Whether you look under the table, beneath the bed or behind the barn, you’ll find few men who’ve introduced more people to hunting than Doug Duren of Cazenovia.
But even after welcoming countless newbies the past decade to his family’s 400-acre farm in Richland County, Duren can’t recite one pep talk that consistently turns potential hunters into lifelong deer stalkers. Then again, it’s still too soon to know how convincing he’s been. Like all matters of the heart, even a decade can’t guarantee lifelong love.
Likewise, Duren balks at terms like “hunter recruitment” to define his efforts. His late father, Vince Duren, didn’t “recruit” his boys into hunting, whether to bolster its ranks or ensure its future. If people had suggested such motives, ol’ Vince would’ve asked what ailed them. Or words to that effect.
There was nothing so intentional about teaching his children the history of the family’s woods and fields, and the land’s predators and prey. Vince Duren just enjoyed hunting, and respected land and legacies, and trusted his kids to figure out how hunting helps piece things together.
Doug Duren holds similar hopes for prospective hunters he mentors. If they’re fortunate, they’ll one day share a long-ago moment in the deer woods that anchors a hunting legacy. To demonstrate, Duren told one such tale during a recent lunch at the Boston’s Bah tavern in downtown Cazenovia.
“My dad and I were hunting up in the ‘big woods’ on our farm,” Duren began. “This was back when I was still milking cows on the farm. I was probably 21 or 22, so it’s been over 40 years. My dad would have been in his late 50s. He was behind a little pile of logs in the trees, sitting on a 5-gallon bucket. That was his thing for deer stands: a 5-gallon plastic bucket.
“I was sitting down at the end of the first ravine, around the point, and I could see him across the way, about 200 to 250 yards,” Duren continued. “The woods were fairly open back then, with all these big trees, and he was wearing his orange coat and hat, so I knew exactly where he was.
“Then I saw this deer moving, and it’s a buck. It’s too hard of a shot for me at that range, but it’s heading straight for Vince. I’m thinking, ‘That’s a dead deer.’ This was the early 1980s. If you saw antlers, you shot that deer. There wasn’t any of this ‘Let ‘em go, Let ‘em grow’ talk in those days.
“That buck walked up the hill and just kept moving toward Dad. I mean, he had to walk within 40 yards of him, maybe even closer. I kept waiting for the shot, and waiting for the shot. I didn’t need binoculars to see everything. That buck walked right by him, and he never shot. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t he shoot?
“So, later in the day I walked over to see how he was doing. I asked if he saw that buck come by. ‘Why didn’t you shoot it?’
“He looked at me and, without missing a beat, said, ‘Well, you know it’s so nice just sitting here in the sun, relaxing, watching that buck just walking through, minding his own business. I just thought, you know, I’m not going to shoot that deer today. So, I let him go.’”
The younger Duren was stunned.
“I’m thinking, huh? What? Wow. I finally thought, maybe this was a moment for me to let it go, and maybe learn something from the ol’ fella. I told him I’d head back down the valley, circle around and make a little mooch for him. But once I’m back down in the hills, I’m thinking he probably fell asleep. I bet he never saw that deer.
“I eventually asked him twice about it. I said something like, Hey, you know, by any chance, might you have fallen asleep and never seen that buck?
“Again, he didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘I saw him and I let him go; just like I told you.’
“Back then I hadn’t heard all these foolproof techniques for telling when someone is lying; things like watching their hands and eyes for can’t-miss signals. So, I just let it go.”
During the decades that followed, Duren thought often about that hunt and the buck that walked away, but he knew better than to question his father further. That is, until Vince Duren’s health began its final descent in autumn 2016 when he was 92.
“We talked about all kinds of stuff while I sat beside his deathbed,” Duren said. “Maybe three days before he died (on Oct. 9, 2016), he said something like, ‘I guess you’re gonna have to hunt without me this year.’ That got me thinking how dying men tell no lies, right? I mean, why lie when you won’t be around to defend your tale or make excuses?
“So, I said, ‘Remember that time I was in my 20s, and we were hunting up in the big woods, and a buck walked by, and I couldn’t understand why you didn’t shoot him? It occurred to me that you were asleep. You’ve accused me of that a few times. Well, dying men tell no lies, so what was the deal passing up that buck? What’s the truth?
“And Vince looks at me, lifts that craggy ol’ finger, shakes it at me and says, ‘I let him go.’ I looked at him and said, ‘OK.’
“But then I see just a little smile on his face; just enough to keep me wondering. So, I still have no idea if he saw that buck and let it walk. I still don’t know what actually happened. All I have is the memories. I still see that buck walking by my dad. I see him sitting there in his blaze orange. I still see his little shit-eating grin 40 years later. And no matter how long I live, I’ll never know if he told the full story. That was my dad, y’know?
“But here’s the thing: With all this talk about hunter recruitment and all our programs to help people start hunting, it’s moments like those that stick with you. I’m now older than Vince was when that buck walked past him. But I still remember that buck and my dad sitting on that 5-gallon bucket.
“Moments like those stay frozen in time, and they’re probably the most reliable way to create more hunters. The trouble is, they seldom happen the first time out.”
The late Vince Duren, left, poses with five skull-cap antler mounts from bucks he shot on his farm in Richland County. Right, Vince Duren with his sons, Doug, center, and David, with David's buck from the 2006 Wisconsin gun hunt. — Doug Duren photos