Can You Keep COVID-Vulnerable Hunters Safe and Have a Real Deer Camp?

Delivering deer season’s tradition of fellowship, feasting, and fraternity…from behind an M95 face mask

Editor’s Note: This has been a tough year for everyone. And while we’ve collectively experienced many of the same events, the changes, challenges, and often outright hardships everyone has endured remain deeply personal. We asked six contributors to look back on 2020 and reflect on how the events of this year shaped their lives, in ways both big and small. We will be publishing one essay each day through the end of the year, on topics ranging from subtle differences at deer camp to the enormous task of parenting during a pandemic. You can find all the stories, as they’re published, right here.

For each of the past dozen years, I’ve given a single gift that requires more of the recipient than of me. It’s the gift of a deer hunt on my own land in eastern Montana.

As a landowner, the state allows me to “sponsor” one non-resident a year to hunt deer on my property. There’s no break on the price; the hunter has to pay full non-resident license costs. But the tag is guaranteed; no applying through the uncertain draw. The recipient can hunt mule deer or whitetails, a buck or a doe, their choice. The catch is that the hunter must stay on my own property; no matter how big the buck—or doe—on the public land just on the other side of my fence.

My sponsored hunter has to get here on their own, and no payment is allowed for the access I provide. But because I consider the invitation as only an initial gesture of friendship, I open my home to these sponsored hunters, and over the years, the opportunity to hunt and live together temporarily has formed fast friendships that have lasted far longer than the hunt. It’s not only the most comfortable deer camp in the world, with running water and real beds, but the opportunity to drink and eat together, and relive the day in the place where it happened gives an extra dimension to the hunt.

Over the years, I’ve hosted ammunition manufacturers, fellow outdoor writers and editors, and childhood neighbors with whom I’ve rekindled friendships after 40 years. This year I invited Howie Steinbeck, the owner of a vineyard in Paso Robles, California, whose land I hunted a few years ago for blacktailed deer. Howie, his grandson Ryan Newkirk, and I got along famously in the course of a week in the vineyards, and when Ryan later asked me if I knew a spot where he could take his grandfather for mule deer, the answer was obvious: my place.

Howie applied for the landowner-sponsored tag back in March, about the time coronavirus hit, and I spent half a year nursing a worry. Howie is 83, and while he’s in great shape, I wondered how we’d navigate all the restrictions around the pandemic, whether he’d be allowed to travel, and how I’d manage to pull off a safe, successful, and enjoyable hunt without killing the oldest deer hunter I’ve had on my place.

Three Western deer hunters in three types of camo snap a selfie in front of the snowy Montana prairie.
The author (left) leans in for a quick, normal selfie with Howie Steinbeck (center) and his grandson Ryan. Andrew McKean

Ryan, who drew an unrestricted non-resident tag, and I talked frequently in the weeks ahead of their planned arrival. I advised that they stay in a local hotel for the first day or two, better to manage their health and surroundings, but the suggestion felt like a betrayal to my code of hospitality. My guilt was mitigated with the recognition that I was also trying to protect my family, who didn’t have my prior relationship with the Steinbecks.

When Howie arrived, I found myself keeping distant, also against my nature. I sent Howie and Ryan into the field with crude directions scrawled on the back of an envelope about which pastures to hunt and where to find the gates. This was also foreign to me; normally I’d be at Howie’s shoulder, sharing with a fellow farmer the lay of the land and describing how animals—both wild and domestic—find food and shelter in the dry coulees and brushy draws of my place.

The only vestige of normalcy were our dinners, hearty affairs planned around wild meat and the California wines that Howie and Ryan brought with them. For a magical hour every evening Howie and Ryan were with us, we laughed, lied, shared food and drink, and recalled the real reason for the season: the remarkable animals that bring us together, bridging time, distance, and generations. This was our annual deer camp as I both imagined and engineered it.

But every delicious dinner must end, and my heart broke a little to watch Howie Steinbeck, a lifelong hunter with a passion for Western deer and the places they live, slide his mask over his nose and turn for home days earlier than scheduled, with no wide-racked Montana mule deer in his pickup. Winter weather made it hard for him to get around, but all the COVID-19 restrictions—formal and informal—also took the starch out of his week.

“Thanks for everything,” Howie offered, as Ryan took the wheel. Howie looked past me to the deer-rich coulees beyond my house. “Maybe next year.”