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Kenyon: A Deer Hunting Record Not To Be Proud Of

Although the sun doesn’t officially set on Vermont’s 2012 rifle season until late this afternoon, I can predict with a fair amount of confidence that I won’t be among the 6,000 or so hunters who have shot a buck during the last 16 days.

With a full day of hunting to go, I’m not being pessimistic. Just realistic.

I tagged my last buck (and, by the way, my only deer) 39 years ago.

While I was sitting on a stonewall, overlooking a bank of hardwoods, a 110-pound spike made the mistake of wandering in my vicinity one morning in November 1973, when ordinarily I would have been in Mr. Murphy’s Earth Science class. (Who says skipping school doesn’t pay?)

I hope my deerless streak is not a state record for hunting futility, but if it is, I’d argue that it comes with an asterisk. During my late 20s and early 30s (the prime of a hunter’s career) I took a 10-year hiatus from the sport while working in Florida.

Deer hunting is popular in Florida, but I took a pass after learning that tromping through the Sunshine State’s deep woods and swamps also required fending off rattlesnakes and water moccasins.

Since returning to Vermont 15 years ago, I’ve had ample time to compile a lengthy list of excuses for my lack of hunting success.

Prior to the 2009 season, my portable tree stand was stolen from our camp in West Fairlee. I figured animal rights-activists were worried that I was getting close to making a kill. The season before, while perched in my tree stand, I had to set down my cup of hot chocolate long enough to flick off the safety on my rifle.

It turned out to be a false alarm. The racket coming out of the brush was the work of a cow moose.

Which brings me to my next excuse. In recent years, my preferred deer hunting territory has been converted into a moose lodge. My theory: When moose move in, deer move out.

It’s purely food economics. There aren’t enough plants and nuts to go around. How can deer compete with the appetite of an 800-pound moose? I mentioned my excuse (whoops, I mean theory) to John Hall, a spokesman for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “We hear this from some hunters,” he said.

That’s vindication enough for me. Except, in 2010, on the same ridge where I have bemoaned the loss of deer habitat, my uncle bagged a 208-pound eight-pointer.

So maybe I’m just unlucky. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In late November, buck can get distracted by their pursuit of the opposite sex. Their judgment suffers, and they literally walk into the line of fire. (Judging from recent news stories, some Army generals apparently suffer from the same distraction.)

Or it could be that I’m just a lousy deer hunter. I don’t imagine that large bucks are particularly drawn by the sound of crinkling aluminum-foiled candy bar wrappers or the smell of steaming hot chocolate. I suspect that Larry Benoit, the king of Vermont deer slayers, would advise hunters to keep their eyes open at all times, which I’ve found a bit challenging when settled against a comfortable tree trunk.

Apparently, I have company. Of the estimated 60,000 deer hunters who make at least one trip into Vermont’s woods annually, more than 90 percent return home empty-handed. In the 2011 rifle season, hunters killed 5,759 buck. (Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s website prefers to call it “harvested,” so maybe that’s my trouble. Instead of a .308, I should be hunting with a corn combine.)

Still, I’ve rarely been so gung ho about deer hunting than this season. After missing Opening Day to watch my son’s college football game (more proof that I’m not a dedicated hunter), I stumbled upon a promising new spot.

The top of the hardwood ridge was logged a few years ago. Meandering through the oak and maple saplings that had sprouted, I counted a half-dozen buck rubs. Making my way down an old logging road, I glimpsed two deer browsing in a clearing. My rifle’s scope confirmed my suspicion: Two doe.

No longer feeling the need to continue my pursuit of the elusive white-tailed buck, I left the woods of West Fairlee early that afternoon.

After driving through Union Village with 10 minutes of daylight to spare, I saw a jacketless young man standing on the edge of a field, 25 yards off the paved road. His rifle was pulled against his shoulder, pointed into the field.

I slowed to a stop. The crackling of a gunshot broke the late afternoon silence. A second shot followed.

I glanced into the field. A large buck zigged and zagged before bounding safely into the tree line.

The man lowered his weapon.

From what I could tell, he had done nothing against the law. The land was not posted. It was still daylight. He was more than the required distance from the road before firing.

I wanted to believe he was just desperate to put much-needed meat on his family’s table. But standing on the edge of a field, across from a house on a busy road, didn’t really seem like hunting.

Then again, judging from the last 39 years, I may not be the guy to ask.