A client shares his experience on a fall deer hunt.
My Experience with Learn to Hunt NYC: A First-Timer's Perspective
I've never been hunting before, and in the fall of this year, I decided to give it a go. I've always been curious to see if I could track game and harvest it, not only because it feels like the responsible thing to do—I've been a meat-eater all my life, but never once have I actually been a part of getting that meat to my plate—but because it seems like an incredible adventure. I live in Brooklyn with my wife and son, and while I love city life, it can sometimes feel very routine, and very unnatural. Hunting seemed like a powerful way to experience the great outdoors in a new and profound way, and so after some hemming and hawing, I decided to look into it.
I found Learn to Hunt NYC online, signed up for the Apprentice Hunt, and waited for the weeks to tick by. I was hoping to harvest a white tail deer, but after everything I'd read, I tried to keep my expectations in check.
So here's my experience. I'm a writer by trade, and my day with Fisher was so noteworthy—both the good and the bad—that I asked if I could share my experience on his site.
If you're part of the "too long; didn't read" crowd, here's a summary: it was an incredible day, and an experience I feel really lucky to have, and I can't wait to go back.
If you want the details—and I understand now why hunters looooove to tell stories and try to re-live their adventures!—here you go:
Training in the Morning
We started out the day learning how to shoot. I have a good amount of experience with bows—I live near an archery range, so once every month or so I'll go and let off some arrows—but I chose to use a crossbow, because they're so much easier to use. They're incredible accurate, too—even though I had never used one before, Fisher helped me sight it in, and within a few minutes, I was shooting accurately. I'm a decent archer, and aiming with a bow is certainly easier than it used to be, but within ten minutes of instruction from Fisher, I was putting bolts on a dime at 30 meters. That did a lot for my confidence—one of my fears before the trip was that I would wound an animal without actually putting it down, so knowing that I could put the bolt where I wanted it made me feel a lot better about things.
This felt like the "easiest" part of the day—after all, we were just hanging around, shooting crossbows—but it was actually the most important, and when we were up in the tree stand later in the day, knowing the weapon and how it worked made a world of difference for me.
Foraging and Tracking
After a quick lunch, we went out to do some foraging and look for deer sign. Fisher is a born teacher, and able to convey complicated topics very easily—which is great, because I have a ridiculously short attention span, and I need to learn quickly or I get distracted. We learned about how to look for hard mast (deer apparently love this stuff), how to read trees for deer rubs and read the ground for deer scrapes, and what local plants look like after they've been grazed (and if all that sounds mysterious, Fisher will make it easy to understand).
This part of the day was a lot of fun. I hadn't really thought much about it—I had been so obsessed with the actual "hunting" part of the hunting trip, that I overlooked it—but it's now one of my favorite parts of the event. Within only a few minutes of learning about the woods, it looked like an entirely new environment to me—and so busy! I live in the city, and I'm used to things being loud and busy, but I wasn't used to things being quiet and busy. That was a surprise. And that's how the woods revealed themselves, even after only a few minutes—completely silent, but busting with activity. Even if we had spent the day simply foraging, that would have been a worthwhile trip.
The Hunt, Part I
Finally—we're ready to head into the woods! We suited up and drove to one of the spots Fisher had scouted. That's one of the many things I'm grateful to Fisher for—it's not obvious at first, but Fisher has put an incredible amount of work in before you even show up. Not only has he spent a lifetime hunting and developing skills (and learning to navigate the licensing process, which he'll help you with), but he's explored much of north Jersey looking for areas where deer thrive, setting up cameras to record their movements and increase your odds of success, and assembling tree stands to create vantage points. When you work with a capable hunting guide, you're really just showing up for the *last* part of the hunt, because so much of the "work" has been done beforehand. Hunting isn't just heading out into the woods—there's a lot of complicated lead-up to that, and it's great when you can have someone do it for you.
So, with all that work done, we were at the edge of the forest, and began to slowly creep in. Fisher had seen some deer on one of his cameras, so we hiked a few acres into the woods where he had a tree stand up. Here's where—again—his experience is worth its weight in gold: you want to be 100% certain your tree stand is set up properly, because 1) you're going to be up there for a while, and 2) you're really up there. I have a mild fear of heights—not debilitating, but definitely there—and I took my sweet time getting up into that tree stand!
Once I was up there, though, I was happy as could be. Remember earlier, how I said that after the foraging/tracking lesson, I'd seen the forest in a completely new way? Well, that happened again once we were up in the tree stand. I'd never really just climbed a tree watched the woods for hours at a time, but when you do that, it reveals itself in an entirely new way: I saw a group of squirrels playing and chasing each other around, a couple of birds who perched on a branch only a few feet from me, and a bunch of rabbits who shuffled around and made weird noises I'd never heard them make before. As with the foraging—if this had been all that happened during the day, I'd be fine with that. It was an incredible experience.
We were there to hunt, though, and after about an hour in the tree stand, we found someone we were finally waiting a for: a buck, about two years old, who appeared behind the tree were in. Fisher whispered to maneuver myself to turn and see if I could get a shot. I slowly angled around, released the safety on the crossbow, and waited for him to come into view.
I never realized how much deer loaf around. I was staring so hard at this guy that my surrounding vision started to fade out, simply because he. didn't. move. He just stood there, out of range, minute after minute, chewing away. Finally, after about five minutes, he walked a few feet forward—almost within my target field—and then...!
He sat down.
And then he lied down.
And then he took a nap.
For 45 minutes.
I watched this deer take a nap for almost an hour, and I have to tell you—at first I was frustrated, but after a while I had to laugh. It's an odd thing to watch an animal sleep for close to an hour. Truth is, though, I think it was good for me: all that down time allowed me to settle my nerves, and when he got up again—finally—my hands were steady and I was ready to take aim.
He sauntered a few feet forward, and I tracked him through the crossbow scope. Then, very quietly, Fisher whispered, "Second deer, 2 o'clock." Sure enough, another buck sauntered into view, and he was even bigger than the first, with a good-sized rack. The stood together, broadside, about 25 meters away—absolutely within my comfort zone on the crossbow. I was exhilarated.
I took aim on the new guy, evened my breathing, and all of sudden—out of nowhere—they both darted off.
Just like that—gone.
It turns out a wayward dog had wandered into the woods, grumbled a bit, and scared both of them off. All that waiting and focus and anticipating, poof!—just like that... gone.
"That's hunting," Fisher said.
The Hunt, Part II
The rest of the afternoon carried on. I watched the light get weaker and the animals get quieter. I was disappointed, but I kept reminding myself that even veteran hunters can go years without harvesting an animal, and that getting a deer your first time out is pretty rare.
Right before dusk, Fisher told me to get alert again. He said the periods of dusk and dawn were "miracle hours," or "magic hours," or something like that, and that we might have another shot soon.
Sure enough, within a few minutes, we saw an adult doe saunter into view. Unlike before, where the target window had been very, very difficult to reach, she was standing 25 meters in front of us, broadside, just standing there. It was a perfect shot. Fisher advised me to click off the safety as quietly as possible, and take aim.
I steadied my breathing and steadied my hands, when all of a sudden—another buck appeared! He, too, was just standing there—and he, too, was broadside! I slowly brought the crossbow and aimed it at his vitals.
Unfortunately, though, my shot was obstructed by some branches. I took a good look at him, and the branches didn't look that thick, so took aim and fired. CRASH! The bolt ricocheted off the branches and sailed out of site. It took a minute to figure out what had happened—the light was getting a little dim—but I had one shot, and I had missed. I set my crossbow down a took a deep breath.
From behind me in the tree stand, though, Fisher was saying—quietly but urgently, "RELOAD RELOAD RELOAD!" I had thought the buck and doe had darted off, but there they stood—in just about the same place as before—only now the buck was out in the open. I don’t how it happened, but I had yet another perfect shot.
During our morning session, I had gotten good at loading the crossbow, but I hadn't done it in the tree stand, and I forgot how much effort it took. I also hadn't stood up in hours, and my legs were deadweight and numb. Loading another bolt took everything I had, but somehow I got the crossbow ready, aimed, and let off a bolt.
The next couple of minutes were a little hazy. I didn't see if the bolt had hit—Fisher said from the way the buck jumped, he thought it landed—but we would have to do some tracking. I asked Fisher later why the buck and doe didn't take off after the noise of my first shot, and he said that while they were mature young adults, they were still inexperienced enough to not know to take off, and they were probably close enough to the rut that they want to stick around.
We waited about 20 minutes for the buck to expire, and descended the tree stand to start tracking. We had headlamps, but from what I could see, there was absolutely no trace of hit. I felt my heart sink a little, but I tried to stay buoyant. Fisher eventually found a drop of blood the size of a pea, and said that was a good sign. Then he found another, and another, and another. The drops then become dime-sized, quarter-sized, and then became a full-on trail. Within 50 meters, here's what we found:
Looking Back / Thoughts
I got lucky—sometimes it takes a while to harvest an animal, but I got one on my first attempt. I'm happy it happened that way, but the trip would have been absolutely worthwhile if that hadn't happened.
When I was planning the trip, I wasn’t sure how I'd feel about actually hunting an animal. I grew up right outside of NYC, so I don't really know anyone who's been hunting, but I've always seen those photos where a proud hunter is smiling ear-to-ear in front of a harvested animal. I didn't think I'd feel like that, and I didn't.
When we found the buck, I felt a—a sort of quietness, I guess? A solemnity? I didn't feel like celebrating or jumping around. I felt very calm, and if you look at the photo, I'm not really smiling. It's odd, too, because I'm very proud of what I did, and even though the hunt was weeks ago now, I think of it every day.
It took a while for me to figure out that what I was feeling was reverence. I was feeling respect for animal, respect for the thousands-of-years-old rite of passage of finding it and harvesting it, and respect for the opportunity. I think hooting and hollering is a perfectly fine way to celebrate a successful hunt, and maybe I'll feel that way in the future, but my experience was very calm.
I mentioned that my trip was weeks ago. I think about it not only because it was an important experience in my life, but because I brought home dinner for months to come! I hadn't really considered that—that if I was lucky enough to harvest a deer, I'd be consuming it for a while. Here’s my latest gourmet achievement—scalloped potatoes with venison and roasted root vegetables:
I've been a meat eater all my life, but never once have I actually played a part in getting it to my plate. It seemed—barbaric? It's odd that I would consume so much meat over the course of my life, but never play a true role in its preparation. I'm glad that I had that experience, because—to my pleasant surprise—venison is absolutely delicious. I had always heard it’s game-y, but that’s not been my experience. We're slowly preparing all the parts of the deer, and as another surprise, I'm learning to cook. I never knew the different between a tenderloin and a roast and a minute steak and so on, but I'm learning each part and how to prepare it as we go through the animal.
I'm also giving some of the meat away to family and friends. That's a feeling that's hard to describe—it's pretty incredible.