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The Heart & the Skull: Sometimes a First Deer Hunt Requires a Punched Tag

If your goal is a cooler full of venison and a skull mount, then success matters
Ashley Thess Avatar
first deer hunt
The author with her first deer. Karli Gill

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on first deer hunts. We partnered with the National Deer Association’s Field to Fork program to mentor two of our gear editors last fall. Read Part 1 here.

Failure is ingrained in hunting. If you’ve ever had an unsuccessful day afield, you’ve probably heard the overused quote: “That’s why they call it hunting and not shooting.” While I appreciate the experience of being in nature and getting close to wildlife, fresh meat is the real motivator for me as a new hunter. This makes success important. 

For my first deer hunt, I left behind a blizzard of fresh snow in Salt Lake City to fly to my hometown of St. Louis. Staff writer Laura Lancaster and I were invited by OL senior deputy editor Natalie Krebs to attend the National Deer Association’s mentored, antlerless whitetail hunt. I wasn’t just there to visit family for the holidays and wander the woods for a doe. I wanted to kill a deer, fill a cooler full of venison, and bring home a euro mount.

But first, I had a lot to learn about deer hunting. Having never shot a deer, or hunted big game, I was as eager to learn as I was to harvest. Krebs took Lancaster and I on some practice scouting trips, where we located rubs, scat, prints, and even a scrape and licking branch. We spent time at the range, sighting in our borrowed rifles and firing some practice groups. NDA’s deer school curriculum covered the history, biology, and how to hunt our quarry. We left the course with fresh camo packs full of gear.

By the time we donned our blaze orange, I was giddy. My mentor and NDA deer outreach specialist, Karli Gill, and I climbed into an elevated blind at the edge of a cornfield around 2 p.m. We slowly settled in as a flock of turkeys milled about at the edge of the woods.

The author offers Gill a slice of pizza in the blind.
The author offers Gill a slice of pizza in the blind. Karli Gill

After an hour and a half of hushed conversation and birdwatching, I produced a cold slice of pizza from a folded paper towel in my bag. “Do you want a piece of pizza?” I whispered to Gill. She looked at me like I was insane and let out some amused scoffs. But then she shrugged, momentarily shuttering our blind’s windows, and joined the pizza party.

After we were done eating, quietly cackling, and chatting, we opened the windows again and let in the evening chill. Just before dusk, three does appeared on the outskirts of the field. They wandered along a lane of chopped corn stalks, weaving in between each other with their eyes darting everywhere. Stacked and suspicious, they moved steadily closer toward the creaking window where my rifle barrel rested. Just 20 yards away, one doe turned into the perfect position. I inhaled and applied a hint of pressure with my trigger finger, but then my sight was suddenly filled with three fleeing tufts of white fur.

Busted. 

I couldn’t help but feel like they knew I was there from the start. Shooting light faded fast and I resigned myself to an early start the following morning. Startling game is a part of hunting, and so is waking up before the sun, so I told myself I was simply getting the full experience. 

A Second Chance

Sunrise approached quickly and found us in a new blind on a new field. As the sky’s deep indigo hue faded with the light, distant gunshots rang out from adjacent properties. I started to worry about my chances.

Did I fly home, force my family to celebrate Christmas early, and miss out on two feet of blower pow just to not shoot a deer? I’d like to say I spent the morning silently reflecting on all of the amazing moments I’d already had that weekend, deer or no deer. I had befriended hunters new and old, learned more about deer than I’d ever expected, bonded with previously video-chat confined coworkers, and indulged in hometown delicacies like gooey butter cake, beer over five percent alcohol content, and venison summer sausage.

But, you can’t bite into a quality experience like you can a piece of tender backstrap. So instead of focusing on fond memories, I worried that I might not actually get a deer. I might miss out on a key part of the experience and fail to achieve the hunting I was here for. My desperation grew deeper until I spotted two does peeking out of the trees at 12 o’clock. They were at the far edge of the field at about 50 yards. Gill asked how I felt about the distance. I was content with my accuracy at the gun range days earlier and the slender does deigned to move just a little closer. 

So I clicked off the safety and leaned into the 6.5 PRC Nosler M21 I had borrowed from Krebs. Gill’s voice murmured into my ear, “Put it right behind that shoulder when you get the chance.” 

The doe scraped under a licking branch for a few seconds. I pulled the trigger. The next thing I saw was her four hooves go skyward.

Thess dons "first blood" after field dressing her harvest.
Thess dons "first blood" after field dressing her harvest. Karli Gill

Enthusiastic giggling ensued. While failure is a part of hunting—and harvesting isn’t everything—man, does a perfect shot feel good. Field dressing, first blood, and tagging out on Missouri’s hunting app all felt like a reward. 

Making Meat

After the adrenaline dissipated, we said our goodbyes, and loaded up our harvests, however, I was faced with Bambi, full of blood, hanging upside down in a garage. The smell of dirt and rust started to make me queasy, as I traded my new neon green hunting blade for an electric hand saw. 

Cleaning a wild turkey feels like a mix between dissecting an animal in science class and chopping up a bird from the grocery store. Quartering the deer felt more gruesome. But as the deer transitioned from a bloody carcass into cuts of meat, the more comfortable I became. Eventually, I was sitting in the Krebs family kitchen listening to music, drinking beer, and labeling packaged cuts, feeling like a normal person again.

Fenrir the cat assists Thess in labeling cuts of meat for the freezer.
Fenrir the cat assists Thess in labeling cuts of meat for the freezer. Natalie Krebs

The butchering slumber party lasted well into the night as four of us worked to get a freeze on Lancaster’s deer before her early flight back to the West Coast. While I was hesitant to get my hands dirty again, I was set on a euro mount of my first deer (no, I don’t care that it’s a doe).

So, the following day, I started carving into the head. After all the gross parts were gone, I wrapped it in plastic and brought it to my grandmother’s Christmas dinner. While she didn’t care to see it, the rest of my family couldn’t have been prouder and my uncle took it home to send to his “beetle guy.” 

READ NEXT: The Heart & the Skull: A First Deer Hunt Brings You Closer to the Wild

I got a little taste of failure on this hunt, but not too much of it. I swelled with pride as I set my cooler of venison on the American Airlines’ scale with a satisfying clunk. Thanks to incredible mentors, my hunting journey leapt forward with indispensable knowledge and experience gleaned from a weekend dedicated to deer hunting. The support I had from start to finish on this hunt from new friends, family, and perfect strangers was unbelievable. And while the meat is delicious and my tag photo got a lot of likes, I know that when I see that antlerless skull sitting on my mantle, I’ll think of the amazing people who made it possible.