The Emotions of a Hunting Life

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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33 Responses

  1. Maribou says:

    I really appreciate your posts about hunting, @Mike-Dwyer, and this is no exception. Not quite up for “how to dress a deer” but I’ve seen it done many times before, so I can imagine the scene.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Maribou says:

      Seconding this. I have a flashbulb memory of my dad butchering a cow in the barn when I was little. Probably trying to save some money that year since he normally took them to the butcher for professional processing. It’s quite a process and I wouldn’t really have a clue how to proceed once I got past the skinning and gutting stage which is pretty obvious.Report

  2. Thanks for writing this. It’s a perspective I don’t really know, not being a hunter, but it’s very, very thoughtful.

    As a tangent to your main point, this,

    I would eventually like to get to the point where I only consume wild game. I don’t have any illusions about changing the factory farming industry with my choices, but I do like the idea of mostly consuming things that lived a wild life.

    is one reason I refuse to condemn sports hunting (when what’s killed is used for food or otherwise put to use). I eat plenty of meat, probably all of it factory farmed, probably much of it by corporations who’ve probably never even heard of Temple Grandin. If I ever wanted to criticize hunting, I’d have to take a good look at my eating practices. And I probably won’t.Report

    • pillsy in reply to gabriel conroy says:

      Yeah, sports hunting is one of those areas where I have a strong intuitive knee jerk that tells me it’s wrong, but a more reasoned approach (informed by pieces like Mr Dwyer’s) generally leads me to ignore my jerking knee.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to pillsy says:

        Back in my active backpacking days I always thought that backpackers and hunters were natural allies. The activities have similar land requirements, implying similar preservationist imperatives. Yes, the cautious backpacker will stay home during rifle hunting season, but that is a small price. Sadly, there was a lot of irrational prejudice, and this is an area where “both sides do it” is true.Report

        • @richard-hershberger

          I used to be a pretty serious backpacker but most of the crew I ran with also hunted, so it seemed a natural connection for us. I’m happy to say though that the hunting and broader outdoor communities seem to be doing a better job of bridging those divides. There are a lot of climbers, skiers, etc that are discovering bowhunting. They like the challenge of it, the relative safety and the quiet. I was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for the KY chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and one of the things we talk about a lot is ‘trailhead diplomacy’ where hunters reach out to other outdoorsman on issues that affect all of us (public land access being the big one). As a hiker and kayaker who also likes to hunt, it’s a conversation I’m excited to have.Report

          • rexknobus in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            Two comments:

            Hunting: I was one of those kids who didn’t know he needed glasses (may have explained some of my school problems) until my Big 15-Year Old Family Hunting Trip. “Quick, son, there’s your deer!” -me squinting- “Where in relation to those rocks?” “What rocks?” Oh! Bang! First shot. Yay!

            Backpacking: June 1973 issue of a major national magazine with the article: “Do’s and Don’ts of Backpacking.” My (first) wife and I were publicly named as the “Don’ts.” (Still a great trip, though.)Report

          • Phaedros Aletheia in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            As I learn more about it, things are so interconnected as to make them inseparable.

            For example, in my immediate area (currently), Amur honeysuckle and autumn olive are rampant. They make the woods very dense, which drives away the woodpeckers, as they require more open forest to fly. Yet the woodpeckers consume the larvae of the emerald ash borer.
            The problems compound themselves.

            One of the big problems is the otter population at the lake. You won’t see them, but you see the mollusk shells littering the shore along the banks. The other sign is that there are a lot of small fish, a number of big ones, but very few medium-sized ones.
            To reduce the otter population requires lowering the water level in the lake by about eight feet every three years or so. However, the boaters complain about this, and the politicians who act on those complaints aren’t very good at conservation.

            Sometimes, things are a tangle.Report

            • Marchmaine in reply to Phaedros Aletheia says:

              ” Amur honeysuckle and autumn olive are rampant. They make the woods very dense, which drives away the woodpeckers, as they require more open forest to fly.”

              Not enough goats. Goats are awesome for vine control… also great at clearing out the undergrowth.Report

              • Phaedros in reply to Marchmaine says:

                True, not enough goats.
                I was looking in to buying goats’ milk for cheese-making purposes, and found it to be cost-prohibitive.

                This honeysuckle isn’t a vine, but a bushy shrub that grows into a tree. It’s easy to tell by the bark close to the ground. It has a striped look to it, and has a dark hollow in the middle of the limbs and trunk when cut.
                The multi-flora rose is an invasive species here which is a vine.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Phaedros says:

                You’re right… I know exactly the stuff you’re talking about… I thought it was a pretty under-story tree, like our native dogwoods, with pretty green leaves and nice bright berries… until the forester looked at me and told me to take it down wherever I encountered it. Goats eat the shoots.

                Goats also eat the multi-flora rose, prickers and all, its the darndest thing… they nibble the leaves then chomp the prickers, they *love* the stuff… first thing they go for in the pasture.

                We calculate our goat milk at $4/quart, $12/gallon. But, you get 1lb of hard cheese or 2lbs of soft cheese per gallon… so pretty much in line with actual hand made goat cheeses you buy… or milk your own damn goat. :^)Report

  3. bookdragon says:

    I would eventually like to get to the point where I only consume wild game. I don’t have any illusions about changing the factory farming industry with my choices, but I do like the idea of mostly consuming things that lived a wild life.

    This something I really appreciate about hunting and hunters (the responsible kind like Mike rather than the guys who are just in it for a trophy on the wall). It strikes me as how things should be – the animal lives a natural life in a the wild and is taken down by an efficient predator. Given a choice between being a deer or beef cow, I know what I’d choose.

    Also, when I lived in the tail end of VA, hunters contributing excess meat to local food shelters made huge difference for a lot of people who couldn’t have it otherwise and couldn’t afford the time and cost of guns, car, etc. to go hunting themselves.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to bookdragon says:


      One of the things I am trying to be more honest about lately is the truth of why I hunt. The short answer is, I simply like to hunt.

      I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy being in the woods, I enjoy interacting with the natural world. I also like to hang turkey tails on the wall of my garage and wouldn’t complain if I had a nice set of antlers to go with them. I absolutely feel a moment of pride when I hit a duck on the wing or make a tough shot on a squirrel. When I get a turkey, I text my buddies to brag. And yes, I like having the meat in the freezer.

      I will also say that even those ‘trophy hunters’ that primarily want those antlers on the wall also eat those deer or elk. Nobody is going to leave that meat on the mountain. It has unfortunately just become taboo to admit you enjoy the hunt itself and take pride in the kill.Report

      • bookdragon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with having the bits you can’t eat as trophies. In fact, using the whole animal was a big thing among the hunters I knew in VA – right down to tanning the hides and making jackets and slippers from them. The trophy hunters that I don’t have much respect for are the ones who only want the big stuffed bear or the lion skin rug. And when I was in OH the MBAs from Columbus from who used to get drunk on ‘team building’ hunting trips and shoot at anything that moved (including my brown Chevy driving on the road past the park) also don’t strike me as people who cared about anything but bringing a rack home to mount.

        That said, I understand the pride and even thrill in hunting. I’ve never done much more than fish, but I have greyhounds who have taken more than a few rabbits and squirrels and I always feel a thrill seeing that display of natural skill and in the pure beauty of it. There’s nothing wrong in feeling happiness at doing something well.Report

  4. Em Carpenter says:

    My dad took me squirrel hunting as a little girl (and yes, with the intention of eating it. I ate it fairly often as a child). I was a great target shooter, but could not bring myself to take a shot at a cute little bushy tailed squirrel. I never made it to deer hunting stage, but my dad did teach me how to field dress and I watched the process from bringing home the kill to the wrapped packages in the freezer.

    Hunting for things you will then eat is not wrong, and it is a way of life for many. I can never see it as wrong, no matter how far removed I am from that life. Sometimes I wish for a more self-sustaining way of life.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Em Carpenter says:

      This is something I’ve also thought for a long time would be good for all kinds of reasons.

      But I’ve never even gotten to the point of finding out whether I could bring myself to shoot a mammal (my thinking being that, if I can’t do so, then I should wean myself off their meat. I know I can kill fish, so I needn’t become a vegetarian altogether). At first it was lack of opportunity. Now as an adult I’m theoretically free to go get my own gun, learn to use it, and pester hunters of my acquaintance to find someone to learn from. But I’m not willing to bring a gun into the house.

      There are five of us living here, who knows how many others will live with us at one point or another – that’s a lot of people’s suicide risk to take into account. Maybe if I was a childless bachelor and my parents weren’t around any more. Then again, maybe if that was my living situation, my currently fairly occasional and short-lived periods of depression would be a lot worse. Seeing my daughter struggle with some of the same things I did as a child, I know there’s no way I will be getting into any firearm activities now.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to dragonfrog says:


        I get a lot of people that commend me for taking some ownership of my meat consumption, and I appreciate that, but the most formative experience I ever had was participating in the butchering of hogs at a neighbor’s farm. THAT was eye-opening. Very different than hunting and both myself and my brother were kind of shocked by the experience, while also really being glad we had it.

        If you are really interested in participating in the process, with the current field-to-table movement I’m sure there are plenty of small farms that would allow you onsite to watch or even assist. It’s a powerful experience.Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          That’s not a bad idea. My friend’s dad keeps a hundred or so head of sheep, and given where I live I would be shocked if I didn’t know someone whose folks keep cattle.Report

    • Phaedros in reply to Em Carpenter says:

      Sometimes I wish for a more self-sustaining way of life.

      A few years ago, I was thinking the same thing, and decided to start an urban garden.
      Certain things were out, because they are so cheap as to be unable to justify the additional productive effort time-wise.
      Other things were out, because they come all in a jumble; e.g., tomatoes, zucchini. You have to check on zucchini twice a day (at least) once they start coming in, or the next day, they will be too big to eat (but still good for bread-making).
      At length, I chose melons and squash to plant.
      Then, I tried several different varieties of squash and melon to determine which to plant.
      I ended up with acorn squash and canary melons.
      I had enough melons to give away to the neighbors, but I would eat the squash pretty much as they came in.Report

  5. Doctor Jay says:

    I really liked this piece, Mike. It reminds me of my father, who did a lot of hunting of deer. However, I only remember him bringing home one and processing it. The deer hung in a largish outbuilding he had for hi business, but we were little and didn’t go in there. We had lots of wrapped up packages that went into the freezer.

    He spent a lot more time in the woods after that. I don’t think he used vanilla spray, but he would just sit quietly in the woods. I think he loved that part. I went with him once, but I was too young, and the sitting was just kind of boring.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      “…and the sitting was just kind of boring.”

      We used to have a commenter here at the site that pointed out to me that hunters develop a unique ability to be still. I never realized it until then, but it is something that adds enjoyment to my time in the woods. I was certainly a wiggle worm in my younger days, hunting with my dad. And away from the woods I am a fidgeter. Somehow though I can stand perfectly still, leaning against a tree while squirrel hunting, for 30 minutes or more. It’s almost meditative.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        @mike-dwyer I remember when I was little I could NOT stop talking when hunting or fishing, it used to drive my grandfather a bit nuts. (“Do you WANT to eat fish for supper?? then STOP TALKING.”)

        But I eventually learned.

        And it comes handy for all kinds of things. Quite recently I spent a lot of hours sitting bedside / keeping vigil in a hospital, and it was really easy to just slip into that same serene-but-alert waiting mode for up to an hour at a time, which made everything much gentler on my spirit than it would have been otherwise.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Maribou says:

          That’s probably one of the reasons I love waterfowl hunting so much. When the birds aren’t flying, you can socialize. I like my alone time in the woods, but I also love catching up with my buddies in the duck blind and having a laugh.Report

  6. Marchmaine says:

    Congrats on bringing the butchering “in house.” The video was interesting to me as he was processing a lot more meat on the gambrels than I usually do… After we take the back straps and tender-loins (and fish loins), we quarter everything and finish in the house… but, especially for the haunches, the video had some interesting ideas.

    I like your comment above about sitting still… there’s something about sitting in the dappled light of a cool forest slowly absorbing the sounds and, for me, de-emphasizing sight (one doesn’t so much “spot” deer as notice they have arrived) that de-clutters the mind; I often use the time to pray.

    As I’ve mentioned, we live on the property where we hunt, so I’ve never thought of myself as any sort of sportsman… I wander back into the woods in what whatever I’ve been wearing that day, and consider myself fortunate that there’s no… rigamarole… to going back there. We’ve set up a couple of 2-person stands and the kids (especially when they are between 7-12) really like to sit in the woods too… even though most of the time we don’t take a shot. So, in a weird way, I’m not really an outdoorsman, or a sport hunter but just a landowner who eats off his land. I’ve learned a lot about hunting and animals and the woods, but I’m not sure people (or hunters) would call me much of a hunter… I wonder how true that is for a lot of folks. For us deer are just another thing we harvest… we joke that we keep the Lamb, Goats and Chickens in the front of the property and all the deer in the back – which is true, but belies what keeping means. We try to take 3-4 dear per season and that takes between 9-16 hunts (i.e. evening or morning = 1 hunt)… as you can tell, most of the time the “hunt” is just sitting quietly in the woods for 3-4 hrs.

    I’ve come to understand a lot of incommunicable things that come from killing, processing, and eating living foods; and nothing worries me more about our humanity than the inhumanity of vat grown meats.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Marchmaine says:


      I processed almost my entire deer on the gambrel and found it a lot easier to keep things organized and clean.Report

      • Marchmaine in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Yeah… tackling the sirloins on the gambrel make a lot of sense to me now… I think I’ll try it this season. Funny how a lot of this ends up being… well, this is how I was taught and that’s how we do it.

        I introduced a little twist to how we gut the deer, and taught my friend how to do it that way… when he was talking to a 3rd friend – the one who taught me originally – the 3rd fellow couldn’t believe his ears… what is this crazy innovation of which you speak? I guess we hadn’t discussed techniques in the 20-years since he got me started…Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Marchmaine says:

          LOL. I have had similar conversations with friends about technique. I will say the big revelation for me this year was also my field dressing procedure. Based on another video, I took a very small bone saw and went all of the way through the sternum. I then cut out the center of the pelvis and pushed down hard on both rear legs to open things up. Made it about 10 times easier to remove the guts and I wasn’t going in blind for the windpipe. It also enabled me to take out the tenderloins in the field and get them wrapped up so I had much less meat loss (they dry out so quick).Report

          • Marchmaine in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            Yep, have used the bone-saw technique on the pelvis and it definitely makes field dressing easier; the only thing better is having your barn at the place you took the deer and hanging it for gutting. Gravity is even better than the saw.

            September is when I go into the woods and do my annual forestry work… clearing the paths, thinning saplings… opening up new clearings… killing as many invasive shrubs as possible (and tree of heaven… oh the horror of tree of heaven)… check the tree stands and generally try to slowly improve the woods for continued growth.

            Nothing impresses one of the vastness of the earth more than doing forestry work. Hours and hours and all you can show for it is… kinda nothing – just woods – but slightly fewer obstructions and competition. Still, its my favorite land project.

            Last year I moved my 2-person quadpod to a new spot high on a hill. It blew over. twice. Right before the second time I thought I should anchor it to the tree; when I went out to do it, the fact that it was on the ground again confirmed two things 1) I was right, and 2) I’m kinda lazy.Report

  7. Slade the Leveller says:

    I’ve never been a hunter, and I’ve fired a gun but once in my life, but I know a beautiful piece of writing when I read one. Thanks for posting this.Report

  8. InMD says:

    Thanks for posting, I enjoyed the read. It reminded me of my grandfather, who still handled the dirty work himself when I was small (eventually he would field dress then go to a butcher).Report

  9. Chip Daniels says:

    Hunting brings people face to face with our widespread attitudes towards animals, and how arbitrary and contradictory they are.

    We categorize animals into wildlife, game, livestock, and pets and assign sets of rules for each.
    Yet these rules are essentially arbitrary and based on nothing more than our whim and convenience.

    Like how rabbits can change from pet to meat on our whim. Or how dogs are either beloved quasi-humans here, but tasty livestock over there.

    I don’t have a proposed framework to offer since I am conflicted as anyone else.Report

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