Reflections from the deer stand
By Ford Walpole
A childhood appreciation of hunting has continued into young adulthood for English Calhoun Walpole and Ned Walpole. Images provided by the author.
Late summer tends to fill most of us with a flood of conflicting emotions — perceived and real. We might be content and rejuvenated with vacations and family time. But we might also feel regret that summer ended before we fulfilled our plans. There is the dread that a carefree vacation mentality has ended. We are also excited and anxious about the advent of a new academic year — albeit amid a pandemic.
Deer hunting in the South Carolina Lowcountry can help provide clarity and the energy we need as we face a busy autumn. Although some may have been in denial about the waning days of summer, deer hunters have been waiting for this time. The Lowcountry’s Zone One season began August 15. This date reminds sporting enthusiasts that the end of summer signifies the beginning of something. When the season rolls around, some folks have already been watching cameras and corn piles for weeks. For other casual sportsmen less willing to brave the heat, the beginning of the season compels them to begin thinking about deer hunting.
Early season bucks sport racks of velvet, and these fresh antlers are a prize for trophy hunters. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, “Bucks shed their antlers each year unless there is injury or physiological stress. Shedding typically begins in late December and peaks in mid-February, with few antlered deer seen by early March. Once shedding is complete, new growth immediately begins, with mature antlers present in three to four months. During summer, antlers are soft, engorged with blood, and covered with a hair-like membrane called ‘velvet.’ Antlers become solid and hard in late summer or early fall when annual growth is completed. The ‘velvet’ is sloughed or rubbed off on shrubs and trees.”
This time of year, some hunters who are committed to cultivating and managing a quality herd might choose to pass on the trophy bucks. Their reason? They want those bucks to have the opportunity to breed and pass on their genes, so they will wait until the end of the rut, or mating season, to harvest such deer. During the early season, these conservationists might instead pick out a cull buck, thereby assisting nature to ensure the “survival of the fittest.”
Not every outdoor enthusiast enjoys deer hunting. Some turkey hunters find still-hunting for deer too sedentary an activity. Other wing-shooters consider it downright boring. Yes, when hunting from a deer stand, you will not leave your location. Your entire objective is to sit still, remain quiet and hope to see a whitetail emerge on its terms, not yours.
Yet this passive, still aspect of deer hunting is one of its greatest rewards. Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, questioned our supposed need to be busy and keep moving merely for the sake of being busy: “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” His predecessor Socrates declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Remaining too busy prevents us from reflecting — examining our own lives. The world suggests that hectic schedules and multitasking are badges of honor, but such qualities simply will not help you on a deer hunt.
When you are in a deer stand alone, you are an observer of nature, and you are powerless as to the success of your hunt. You remain at the mercy of chance — which in itself is an empowering experience. More recent gadgets such as trail cameras can help you analyze the age and size of deer, but they can also offer a false sense of knowledge. Last year, a clerk at a feed store helped put this reality in perspective when he helped me load bags of cob corn that I would put out in front of a deer stand. “Are you feeding those three a.m. deer or seven a.m. deer?” he said with a laugh. I assured him I hoped to entice the latter. The gentleman had a good point: We hunt to see deer in the flesh, not photographs of them when we were not present.
Such technology has helped with hunting, and likewise the smartphone adds a layer of safety, for you can inform fellow nearby hunters when you are securely in your stand and likewise safely unloaded and on the ground at the end of your hunt.
Such valuable communication aside, the deer stand should be a place to unplug, or else you forfeit the therapeutic aspect of deer hunting. When perched in your stand, you become aware of the life around you — especially the non-game and non-targeted species. Songbirds awake, raccoons begin their evening and return to their nest as you sit and watch. Wild turkeys roam carefree, somehow keenly aware they are out of season. The armadillo rustles about, and squirrels play with frenzied abandon. You might even see a serendipitous bobcat, an elusive native. During such moments, you might well formulate solutions to the problems of your life and be inspired with creative ways to enrich your life.
This year, a friend sent me a photo from the deer stand. The rifle rest boasts the carved initials of my daughter English Calhoun and me. Two years ago, days before she went to college at Clemson, my daughter and I sat in a stand on the opening morning of the season, and we carved our initials before wrapping up the hunt. This year, we missed opening day, as it fell on the weekend we moved English Calhoun into her apartment.
Reflecting on all of this led to a realization: Not far from those initials is a site where English Calhoun grew up camping and accompanying me on countless hunts. And not far from that location, while still in the womb, she accompanied her mother and me on a cold morning deer hunt on the final day of the season.
The seasonal nature of hunting, along with the weathered initials carved into the stand, reminds us of the passage of time. The season comes and goes whether we choose to embrace it or not. Even so, just as surely as time passes, a new year represents a new opportunity, and we may find comfort in the routine. Each new season and every individual hunt encourages us to hope. We seek solace in the woods as a healthy retreat from our own chaotic lives, and here, we remember to hope.
Here’s hoping for another good season — and for the clarity to remember what makes it good.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.