My total hunting experiences would take less time to tell than it would take to clean the barrel of your well-used Weatherby. On drizzly fall days in Lincoln, Massachusetts my otherwise peace-loving father would take me and a .22 rifle up to the town dump. We’d take turns lying prone in the back of our powder blue Plymouth Valiant station wagon. We would wait for rats to crawl around the garbage. And shoot them. Or try. I got a few. I remember seeing rat blood. This was 1964 or thereabouts. My father never broke a law or zoning code in his life so shooting a rifle at a public dump must have been legal. I still really can’t believe it was my father who seemed to enjoy this. I know I did. I was 10 or 11. A real gun with a real purpose? Sign me up.
Years later I went pheasant hunting in New Hampshire. Don’t remember much but a lot of traipsing around in the cold wet meadow. Don’t recall shooting anything, don’t remember seeing anything even fly or get shot. That’s why they call it hunting. No guarantees.
Decades later, my brothers-in-law Les and Neil took me deer hunting down by Deckers, half way between Denver and Pike’s Peak. That day, I stalked with Neil for hours and we finally sighted some deer, way off, grazing on a hillside. I remember that zoned-in, supremely focused feeling. Nothing else mattered. It was a tremendous sensation of opportunity, of predator and prey and, well, brains. The deer left us in the dust.
Later, I was walking with Les and Neil back up a dirt road when Les suddenly turned and fired down a slope. One shot. For the next hour or so we cleaned the buck and carried the quarters back to Les’s pickup. Since then, other than a few trips with hunting guides into the Flat Tops Wilderness (for research), that’s about it.
Today, I’m no hunter. Don’t own a rifle, don’t really have any desire to see an elk or deer lose its life because I pulled the trigger. But many of the smartest guys I know are hunters. Dedicated hunters. Moose, elk, deer, antelope, sheep, goats, you name it. These guys are tough as nails. It’s fine. I’m fascinated. I’m glad someone is up there keeping the various mammal populations in check. Simple fact is: it’s reality. It’s a tremendous form of recreation and serves a valuable service, unless you like the idea of deer and elk, well, everywhere. Backyard, frontyard, all over town.
And now, thanks to Pete Bodo, I think I understand a deer hunter’s heart just a bit better.
Peter Heller (“Kook”) took us surfing, Mark Obmascik (“Halfway to Heaven”) took us mountain climbing in Colorado and Steven Rinella (“American Buffalo”) took us to Alaska to track wild buffalo. (Buffalo in Alaska? Who knew?).
Bodo’s “Whitetail Nation” takes us deep into deer country in its many manifestations. In this book, the hunts take place in New York, Montana and Texas but the hunts could be anywhere—this is a personal sojourn.
I’d put “Whitetail Nation” right up there with the accounts from Heller, Obmascik and Rinella but maybe with a little Bill Bryson (“In A Sunburned Country,” for instance) thrown in for good measure.
“Whitetail Nation” is Pete Bodo’s season-long personal pursuit of bagging of a world-class trophy-worthy white-tail buck, but it’s as much science and social commentary as anything else with a whole lot of interesting personal commentary thrown in for good measure.
Not a hunter? Doesn’t matter. Bodo is supremely self-effacing, akin to Obmascik’s wry style. He dives deep into stray subjects as they wander along and the detours form key parts to the whole journey. “Antlers are both achingly beautiful and, by objective standards, deeply weird,” he writes. “They’re bonelike, skeletal appendages that sprout like deformities from a buck’s skull. Many people are surprised to learn that bucks annually shed their antlers (during the early winter, after the rut) and spend each spring and summer growing new ones, because antlers seem so…permanent.” There are other nifty side-trips to the equipment, the history and the variety of approaches that go into the hunt (and many more).
Bodo does it all—tree stands, tracking and even a “high fence” hunt in Texas, which he admits is nothing but a “canned hunt.” At least, at first. The quandaries around the fenced-land hunt are fascinating and Bodo shows his ability to keep an open mind. “Hunting at Masser’s wasn’t really a fair-chase proposition,” he concludes, “but it provided vivid proof of what good management could achieve, and the principles it could export to help improve conditions elsewhere.”
Among the most interesting sidebars is Bodo’s account of Dr. Gary Alt, who figured out to manage the deer population in Pennsylvania. The deer population had exploded out of control. The deer were “steadily eating their way toward an ecological catastrophe of which they themselves would be the final victims, after they stripped the earth of habitat for various ground-nesting creatures (including birds), and driven entire species of flora to near extinction—all while encouraging invasive species that would prosper because deer couldn’t eat them.” Bodo tracks the issue back to politics rather than science and a prohunting Game Commission that listened to popular opinion and not the needs of the wildlife population. The key was to manage the doe-buck ratios and I’ll leave it at that. That section alone shows Bodo’s ability to synthesize a ton of information and transform it, neatly, into compelling prose.
Bodo takes himself to task on many occasions for less-than-savvy moments of skill (and lack thereof) in the field. But there is also a deep appreciation for the woods and the wilds and Bodo finds many opportunities to describe the emotional-social landscape that drives both the hunt and the hunt for perfect rifle, bow and related gear. Like the best non-fiction, “Whitetail Nation” takes you deep into a sub-culture (And maybe not so “sub,” 11 million Americans hunt big game). “Whitetail Nation” is a place worth spending some time, whether you hunt or not.