Hunters Gert and Roland Shea know where they want to be during shotgun week
Roland and Gert Shea set their sights on shotgun week. Photo by Dan Cabot
Gert and Roland Shea cut short an off-Island trip so as to be back on the Island for shotgun week. Small and slim, Gert looks far younger than her 77 years as she lovingly cradles her 20-gauge Franchi. The small woman with the little gun looks almost childlike, but her eyes sparkle as she talks about the first year she owned it.
She had been deer hunting before, but lugging around heavier guns, she was never successful. A friend who sold guns as a sideline found her the four-pound Franchi, and after instructions from Roland, she climbed into a tree stand and shot an eight-point buck. When its companion, another eight-pointer, hung around, she shot that one too. The Sheas weighed the deer in with two tags, hers and his. Gert laughs as she remembers the men at the weigh station. "Oh, she didn't shoot either of those," she heard them scoff. "He must've got them both."
"Little did they know it was the other way around," Roland chuckles, but he admits to being jealous. It took him 10 years to finally get a buck as well-racked, a ten-pointer. While the living room is being repainted, the two heads, his and one of hers, hang side by side in the garage.
At 82, Roland could also pass for ten years younger. He says in his life he's shot 23 deer, "every one with a dear tag." He spends long hours in a tree stand in weather that drives Gert indoors. "Do you know there's a guy up in a tree in your woods?" she says neighbors ask. "Sure," she answers, "that's my husband." He still has a Harley in the basement, but his son doesn't want him driving motorcycles at his age.
Over the course of a hunting marriage of almost 60 years, the Sheas have hunted deer in Vermont and rabbits in Tennessee, but today they hunt almost exclusively on their 14-acre property on North Road in Chilmark. Gert is firm that they hunt for sport, and though they process and eat the venison they harvest, they pass up easy shots on the small deer that roam their woods. Roland tells a story about a tiny deer that sniffed the ladder on his tree stand and then looked up at him. "It was only about this high," he says, holding his hand at about Springer spaniel height.
"We see them around as fawns," Gert confirms. "We couldn't shoot them that small. We're not meat hunters; we hunt for sport," she says. But shooting an adult deer doesn't bother her at all. "It's part of the sport," she explains, and the venison goes in the freezer.
As the Sheas talk about their hunting experiences, it becomes clear that what they enjoy most about hunting is the companionship, the camaraderie with friends and family on hunting expeditions. Gert talks about hunting days with the family of her twin sister, who died seven years ago and was for many years her next-door neighbor on North Road. "We'd all take different tree stands [on the property], and when you'd hear a shot, you'd know who was shooting from the direction of the sound."
Even processing the kill was an occasion for fellowship. Roland recalls butchering deer in his basement with his brother-in-law and taking time out to toast the day's hunt with a glass of Old Stag or Old Bushmills. "Those were good times," he says.
As the Sheas have grown older, they have lost none of their enthusiasm for hunting, but their former companions have drifted away, or died, and hunting is lonelier. "We had five deer at once hanging in the garage," Gert says, "but no more." Now the part of deer week they enjoy the most is when friends, like The Times news editor Nelson Sigelman, stop by at the end of the day to talk about the day's hits and misses.
The neighborhood has changed, too. Instead of hunting companions, the neighbors are now mostly just acquaintances. "Five or six years ago, maybe more than that, [neighbors] didn't even like you hunting - it was terrible. But now there's the new realm of people come in here. Now they don't want the deer, they're afraid of deer ticks, they don't want the deer eating their shrubs - so they want everybody to kill them now. I hate that more."
On Monday, the first day of shotgun week, the Sheas hunted all day, returning to the house after dark. One of them (they wouldn't say which one) had a shot but missed. On Tuesday, they took a break at noontime to talk with The Times, but were headed back out to catch the rest of the daylight. At 82 and 77, they are making the most of the daylight left to them.