Deer hunting serves as a reminder to step back, stop thinking so much and just react to what’s happening around us. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Brod

Sleet pinged against my ladder stand, accumulated in the grooves of my rifle and atop my scope’s power ring while covering the tops of my boots and the forest floor with a veil of white.

A few days after Thanksgiving and I doubted my chances of filling my tag.

With everything in the grocery store so expensive, a freezer full of venison would go a long way, but maybe prices would drop, or maybe I could bum meat from my friends who’d had more luck in the woods.

I was thinking about the long winter approaching, and the weight I’d gained over the holidays (stuffing, apple pie, mashed potatoes with too much butter), and how I might have to crank up the intensity at the gym — and maybe feeling a bit bad for myself — when just before dusk I heard the deer coming in.

It’s always startled me how close deer get without making a sound, and this one was no exception. I had barely enough time to lift my rifle before the buck emerged from beneath cedar boughs, head down, 40 yards away and getting closer, walking steadily along the scrape line I’d hunted since the start of the season.

The buck’s rack was tall and heavy. I lowered my .308’s scope toward its front shoulder. The buck pawed at the sleet, 30 yards now, then leaned forward and peed like a male dog might, rear-end lowered to the ground. So close that I heard the stream against the frozen ground. I took a few slow breaths to regulate my heart rate.

I thumbed the safety and dropped the crosshairs toward its shoulder. The buck kept walking, nearly beneath my stand. I followed it with my scope, couldn’t quite believe the miracle of its appearance, which was sudden and startling, and when it stopped, I fingered the trigger. When I leaned forward to get the right angle, my left boot crunched sleet. The buck leapt at the sound and bounded off away from me.

In retrospect, it’s easy to identify our flaws as hunters: misplaying the wind, for example, overthinking our stand location, or moving too quickly — the list goes on. The deer always have the advantage after all, what with their highly developed senses, survival instincts and hyper-awareness of their surroundings.

My stomach dropped. How quickly things could shift — from prime opportunity to busted in a matter of seconds.

As the buck leapt off, nearly out of sight, I let out a Hail Mary “mmmehhh” as loud as I could. No forethought, just reaction. Miraculously, the buck froze, took one step right, broadside, in a thick stand of trees, at around 75 yards. Then it took another step, turning to the call and facing me head-on.

All I saw through my scope and the crack in the trees was antlers, white apron, and chest. I lowered the crosshairs and fired.

Through my scope the buck dropped like a bag of concrete mix. No movement. I watched its tines extending like stalagmites until it was too dark to see.

I texted my friends, then my Dad, the landowner. He’d tagged out in early November and had encouraged me to sit in this stand on his property.

“Dropped him!” I texted.

“Stay put. Will come to you,” Dad wrote back.

Dad came out, along with our friend Shawn, and I field-dressed the large six-pointer, and Shawn helped me drag it over the sleet and hoist it into my truck. It weighed just under 180 pounds, rutted out after chasing does for several weeks. I was grateful for the animal and excited to fill my freezer.

In one of his short stories, the late David Foster Wallace wrote, “Fear is caused mostly by thinking.” Alone in the stand, day after day, it was easy for me to overthink, to build narratives in my head that did little but distract me from the immediate moment. When I goofed and crunched my boot against my stand, I reacted — I tried something, responded to my error not with frustration, but with action. No thinking. Instinctive, if not a bit desperate. Which is a good lesson, I guess.

Foster Wallace, who was absolutely not a hunter, and who probably never watched a deer approach him near dusk, also said, rather famously: “It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”

To me, that’s hunting’s greatest offering: a chance to tune in and turn off the inner monologue, which, at least for me, is never easy. Hunting, then, is my opportunity to make something special happen — a chance to stop thinking so much and be pulled from the stories in my head. Huntings is a chance to react with instincts I sometimes forget I possess.

In the final days of November, it felt good to fill my tag. I kept the buck’s tail and tied flies for spring. I shared venison with friends and family, and later placed the buck’s skull and antlers on my wall, a constant reminder to be still and pay attention.

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Ryan Brod, Outdoors contributor

Ryan Brod is a Registered Maine Guide, fly-tyer and educator at University of New England. His writing has appeared in “River Teeth,” “The Maine Review,” and “Gray’s Sporting Journal,” among...