Opening day broke cold and clear. On the first Saturday in October, I rose in the predawn darkness and pulled on two shirts, a thick hoodie, a down vest, a fleece jacket, a Gore-Tex shell, and a bright orange vest. With all of that padding, I felt I could stop a bullet myself. But I needed it. Outside, it was 31°F, a light dusting of frost on the ground. In the rolling hills above the Snake River, hundreds of hunters fueled up on coffee.
Plan your hunt, hunt your plan. Those were Jim Walkowski’s words. Our plan was to hunt three types of terrain over three days: wheat fields, river bluffs, and mountain forest.
Unfortunately, Gator was delayed. “Duty calls,” he told us from his office at Mt. Rainier. “We’re opening a new visitor center, and the Interior Secretary is here.” Gator would arrive late on the first night.
As a streak of blue snaked into the black sky, Jennifer and I set out across an open field. We were hunting her family’s 700-acre farm about a mile from the Snake River, prime deer habitat. “The mule deer and whitetail come into the fields to feed on grain left over after the harvest,” she told me.
The family farm was also a practical choice, as we wouldn’t have to worry about access or opening-day crowds. For backpackers, route planning is as easy as opening a Trails Illustrated map. For hunters, though, land access is a challenge. Not all public land is open to hunting. Rules change even within states. Shooting a whitetail deer might be legal on one side of a dirt road and illegal on the other.
As it became light, Jennifer began pointing out signs of wildlife. A badger hole, a coyote print. “Deer track,” she said, pointing out a print I’d nearly stepped on. “It’s a buck.”
“How can you tell?”
“Bucks have dewclaws that leave a little mark in the ground; does’ dewclaws don’t make prints.”
We kept walking, careful to keep our profiles below the ridgeline. Jennifer kept her body still. Her eyes constantly scanned the horizon. She learned how to spot wildlife when she was a kid, going hunting with her dad.
At the top of a rise, we stopped to glass the distant fields.
“There’s one,” Jennifer said. “A whitetail.”
It took me a while to find the deer. It was a tiny speck on the landscape, at least a mile distant.
We crossed a barbed-wire fence and hopped a stream. As a hiker, I would have overlooked this as dross land, the junk you’d cross to reach the trailhead. As a hunter, it came alive with excitement and potential. My eyes became attuned to the terrain. Pockets of brush—chokecherries and rosehips, mostly—turned into deer refuges. Cresting a hill became a test of stealth and readiness. Ever so slowly, I began to think like a deer. What’s good cover? Where’s the food?
As we came over another rise, Jennifer and I froze. Four whitetail deer grazed in a pocket of brush below us. In an instant, they spotted us and bolted. They were over the hill before I could even swing the rifle off of my back.
My hopes crashed. I knew the deer would move. I just didn’t know they’d move so fast.