Thanksgiving season is here, that magical time of year when the leaves are falling, the air is crisp and clear, warm pumpkin pies cool on windowsills and dudes go into the woods to kill stuff.
When I was a teenager in Virginia in the 1970s, that meant waking up early on Saturday, throwing on a heavy coat and a blaze-orange vest, and walking out the back door with a .410 shotgun to go lean against a stump for a few hours. Maybe you'd eat a Snickers bar, think about why that pretty girl ignores you in high school, and stare at a few squirrels without blinking for as long as you could until your eyes watered and they morphed into little furry tree monsters. If you got too bored or cold and didn't see any deer, you'd switch the shells in your gun from slugs to shot and blast those squirrels and eat them for dinner, which also had the side benefit of allowing you to get home in time to watch Wahoo McDaniel and Ric Flair on "Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling" at noon. It was a typical childhood, really.
Well, those wholesome and simple ways of killing are long gone. Now shooting animals for sport seems less a bucolic escape from Blackberries and work and iPhones and traffic, and more like an extension of the Bluetooth world we're supposedly evading. Today's hunters use GPS devices so they don't get lost, and their bear-hunting dogs wear fancy remote-control tracking collars so they don't do the same. We map out deer trails in advance with motion-sensor cameras, and use night-vision goggles to spot treed raccoons instead of just shining a two-dollar flashlight up there like my granddaddy did when he'd take us coon hunting.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are roughly 100,000 fewer people hunting every year in the U.S. in the five-year span from 2001 to 2006—down from 13 million hunters to 12.5 million—yet we still spent $22.9 billion dollars on the sport in the last year of the survey. Today, there are thousands of offbeat products looking for a piece of that pie, so instead of walking into the woods chomping on watermelon-flavored Dubble Bubble like I did as a boy, sporting goods advertisers now tell you you'd better worry about the deer smelling your breath. Which brings us to "Gum-o-Flage," a specialty gum that "creates a natural scent that won't spook game." It comes in Alfalfa Honey, Pine, and Apple. Because you know if there's one thing a deer will not tolerate when it's being shot, it's garlicky halitosis.
If killing geese and pretending you're a bovine is more the way you swing, why not slip into your very own cow decoy, which is basically a life-sized fake cow that you can hide inside of. After all, as the Web site for the giant hunting retailer Cabela's asks about the version it sells—the Webfoot Confidence Cow— "What could be more harmless than a cow grazing in a field?" Well, a lot of things could be more harmless if there's a bull in the same field, so be careful. And if you're wondering how you're going to see those geese, don't: "Two viewing ports allow you to keep an eye on the flock and a rubber grip handle makes carrying the decoy easy." Side benefit: both of those features could come in handy when you're running away from love-struck Ferdinand.
Let's say your breath isn't too smelly; whatever animal you're disguised as today has fooled your prey; and you've just shot that big buck you called-in with your electronic deer call, using the button marked "lost fawn." Who wants to wait until they get back to town to see exactly how big the rack is? Not me! Now you don't have to, because you can use the "Rackulator," proudly billed by the manufacturer as "The World's Only Electronic Calculating Big Game Scoring Tool!" It's sort of a high-tech tape measure that you trace over the antlers and it tells you your rack score instantly—in seven different scoring categories! And it can be yours for only $119.95 (I planned to make way more fun of this, but now after reading about it, I really want one).
Then there's the mysterious Season Shot, a shotgun shell currently "under development," according to its great Web site (www.seasonshot.com), which boasts perhaps the best slogan found on any hunting product: "Shoots, Kills, Seasons." The idea is that the shot dissolves in the kill, so there is "no shot left in the bird to chip your teeth." (Yes non-hunters, that's a real problem). Because the product claims to be biodegradable "ammo with flavor," it melts when it's heated—and voila! The meat is already seasoned and the hard shot is gone. The yet-to-be-released miracle product will come in Cajun, lemon-pepper, and teriyaki, among other flavors. This stuff has been featured on many radio shows, including NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" but many hunting bloggers speculate that it's a hoax. One online wag opined: "Nothing like eating the flavored wound of a bird." If it's not fake, and you're reading this, please send me some so I can test it. I'm thinking honey mustard.
The words used by manufacturers to describe modern—and not so modern—hunting gadgets are lyrical and creative, to the point of Seussian excess. There are game calls named raccoon squallers and coyote howlers and duck squawkers. Hunting writer Bob Peck at Bowcountry.com spent an entire article arguing the merits of the wonderfully named Deluxe Whisker Biscuit, using the BoDoodle TimberDoodle as a benchmark, and testing the products using a Hooter Shooter, otherwise known as the industry's "First Portable Shooting Machine." If you're curious, the topic of the review was a mechanical hunting arrow rest, as in "bow and," that stabilizes and helps aim the critter-seeking projectile. The tester used the Hooter Shooter because it shoots with "perfect form."
If the hunt is done and you're back at the cabin and want a change of pace, why not pop in a copy of Bikini Bucks, a video that seems to show scantily clad women either killing deer or posing with dead ones. Sadly, despite hours of Internet research, this writer was unable to come up with the tape by press time, and can only imagine its wonders. But if you're lucky enough to already own a copy, you probably know what it says in the ad is true: "Anyone who can truly appreciate the magicalness of the whitetail deer will enjoy this film, over and over." Over and over, indeed.
What does all of this crazy hunting accoutrement mean for the future of shooting animals? (And what kind of hunting writer uses the word "accoutrement?") After God gave us the gun, did we really need to get so greedy? To find out the answer, I put together a card-table discussion with two expert hunters, men who regularly kill several deer a year. The first, a hunter with over 60 years experience in the field—and whom, for the purposes of this article, we'll call "my dad"—says a lot of these wacky tools are "really stupid stuff." The other expert, heretofore known as "my little brother," has no doubt that some of it works, but wondered aloud who would want to "carry all of that crap into the woods?" They agreed to disagree on whether it matters to the deer that my dad's clothes smell like Tide. As for that girl who ignored me in high school, there was no opinion, probably because I didn't ask. Most likely it was because I looked like a 6-foot 3-inch stick with a huge Adam's apple and a head the size of a prize-winning pumpkin.