Mississippi. Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash.

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Thrill of the Hunt: Before, During and After

It’s still dark outside on a crisp, mid-March morning in central Mississippi. You wake up, drink some coffee, put on your woodlands camouflage, grab your shotgun, and head out down the trail to your favorite turkey spot. You get there, well before the sun starts to pierce the darkness, and settle in. You might park yourself at the base of a standing tree, maybe you take cover behind a fallen tree, perhaps you just sit down in the grass on the far side of a hill from where you think your prey lodged last night. As you wait, undetected and motionless, the dawn appears and with the morning light come the sounds of owls, crow, geese, deer, and squirrels awakening. Perhaps a fox or bobcat slinks past. It seems like you have seen every animal except the one you came for. Suddenly, you hear the thunderous gobble of a mature male turkey. He’s still on the roost, sitting well above you, projecting the sound down upon the ground, his domain, letting everyone and everything know he is now awake. Once the echo fades, the normal sounds resume. Then, another gobble breaks the silence. Finally, you hear the powerful whoosh of his nearly five-foot wingspan as he lifts off and glides to the ground. The hunt is on.

Growing up in central Mississippi, where a lot of people start hunting at the age of five, I was a late arrival to the sport. Hunting just was not an activity of any priority among my family members. One Christmas in my late teens, however, my father’s college friend took me on a duck hunt and I began to feel the itch. Since that time, I have developed a tremendous appreciation of the sport.

Simply put, hunting is exciting. Feeling your heart start to race when a deer steps out in front of you or a flock of ducks starts circling above you is an unmatchable sensation. It does not matter if you are hunting for the first time or have been hunting for seventy years; the thrill of the hunt is visceral. That initial excitement is what engages hunters early on, but as you grow into a more experienced hunter, you begin to develop an appreciation of other aspects of hunting—an understanding of nature that is far deeper than what you can gain from books or television: introducing others to the sport, participating in the social gatherings that precede and follow most hunts, and the pleasure of cooking your harvest.

When you successfully enter the domain of a wild animal, undetected, you try to become part of the natural environment around you. Hunting is about more than chasing success; it’s about observation and cultivating a connection to nature. As you get more and more experienced, or “wood-wise” as many say, you begin to notice more and more things about how the natural environment behaves and how that relates back to the hunting of a particular animal. You learn about wind direction, animal tracks, areas of standing water, areas that drain water, types of vegetation, how the length of shadows at different times of the day affect movement in the woods, and dozens of other minute observations that can have some bearing, individually or collectively, on whether you will succeed or not. All of these natural occurrences affect the behavior of game animals, and all of these become of great interest to the novice hunter.

Sometimes, what begins as a hunt turns into something entirely different. I remember one frigid December morning spent in a wide, flat hollow tucked among some hills east of the Mississippi River. I had been sitting in a deer stand up a sweet gum tree since a little after 6 am. An hour later, just as the sun was starting to peek through the trees, coming through the thicket in front of me, I saw two columns of mist rising from the leaves, illuminated by the rays of sunshine, and heading my way. Suddenly, I heard footsteps that kept coming closer. No more than twenty yards in front of me, a beautiful buck stepped out of the thicket directly into a bright and focused ray of sunshine, like he had just stepped into the spotlight on the stage of a sophisticated production. The buck was a three- or four-year-old eight-point with a wide, tall rack. His back and neck were completely covered in the frosty dew that had settled on him while he was bedded down the night before. When the rays of light hit the ice crystals on his body, he literally glowed, radiating the light of the sun. I sat transfixed, completely mesmerized, and unable to move. It felt like twenty minutes passed, but the buck probably only stood in that one spot for twenty seconds. After he began to move away, a second buck, younger and smaller, covered in frosty dew and clearly taking his cues from the larger buck, stepped out into the same exact spot and it was almost the same image repeated. It was such an incredible scene that I didn’t even touch my gun but simply watched as both deer walked away.

Introducing others to hunting is something that brings a lot of joy to experienced hunters. The guys and girls who have “seen and done it all” want to share their experiences with others. I have witnessed men and women of all ages go hunting for the first time, and one constant fact is that the teacher enjoys it more than the student. The teacher has a genuine sense that he or she is passing on a set of skills that will be used to enrich the life of the student, and that ultimately the student will become the teacher for somebody else down the road.

Although a successful hunt is fairly unpredictable, your decision on whether or not to visit with friends and family before or after should not be. Hunters may enjoy socializing so much because it is a constant in a world that is otherwise filled with variables completely out of their control. Some version of “I might not see any deer, but at least I will see my buddies” goes through everybody’s mind on the way into the woods.

Even though the actual hunt is between a person and the game, the social universe of hunting fills the inherently human desire to be part of a group. The formation of hunting clubs is a natural marriage of man’s desire to be social and his desire to hunt. Hunting clubs can be the holders and purveyors of tremendous social value. Hunting has been an important part of life in the South for generations, so it should come as no surprise that over the decades, and in some cases centuries, certain hunting clubs have been elevated to the level of legendary institutions, pillars on which the sport has been built. It is no longer uncommon for memberships of certain clubs to come with a seven-figure price tag, if a membership is even available. In much the same way that a person may take pride in the fact that his friend or relative has been selected for some award, been elected to public office, landed a prestigious job, or otherwise done something to improve their social standing, it is not uncommon for a hunter to take pride in the membership that his grandfather had eighty-five years ago at some club that now only exists in stories. The opportunity to hunt at particular clubs at the invitation of a friend or family member can also be a source of tremendous pride, providing material for stories that will be told for years. Regardless of whether or not where you hunt at a legendary institution or just a bunch of grungy fifth wheels parked in a circle somewhere, the camaraderie that is formed over butchering a harvest or sitting around the fire talking about the one that got away is unlike any other, and the memories seem to live a little deeper with each gathering.

Experiences like hunting are also a way to participate in the natural human process of harvesting animals for our survival. As a Christian, I believe that God created Man, and that God gave Man dominion over the birds of the air, fish of the sea, and beasts of the field, in order to help sustain this life on earth. The act of leaving the cabin, entering nature, immersing yourself in the habitat of a wild animal, having a quick, humane harvest, and processing that animal so that nothing is wasted provides great satisfaction. It’s one of the most basic and natural of all processes humans engage in.

One can question, however, is it still necessary for me to hunt to survive? Of course not. But if you are fortunate enough to have a harvest on your hunt, then the real, but very rewarding, work begins. It could be completely imagined, but meat that you prepared from the field to your table just tastes better. Period. Furthermore, the opportunity to engage in the harvesting process can provide a great deal of satisfaction once completed. It provides an opportunity to disconnect from all things modern and immerse yourself in an ancient process. Some of the tools we use have changed over the years, but the general process has not. Similar to when a person plants a garden and later has the opportunity to bite into whatever fruit that garden produced, it is simply more satisfying when you put the work in.

Hunting offers so much more than just the opportunity for a successful harvest. The excitement, experiences of nature, participation in a natural process, and relationships built around the club are all reasons to hunt and enjoy it as a social event. Perhaps one day—if you haven’t already—your travels will bring you to the South and you can experience some of the same joys of hunting that I have.