Nary A Shot Was Fired

A thoroughly delightful, completely fruitless upland hunting trip

by J.A.K. Churchill

There’s nothing like a truly consistent pastime to come back to, year after year, to keep you centered and grounded. For me, nothing beats hunting. It’s consistently something I’m reluctant to wake up early for, consistently something I enjoy thoroughly once I’m out in the field, and consistently something I’m pretty bad at.

That last point is something I’d like to take a moment to clarify. See, I don’t lack for knowledge about animals, aptitude with a shotgun or a rifle, or patience. I don’t suffer from a tendency to pull the trigger on shots in which I’m not fully confident. What separates me from the really good hunters is an unwillingness to do anything while hunting that reminds me of work. I prefer to keep my hunting leisurely and inexpensive, and therefore I am absolutely not interested in covering myself in deer urine and crawling through thickets and hornet’s nests or any other such inanity. 

So, with these parameters well established, I took to the field with my good friend Kent the day after Thanksgiving for some perfectly casual hunting. He showed up at an hour verging upon unmentionable, which given the previous night’s post-dinner campfire and cognac was a particularly difficult hour to meet with much enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I very groggily got out of bed, pulled on some muck boots, put on my camo jacket, made coffee for two, and went downstairs to retrieve my shotgun from the basement. Without hesitation, I pulled my Stoeger Uplander out of the safe. A twelve-gauge side-by-side with two triggers, it’s been my go-to general use shotgun since I got it as a Christmas gift in tenth grade. There’s not a game animal in Virginia for which this gun isn’t at least basically well suited. 

I poured the coffee, gathered my things, and met Kent in my driveway. He was in his white Jeep Cherokee from the nineties, idling clunkily. I handed him the coffee, which he appreciated, and we were on our way to the Amelia County Wildlife Management Area, about an hour out of Richmond. Our trip was impeded only by a quick Walmart stop made on my account for a blaze orange hat, having misplaced mine. Incidentally, that morning marked the first time either of us had ever stepped foot in a Walmart on Black Friday (“not as bad as I’d expected,” remarked Kent, “but not good.”)

The rest of the drive was smooth sailing. Kent let me know he’d thought to bring snacks (“My parents had exactly enough for me to bring two clementines and three Fig Newtons each, hope that’ll tide you over”), and we perked up on account of coffee and conversation into a state resembling full alertness. It was supposed to have started raining at around two in the morning, but the rain held off until around a mile before we reached the start of the service road to the management area. Over two thousand acres of mostly upland woods, the Amelia WMA is like Disneyland for the outdoor inclined. A mixture of actively managed dove fields, thick hedges, hardwoods, and beaver swamps with a hundred acre lake on one side and the Appomattox River on the other, and all completely free for anybody possessing a Virginia hunting or fishing license. There are rifle and shotgun ranges, to boot, and they’re more or less the only thing that ever really gets very busy there. It’s a sportsman’s dream, or as close as you can get without a plane ride somewhere really exotic. 

Your Correspondant’s Stoeger Uplander, and Kent’s Remington 870 Wingmaster. Note Kent’s plastic green stock, better suited for saltwater and visually arresting in the uplands.

We got out of the Jeep at the start of a path and got ourselves ready. Kent’s shotgun, an old Remington 870 Wingmaster with the stock painted green, looked handsome leaned up against the side of the Jeep, but I’ve got to admit a strong if anachronistic preference for my old double barrel. We each grabbed shells to carry, mine in my pocket and Kent’s in a slick little bandoleer sock that fitted over his stock, and donned our blaze orange. Kent’s was a Purina dog food hat he’d borrowed and forgotten to return to an old gentleman who raised hunting dogs. 

“Funny, Purina doesn’t really seem like an obvious hunting brand to me,” I said, putting on a newly purchased RealTree beanie that made my head in general look like an egg and my face in particular look like I’d gained sixty pounds. 

“No, but it keeps the dogs fed, which in turn keeps people hunting. Talk about inside baseball.” 

He made a fair point, and with that we were off. We started down the path towards a dove field, the mist fast becoming a drizzle. We kept our eyes on the edge of the path, looking for rabbits or squirrels. I had one barrel loaded with a number-six-shot upland game load, and another loaded with buckshot on the off chance we saw a deer. This is the sort of non-committal, open-options hunting I tend to go for. Sticking to the edge of the field, we walked a loop, seeing nothing save a couple of vultures in the distance and some sparrows high in the trees above. Yellow stalks of thick grass crunched underfoot, but generally the dampness kept our footsteps quiet, and they stayed that way as we veered from the field into the leaf litter of the woods. 

The forests were lovely upland hardwood with a fairly clear floor, with little in the way of brush or saplings to get caught on as we walked. On past trips, I’ve scared up grouse in these woods, and I hoped we’d do the same today. At the same time, I kept my ear out for squirrel calls. We ultimately did hear some, and spent about twenty minutes trying to figure out what tree they were in exactly. In a tall hardwood forest like that with a fairly dense canopy, that’s always something of a fool’s errand, and as precedent might have predicted we ultimately did not lay eyes on anything resembling a squirrel. The loudest thing in the woods is also among the smallest and most evasive. Such is life.

Through whispers we decided to beat a path downhill, toward the lake, where hopefully wildlife might tend to congregate. We crossed a large fallen tree, descended a ravine, and kept walking. The nearer we drew to the water, the thicker the saplings and vines grew, slowing our pace. After a few minutes spent trudging forward, Kent pointed excitedly ahead.

“Deer!” he hiss-whispered. 

I strained my eyes and saw it through the brush, a six point buck trotting ahead, perhaps forty yards ahead of us. Just as I registered the deer in my field of vision, it stopped. Kent, five yards to my right, didn’t have a good shot, a thick red oak obstructing all but the rump. I, on the other hand, had a great view at the buck’s chest and shoulder, a classic quartering shot. Well, I should say, a classic quartering shot with forty yards of brambles and brush between the deer and the muzzle of my shotgun. I raised my gun and stood there for a brief, tense moment, knowing I ought not take the shot and therefore wouldn’t, but knowing at the same time that I could. 

The buck ran off a moment after, apparently not liking the tension one bit more than I did. Immediately, I was glad not to have taken the shot, and as I walked forward to where the deer had stood moments earlier this feeling was reenforced. That brush was thick, and I don’t know how much of the buckshot would have made it to the deer and how quickly it would have been traveling after passing through all that. Still, I thought, with a thirty-thirty rifle to punch through the saplings and vines, that encounter might have gone entirely differently. 

“Kent, check and see if grouse are in season”

A residual electricity flowed through my veins as we carried on through the brush to the lake. The vegetation grew thicker still as we approached the water, but eventually we broke through. When we finally did, a vast, motionless expanse stretched out beyond us, hemmed in at the far end by an overgrown lake shore. Wearing rubber and neoprene Muck boots, I took a few steps out into the water. The color of the lake was almost identical to that of the sky and the grey mist that still hung in the air, but where the mist and the cloudy sky were soft in their hues, the water was glassy and hard in contrast. We stood for a few minutes at the water’s edge, talking about the potential for duck hunting on that body of water, a trip that on a couple of occasions has almost happened, only to be derailed at the last minute by circumstance. 

Eventually, we made our way back upland, retracing our steps and taking less care to avoid twigs and keep our voices down. It was getting late in the morning, and we were damp and hungry. We’d already at least seen a deer, which was more than we’d been guaranteed, and spent the next couple hours discussing and periodically rehashing the sighting. I’ve been hunting since I was in elementary school, and still something like that has the power to captivate and drive considerable conversation. If anybody asks for proof that there’s a magic to it all, I’m happy to submit that observation.

We made our way back to the Jeep, talking politics, personal lives, and making general comment on the list, growing with age, of things people do that don’t make any sense. This is half of what hunting is for, an opportunity to check in with a friend and see if they’re finding any grey hairs yet, what they think of the president, and whether or not they’ve seen a good movie recently. The banal machinations of life that need addressing every now and again.

Once back at the Jeep, we took off soggy outer layers, unloaded our shotguns, and ate our remaining Fig Newtons with lukewarm coffee. Checking the time, I was half surprised to realize we’d been out for three and a half hours. It had all felt like thirty or forty minutes. We made our way to a diner in the town of Amelia Courthouse, where we continued to analyze our brief, fruitless encounter with the deer over more black coffee and heaping plates of eggs, country ham, and biscuits and gravy. 

“I know I shouldn’t have taken the shot,” I kept saying, “but I can’t stop thinking on some level I should have.” 

“There’s no way that would have been responsible,” Kent said as I nodded agreement across the table, “but I do get it. I kept wondering if I had seen it sooner might I have had a shot before it went behind that tree. It would have been a running shot but there wasn’t all that brush between me and it like there was for you.” We were empty handed, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one giving some lingering thought to the deer. 

One more cup of coffee and a half hour later, we paid and left the diner, though not before being randomly included in a promotional video of some sort and then asked if we consented to the usage of our likenesses on the internet. We said it was fine to include us, but asked if that might scare other more discerning diners off. She joked back that nobody in Amelia was all that discerning anyway, which is of course not true, but good for a laugh. On the way out, Kent and I noted how bizarre it was that even small diners out in the countryside are making video content for social media, but shrugged it off as a sign of the times. The food was still greasy and wonderful, the service was still slow, and the lady behind the counter was still funny as ever. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

The same can be said of hunting. In a world that changes constantly, hunting stays more or less the same. There will always be hardcore homegrown green-beret types, people who pride themselves on suffering in the elements, spending big bucks on equipment, and making the pursuit of wild game a central totem of their lives to the detriment of friendships and marriages. I am happy to say that I am not among that camp. I have seasons where I don’t get out but once or twice, and I have seasons where I take my limit. Certainly I won’t ever be recognized for my achievements by the Boone and Crocket club, but I’ll always have hunting in my repertoire of activities as I try to stave off ennui, stasis, and the creeping sterility that defines modern life. Less and less of day-to-day life is messy or uncertain, two things which hunting will always be. Amid steadily increasing isolation from both nature and one’s fellow man, hunting drops you and whomever you manage to drag out with you into an environment free from distraction and rich in opportunities to discuss whatever it is that’s on your mind. Phones tend to stay in pockets, unless you need to check if something’s in season (worth doing before the opportunity to pull a trigger arises). It’s worth doing by basically any conceivable metric, and if you eat meat you can leave any moralizing with the garbage at the curb. Indeed, it’s hard to think of something so eminently rewarding, with or without success in the field, that costs so little and is in many places so easy to do. 

Kent dropped me off at my house a full six hours after we departed. At this point my circadian rhythm was starting to remind me that I’d slept poorly and briefly the night before, and I think the condition was mutual. We stood for a minute in the driveway and talked, leaning on the hood of the Jeep, about out next trip. 

“I wonder,” said Kent, “if there might be ducks on that pond when the season comes in.”

“You know, my Mom keeps a canoe down by the water at her’s. We could pick that up, get out on the water with some decoys, and move the boat into the overgrowth at the edge of the water. Would a North- South orientation be best, or should we rather...”

We spent a few minutes sketching out the theoretical specifics of a duck trip before each of us yawned in quick succession, fatigue and other plans bringing a natural end to our outing. It’s never pleasant to wind these things up, but it’s always easier if you’ve got your next trip in motion before the last one ends. With a handshake, I went inside, put my shotgun away, and thought immediately of grey skies, mallard ducks, and the cavernous echo of gunshots over open water. 

Amelia Lake- 100 acres of sporting potential. I don’t know when, but we’ll be back.