JEFF ELL: Fare Thee Well Beautiful Deer Filled Mountains

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Jeff Ell

I didn’t kill a single deer this year.

The last time that happened was 2002, the year we moved to Roanoke. And so now as we are about to move again, two deerless seasons will serve as matching bookends for my 15-season hunting odyssey in the Appalachians.

Much of my hunting gear was packed away in a storage unit in Richmond back in August.  And so as I’ve gathered up what remains of it, I’ve had a few moments to reflect on my experiences here. I’d like to think that perhaps there is a hunter reading this who has just moved to the Roanoke Valley, and that this little primer will serve you well as you begin to hunt your new zip code.

So here are a few thoughts to get you started.

The first thing you should know is that hunting here is really good. I don’t know exactly how many deer I’ve killed since my first one in 2003, but I’ve punched my tag enough to make venison a year round part of our diet. Most of my deer have come from private, postage stamp sized properties. Getting permission to hunt these kind of properties should absolutely be part of your off season preparation; this is also a great way to get know your neighbors and co-workers.

The deer herd in this part of the world is healthy, and so even an intermediately skilled hunter like myself finds it pretty easy to put meat on the table. Compared to upstate New York, where I cut my teeth hunting the black alder labyrinths of the Tug Hill plateau (a place so difficult to hunt that just seeing a deer was a big deal), hunting here seems like child’s play sometimes.

Not only are deer abundant, but there are also some giant bucks. I’ve had several encounters with trophy deer during my time here, and I’ve failed to take any of them. Ask me about these deer and I’ll tell you stories that are probably better left for the campfire circle and not the public page. But over the past decade I’ve settled into a hunting identity that accurately reflects my skill and motivation, and I’m ok with other guys harvesting those big racks.

Another thing you need to know (this would seem like a no-brainer) is that you’ll want to hunt uphill from your truck. The Appalachians are steep, and it will only take one experience of man-hauling a deer back up to the truck to realize that gravity has the ability to turn the killing of a small doe into an experience so traumatic that it might require years of professional counseling to get over it.

Notwithstanding the hike uphill caveat, hunting the mountains is totally worth it. I’ve taken less than a dozen deer up high, but all have been adventures in themselves. The sight of deer moving though the mountains is something to behold. Mountain deer are so much wiser than their silly suburban and city cousins I’ve filled my freezer with.

Up there the game has the home field advantage, and it’s good for our souls to spend time in places big enough to shrink our egos. It’s a privilege to hunt at an elevation where we can catch a view of the Blue Ridge stretching out to the horizon, and imagine back to a time when our forefathers first gazed upon these slate colored ridges.

I don’t think I’m done hunting these mountains; I’ve got a good buddy here who will want me to come back whenever I can to hunt with him.  But they won’t be out my back door anymore, and honestly, that makes me tear up just a little.

And even though my freezer is empty, my heart is full.

I’ve had snow pile up on my shoulders when a squall blew in over the mountains. I’ve wiped blood onto the cheeks of a new hunter with his first deer. I’ve seen coyotes glide past the stone chimneys of long abandoned homesteads.

These mountain have been a gift to me. Too big and too ragged to be boxed or wrapped, but a sacred gift nonetheless. Farewell for now, my ancient friends.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at sustainablechristianity.blogspot.com and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.