can crush someone. How they can hit harder than a Muhammed Ali uppercut, totally unexpected yet so devastating.
I was a teenager at the time. My father, younger brother and I had hunted deer religiously every season for years at the Montour Preserve public hunting lands in central Pennsylvania. We were lucky to even see a deer those days, not to mention seeing a deer in the right season and in a safe shooting position.
We grew up on a small farm near McEwensville, Pennsylvania, milking cows, raising chickens and turkeys, pigs and a pen full of pheasant for a small game hunting preserve that was more hobby than business.
For me, deer season paled in comparison by a long shot to small game hunting. The endless standing/sitting in sub-freezing temperatures, the lack of deer to keep the adrenaline pumping and the super early mornings—getting farm chores done before changing into hunting gear and beating the sunrise to our usual hunting spot.
So, one year during an argument over something so silly I can't even remember what it was about, I dropped the bomb. I bypassed floating like a butterfly and advanced directly to stinging like a bee. In the heat of the moment, I announced that I was done hunting deer. It was a waste of time.
The shot hit its mark. My father's face told me so. A lifelong, super-avid hunter who pursued deer every year in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania when I was little, and someone who harvested more deer in more ways than a squirrel frantically collects acorns before a hard winter, my father lived and breathed hunting.
He was with me when I was six or seven and shot my first squirrel with a specially modified youth-sized 410 shotgun. The same squirrel that he proudly had mounted and today sits in my family room nearly three decades later. He was there when I shot my first rabbit, which is currently sitting near the mounted squirrel in our family room.
To him, hunting was equal parts tradition, providing food for the family's table and building lasting memories with family and close friends in the hunting party. So, his oldest son suggesting that deer hunting was a waste of time was far worse than being hit below the belt.
It was a moment I'll never forget, not because I had temporarily ended the argument, but because of that hollow, in-shock look that seemed to paralyze my father in his tracks.
I had never seen that look before. I never wanted to see it again. I had crossed a line and learned something in the process. That hunting was more than shooting a deer, but ran much, much deeper.
When opening day rolled around that year, I was with my brother and father in the woods, watching the squirrels and daydreaming about girls while watching the fields on either side of me. I had a new outlook on hunting that season.
Instead of praying for a trophy buck, I had decided I'd just be happy to see something, anything. The surroundings seemed more alive than ever. Birds fluttered from branch to branch, chipmunks scurried across the ground and the weather didn't seem to be so cold and bitter.
About two hours into the opener, a nice-sized five-point buck ran into the field to my right and stopped, broadside, about 70 yards away. My .308 Winchester sealed the deal in one shot. My first deer. My first buck. My father's face was beaming, our argument and my hurtful words fully in the rear view mirror.
Some 20-odd years later, and I was out again this past Monday for the season opener. My brother, myself, my son—using my trusty .308—and a few friends.
My father did a small drive for us later in the morning over a small mountain. He no longer carries a gun, but instead a small walking stick. My brother got a seven-point buck that we all helped process later that evening. I didn't have a shot at any legal buck, but we saw plenty of deer.
But the highlight for me, outside of spending some more time with my father and brother in what has now become a long-standing tradition, was watching my son savor the hunt while making smart, responsible decisions. He passed on a shot at a Y-buck, one tine short of the legal standard this year. I could tell he didn't even consider it. I was so proud. I realized later that my hunting experiences have come full circle.
So why do I hunt?
I hunt to put food on the table. We live in a fast-food environment, but even fast food costs money and we're all looking for ways to cut corners. Venison provides a tasty and much cheaper (not to mention healthier) alternative.
So many who complain about hunting have no trouble grabbing a cheeseburger at McDonald's or purchasing a sports car with authentic leather seats or doing countless other things that require byproducts from animals that were raised in sometimes less-than-ideal situations.
I hunt because of the quality family time. Getting to see my dad in his element, watch my brother successfully harvest a buck and see my son shoot his first doe. As I've said in previous columns, there are few activities more telling than taking a youngster hunting. Life and death situations where decisions need to be made in a split second. You don't get that sort of moral litmus test over a family game of Parcheesi.
But most importantly, I hunt because of the tradition and heritage. Because hunting and outdoors run deep in my family's veins. It took some ignorant comments and some hurt feelings in the heat of an argument to realize that.