Lessons from The Hunt

In the fall of 1980, just short of his twelfth birthday, my eldest brother was shot. The bullet, a .243 Savage, brazed his back before blasting through his elbow joint. The gun was misfired by a friend from across the room where it was being shown-off, a tween-age boy bragging about his father’s new hardware.

By what I would call the grace of God, my brother not only survived, but has lived a full and successful life despite the adversity (he would not agree with my use of this word) of a limb that is permanently frozen at a fourty-five degree angle. If anyone has a justifiable reason to fear or hate guns, it is he.

But he doesn’t fear them, nor does he hate them. He respects their utility, and has mastered an enviable level of proficiency with them. This fact, along with his uncanny skills at tracking animals, made him the perfect teacher to prepare me for my first hunt.

Oh, I’ve been along for hunts. My dad has been a part of SnS Outfitter and Guides in one way or another for over thirty years. My brother, yes the same brother who was shot, has been a hunting guide for the business for more than eighteen years. Yet somehow, I’d managed to live my whole life without ever doing any of the hunting myself.

That changed this past season when my dad and brother, who I’d always relied on to provide my family with game meat, informed me that if I wanted an elk in my freezer, I’d need to shoot it myself.

“You need to understand, the gun is zeroed in, it won’t miss the target. If you miss, it’s because you’ve somehow managed to mess-up the gun.” 

This was my brother’s advice as we readied to practice shooting at the range a few weeks before our hunt. We met on two occasions and I practiced the steps involved with using a scope to find and aim at a target, and I learned the intricacies of shooting a powerful hunting rifle. Despite this practice, I had little to no confidence in my ability to actually shoot a living, breathing, moving animal.

My dad, brother and I headed into the mountains on a cold day in October for a three day hunt trip. I’d drawn an “anything” tag in our selected area and had the green light to bring home a cow or bull elk. Toward the end of day two, my brother lined me up with a clear shot.

In the decades I spent as a team-sport athlete, I learned how to be coachable. I can follow directions. I tagged a nice 6×6 with a single shot to the kill-zone from 415 yards. The bull took four or five steps and dropped. I said a prayer of gratitude. If there is anything I wish for all things living, it’s a quick death when the time comes. I certainly hope I will be afforded such luxury.

I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. The hunt trip was a success.

But the trip was successful for reasons far beyond the hunting.

I was fortunate enough to see some of the most beautiful vistas afforded to those willing to ride horseback or hike into the southern base of the Big Horn Mountains. It was cold—four hours of hiding in the rocks waiting for the snow and fog to pass was more than a little chilly. But in those hours I had the opportunity to sit in solitude and thought, something rare in this too busy life. There was a bit more crawling on all-fours than I wouldn’ve liked, but in that time spent stalking, I learned to appreciate the incredible intelligence of the animals we approached and the difficulty of a true mountain hunt. We hiked up and down expansive rocky hills for miles, which I didn’t mind, because despite the nasty statements sometimes made in my head, my body is strong, able and willing to take me to unimaginable places. Most importantly, I was given the gift of time—time with two people whom I love, who have shaped and molded my life for the better, who make this life uniquely mine because they are in it.

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In the end, the hunt taught me many things, but perhaps the most poignant was the lesson my brother had been trying to teach me that day on the shooting range…

Zero in on what’s right before you. If you miss it, it’s no fault but your own.