By far, the most popular kind of hunting story that exists today is the first-deer story. To kill your first deer is a rite of passage, and a hunter will tell his story with the same degree of passion and mystery that most guys use to describe their first sexual encounter. Indeed, there are many similarities between these two milestones in a boy’s (and in some cases, a girl’s) life. For instance, American hunters generally kill their first deer around the age that they begin fondling members of the opposite sex, say around fourteen or fifteen years of age. Also, our parents tend to respond to the news of our conquests in similar ways. Our dads take a quiet pride in our accomplishment. And while our mothers certainly don’t want too many graphic details, they do begin to worry about what we might carry home with us.
If we continue this comparison, it’s easy to see why so few hunters discuss the first time that they didn’t get a deer. Who wants to tell—or hear, for that matter—a story about failed conquest? But for whatever reason, I think about the first deer that I didn’t kill about ten times as often as I think about the first deer that I did kill. Even though I was only twelve years old, I can still see that deer—a four-point whitetail buck—as clearly as if he’d walked in front of me a week ago. I remember the slight curve of his antlers. I remember how his head bobbed downward and forward a little bit with each step. And I remember how the muscles in his front left shoulder flexed as he walked, and how, every time they flexed, you could see one of his veins bulge beneath his skin, the way you can see the shape of a garden hose lying in your backyard after a bit of show has fallen on it. Looking at that shoulder, I thought of the directions that my old man had been pounding into my head for the past year: Sink your arrow an inch behind the shoulder, about a third of the way up the deer’s body, and you’ve got a heart-shot buck. And though I had been perfectly willing—even excited—to do that, I knew now that I couldn’t. Worse, I knew that I’d have to explain why.
Make the classic mitten-shaped Michigan map with your right hand, palm facing you, and look to the middle knuckle of your ring finger. That’s Lake County, right where this buck lived. I grew up about fifty miles to the south and west of there, in Muskegon County, where the base of your pinkie meets the base of your ring finger. Hunting this far from home was a rare thing for me. It happened only when I was able to take time away from school in order to go on overnighters with my dad. Committing to such a thing was a huge gamble, as you were exposing yourself to the risk of one of his explosive freak-outs. These could be caused by the usual stuff, like if you back-talked him. And they could also happen for strange and less predictable reasons, like, for instance, if you spilled pickle juice in his truck, or tracked dirt into the tent, or lost some gear, or snagged him on the top of the head with a fishing hook. All in all, though, it was definitely worth the risk. Not only was there the opportunity of seeing new country and having exciting adventures; there was also the chance of meeting some of the eccentric characters that my old man counted among his hunting and fishing buddies.
One of his favorite eccentric buddies was a man named Eugene Groters. Groters lived in the northwest corner of Lake County, in Peacock Township. He wore his reddish hair as a flat-topped buzz cut, and his wrist was permanently stained green from a large copper bracelet that he believed to be an effective treatment against arthritis. He liked to wear his pants high up on his waist, at a point well past his navel. If he’d been more limber, he could have probably reached over his shoulder and grabbed his wallet out of his back pocket. The pants were held in place by large red suspenders, which he wore with such consistency that I imagined him sleeping in them—a strange image considering that Groters kept a large mirror fastened to the ceiling above his bed well into the sixth decade of his life.
Groters maintained a collection of vintage Playboy centerfolds from the early days of that magazine’s history—a time when Playboy offered images no more shocking that what you can find nowadays on the cover of US Weekly. He kept them stapled to the walls of his barn. He was an enthusiastic fixer of broken mechanical contraptions, and he liked to invent mechanical contraptions that would soon break. He kept a lot of oddities and junk around as a source of inspiration and raw material. Some of these oddities were on permanent display in his cabin: a pair of twin deer fetuses preserved in a jar of formaldehyde; a dried bull’s scrotum; an assortment of antique traps; and a knife that he claimed had been used on one of the Apollo lunar missions. The centerpiece of this archive was formed by Groters’s collection of rifles and shotguns. He bragged of having one for every year he’d been alive, which made for a considerable arsenal.
Groters didn’t like bow hunters. He referred to them as Hiawathas, a term that was meant to emasculate and trivialize practitioners of the discipline. By Groters’s reckoning, hunting deer with a bow was little more than a good way to injure a deer. His opinion was backed by vivid personal and semi personal experience. He had once shot a deer than had an infected wound from an arrowhead that was buried in its flesh, and he had visited a wild game butcher who showed him a coffee can full of arrowheads that he’d pulled out of deer carcasses that rifle hunters had killed and brought in. That was all Groters needed to see, and from then on he considered wounded and unrecovered deer to be the hallmark of bow hunting. In his mind, the only acceptable way to kill a deer was with a high-powered rifle. He killed one that way every year, using a .30-30, often dropping it dead in its tracks.
Groters’s opinions rubbed my dad the wrong way. The old man considered himself to be a bow hunter, first and foremost. He was an active supporter of an archery organization known as the Pope and Young Club, and he hunted everything from bullfrogs to boars with his bow. He’d even met and hunted with the legendary Fred Bear, one of the pioneers of modern bow hunting. Whenever my dad cared to explain the efficacy of bow hunting, he produced from his bookshelves the skull of a whitetail doe he’d killed near his old hunting cabin in Wisconsin. The skull had been penetrated by a steel arrowhead smack in the middle of its forehead, and then the arrowhead had buried itself so deeply into the back of the skull that the tip was poking into the light of day on the other side. This was done with an old recurve bow at forty yards, he reminded you, not some modern compound. Never mind that my dad’s shot placement on the doe had been a complete accident—he was accidentally aiming for the deer’s heart, but the animal had whipped its head around upon hearing the release of the bowstring and thereby caught the projectile between its eyes. He still cited the skull as testament to what a bow could do in the right hands. To bolster his case even further, he talked about a guy he served with in World War II who was hit in the forehead by a bullet that skirted around the top of his skull and exited out of his scalp without so much as fracturing the bone. The implication being, of course, that a damned rifle couldn’t always do what a bow could do.
Groters and the old man were both too old and ornery to have their opinions changed, so they’d found a mature way to avoid confrontation: My dad was allowed to stay at Groters’s cabin if he was fishing in the area, but he had to stay out in the woods in his tent if he was bow hunting. This arrangement seemed fairly black-and-white, but it left an interesting area of gray with regard to me and my dad’s visit on the occasion that I didn’t kill the buck. We were planning to come to Lake County a few days before the October 1 opening of archery season in order to do some scouting, which meant we’d be there at the same time that the king salmon were in the rivers. My dad figured that we could do some fishing in conjunction with our scouting. Groters would join us in the fishing, of course, though it threatened to put him in an uncomfortable position, since our fishing was auxiliary to our primary mission of scouting our bow-hunting locations.
Luckily for Groters and my father, the practice of scouting for deer was not necessarily exclusive to other activities. It’s quite possible to scout for deer in such a way that it looks and feels like you’re doing something else altogether. And in our case, that “something else” happened to be something that Groters usually insisted on doing at the end of a morning of fishing anyway. He liked to crack a can of Schlitz and take a circuitous backwoods route toward home. Along the way, he paid visits to a scattering of old burned-out houses in the woods that he believed to have been whorehouses back during the railroad boom of the 1920s. As evidence to support his theory, he would point to the profusion of bed frames and bedsprings that littered the inside and outside of these houses. Also the great abundance of old liquor bottles. He liked to stand and stare at these houses, and to feel the bottles in his hand, as though he could conjure through force of imagination the good times that had been had there. His love of the past went beyond simple nostalgia. He was also something of a preservationist. He took pleasure and pride in destroying any No Trespassing sign he encountered, with the justification that it hadn’t been there before. In his mind, the signs were vagrant acts of graffiti.
These jaunts usually included some or all of Teapot Trail, a sandy two-track through the woods that allegedly took its name from a dented metal teapot that had once been nailed to a tree near the trail’s intersection with a county dirt road. Over the decades, the pot was shot to shreds by guys armed with a wide array of rifles and shotguns before it finally vanished. Someone later came by and nailed a replacement to the tree, but Groters considered the new pot to have the same relationship to the original that a Rolling Stones tribute band has to the Rolling Stones.
Teapot Trail was prime deer country. That it ran through Manistee National Forest made it even better. It was public land, open to anyone who cared to hunt it, and there was no need to beg for permission. We scouted Teapot Trail by keeping the windows of our Jeep down and watching the sand for scatterings of deer tracks. When we saw them, we’d pull the truck to the side of the trail and go off into the woods to see what factors contributed to the presence of the deer in that particular area. These usually included some combination of trails, feeding areas, bedding areas, or geographical features that funneled traveling deer through the area. The first half of this process—driving with the windows down—dovetailed perfectly with Groters’s own plan. And since he was generally curious about deer trails and geographical features, the second part didn’t bother him too much so long as we didn’t discuss bow hunting with too much specificity.
On or around the morning of September 28, we were driving slowly down Teapot Trail when we cut a bunch of deer tracks in the sand that alerted us to a game trail we’d never noticed before. We got out and I watched the old man study the tracks. They were of varying vintages, and only one size. No fawn tracks, no evidence of multiple deer crossing all at once. This led him to believe that a lone buck had been crossing the trail on a daily basis. We obliterated the tracks by sweeping the sand with a pine bough. The next morning, when we drove through that area an hour before daybreak on our way to fish, we saw that the deer had yet to cross through. On our way back from fishing, late in the morning, the tracks were loud and clear in the sand. Now we knew that he was coming through in the early morning rather than in the middle of the night. Which was good.
We cleaned our fish and froze the fillets when we got back to Groters’s place. Then, in the afternoon, my old man and I drove back to Teapot Trail. We followed the deer tracks into the woods, being careful not to walk on the trail directly. Instead we paralleled it, so we didn’t stink it up with human odor. We kept our talking to a whisper and were careful not to touch anything that wasn’t necessary. We went about two hundred yards into the woods. Then we started looking for an ambush tree that sat within easy bow range of the trail. We wanted it to be in a place where the topography and undergrowth would offer some added encouragement for the deer to stay on the path and not wander willy-nilly through the woods. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you ever follow a game trail into a meadow; often the trail will widen and lose its definition in the open and then funnel back down before it enters the woods again.
We found a tree that stood about fifteen yards off the trail in a downwind position. I screwed three L-shaped steps into the trunk of the tree, the third about chest high. Then I stood on the first step and held the third step with one hand while I screwed in the fourth. When I’d done about ten steps I was about sixteen feet up in the tree. I secured myself to the tree by fastening a safety belt that we’d removed from a car around my waist and the tree’s trunk. I had a rope tied to my belt loop, and I used it to hoist up a chain, a chain binder, and a mounting bracket. After joining the bracket to the tree, I hoisted up a carpeted plywood platform that mounted to the bracket with a pair of bolts and wing nuts. That was to stand on. For a seat, I fastened above it a smaller metal platform that my old man had fabricated from a roadside speed limit sign that he’d pulled out of the ground somewhere. You could still see a portion of the numeral 35 on the upper side. The downward-facing side was painted a mottled green and brown for camouflage. Once my stand was up, we went deeper into the woods and hung my father’s stand at the intersection of two well-used deer trails.
There was only one full day left before bow season opened, so we spent the next morning moving our stuff out of Groters’s place and getting our camp pitched out in the woods along Teapot Trail. We took it easy that night and didn’t stir around too much. Both of our tree stands were within a mile of camp, and my dad said it was important not to raise a lot of ruckus. We wanted to “give the place a rest,” he said. We went to bed on army cots positioned against the walls of the tent.
Loud snorers are usually the first to fall asleep, and my old man was no exception. He snored loud and hard, as though he were exorcising some demon from his body. Now I wonder if that’s not a bad explanation for what is going on inside of him. During the war, when he left Morocco, he was shipped out on a straw-lined railcar that started him on a circuitous land and sea route toward the Italian peninsula. On January 22, 1944, he took part in Operation Shingle. The landing at the Anzio beachhead went smoothly compared to the Allied landings at Normandy that coming summer, but breaking away from the coast was difficult. The army was bogged down there for months. During that time my dad worked as a forward observer. He’d sneak out ahead of the front lines and climb up to a high piece of ground where he could sit with binoculars and search for the enemy. He looked for amassed troops, mortar positions, sometimes just a distant flash of sunlight on what looked to be the windshield of a vehicle. Then he’d radio coordinates back to the artillery positions, as estimated from a compass and a map. At first, the artillery guys would launch white phosphorous rounds, which erupted with a highly visible plume of smoke. The location of the plume allowed him to fine-tune his coordinates. Once the phosphorous bombs were hitting on target, they’d cut loose with live rounds.
Those early months of combat had surreal elements. For one thing, my dad never met or saw the men who launched the bombs. The munitions usually came from ships in the Mediterranean, and they might as well have been dropped by God. At their closest, the Germans were usually thousands of yards away. If he considered them at all, it was only to remember that they’d gladly kill him if they had the chance. But his sense of removal dissolved with time. Once, he spent the night out ahead of the front lines in the remnants of a building that had been bombed to rubble. In the middle of the night he heard drunken singing. It was quiet and distant at first but got progressively louder as the source drew near. To his horror, he realized that there were three voices and they were singing in German. He couldn’t fathom what they were doing, other than that they’d gotten horribly lost without even knowing it. As they passed on the road in front of his building he pulled a pin on a grenade and tossed it at their feet.
Another story he told many times involved another bombed-out building, this one at the crest of a prominent hill. He and his partner had decided to set up an observation post inside. The only way in was through a small window. He climbed through carrying a radio on his back, a set of binoculars around his neck, and Thompson submachine gun in his hand. He described this action vividly to me, the way he sat on the sill of the window before nudging himself forward and dropping to the ground. Then, as soon as his boots hit, he smelled the fresh and unmistakable odor of German cigarettes. Scattered all around the basement were cigarette butts and discarded tins of food, some of them so fresh that the juices hadn’t dried. On the floor of the building was a German soldier, still alive and staring at him with fear and wonder. My dad figured him to be fourteen. The soldier’s arm was hanging on by threads of skin. The bone was shattered and jagged and visible, and my dad guessed that he might have been hit by a strafing round.
My dad eventually quit talking to people. Instead, he opted to stare at the sky whenever he had a free moment. Alarmed, an officer removed him from the lines and sent him to a field hospital. My dad was seated in front of a doctor, but he didn’t want to talk to him. The doctor injected my dad with what he believes must have been some sort of truth serum—possibly pentobarbital. The doctor asked, “Where did you drop your rifle?” My dad said, “I didn’t drop my rifle.” The doctor waited a few moments and then repeated himself: “Where’d you drop your rifle?” The next thing my dad knew, it was hours later and he was sobbing in the doctor’s lap.
He began hunting for big game when he got home. First he hunted with other veterans, men who had shared his experiences. Men like Groters, who had spent time in the service, became his confidants. Later he hunted with the first crop of three boys that he had with his first wife—my half brothers. By the time I was born, the youngest of those boys, Jimmy, a service member in the navy, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. The middle boy, Tony, had once lived in a tepee and fed himself and his wife on poached deer and porcupines that he killed with a bow. The oldest, Frank, was a game warden. My father didn’t talk to any of them very often when I was a kid; he’d put his attentions to his new family. While he may have vowed to do some things differently on his second go-around as a father, he did not abandon the notion that his kids ought to be hunters.
Early in the morning, after the alarm woke us, my dad fried a batch of egg-in-the-holes in a skillet over a Coleman two-burner stove. He’d swapped the white gas fittings out for propane burners so that he could run the stove and the lamp through a Siamese connector fitted to a five-pound tank. The appliances hissed with a sound that, whenever I hear it today, still reminds me of camping with my old man. We ate standing. When we were done, we walked in the dark down Teapot Trail until we were close to our destination. Then the old man clicked on a disposable flashlight in order to look for the piece of surveyor’s tape that we’d tied to a limb to mark our route into the woods.
At the base of my tree I pulled a twenty-five-foot length of parachute cord from my pack. My dad watched me tie one end of the cord to the limb of my bow and the other end to my belt loop. I started up the tree. Fear set in when I reached the last peg, because then I had to commit my weight to the stand and pull myself up. For some reason the stand always seemed like a tenuous structure in the dark. I grabbed the platform with all my strength and jumped upward a bit, so that my belly hit the platform’s front edge. I then fell forward, so that the bulk of my body’s weight came to rest on the platform. From there I could hug the tree and stand up. My dad waited as I pulled my bow up behind me and hung it on a limb I had sawed off. He took this as a sign that I was okay and then disappeared into the dark. I removed an arrow from my quiver and nocked it to the bow’s string. Soon the noise of his boots on the dry leaves faded and he was gone.
Years earlier, I had begun sitting with my two brothers in tree stands that my dad placed above his own stand, so we could learn to hold still and be quiet despite the discomfort of being cold and having our body parts go numb from sitting for hours on end without moving. Then my brother Matt turned twelve when I was nine, and I started sitting with him in his tree stand. As a game we’d divide the woods in half, so that we were each responsible for watching a 180-degree swath of the forest, in order to see who could spot a deer first. Then Danny turned twelve the next year and I switched to his stand. I remember being up in a tree with Danny while he tried to convince me that it was unwise for me to swing my legs in an effort to mimic the way that the tree limbs were blowing in the breeze.
Now, at twelve years of age, I was all alone in a tree stand for the first time. Part of me took solace in being up in the tree, because at least I was safe from deer. My fear of deer was something I’d always been embarrassed about and had never admitted to anyone. It came from an experience that I’d had a couple of years earlier when I was sitting against a tree while hunting for squirrels. All of a sudden a three-by-three whitetail buck came walking right toward me through the woods. At first he didn’t seem to notice I was there, so I grabbed a stick and snapped it in order to notify him. This got his attention, but in the wrong way. He started coming right at me, the way a dog will cross a yard in order to meet a stranger at the gate. I then recalled my dad coming home from a deer hunt once with his hand bandaged and full of sutures; he had been hunting from the ground and had hit a buck with his bow. The deer had charged him, knocking him down and causing him to slice himself open with his own arrowhead. That scene flashed through my mind, and I attempted to yell at this buck in a menacing way. I only managed a shriek. The deer stopped dead still, then blew a warning call and bounded off.
While I was at least safe from deer up in my tree, there were still bears to be afraid of. I had vivid memories of my dad getting a phone call late one night because his buddy was in the hospital after getting mauled by a black bear. This friend had been hunting from a tree stand when the sow had come along with two cubs. The bear must have caught the smell of danger because suddenly she chased her cubs up a tree toward safety. They picked the tree my dad’s buddy was in, and then let out some excited yelps and hisses as the cubs passed him by. Before he could even think, the sow was up the tree and mauling him. She got through his boots and mauled his feet, ankles, and calves. All the while, he tried to repel her with an arrow. She didn’t quit gnawing him until the cubs passed him by on their way down.
I couldn’t think of the bear mauling that guy’s legs without thinking of a bear rug that hung in our house when I was younger. It was from a black bear that my dad had killed in Ontario. He was hunting in the spring, right when the suckers were swimming out of the larger lakes to spawn in the rivers. Black bears knew about this source of food and my dad exploited their interest by hanging gunnysacks full of the fish along their trails. Then he built a ground blind with a frame of limbs covered by overlapped pine boughs. This particular bear was so thin from its winter hibernation that my dad could see its ribs spread apart when it reached out to tear open the bag of fish. He pulled back his recurve bow and placed an arrow between two of the ribs. The bear tore off into the trees, but it didn’t make it far. My dad described the sensation of listening to the bear drown on its own blood. He said it gurgled and then bellowed like a wounded man as it died. He said the hair on the back of his neck stood up when he heard the noise. To demonstrate this part of the story, he would reach over and grab the hair at the back of my neck and pull it, as though the action would initiate the same level of fear in me. The only other time he mentioned this sensation was when he described jumping into a foxhole and coming face-to-face with a German soldier so decayed he had fly larvae coming out of his nasal passages. If the stories of the bear and the dead German had any other commonality, it was to illuminate the levels of brutality and tolerance that are sometimes required of men.
To sit in a tree and watch the coming of dawn is a strange thing. As soon as you can see the ground with any detail it seems that you’re twice as high as you thought you were. Tree stumps go through brief periods when they look like people. The root wads of overturned trees look like bears. You can’t tell whether the trail you’re sitting along passes through a large meadow you should have noticed earlier or just a slight opening in the trees that you wouldn’t have noticed earlier. But as the light comes up enough to make out the individual leaves on the ground, you realize that you’re only as high as you thought you were. The stumps go back to being stumps, the root wads back to root wads. The trail begins to look like how you remembered it.
But then, after a while, the trail I was sitting above did not look at all how I remembered it. The buck was coming down it, moving with an almost catlike sense of purpose. It was just like my father predicted, almost as if he had summoned the deer and sent it to me. In the instant that I registered the animal’s presence, I also registered the idea that it would be beneath me within seconds. This realization was outside the experiences that I’d had while sitting in a tree stand with my dad or my brothers. Usually, we’d see deer coming along the edge of a field far away, or coming from way back in the woods. There’d be plenty of time to get accustomed to its presence. The initial adrenaline rush from seeing the animal would fade a little before you were hit by the second adrenaline rush of having the animal come close. But this deer was compressing that experience into a single moment, stacking the rushes into a precarious heap. The pores on my skin rushed open in a wave of heat, the way they do when you’re in a sweat lodge at the moment they pour the cold water over the hot rocks. My knees weakened and my hands shook as I reached for my bow. The three middle fingers on my left hand were protected by a split leather tab, and I wrapped them around the bow’s string—two fingers below the nocked arrow, one above it.
At this point I could see the deer’s shoulder from a lateral perspective. The moment that the deer’s head passed behind a tree, I’d pull back my bow and sink the arrow into the rear crease of the shoulder’s muscle. At the time there were two competing thoughts in my mind, one for each of the possible outcomes. The first was the thought of killing the buck. I imagined the purity of the pride that my father would feel; I imagined the glory of returning home with my first deer and then going to school and bragging about it; I imagined us ribbing Groters about how even a twelve-year-old could kill a deer cleanly with a bow if he knew what he was doing.
The second was the thought of wounding the buck. I’d seen this happen a few times already, and it was awful. One night, years earlier, my dad had hit a deer with his bow and he took me and my brothers out after dark to track it. All we could find were little pin drops of blood on the yellowish maple leaves of the forest floor. Some of the drops were purplish from bile, which meant a gut-shot deer that would be tough to find even though it would almost surely die within a few days. By midnight I was too tired and couldn’t keep up, so my dad left Danny with me and told us to wait in the bottom of a ravine. He gave us one lantern and took Matt and the other lantern to push ahead. Our lantern ran out of gas and we had to wait in the cold dark. Around 1 a.m. our dad came back, having lost the deer’s trail up ahead. He looked sick with self-disgust.
As the deer rounded the tree, I was met with a third scenario that I could never have imagined. The strength in my arms had vanished, and I simply could not pull the bow back. I tugged and tugged, but the string wouldn’t budge. The deer passed me by, never knowing I was there. Then, when the opportunity for a shot had passed, the string pulled back in my hands as easily as if I were practicing. I pointed the arrow in the direction of the deer, without really thinking about where it would go, and let the arrow fly.
It hit the ground beneath the buck, almost equidistant between the front and rear legs.
The deer ran off and then the forest grew quiet again. I climbed down and got my arrow, then climbed back up and cleaned the dirt off. I cleaned it so well that you’d never know I’d shot it. I could lie about this, I figured. I’d lied before. One time, when I was ice fishing, a guy had given me a huge northern pike because he didn’t like how bony their fillets were. I told him that I wished I’d caught that pike myself. The guy told me to stand off a ways, and then he tossed me the fish. “There,” he said. “You caught it.” That night, I showed my neighbor the fish and told him I’d caught it. I felt awful for days.
My dad came to get me a couple of hours after I missed the deer. I told him nothing happened, and we walked out together toward Teapot Trail. But as we got close to camp, I decided to come clean about the morning. I told him about being scared. About panicking when the deer came. About cleaning off the arrow. He reached out and put his hand on the back of my neck and held it there, gently, as we walked along.
This story is an excerpt from Steve’s book Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter.