Last year I shot a doe on opening day.
My infant son was home crying, refusing a bottle and struggling with what would be his first of many bouts of croup, with his capable yet exhausted dad and bitter big sister reluctantly consoling at his side. His text stated he’d been crying off and on, for hours; yet I was at a colleague’s farm with a dear friend, laying in a damp draw a few hundred feet apart, on the border between field and forest, at the cusp of sunset. There were mere minutes left before shooting hours were over.
I knew, with detailed certainty, that there was a large herd of deer hanging out around here, with many doe and fawns and at least four trophy bucks that would likely reveal themselves at sunset. I knew I was at least an hour from home, and my baby was refusing a bottle, and my pump was just sitting there in our truck a short distance away as my breasts engorged with his milk, and he was sad and sick and hungry. And I knew that, should a clear shot present itself of an adult deer, I would take the shot. If I could help it, I was not going home empty handed after all that.
So, I shot a doe on opening day.
She was the fourth or fifth animal to exit the forest for the fields. The first few were smaller doe and fawns. They walked out over a sandy mound that I had walked over not 15-minutes prior. I had observed fairly fresh piles of their tell-tale little round turds and extensive hoof prints, and had decided, in those moments of observation, that with 45-minutes til shooting hours ended, it was go time.
On each occasion directly before I harvest a deer there has transpired a short span of time when there is a noticeable pivot in the atmosphere. This time was no different. The trigger of that pivot varies – a loud and telling branch snap, a distinct musky odor on the air, the angle of the sun on hoof prints and scat piles – yet the sensation remains consistent: heightened hearing, smell and vision; a feeling of raised hair on any exposed part of my body, as if those hairs can also see and smell and hear; deep, measured, calming breaths; cold sweat with a warm body; rifle in my ready position; tight torso with a hint of butterflies queasy in my stomach – the hunt is officially on.
When the first animal became clearly visible to me I was sort of dazed and amazed. Deer are sneaky; at times they seem to appear out of nowhere. Suddenly there were deer, right there where I had just walked and observed, I knew it, this is so on, oh my baby boy, oh f-it I'm not going home empty handed, inhale, exhale, holy shit there are so many of them coming, should I wait for a monster buck or just get a big doe, inhale, exhale, wow is it getting dark fast, yet I can still see them so clearly through my scope, they are so close, inhale, exhale, this could be a dark gut and drag, inhale, exhale, there are many fawn with them, don’t shoot a fawn or a yearling, this doe looks larger, is it the mother, I have no idea, breathe damn it, they are pausing, breathe again, they sense me, breathe better, go fawn, run to the field, okay mama, come on out a little further, breathe smoothly, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, notice your cross-hairs gently bobbing up and down, steady now, lean into the bank for stability and composure, a little further mama, inhale, exhale, great shot, take the shot, safety off, inhale, exhale… I’ve shot her, she’s run a little way, deer scattering to forest and field, rest a moment, don’t chase, did I even hear my shot, I don’t remember, it was quiet and loud, did my rifle even kick, get up, find her, fast, it’s getting dark fast, man my boobs hurt, are they leaking, it’s time.
I shot that doe on opening day.
By all accounts it was a great shot. The deer was not far from where I shot her. The blood trail was easy to follow; she was a few yards into the woods, the bullet went in and out, and I’d find out later it took out part of her heart. It was a great shot. It was getting dark fast, this was no joke, and I had forgotten my head lamp. I texted my husband first – shot a doe, home was fast as I can, will text as we leave the farm. I texted my hunting partner – that shot was me, found deer, need help, just a few hundred feet past you. Texted landowner’s wife – that shot was mine, nice doe, we’ll check in at the house on our way out. And then I got to work.
The first time I gutted a deer was five years prior. I was out hunting with a buddy, and neither of us had ever killed a deer, nor gutted one. I had witnessed it once prior, with the gal I was hunting with on this occasion. And I had been talked through it at a cocktail party by a capable hunter, but that was it – no books, no videos. On that first day five years prior I also shot a doe. It was actually a lot easier to field dress than I had expected and the cocktail party talk-through had proven full of good tips. About 20-mins later my hunting buddy shot another doe and we gutted his, too. Since then I’ve shot two more bucks on solo hunts. So this was to be my fourth personal field dressing and the sixth in total. Not having a headlamp could be tricky, but I was prepared to be quick about it.
When I found her she was on her side in an awkward position, so after silent observation to ensure she was truly gone and a prayer of thanks to her for feeding my family, I gently moved her to a more normal side position, placed grass in her mouth for her journey, and quickly got to work. I kept on my orange cap and vest, ensured my safety was back on and set my gun aside, laid down my orange pack, laid out my knife kit, bear spray, baggies for organs for my daughter (at age 6 she especially liked to dissect the heart), baby wipes, drag rope, phone and no headlamp. With the doe flipped her on her back, I stood with a foot in either armpit and began an incision down the length of her torso, along the breast bone, down over the stomach area and toward her teats and sex. Normally this is a fairly easy cut to make, the body is warm, the fat is still slippery and you just have to go for it. Today was not normally.
I shot a still-nursing doe on opening day and spilled her milk over her body and my hands.
I SHOT A NURSING DOE. I SPILLED HER MILK AS I CUT HER OPEN. OH THE IRONY!
Here I stood, baby at home crying and sick with croup and refusing a bottle, my pump in the truck a short distance away, my engorged breast seeping milk through my camo, and I just took mama’s milk away from one of those fawns. Really? REALLY?!
Yes. Really. And it was getting dark quickly, and I didn’t have a head lamp, so I finished the job as efficiently and cleanly as I could. My hunting partner helped out, she talked me down from what easily could have been a bad adrenaline trip. Working to clean out the insides, knowing I was leaving behind a meal or two for bear, wolf, coyote, eagle or fox helped me say focused. We spread her chest with a large stick to help cool off the inner chest cavity, tied her front legs around her neck with the drag rope, and hoisted the loops around our shoulders for a drag to the truck. It was not very far, yet it did seem longer than it should have. I got chilled during the drag. Although she weighed nearly 100-pounds cleaned out, that wasn’t much between the two of us, yet I was sleep-deprived, worried about my boy, and sad. It was a flat drag, but I kept stumbling and fretting about her fawn. When we finally hoisted her in the bed of the truck and got in the warm cab, I sort of asked-told my friend, “Another doe will nurse her fawn, right!?” “Right?!?” “RIGHT!!!?” We both agreed yes, with absolute certainty and no good scientific reasoning to back it up.
It was pitch black by now. I drove quickly to drop my friend off. When we got to her mother’s ranch on the river some other friends were there. They had been fishing and floating a stretch nearby for the day. There were high-fives, glasses raised, backs patted. I told them the story with tears welling in my eyes as I hustled out the door. They walked me to the truck and said not to worry. Don’t let it get me down. The fawn was certainly fine with the herd. I left with nearly an hour of dark, solo driving ahead of me, still chilled, getting tired, wanting to nuzzle my baby boy up to my breast and fall asleep.
The next morning my daughter bounded out to see the doe. She jumped right up in the back of the truck bed with her. Then she spent some time in the kitchen playing with the heart before we sliced it up and made fritters. Later that day we took the animal to a local butcher. He is always very proud of his female customers. This year he told me he was about to be interviewed about opening day, normally about how many folks were bringing in their animals to be processed. He was especially excited that it was a female reporter as he liked to talk about how women are generally a better shot than men, and usually hunt without ego. Although he is an odd, short, man who always smells a little off from handling wild game, he is a wise and sweet man.
I decided to tell him about the milk. As I began, the butcher’s head processor came out from the back. He is a thin, older hunchback with stained hands, a wrinkled hollow face and generally gruff manner. I gave them an abbreviated version - told them about my sick son at home not taking the bottle, then seeing the fawns yet shooting the doe anyway. And finally about slicing through her milk sac and spilling it on her body and my hands. I started to choke up again. I explained how I was concerned for the fawn. And how it was so odd to be nursing and to kill a nursing doe. The hunchback leaned over toward me and put his arm on my shoulder. He said to me, “It’s okay, mama. You’ve done nothing wrong. Hunting season is at this time because the fawns are ready to wean. That baby is just fine and you’ve brought in a fine animal for your family.” He turned and headed back to his work. And with that, my suffering lifted.
I shot a doe on opening day last year.