Free Press Article
Men In Orange, a Hunting Story
For Warrensburg Free Press November 20 issue
I joined a cult. It was back in í97, when some friends brainwashed me into joining the M.I.O. This cultís adherents can be of any race, ethnicity, sex or age, but theyíre predominantly white males. Thatís why I call them the Men In Orange, and their greatest festival commenced last Saturday, on the second Saturday before Thanksgiving.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouriís whitetail deer population is over 1 million. Almost 425,000 hunters are expected to don the orange this year and reduce the deer population by about 250,000. The deer herd has grown rapidly. In 1997, hunters in this area could take one buck and one doe; now we can take a virtually unlimited number of does.
When I started hunting, the four in our hunting party would shoot around 6 deer, enough to provide plenty of venison for all four families. Now, as my partners have brought younger generations into the hunt, we have six hunters to feed three families. I donít doubt that the experienced hunters will pass up shots in favor of the kids, so we likely wonít shoot any more deer despite the increased limits.
Hunters are not the only deer predator. While itís reasonable to assume that the growing population of cougars in Missouri is directly related to the plentitude of prey, the largest predator is a hunk of steel and synthetics travelling faster than even the deer can run. These highway collisions kill people as well as deer; the Highway Patrol counted 3 deaths and 322 injuries in 2002. Since the end of last hunting season, at least four deer have fed the scavengers along the short stretch of road near my property. To paraphrase a Clint Eastwood character, Ďcoyotes got to eat, same as folks.í
Now, this M.I.O. festival isnít confined to the hunting season. The preparation begins months in advance; the hot, dry days of August are perfect for braving the chiggers to check the condition of the deer stands and see what changes a seasonís growth have wrought. As September cools, work can begin on clearing excess foliage and repairing stands, not to mention reading the catalogs for the latest sure-fire way to get that trophy. Octoberís the time to scour the woods, looking for sign that the rut is nigh. The first antler rubs appear virtually overnight and phone lines buzz as the news is spread to other M.I.O. in the hunting party. Come early November, itís a difficult decision Ė do I watch the 8-0 Chiefs or go out and sight in the rifle?
On opening morning, itís up early, put on the warm clothes and the orange vest, and head for the woods. Itís dark, and the hike to the stand is made more interesting with reports of cougar sightings in the area. As dawn approaches, barred owls exchange greetings, small birds flit and twitter and turkeys fly down from treetop roosts. Something just moved in the ghostly light! Itís a bobcat, going on his rounds; put the scope on him to watch, but heís neither legal nor desired game today.
A half hour before sunrise, random percussion breaks the quiet. Some people are seeing deer. Thatís one Ė two Ė three quick shots from a neighborís property; Iíll bet that deer got away. Meanwhile, a squirrel drops by to see whoís trespassing on his favorite dining table, his tail flipping to emphasize his complaints. The shadow line slowly creeps down the trees as the sun rises. Overhead, crows chase a hawk like Messerschmidts after a B-17.
When a deer finally appears, it materializes as from thin air. Heartís racing Ė old timers called it ďbuck agueĒ after the chills and shakes of malaria. Is it a buck or a doe? Slowly now, heís looking this way, raise the rifle and put the scope on him. Do I have a clear shot? Do I want to shoot him or pass him by in hopes of seeing a bigger deer later? Can I hold the rifle steady enough to shoot true? Crosshairs on the chest Ė if Iím to shoot, I want the kill clean and quick. Itís a moment of truth; when the finger moves, the decision is irreversible.
This story was considerably edited in the print version, especially in paragraphs describing the woods in the morning