It is early November of 1947. I’ve just turned 9 years old. Dad announces at dinner that I am going to go hunting with him next Saturday. Dad hunts waterfowl, quail and deer. But this is deer season, and so I’ll be going deer hunting.
I must have been very excited.I had a hand-me-down single shot .22 bolt action rifle. I had harvested small game animals with it; mostly squirrels and rabbits. Dad had spent a lot of time with me teaching me to shoot and to handle the rifle properly and safely. I was an only son.
As the weekend approached, I must have asked Dad dozens of times whether my rifle could kill a deer. Dad was a patient man. He assured me repeatedly that it could, but that I would have to shoot the deer in the head. Deer were hunted with shotguns loaded with buckshot where we lived, so I was skeptical.
Saturday morning we rose early and left early. I remember driving out to the shelter, because it was black-dark and I’d not been out that early before. When we arrived at the shelter, a number of men already were assembled. The shelter was sort of like a large one-room rough-sawn plank cabin with an open front and overhanging roof. It was dimly lit with kerosene lanterns which gave it an orange glow. Inside were chairs, benches and tables, and a pot-belly stove. There were some older boys present, but no children near my age.
The men were mostly talking in low voices, and smoking pipes, which was common at that place and time. I was greeted like any other hunter except that they made a bit of fuss over me and teased me a little. I knew every man and boy in the shelter. I had grown up with them. They were my uncles, cousins, extended family and family friends.
As the sky in the east began to turn pink, Uncle Oscar called us together and discussed the plans for the day .He told everyone where they would be positioned and where the hounds would be cast. This was southeastern, or Tidewater, Virginia. Nowhere in the county was the elevation much more than 50 feet. The land was mostly flat and surrounded by streams, marshes and swamps. The deer would visit the fields during the night and return to the swamps and other heavy cover to spend the day.
Almost all deer hunting was done using hounds. The hounds would course through the cover, baying periodically. This would agitate the deer, causing them to move about. When a hound struck a scent, its baying would instantly increase in volume and pitch. Occasionally a hound would actually run a deer at close range or within sight. The baying of a hound under that circumstance was very high-pitched and continuous. The hound’s excitement was highly contagious both to other hounds and to hunters, especially if the hound were coming directly toward you. Few of my hunting experiences have been more exciting than standing in heavy cover, listening to a deer crashing through the cover heading directly at me, with a hound close behind.
After Uncle Oscar went over the plans for the day, we got our guns and lunches and climbed onto flatbed trailers pulled by farm tractors. As the rig moved along woods roads, it would periodically stop and a hunter would dismount. When our turn came, Dad and I hopped off. By now there was plenty of light in the late pre-dawn. Dad selected a large tree on a rise, where we would spend the morning waiting for an opportunity. Dad gave me a single .22 rifle cartridge, which I loaded. Of course I was not to cock the rifle unless I intended to shoot, and if I leaned the rifle against the tree, I first had to unload it. The action was always open unless the rifle was loaded.
Soon after dawn, we could hear hounds at various locations in the cover in front of us. Dad held his shotgun at all times, since a deer might wander by on its own or be pushed by distant hounds. I tried to do the same, but tired of holding the rifle. From time to time a hound would get close to us and I’d pick up my rifle and load it, but no deer appeared.
Sometime in the late morning a large buck suddenly burst out of the cover running from our right to left. I was on Dad’s right. Dad had one of the new Browning semi-automatic shotguns with a poly choke. He fired three times and missed. I was frozen in my tracks with my mouth open. It was over in less than four seconds. Dad said that he thought he had shot behind the deer all three times. We had no further action that day. I picked up the empty shotgun shells and amused myself with them for quite a while.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, the tractor and flatbed returned to pick us up. There were several deer on the flatbed with the hunters. Spirits were high and a lot of loud talk rose above the noise of the tractor.
When we arrived back at the shelter, spirits were still high. It had been a fine day and quite a few deer were taken. The men lit their pipes and began to enjoy a bit of the barley. (Dad’s words; it tasted awful to me.) The deer were hung on a beam outside of the shelter and several men began to dress them with small knives and saws. I wandered among the hunters and the dressers listening and trying to make sense of everything. I guess I was in overload at that point.
After the deer were dressed and butchered, Uncle Oscar announced that it was “Time for the Accounting.” The sun was setting, and the shelter again was bathed in orange. Each killer described his experience and then each unsuccessful hunter took his turn. When Dad’s turn came he described the sudden appearance of the buck and admitted to missing three times. Uncle Oscar grabbed a large knife and said, “OK Irvin, let’s have your shirt tail. To my horror, Uncle Oscar cut off all of Dad’s shirt tail and gave it to Uncle Jimmy, who nailed it to the wall next to dozens of others, amid boisterous laughter. Someone observed that this wasn’t Dad’s first contribution.
Then Uncle Oscar asked me if I’d missed. “I didn’t even shoot”, I said. “Then we’ll just take your whole shirt” said Uncle Oscar. I bawled. It was my only wool shirt and I was really proud of it. The men had a little more fun with me but quickly relented, and I hid behind Dad for a while, and wiped my eyes.
After the “Accounting” was over, Uncle Oscar distributed the meat. Every hunter received a share. Large shares of choice cuts went to the killers. Then the other hunters were called up to pick up some meat. Mid way through the process Uncle Oscar called me and said, “George, come get your meat.” I was stunned. I went to the table and here was a little mound of meat; much smaller than any other and obviously meant for me. Forget the tears; I was thrilled. My first deer hunt, and I was bringing home meat. I was a hunter.
I don’t remember Mom cooking the meat but I’m sure that she made a production of it.In fact I don’t remember anything else about the day.My other early hunts sort of blend together and most lack the clarity of that first day; except for my first deer, but that’s another story.
What are the messages here? First, that world no longer exists. Every man in the shelter that morning is dead. Only I survive. Much of the land that we hunted has given way to urban and suburban sprawl or been flooded for municipal water supply.
When I was growing up in small-town Virginia, everyone was close to the land. Everyone hunted, or fished or farmed, or had family members or friends who did. We raised our fruit and vegetables, and our diet included seafood, wild game and meat from animals raised locally. You grew up getting most of your food yourself, because that’s what your family had always done. That world no longer exists.
Now only a small percentage of the US population hunts and farms, and few people eat wild game. Children grow up not knowing where meat comes from. Fewer and larger corporations produce our meat, neatly packaged so as not to offend. Very few people associate killing with meat. Very few people could feed themselves without access to a supermarket.
If you hunt, it’s likely that your father or another male role model mentored you. People don’t generally begin hunting as adults. If you are a hunter, you probably grew up with hunting as part of your culture. But as more people have become urban dwellers and spend less time in the outdoors, activities other than hunting prevail.
Although the population of hunters across the US is around 4%, in Washington, that number is now less than 2%. What that means is that our hunting heritage is threatened as never before. At least as many people actively oppose hunting as participate. The vast majority of people don’t think about hunting and don’t care. But if we who love the activity don’t pursue it ethically and with regard to the opinions of the general public and with regard for the landowners, those who oppose it may be able to increase their numbers.
And if those of us who hunt fail to mentor young people and introduce them to our passion, the numbers of hunters likely will continue to decrease.
So this is a call to action. If you are here today, then you care deeply about hunting. What we are asking, and what we expect, is that as a Master Hunter you will become a Steward of the Hunt: you will personally assume responsibility for the heritage of hunting, and you will resolve to behave in a manner that enhances the image of hunting and the hunter.
By George Coulbourn
Secretary, Master Hunter Advisory Group
Published by request