(Reprinted from Jan. 5, 2010)
CAZENOVIA, Wisconsin – Tyson Hall’s pained smile discouraged all but the heartless from teasing him. He had shot three times, but had no deer to show for it.
But Doug Duren of Madison apparently lost his empathy on the hillsides below while gulping subzero air and busting through deep snow to push deer past his companions.
Hall was certain his fusillade had been fatal, but the deer had vanished into the woods. That freed Duren to jab at his fellow Madisonian about his rifle, scope, nerves, shooting skills, range estimates and general character.
Rather than pity Hall or defend him from Duren’s needling, I chuckled like a toady. Then again, Hall can take it. He has known Duren for years, and previously recorded several one-shot kills on Duren’s farm. Friendship and past feats make one vulnerable to torment.
The day was Jan. 2 and we were hunting the final weekend of the holiday gun season, an 11-day earn-a-buck hunt in Wisconsin’s chronic wasting disease zone. Joining us were Chuck Keller, a local schoolteacher; and Steven Rinella, a Michigan native whose writing career has rotated his residency through Montana, Alaska and New York.
When Duren was finished with Hall, we tromped single-file to where Hall last saw his deer. Hair, blood and other signs confirmed it was hit hard, so Rinella took the track and Hall circled downhill in case the deer crossed a nearby field. I waited several minutes and then followed Rinella’s tracks in case the deer circled behind him.
Those precautions weren’t needed. Rinella soon caught up with the doe fawn and finished it. Hall had it tagged and partially gutted before I arrived with my congratulations. It wasn’t the biggest deer ever killed on Duren’s farm, but few meats rival venison veal.
The next morning Duren, Hall, Rinella and I drove south on Highway 58 to the Kiefer farm, where Tim Kiefer assigned our roles for a two-stage drive. From a distance we could see deer trails linking wooded ridges to uncut cornfields in the valley.
After spooking several deer but getting no shots the next two to three hours, we decided the snow’s thick crust alerted every deer to our intentions. Rinella found fresh beds along one ridgeline, making us think the deer slipped away while I snowshoed to my post before the drive began.
Still, we took satisfaction from our effort. The air seldom warmed beyond single digits all weekend, frosting eye lashes and freezing nose hairs as we carried out each drive. Meanwhile, sweat stained our inner clothing, forcing us to unzip coats and unbutton shirts, usually after it was too late to help. Choose your discomfort: Sweat or freeze?
“Kind of like the ‘old days,’ huh Doug?” I asked Duren. “Remember how we never had tree stands and box stands, and we took turns as drivers and standers most of the season?”
Duren agreed, to a point. He recalled these valleys held few deer when he started hunting in 1972. More importantly, he’s about four years my junior, walked farther than anyone during our hunts, and feared my sappy recollections might render him an “old guy” to Hall and Rinella.
But that’s their call, not ours. They look across the roughly 20-year age gap and see old men. We meet their eyes, scratch our bald heads and simply see them as hunting partners.
Rinella understands our illusions. He came here to hunt with Duren because the region reminds him of his early years in western Michigan. Although he has since hunted from Montana to Alaska for elk, bears, buffalo, pronghorns, blacktails and bighorn sheep, he can’t return home to hunt the everyday whitetail. Those lands are now vinyl-sided suburbs.
More importantly, Rinella understands people’s motivations for hunting. He didn’t need to ask why none of us complained about the cold or a one-deer bag from a combined 52.5 man-hours of hunting. He knows urban-spawned recreation provides few satisfying alternatives.
Rinella explores such matters in his intriguing books, “The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine” and “American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.”
Hall will no doubt read both books, if only to better understand why he returns each deer season to enjoy and endure Duren’s company.