November 4, 2011

Hunting Season…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:54 pm


Avid hunters, we tramped through cornfields and pastures in
pursuit of pheasant and quail. And in season, we hunted deer
from before dawn until dusk. Our successes were rare but
greatly savored.

–Ira Wagler: Growing Up Amish

Hunting. It’s kind of like fishing, I suppose. Maybe worse. It’s the reason a lot of embellished tales get told in every imaginable setting, usually inflicted on unwilling listeners with frozen smiles. When accosted by someone who’s been bitten by the hunting bug, there is no escape. So one may as well hunker down and take it.

And it’s that time of year again. I can always tell at work, because at least one of my yard guys disappears mysteriously every now and then. For a full day, right during the work week. Mixed in with the Amish wedding season here in Lancaster County, things can get a little hectic once in a while. But I try to let my yard guys manage their own schedules, as much as possible. As long as the work gets done, hey, do what you think you have to. I’m a laid-back boss. Maybe too laid-back at times.

It’s not that I’m against hunting, or anything. It would be a good thing if the deer herds in suburban PA were thinned out a bit. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Bambi. And I used to hunt, decades ago. Quite fervently. So I know what it’s all about. But after I left the Amish, it just didn’t seem that important any more. So I quit. Don’t miss it at all, really.

We always had a few guns knocking about, on the farm in Aylmer. Before I was born, Dad bought an old J.C. Higgins bolt action shotgun. 16 gauge, which is an odd gauge these days. And we had a couple of .22 rifles. Used for shooting pests like groundhogs and sparrows and starlings.

The rule at our home was this. We could shoot a rifle after our 12th birthday. We got a pocket watch at 11, and could shoot at 12. I remember well the day my brother Stephen took me out behind our old concrete silo and showed me how to handle the gun. A bolt action .22. I knew how to work the bolt. After some stern instruction and admonition, he handed it to me. I lifted it to my shoulder, pointed it toward the hill to the south. Unclicked the safety. And probably flinched just a bit as I pulled the trigger. Of course, there was absolutely no recoil. Just a sharp “crack” and the quick whine and whump of the bullet as it hit the dirt.

A gun is a tool, like any other. You gotta respect it, of course, or someone could get hurt or killed. Just like one could get hurt or killed by a host of other tools. Like tractors, trucks, and in the case of the Amish, horses or machinery. When I hear the hysterical squeals of gun haters, I shake my head in disbelief sometimes. And disgust. From all their shrill incessant braying, you’d think a gun just up and kills some innocent person on its own any time it takes a notion to. Which is just silly. It doesn’t. Never has. Never will.

But back to being twelve. With my newly granted rights, I soon took to haunting the fields and woods. Always careful, I grew more confident with each excursion. Shot sparrows perched in trees or on the Martin box. And soon developed into quite the fearsome groundhog slayer.

Groundhogs are pests on farms. Dig their burrows, willy nilly, in the pasture fields. We always heard tales of how horses and cows stumbled into those burrow holes and broke their legs. A country legend, I think. I never saw it happen or heard of it actually happening anywhere.

Our pasture fields in Aylmer were dotted with groundhog burrows. I soon honed some pretty impressive stalking skills. Sometimes during the heat of midday, sometimes as the sun was sinking, I walked out with my rifle. Spotted a groundhog sunning himself or just relaxing outside his “doorway.” And began the long, slow stalk, creeping steadily toward my prey when its head was turned. Always freezing on the spot when the rodent looked my way. They didn’t seem to recognize me as a threat, as long as I wasn’t moving. Sometimes my quest was successful; often, though, I came up empty.

One evening after supper, as my sister Rhoda watched from afar by the pasture gate, I crept within ten feet of an alert groundhog. A big dude, sprawled and relaxed on the ground. I saw the hair of his whiskers, and the graying on his hide. Froze and moved as he looked my way, then away. Then I slowly, carefully raised my rifle. Took a careful bead through the open sights. Tensed my finger on the trigger. The rifle cracked spitefully. The frenzied groundhog instantly rolled over and disappeared into his hole. I checked for blood. There was none. I had missed. Too close, I guess.

There wasn’t a whole lot to hunt, in Aylmer. Mostly pests, always open season on those. Groundhogs. Crows. And in the fall, squirrels. Large red squirrels. Rats with bushy tails, really. In time, I graduated to Dad’s old 16 gauge shotgun. In the woods a quarter mile south of our home, I shot my first squirrel one September day. I lugged it home. And learned how hard it is, to skin one. Tough animals, they are. And not particularly tasty, either. After that, squirrels didn’t have much to fear from me.

Back before we moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield, Dad bought a new single shot 12 gauge shotgun at the Canadian Tire store in town. It was a cheap import, but a beauty, at least in our minds. The thing I best remember about that gun happened out of hunting season, one hot summer day.

We kept a flock of broiler pullets in a little shack in the pasture just south and west of the barnyard. White chickens that pecked about in the grass. It was mid morning. And suddenly, someone shouted, “FOX!” We all rushed to the barnyard gate and looked. And there was a fox, tearing back and forth through the squawking broilers, biting one here, chasing one there. The fox seemed weak, staggeringly weak. It stumbled blindly about, chasing, catching and biting chickens.

Such a strange thing was most unprecedented. A fox doesn’t just show up in broad daylight like that. Not unless there is something seriously wrong with it.

We milled about excitedly, watching. Stephen quietly rushed to the house and grabbed the new single shot 12 gauge. Loaded it. Walked out to us. Then through the gate and over the fence. The fox was still chasing and chomping the wildly excited chickens.

Stephen approached the uproar of squawking white feathers. And the fox suddenly stopped chasing chickens. Stopped, and stared with bleared and sickened eyes at my brother. Stephen planted his feet in the classic shooter’s stance. Lifted the single shot 12 gauge. Seconds passed.

And then the fox charged. Right at Stephen. An emaciated little bundle of orange and white, fangs bared. The scene is riveted in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Stephen tensed. And when the fox closed in to about twenty-five feet, we heard the loud “boom” of the gun as the barrel lifted in recoil in Stephen’s hands. The fox instantly collapsed. Dead, silent, on the ground. No quivering or pawing. Just a sad, dead little heap.

No one touched the corpse. Instinctively, we knew. Foxes don’t act like that, unless they are insane. Or unless they have rabies. That afternoon, Dad called a vet. The vet came out within hours and took the fox with him. In about two weeks, we got the verdict. Rabies. The fox had rabies.

No one was infected, including the chickens. Fowl cannot contract rabies. That’s what we learned, way back then. And that was the end of that little incident.

When we moved to Bloomfield, it seemed like a land of Canaan. A land teeming with wildlife, compared to Aylmer. There, my buddies and I tramped the woods and fields for pheasants, quail, foxes, coyotes, rabbits and deer. We pursued the conquest of the hunt with all the energy and passion only the most avid hunters know.

By the time I left in 1986, wild turkeys were moving in. Since then, all that wild game has prospered and multiplied. Southern Iowa harbors some of the biggest whitetails in the country. Deer as big as cows. And bagging a turkey is no big deal these days, from what I hear.

Like I said, I don’t hunt anymore. Haven’t for more than twenty years. Got nothing against it, though, and I mean that. I just can’t see the sense in dragging myself out of bed at 4 AM, and heading out into the cold damp woods to sit and freeze, all because of a rather faint hope that some hapless deer will wander by. If that’s your thing, more power to you. It’s just not mine.

But there is a deeper reason, I think, that I no longer hunt.

It’s because there are so many other options now. Hunting is one of relatively few activities the Amish can pursue for simple enjoyment. At least in many communities. One of the few things they can really get into. And it’s acceptable. After I left, I soon realized there’s a vast smorgasbord out there. So many things to see and do. So many choices.

And as new dreams were born and my interests expanded, some of the old ones gradually faded until they disappeared.

Several months ago, I went to an outdoor evening party. I don’t attend many such events, especially where there will be a lot of strangers. But my good friend, a man who writes for a living, Shawn Smucker invited me. So I went. And quite enjoyed the experience, really.

There were indeed many strangers present. Including a lady I now consider a friend, Janet Oberholtzer. Janet and I got to talking. She had heard about my book, and seemed quite interested in my story. Turns out Janet was on the doorstep of having her first book published as well. She has an astounding story of working her way back from a devastating accident that very nearly claimed her life.

Look at the book cover. That’s her leg. And the woman runs. Miles and miles every week.

I don’t usually read books of this type, but I was intrigued. So I got my copy a few weeks back. Read chunks at a time, as best I could in the evenings. Janet’s story is one of dealing with the really brutal stuff that never hits most of us. Hers was an extraordinary journey. After the accident, after beating the odds just to survive, Janet was told that her left leg would probably have to be amputated. That’s how bad it was. But she prevailed through it all. It was a long, tough slog.

After you walk through something like that in your life, there are a few things that could happen. You could just give up. Alive, but not really. Or you could function at some level, an emotionally scarred wreck. Or you could choose to live, to heal, to attack the obstacles, to reclaim your life, to never surrender to the darkness. Which is what Janet chose to do. And because of her choices, here is her story.

The thing I most appreciated about the book was Janet’s raw honesty in describing every stage of her journey back from the brink of death. It permeates the narrative.

I’m glad I went to Shawn’s party. And I’m glad I met Janet. You can meet her too, by ordering her book on Amazon.



  1. Ira, I was so happy to meet you at Shawn’s party … hopefully it will happen again. And yes, I love your book and have recommended it to many. I wish you continued success with it.

    Thanks for mentioning my story and Because I Can in this post – I appreciate it!

    Write on!

    Comment by Janet Oberholtzer' — November 4, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

  2. Wow! That’s my thoughts on hunting exactly! Most of my schoolkids, you know, the just-turned-legal-hunting-age boys, look at me as if I’m from Mars, but I could care less about crawling out of bed at an unearthly hour to go hunting. And that’s just the beginning. If I’d be so unlucky as to actually shoot anything, I’d have to rummage around in the bloody intestines with freezing hands…. Guess I’ll stay home and read a good book.

    Comment by jason yutzy — November 4, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

  3. I have never had any qualms about hunting, but as a woman, never had the opportunity. When I was growing up, girls didn’t hunt much. I appreciate your choice of words: “A gun is a tool like any other”. So many people see it as a threat. It’s no more a threat than a butcher knife, and we don’t worry about banning knives. Good blog Ira.

    Comment by Kelly Hunt — November 4, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

  4. I have lost a lot of my passion for hunting as well, still enjoy it though, but I enjoy and think it to be important to introduce the next generation to the sport! If we don’t, it will be a lost sport, and the anti-gun faction hates hunting. If it wasn’t for hunters, guns wouldn’t be nearly as important. This is why I hunt with my daughters, my oldest shot her first elk last week. And next week my 2 oldest and I will take a 5 day hunting trip in hopes to supply the freezers for another year! Good stuff!

    Comment by Gideon Yutzy — November 4, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  5. Tomorrow morning at 4:00 a.m. my 8 year old son and I will clamor out of bed, brew some fresh coffee and fry some eggs and head for the deer stand. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world! I want to pass my love for hunting and shooting on to my children, like my father did for me.

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — November 5, 2011 @ 12:17 am

  6. Used your Amazon link to get her book (on my Kindle) — very much looking forward to reading it!

    Comment by Bayley — November 5, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  7. Your captcha code didn’t work for me, after I wrote you a nice, long comment. I’ll try entering the code again just to see if it works this time, but no more comments today.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — November 6, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  8. We don’t eat meat, so hunting is not part of our life style, but our grandson is an avid hunter – and eats every thing he bags. At least a deer in the woods has a better life than a steer on a feed lot.

    I always liked Ogden Nash’s clever poem:
    The hunter crouches in his blind
    ‘Neath camoflage of every kind.
    This full grown man, with pluck and luck,
    Is hoping to outwit a duck.

    Comment by Lady Anne — November 8, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  9. Ira,
    Don’t ever think your past posts have been forgotten. I’m like a kid in a candy store with all your stories so neat and tidy and dated just waiting to be read.
    Oh, goody, goody, gumdrops! Alright, I’m contained now.
    Being a Michigander (sounds like a goose) for the first 25 years of my life, hunting by the men in my family was just done. (Excluding my little brother). “Michigan seems like a young man’s dreams. They’ve got islands and bays are for sportsmen.” -Gordon Lightfoot Yes, a shameless plug for Michigan. But anyway, reading your blog took me back to that time when I was a young girl, at the home of my grandparents, who lived with a lake in front of their house and the woods in back. My grandpa was an avid outdoorsman in every sense of the word. As soon as he retired from the Fire Dept. he and Gram set up permanent residence in his Utopia. And it became my Utopia. My love affair began. The woods. The sweet smelling conifers wooing me. I succumbed every time. I nestled under their umbrella like arms, hiding, protected, dreaming. I felt safe and loved in the woods. Oh, the woods. A place “…to live deliberately”. My goodness, I do go off, don’t I? Sigh.
    This is why I like your blog so much. Your stories are not only entertaining, but they persuade me to peruse my past, my thoughts, my feelings. It’s easy for me to delve into the heart after reading your stories. Like you created a path and encourage others to tread it as well. I don’t know if these are your intentions, but it’s what happens. I like you, Ira. You seem like a really neat person. So glad God gave you to this world.

    Comment by Francine — November 29, 2012 @ 12:42 am

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