Northern Wilds Magazine
Amanda Swanson deer hunting in the snowy woods her first season. | JOE SHEAD

A Hunter is Born

If I live to be 50, I’ll never understand women. I suppose, in this day of advanced medicine and increasing life expectancy, 50 years seems like a pretty meager goal. But that modest age is irreversibly entwined with my inability to understand the other gender.

It took longer than it should have for me to realize that when a female asks if something makes her look fat, the answer is an emphatic “no!” I think the proper way to answer that question would be to give her a split-second glance and say something like, “That outfit makes you look like the prettiest belle at the ball.”

You don’t even need to look at her to know the answer is “no.” That response should come automatically. But women are so sensitive, you can answer this trick question incorrectly, even when you think you’ve given the proper response. You have to at least glance at her so she knows you’re not just saying she doesn’t look fat, but if you look at her for even a millisecond too long, she’ll think you had considered that maybe she does indeed look a bit chubby.

Oh, and another thing: there is a language barrier across the genders. “Fine” in man speak is not a parallel translation in the female dialect. In fact, those words are complete antonyms. Use the wrong translation and you’ll be punched in the shoulder or kicked in the shin. Even if your gal is petite, those beatings pack a wallop. Thus, the reason I feel I’ll be doing well to make it to 50.

I don’t know why Amanda decided she wanted to go deer hunting. Hunting was not a big part of her family. Her dad and brother formerly hunted, but they held only a passing interest in the sport and it had been years since either pursued deer. I suppose dating me was the impetus for her desire to hunt. She already had a natural love of fishing, even before she met me. She had all her own ice fishing gear, some of which was better than my own equipment. But hunting would be a new realm for her.

In my experience, men and women are wired differently when it comes to the outdoor sports. When most guys go fishing, the ultimate goal is to catch fish. Oh sure, they like hanging out and perhaps tipping back a few beers on the water, but at the end of the day, if they haven’t caught some fish, the outing wasn’t successful.

Most women, on the other hand, enjoy the camaraderie and the experience. They cheer on each other and try to share their knowledge to help make everyone a better angler. They don’t want anything “mansplained” to them—guys hovering around and constantly giving advice. But for them, it’s OK when a woman imparts knowledge to another woman. Success is measured by the amount of fun had by all, and if any fish make it into the boat, even small ones, everyone shares in the success.

Now, that scenario isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it seems to hold true in a lot of situations. Women just enjoy the outdoors for different reasons than men. And I’ll give them credit, women are very patient and detail-oriented, which serves them well while hunting or fishing. They’re also not too macho to ask for help and they take constructive criticism better than men; especially if it comes from another woman. For these and myriad other reasons, women often excel in outdoor sports.

So, for reasons known only to her, Amanda asked if I would take her deer hunting. The joke may have been on her, however, because Minnesota has a hunting mentorship program, through which individuals can hunt without taking the normally required hunter safety course, as long as their mentor stays within arm’s length. Amanda wasn’t just going hunting; she was about to be a hunter! And of course, the second she found out that she could wear blaze pink clothing instead of the traditional blaze orange, she immediately went on a pink shopping spree.

Our first season was a struggle. Amanda didn’t have much time to hunt and deer sightings were few. Plus, she had a hard time looking through her scope with just one eye, so she carried along an eye patch for her non-scope eye, which made peering through the scope easier. That move earned her the nickname, “The Pink Pirate.” We did manage to see a couple does, but Amanda‘s tag went unfilled that first year.

The following season, things looked much better. For one thing, we wouldn’t be hunting in the woods, where visibility is limited and deer are close and easily spooked when you do see them. We had gotten permission to hunt over a farm field where deer appear each night to feed. Tom, the landowner, laughed when I showed up before season to do some scouting.

“All you have to do is watch the field,” he explained. “There will be deer there every night.”

As I soon learned, I was trying to overcomplicate a sure bet.

On our first evening, Amanda and I watched the field, waiting for deer to appear. Perhaps an hour before dark, a doe and fawn emerged from behind a row of pines and began grazing on alfalfa. They fed trustingly, never realizing they were being watched by predators.

Amanda watched intently, enjoying the encounter. Although her tag was good for any deer, she wanted to hold out for a buck. We had three evenings to hunt, and if she had to settle for a doe, she wouldn’t do it until the final evening.

As it turned out, her chance at a buck came quicker than expected.

The doe and fawn were still feeding in the field when Mr. Big arrived. Well, OK, he wasn’t exactly big. In human terms, he was a teenager. He had just grown his first set of antlers that summer. They consisted of 5-inch spikes on either side of his head. His was a pretty meager rack. But he was a buck.

Amanda, who had been so calm while watching the doe and fawn, suddenly began to breathe heavily when she spotted the young buck. She trembled as she raised the rifle. She struggled to see the buck in her rifle scope. A couple weeks earlier, at the shooting range, everyone who watched her shoot was impressed. She was a natural marksman and once we had her scope on target, she regularly hit the bull’s-eye. However, right now she couldn’t even see through the scope, and if she could have, she was so unsteady she would have struggled to hit the broad side of a barn.

Amanda Swanson with her first buck. | JOE SHEAD

Even though she was leaning on a solid rest, the rifle barrel wobbled from side to side. At the shooting range, she was calm and steady and she shot with military precision. But this was the real world. She didn’t know it, but something deep within her psyche, going all the way back to her caveman ancestors, was emerging. That “fight or flight” response was welling up inside her as she prepared to kill her prey and it was rattling her visibly. All she had to do was settle the crosshairs on the buck and pull the trigger. I know she was capable of making that shot. I’d watched her do it repeatedly at the shooting range. But things are different with a live target. After probably a minute or more of struggling to find the deer in the scope, she finally pulled the trigger. The young buck bounded off unscathed.

A flood of emotions washed over her. She was disappointed that she had missed the deer. And she commented repeatedly on how difficult it was to make that shot in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t like being at the shooting range. It was real and nerve-racking and different. She hadn’t killed her deer, but the experience had taken hold of her. She had gotten a taste of that moment when you come in contact with your prey and the encounter was exciting and different. Now she was more determined than ever to shoot a buck.

The following night we were back, but no buck appeared. Originally, Amanda had said she would shoot any deer on her last evening. However, after her encounter with the young buck, she wasn’t going to settle for a doe on the third evening. It was a buck or nothing. Once again, no buck appeared on the third night, although we did see some does. I thought that just like last year, her season would end in defeat. Little did I know we were just getting started.

The memory of that buck gnawed at Amanda. Originally, on the following evening, we were supposed to help Amanda’s brother Josh move into his new house. In fact, Amanda had reminded me not to forget just the day before. But on the fourth day, she sent me a text: “Let’s hunt at Tom’s tonight!”

“What about your brother?” I responded.

“He can move himself!”

So Josh was on his own.

The fourth night turned into a fifth. And a sixth. The sixth night was a pivotal one. Once again, does appeared in the field. We had watched them for more than an hour. It was growing dark and it was getting hard to see, although the legally mandated quitting time for the day was still a few minutes away. Amanda unloaded her rifle and tucked it into its case. Just as she did so, another deer entered the field, followed by another. Even in the waning light, I could clearly see both were bucks. The first buck was a nice one, sporting a decent rack. But the second one, oh the second one, was the buck of dreams. The barrel-chested bruiser strode into the field with confidence. He knew he was the boss of the woods. His antlers spread beyond his ears, with thick tines jutted up from heavy main beams.

In about two seconds flat, Amanda‘s rifle was back out of the case. She reloaded and peered through the scope. I put my fingers in my ears, expecting at any moment to hear the rifle roar. I waited. And waited. But the expected rifle blast didn’t come. The sky grew darker. The bucks became mere silhouettes. At long last, Amanda lowered the rifle.

“I just can’t see him through the scope!” she hissed.

I was dejected on the inside, but I dared not show it. Oh, how I wished her first buck had been a giant. The light was dim and making the shot wouldn’t have been easy. Still, I know that I could’ve found a way. But this wasn’t about me. It was about Amanda, and she was disappointed, too. She knew that buck was a monster.

But one of the most important parts of hunting is gun safety. If you can’t see your target well or make a good shot, you’re better off not shooting. It would’ve been a horrible thing to have wounded the deer and not recovered it. As badly as she wanted to shoot it, she made the right call.

After that there was no turning back. Amanda‘s three-day hunt miraculously stretched into yet another day. She wanted a buck bad! This time, however, really was her last day. Tom had friends coming to hunt. In fact, he had foregone his own hunting so that Amanda could hunt. We had one final chance.

On our last sit, many thoughts went through our minds. We thought about that spike buck from the first day. We talked about the thrill of watching the does and fawns feed every night. And of course, the vision of that monster buck—the one that got away—was always at the forefront of our minds. But as the clock ticked down, it looked like we were out of chances. Two does and a fawn fed in the alfalfa—where was their male suitor?

It had been a fun season. Amanda had learned a lot. She’d discovered that trying to shoot at a live target isn’t the same as shooting at the range. We’d come so close. We’d seen bucks and even got a shot at one. It really had been a pretty good season. But somehow it just wasn’t enough to go home without a buck. We sat quietly, sullenly, dwelling on the impending reality of another deer-less season.

We had just a half-hour left to hunt when yet another buck entered the field. Amanda had sat with her head hung on that final sit, but this new buck sighting jolted her back to life. She had one more shot at redemption.

There was a purpose in her movements as she brought her rifle to her shoulder this time. That girl who fidgeted awkwardly with a rifle just days earlier was gone. Now she aimed confidently and deliberately. This time her nerves were under control and the rifle barrel held steady. At the rifle’s report, the buck dropped in its tracks.

“You got him!” I exclaimed.

Amanda couldn’t believe her eyes, but a brown blob lay still in the middle of the alfalfa field. Amanda unloaded the rifle and set it down. I gave her a bear hug and kissed her. We couldn’t cover the distance across the field fast enough to get to her first buck. As she walked up on the deer, conflicting emotions bubbled out of her. For one thing, there was a bit of shock that she had gotten a third chance and this time had made good. There was probably relief, too. Night after night we’d been trying for a buck, and now she finally had one. As we knelt next to the fallen deer, Amanda brushed the deer’s gray winter coat. There is always that moment of remorse when you realize that you’ve snuffed out the candle of life and Amanda was sad for the deer. But more than anything, she was elated. She had become part of the fraternity of hunters. No longer was she a spectator; she was an active participant. Amanda gushed about the experience. The buck wasn’t the monster we’d seen a couple days earlier, but Amanda couldn’t have been prouder.

I don’t know why Amanda chose to deer hunt. I guess I could ask her. But as I stood there watching a girl kneel next to her first buck, the sheer joy and elation on her face was all the reason I needed.

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