By Nick Simonson
If I could find a way to zap a pheasant in the air without killing it, to have a second or two to hold it and look over its feathers and admire their sheen and the length of the tail growing late into the season before it wakes up and takes flight out of my hand, I probably would. However, the hard work of my dog, the limits of our technology afield, and the nature of the hunt itself produce a sense of obligation to pull the trigger which results in a finality that is both sweet in the form of success and sorrowful in the taking of something so beautiful. That and stunning an animal in such a manner likely crosses a line into wildlife harassment, which as I mull this ethical scenario over on long walks in the field and quiet sits on the deer stand, isn’t akin to catch-and-release fishing and likely would be frowned upon if it were possible. But it is in the latter outdoor thinking position that I can catch-and-release another huntable quarry, and with the firearms deer hunting season opener quickly upon us, the chance to do so provides some of the greatest excitement and appreciation of the outdoors which comes without pulling the trigger at all, and in my mind at this point in my hunting experience, counts as success.
I’ve had deer walk so close to my blind I could see the moisture on their nose from the condensation of their breath in the cold morning air. I’ve had a forkhorn buck wander up to my treestand in late October and rattle his Y-shaped antlers against the metal of my ladder and look up in surprise when he realized with the clinking and clanking that it wasn’t a sapling on which he was practicing his gender’s autumn ritual. Countless times, I’ve held various bucks, does and fawns in the palm of my hand, armed with both a bow or a gun in their respective seasons, and never clicked the release or pulled the trigger, though the deer were a matter of feet away. In all those instances, I can recall the thunder of my pulse in my ears and the shaking of my legs that set in, despite having no intent to shoot, without ever having to undo the adhesive on the tag in my wallet or having to conduct the final rites of a hunting season.
Each one of those occasions I’ve considered a success for a variety of reasons. I’m a big, smelly guy by nature and as the creator blessed deer with a sense of smell that’s estimated to be more than 800 times more powerful than a human’s nose, I was likewise blessed with seemingly 800 times more sweat glands than the average guy. The fact that somehow – be it simply playing the wind, being elevated, soaped up with special lathers, or sprayed down with scent-canceling mists – I evaded any deer’s supernatural sense of smell, is a win. Additionally, I’m a fidgeter, prone to chewing my fingernails, clicking my tongue, and even at times whispering thoughts out loud to myself when the conversation in my head gets too noisy. The fact that I’m able to sit or stand still long enough not to draw the attention of a deer closing in is also an amazing victory.
It is in those victories on the deer stand or my favorite firearms hunting hillside that a form of catch and release hunting comes to be. There, the appreciation for the wary silver-sided buck wandering into range, or the playful pair of does in the viewfinder of my binoculars, is more like admiring the sheen of a bronze-sided smallmouth or the dazzling hues of pink, blue and aquamarine on a big rainbow trout. Whether I pull the trigger or click the release is up to me and the designation on the tag tucked away in my hunting vest. Either way, the excitement that results is palpable and the memories I take from the field with me are tangible, consisting of up-close experiences, admiration of the animals, and a sense of accomplishment in a moment I can catch and release again and again…in our outdoors.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: There He Goes. Encountering deer at close range is a success in its own right. Simonson Photo.