By CAPT. MATT BADOLATO
Dangling by a ratchet strap, the steel, two-person treestand sat cock-eyed 15 feet up in a pine tree.
“That’s not how its supposed to look,” I said to Dustin, who rolled his eyes. He handed me the instruction booklet, which showed a warning graphic depicting the exact scene above.
We eventually maneuvered the stand’s ladder so it sat straight and sturdy against the big pine, creating a safe and solid platform where a couple of new-ish deer hunters could observe the forest from above.
My buddy Dustin had never gone deer hunting, but was excited. I’ve been hunting for several years, so I’ve got a bit more experience, but here I’ll humbly emphasize the phrase “you’re always learning.”
A week before the actual hunt began, we scouted out spots. We scoured the woods for signs of deer. We trudged through thigh-deep cypress, crossed a creek in an inflatable inner tube, and marched through pine flatwoods. We swatted away mosquitoes and brushed away spider webs. Brilliant red pine lilies and purple mistflowers lined our path through fields of palmettos as we meandered across hundreds of acres of beautiful publicly-owned land.
And then we found it — the hammock.
Coming out of a high and dry palmetto flat, we slipped down into a dark, shady hammock of oak trees. Gigantic, old-growth live oaks sprawled across the canopy, their acorns sporadically plopping onto the ground. A deer sensed our presence, and ran off into the swamp, making its warning call — a sneezing sound called a “blow.” We immediately stopped in our tracks and sat between the roots of an old oak, watching the woods come alive.
A pack of turkeys pecked away at the forest floor, scratching in the leaf litter. A trio of enormous black hogs crunched on acorns, grunting as they moved along. Squirrels scurried up cabbage palms and raced along oak limbs, chattering their warning cries as a bobcat meandered through the trees. As we slipped away quietly out of the hammock, we knew we’d found a special place and vowed to hang a treestand here to hunt this woody oasis.
The anticipation of the hunting trip was almost unbearable. The days crept by, slow as molasses. Anxiousness set in: Did we choose a good spot? What will the weather be like? What if the squirrels eat all the acorns and the deer vanish?
This angst — recognized and harnessed — led to a desire for enhanced preparation. Rifles were cleaned and sighted-in for accuracy. I obsessed over satellite maps. Tree identification books were splayed open on the kitchen counter while I methodically packed hunting and camping gear in labeled totes.
As a professional and adult, I’m perpetually unorganized and a chronic procrastinator (If you don’t believe me, ask my editor). But I’ll be darned if my camo clothes weren’t folded neatly and packed away two weeks before leaving.
Dustin and I climbed into our tree opening morning and we watched the woods awaken. Birds of every sound and color took their turn singing. Huge boar and sow hogs rummaged through the leaves below us at first light. A big-antlered buck walked out from thick timber, but brambles and branches made it impossible to take a clear, ethical shot.
After several hours of waiting, a deer stepped into a clearing, and Dustin took his shot. We saw it run off, and waited a few minutes to go find it. There was no blood to track, so we scanned the ground for fresh footprints. We followed a set into a wet swamp, then all trace of the deer disappeared.
The excitement of a harvest changed to a stressful, palpable tension as we searched in a grid pattern. It was Ato honor its life, to honor nature, to honor the cycle of predator and prey.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to find the deer lying in a bed of ferns not far from where it was shot. A perfect eating-size deer and a perfectly clean kill. Relief poured over us as we carried our prize out of the woods.
Spoiler alert: I harvested my own deer the next day, the meat, bones, and hide of which will last an entire year.
But hunting is so very much more than “making meat.” Enjoying every moment of the hunt — the preparation, the time in nature, sharing the day’s stories around a campfire — facilitates real satisfaction whether one harvests game or not. Simply the chance to once again share these primal tasks with our tribe does the soul a whole lot of good.
In hunting, the trip is the destination, and it takes us places we’ve never been — places in the wilderness, places in our minds, and places in our hearts.●