WILD INSTINCT VERSUS RATIONAL THINKING
By Dr. Harold C. Lyon, Jr.
I was pussy-footing in snow flurries – still hunting -- along an old logging trail overgrown with briars. Ever since being conditioned in Army Ranger training, I have held my rifle at the ready supported by the sling for a quick stable shot. I stopped to aim my rifle down the trail resting it on a half downed tree. IF a deer were to appear now, what a perfect rifle rest this would be. None of us had yet seen a White-Tail in our first 3 days of “deer camp” in the Red Hill region of New Hampshire…but that’s not unusual. After 20 years of this wonderful American “deer camp” tradition, we had long since learned that shooting a deer is not what brings us back year after year for these gatherings. The fellowship is the magnet which brings us together and fulfills some complex, mystical longing within us.
As I lifted the rifle from this natural rest, quicker than my mind could register it, my instincts caught movement 40 yards away and a nice buck with his nose to the ground appeared, walking across the overgrown wood road from my right to my left. I instinctively returned my rifle to the rest, fumbling to open scope covers, and put the cross hairs just behind his shoulder. I squeezed off “a perfect shot.” Nothing! I had forgotten the safety! I flipped it off just as the buck was disappearing in the thicket to the left of the opening. I aimed as far to the left of his body as I could see, knowing as the rifle KABOOOMED, that I was slightly far back for a perfect shot.
Not jumping, flagging, or bounding, I watched excitedly as he silently disappeared into the thicket to my left, not offering a second shot. I waited a minute in the quiet…heart beating, optimistically. How lucky a shot on the natural rifle rest! Had my wilder instincts forewarned me, before my mind could grasp it rationally, that a buck was there? Why had I mounted my rifle on the downed tree rest at this moment when I had not taken so many other potential opportunities to prepare for a deer?
I tied an orange banner to the natural rifle rest, marking my shooting place. Slowly I made my way to where he was when I shot. Gray hair! Then a few feet farther a drop of blood! I put another red banner on the tree above it. Which way had he gone? More blood to the left! Being color-blind, I’m not the best tracker unless the blood is dark and shiny on the leaves. I rubbed some off onto my fingers to reassure myself it was blood. Yes! On my hands and knees, now, I found more wet blood, marking with orange tape on brush above each drop.
Looking back I could see that he was traveling south, dropping small splotches of blood every few feet. I radioed my son, Eric, about a mile away from me, telling him that I was on the trail of a buck I had shot and needed some help tracking as I felt sure I had shot too far back on his body – perhaps a gut shot. He could not receive me well and I heard him say he would go to higher ground to see if he could hear me better. I slowly following the blood trail on all fours through the thickets. Suddenly, I felt something. His presence! I stood and spotted his white tail ten yards ahead! I raised the rifle scope and watched for breathing movement. No movement. I had him! A beautiful animal – a young 9-pointer with ebony dark antlers! Breaking off a sprig of fir I inserted it into my prize’s mouth – a “Letztebitzen” – a last bite to honor and thank this fine animal, a tradition I had learned as a young man hunting in Germany and have continued ever since.
I called Eric on the radio again. He could hear me now. “Got him! A nice buck! Now I need only dragging help.” I took out my GPS and gave him my grid coordinates which he repeated back. He’d organize the others and come to me. Relief! Success! Joy! These were the emotions which now arose as I prepared to field-dress my trophy. After gutting him and dragging him out to the old wood road, I unloaded my rifle and sat on a stump to eat my lunch. I looked up at where the buck had appeared, reliving the moment. At that instant, an hour since I had shot, another buck –a bigger one -- following the trail made by mine, emerged and crossed the opening, his nose down, oblivious of me, trailing my buck … or a doe which my buck had tracked earlier! Then he was gone like a phantom. Had Eric been with me, it would have been an easy 40-yard shot.
How often when in the woods my instincts tell me to look to the left or right or behind me and my mind follows finding nothing and then doubts my instincts. But if I trust those wilder intuitive signals, and patiently wait and act upon them, often they bear fruit, if only in a squirrel or bird the movement of which my instincts had caught, but which my slower mental processes did not trust. Today my instincts HAD caught sight of something – some movement -- even if my mind dismissed it or was slower than my intuitiveness. We need to learn to trust our wilder instincts!
At the beginning of the season, when I first take a walk in the woods and smell the leaves and forest scents, after being in the civilized world since the last fall, I’m not really at my mark, but I can begin to feel the call of the wild. It takes some time being deeper in the wilderness to get back into peak hunting mode – survival mode -- natural predators that we are. Sitting in a stand in the woods, have you ever noticed how you can gradually extend your hearing range by popping your ears (like you do to equalize pressure on a plane), and refocusing your ears 20 yards farther out, and then again even farther, and still farther? Our senses have been so hammered on in the civilized world we live in daily that it takes some time to re-tune ourselves to the wild – to “uncivilize” ourselves back into hunting-mode. My USMC son, Gregg, after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, confirms that these same wild hunting instincts are important in battle when the predators are human. In good combat training we now vigorously train our men to listen to their wilder instincts. Often enemy, who live in and off the land, have them honed sharper than their predators. Good deer hunters are good instinctive predators and they often make good warriors.
On this “deer camp” several days in the wild had just begun to sharpen my instincts again. If I had been hunting several weeks, they’d be even sharper. I’d probably not have had to fumble with the closed scope covers or forget to take off the safety. Is it possible the instinctive senses within me intuitively knew this buck was coming? Being a glass-half-full optimistic helps. I’m often visualizing deer way before I see them. I’m expecting them to appear. Without this quality of hunting determination and optimism, going empty season after season is discouraging for many, and they lose that optimistic edge.
I was very lucky that this buck had presented himself to me for a killing shot in spite of my slower instincts fumbling with the scope covers and safety. Luck is such a big part of shooting a deer, given that hunting skills and patience are somewhat equal among good hunters like my sons and the others in our “deer camp.” My only regret was that my son, Eric had not been in my place. He’s an instinctive, optimistic, intuitive hunter and has learned the craft well. He has patience. He needs only the luck. His turn will come.