By Josh Mills
I spend a great deal of time outdoors in places where I know I’ll find success. Having a steelhead crush a fly I tied the day before is, to quote a great fisherman, “like mainlining drugs.” Watching my hunting dog decode tall grass in search of pheasants makes my heart flutter. A tom turkey exploding with gobbles easily gets me out of bed at 3 a.m. When the geese lock up and are on a string, I’m eager to hear the magic word: take’em. That’s the enchantment of the outdoors.
Growing up, many deer, bear, and elk were inspected, studied, and admired when they arrived home in the back of my dad’s truck. There were mule deer from the high country, elk from the rugged Blue Mountains, and big-bodied whitetails from everywhere in between. I yearned to walk in his footsteps and counted down the days until I passed hunter education. Then, it’d be my turn to carry the rifle.
My first few years of hunting went off without a hitch. A nice mule deer buck, taken in my second year, brought me into the brother and sisterhood that is the hunting community. From now on, I would always carry blood on my hands. This was the beginning of a long, fruitful, big game-filled life.
Or so I thought.
While my confidence and skill with wing shooting, fly fishing, and other outdoor pursuits soared, the big game monkey stayed on my back. My father had trained me well, I knew the right way to hunt, and I was a competent shot on the range. In theory, I had checked off all the boxes. Yet, I’ve been served tag soup many times.
One of the tastiest meals happened while hunting with my father. When I left him to check another draw, it held no deer that opening morning. Methodically, I hiked my way to another glassing spot, pulled out my binoculars, and prepared to have a long, pronounced glassing session. Not 10 minutes later, a rifle report hit the air.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I murmured to myself. I walked back to him, hearing the story of what happened. No less than five minutes after I had left him, a nice 3x4 came into his view.
In the interestingly weird comedy and sci-fi film Escanaba in Da Moonlight, actor Jeff Daniels plays a character surrounded by a family of big buck killers. His father, brothers, and uncles have the killer instinct, while Daniels plays a man whose character defect centers around his inability to harvest his own. Sitting in my living room in my mid 20s, watching this film with my deer-magician father, it felt like a biopic of my life. The movie was so strangely true to my life experiences, minus the weird alien ending.
There’s been a litany of times where I’ve overanalyzed a situation to death. I’m not taking a skyline shot, nor a running shot, and I’m definitely not shooting over 350 yards. That’s just not in my wheelhouse.
I’ve also had those experiences where others question if it actually happened. They’re the kind of failures that could only be true; otherwise, it’d seem like conjured bullshit. Once, I had a massive 4x4 mule deer in my sights, the safety was off, and I was ready to get western. In the midst of controlling my breathing and applying pressure to the trigger, a trespassing hunter crested the ridge coming into line with my shot. He caused the deer to stott away like it was his job. I’ve had the wind change on me during the most inopportune times over and over again, resulting in a few classic whiffs, too.
If I take a hard look at my failures, most have been self-inflicted. But sometimes we confuse failures with challenges. Bouts with anxiety put me out of the deer woods for a good number of years while I came to terms with my issues of being separated from hunting partners and family in the dark timber. The what-ifs almost made me quit big game hunting. This is something I’ve laboriously reflected upon; today, I’m convinced I’m not the only one who has been to these mentally dark places when it comes to hunting.
Failure is a concept that’s tough for all of us to rationalize in the age of social media when it appears that everyone succeeded in securing meat for the freezer. Every swipe across the ‘gram and your failure seems to be yours alone. It’s been 25 years since I harvested a big game animal.
To me, admitting that publicly is one boulder-sized pill swallow. I’ve framed my life in the context of having proficiency in the outdoors; so many of us project nothing but positivity, 6-point bulls, and 30-inch bucks.
Part of hunting culture is wrapped up in horns and ego. I'd be lying to say that I haven't been filled with horn lust myself, sitting in the channeled scablands of Eastern Washington, waiting for a buck to materialize in the sage. It’s a hard fact to face when so many friends fill their tag and you’re left eating tag soup.
But I’ve had many amazing times in the field, too, regardless of my tag’s status. Deer hunting can be a team sport, especially when your dad crests the 80-years-old mark. I've reveled in the success of my father as if his deer were my own.
I've spent decades following our labs through the ditches and fields after pheasants. I feel the rush when the dogs hit the scent wall, instantly change their whole demeanor, and lock into their quarry. This year's opening pheasant weekend was a culmination of training for my year and a half old lab, Annie. She worked hard, put up birds, and proudly brought them back to me after they hit the dirt. I was in disbelief when she found a wounded pheasant and, after a five-minute chase scene that was both inspirational and comedic, brought the bird to hand.
Turkey hunting in the spring elicits many great memories and hope for future hunts for me, too. The call and response interplay is addictive. Having a bird light you up from less than ten feet away raises the hackles on my neck like nothing else. When it all comes together, like it did last spring when two boss toms came into my calls from opposite sides of a property, only to duel in front of me before I dropped the hammer. Nothing could be more magical.
The frustrations I feel towards big game hunting are largely unwarranted. I can feel a shift in the wind and my attitude coming into harmony with it. Maybe then my luck will change. My guess is that’s what a lot of us need; less end-game emphasis, more in-game experience. So, to all those that hold unpunched tags, I see you. Let’s take the time to collectively smile back at our misfortune, stare it in the face, and return it with hysterical laughter. The drive we feel to be outside, to interact with nature and explore the wildlands, should be at the center of why we keep trying.
Good luck to you all out there, successful or not. Enjoy the gift that is time outside with people you love and in pursuit of what drives you.