Matt Dickerson: Wild and abundant

I spent this past weekend in the Texas “Hill Country” as an invited conference speaker. It was at a beautiful facility, one my wife and I have had the privilege of visiting every year for nearly a decade, and thus one I was eager to go. I had accepted the invitation several months earlier, and since it was over a weekend and wouldn’t conflict with work, I didn’t pay close attention to the timing of the trip. However, as the event got closer and I realized the dates were the second weekend of November, I panicked. Vermont’s deer season often opens the second weekend of November. What crazy thing had I done?
Fortunately, my fears were soon relieved. This is one of those years when Thanksgiving falls late, and thus so too does the deer season. I might not have the weekend before opening day to sight in my rifle, or do final preparation of my stand, or last minute scouting. But at least I wouldn’t miss opening day. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Still, off and on over my brief stay in Texas my mind turned to thoughts of hunting and hunting preparation, especially my to-do list I would have to go through in the shortened span of weekdays after my return. In fact, it was difficult not to think of hunting as I was driven into this conference center. The facility sits on a property measured in the thousands of acres in a limestone canyon on the Rio Frio — the “cold river,” as its Spanish name signifies. It is surrounded by even bigger ranches, most of which apparently specialize in hunts for exotic species. Driving past miles of high fences (built both to keep the creatures in and to keep uninvited hunters out), decorated with signs advertising hunts, I caught glimpses of some of these exotics: species of deer or pronghorn or big wild goats that looked as though they belonged in Africa.
Not surprisingly, many of those exotic species escape the ranches where they were stocked, and in cases establish very prolific (that is, invasive), self-sustaining populations. Axis deer once imported from India now range over much of Texas.
As we drove down into the canyon, my host mentioned that over the past few years wild boars have been running rampant around their property and doing large amounts of damage. A rather obvious solution popped into my head. “Can’t you hunt them?” Of course what I really meant was, “Could I hunt them?” Not during the conference, but maybe some other time? I’d heard that wild boar made for fantastic eating.
Unfortunately, hunting them was not a viable solution. Over the weekend I learned two reasons why not. First, the particular species they have in that area tastes terrible. They are known as peccaries, or javelin. Another common name is “skunk pig,” which should tell you something. It’s a not just a different species than the (tasty) European wild boar that now runs wild in many areas in the eastern United States; it’s a different family altogether.
The chef at the lodge — an excellent chef as I have discovered over the years — said the only way to cook them is to marinate them overnight, then put them on a cedar plank and slow roast them in a pit for eights hours. Then you throw away the boar and eat the cedar plank, because it will be more edible than the pork. It was an old punch line, but I fell for it. And I got his point. He said the only ones that are edible are the really young ones.
He also told me the second reason they don’t bother hunting them. There are so many that shooting one or two a week will barely make a dent in their population. They are now using an elaborate baiting system that trains them to come at a certain time of day, and then they can catch 20 or so at a time. (Apparently they then ship them to San Antonio where they are butchered and sold to Europe where for some reason there is a market for them.)
The deer there are apparently similarly abundant. A conference attendee who turned out to be an avid hunter told me that the season bag limit for whitetail in north Texas is five. No permit is needed for antlerless deer and the season lasts a little over two months, so a lot of hunters actually fill their limit (not to mention filling several freezers).
After telling me this, he casually asked about the deer hunting in Vermont and how successful I was. When I told him that the bag limit on deer in Vermont’s rifle season is only one deer, that only antlered deer could be harvested, and that only about one in 10 hunters succeeded annually, he seemed surprised. He wanted to know why.
I mumbled something about the number of hunters and the size of the deer herd. But to be honest, I wasn’t telling him to complain about Vermont. I was just offering an excuse for why I had bagged only two antlered deer in the past 15 years. What I really wanted to tell him was that I don’t need to bag something to enjoy hunting. That is, I enjoy the whole act of hunting, not so much the shooting. I enjoy being in the woods. Sitting quiet. Listening. I enjoy the anticipation. The sunrises and sunsets. The birdsongs. The other creatures that pass by even when no deer are passing by.
Also, I only have one freezer.

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