Writer Nelson Bryant recalls a lifetime in the hunt

"Heroic Wanderers" — Photo by Glenn Wolff

Back in the early 1930s, when I was a boy prowling the woods of West Tisbury with my Daisy air rifle looking for rabbits and squirrels, I never saw a white-tailed deer, although there were a few of them on the Island at that time.

At present, the Vineyard is teeming with deer, so many, indeed, that in recent years state regulations have allowed a single hunter to harvest two or three or more of the animals in a single season.

Vineyard deer populations have waxed and waned with the activities of man. It appears that deer were plentiful in the early 1600s when about 3,000 native American Wampanoags occupied the Island. White man moved in during the last half of that century, and the period of intense agricultural development — which included extensive cutting of deciduous trees — that followed was apparently the major factor in the dramatic decline of the Island’s deer population.

Although deer were never totally eradicated from the Vineyard, not all members of the current herd are descendants of the survivors of the agricultural expansion era.

White-tailed deer are heroic wanderers. Year after year, small numbers of them attempt to swim to the Vineyard from the mainland or the neighboring Elizabeth Islands. They don’t all make it. Some five to six miles of water and powerful currents are involved, and drowned deer carcasses are occasionally found along the Vineyard’s North Shore.

In the late 1930s fallow deer were introduced to the Vineyard in an effort to provide Islanders with deer hunting. By 1944, there were an estimated 150 of them on the Island. They didn’t thrive and were gone by the late 1980s. My brother Danny, now deceased, and Vineyarder David Tilton were among those who successfully hunted the Island’s fallow deer. I never got around to pursuing them before World War II.

My first deer hunting took place in Germany in 1945. The Germans had surrendered and my unit, the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, was on occupation duty, licking its wounds after the Normandy and Holland jumps and the Battle of the Bulge.

At some point in my off-duty wanderings about the German countryside, I ventured onto the grounds of what appeared to be a large estate that embraced extensive meadows and forests, and was laced with streams. I saw many deer, and big brown trout flourished in the streams. The deer could have been any one of the several Eurasian species, including fallows.

Noting that our daily food rations were less than interesting, I proposed to my company commander that I take a buddy with me and harvest deer and trout with which we could enliven our meals.

He agreed and we made two such forays.

I will always remember the first trip. We were dragging a big buck out of the woods and had stopped while I tossed a grenade into a deep pool in a stream. I was wading about gathering up several large brown trout that had been stunned by the explosion when a tall, middle-aged man in jacket and tie appeared on the stream bank a few feet from me.

I instantly felt that he was the owner of the estate. His face was laced with controlled anger and frustration, but he said nothing. I acknowledged his presence with a nod, strung the last of the trout on a large forked stick I had cut for that purpose and left his violated domain with my friend and our pelf.

After returning home from the war, I hunted fallow deer with my brother and David Tilton a couple of times before leaving the Vineyard to finish up at Dartmouth. Nearly 20 years of writing for, or editing, a small New Hampshire daily followed. During that period I began pursuing deer in New Hampshire, including the remote Dartmouth College Grant in the northern tip of the state. The Grant — which is open to Dartmouth students, graduates, faculty and other employees — is about half the size of the Vineyard and has no permanent residents. It is accessible via logging roads and has a handful of log cabins on it for the use of those who visit it.

I shot only half-a-dozen whitetails during that period, but I didn’t care, I had a romantic notion about deer hunting. More than anything else, I wanted to be alone in the forest primeval. I didn’t want to encounter another hunter. I enjoyed sitting on a rocky ledge looking down into the valley through which an enchanting trout river, the Dead Diamond, flows. I enjoyed sharing my backpack lunch with chickadees and chipmunks, then wandering so deep into the woods I knew that darkness would fall before I made it back to the cabin.

I have always been intrigued by rifles and shotguns, and over the years in planning my North Country deer hunting excursions — which also included Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick — I contrived to work myself into a state of high pre-season anticipation by periodically purchasing a new firearm that I thought might improve my hunting performance.

One such gun — I still own it — is a perfect symbol of this trait. It is a handsome, beautifully engraved 16-gauge, double-barreled 8 x 57 Belgian Meffer-T-boxlock drilling. A drilling is a shotgun-rifle combination, with a single rifle barrel (the 8 x 57 in this case) mounted below the side-by-side shotgun barrels.

Armed with my drilling, I told myself, I will hunt the Dartmouth Grant and if a deer appears in a distant clearing he is mine, because the 8 x 57 is a powerful flat-shooting cartridge. And if a ruffed grouse or a snowshoe rabbit bursts from the semi-darkness of the dense stand of spruces in which I am poking about, I also have a scattergun in hand.

I have harvested only one grouse and one snowshoe rabbit with my drilling thus far, and it has accounted for three deer, all shot years ago from tree stands in Minnesota, where David Tilton had invited me to hunt on property he owned at that time.

Even after returning to the Vineyard in the late 1960s and beginning my 30-year stint as the outdoors columnist for the New York Times, I paid almost no attention to the Island’s deer. The idea of hunting little patches of open land on a heavily populated Island as the shouts and gunshots of other hunters filled the woods about me didn’t appeal.

But as the Vineyard’s deer herd increased and the hunting seasons for them lengthened, I began to think differently. This year, for example, the Island’s archery season began October 15 and closes November 24. The shotgun season is from November 26 to December 8, and the primitive weapon (muzzle loading ) season is December 10 to 31. One can also, if one wishes, hunt with a muzzleloader during the shotgun season.

I became intrigued with muzzleloading (also called black powder) shotguns more than 50 years ago while living in New Hampshire and often hunted partridge (ruffed grouse), snowshoe rabbits, and ducks with an antique double-barreled Belgian 12-gauge. I also liked the equipage, including the powder horns, used with such weapons and remember the afternoon when I visited a farmer in Newport, N.H., and purchased the horn of a cow from him from which I fashioned a powder horn that I hung from my neck with rawhide when afield with my black powder shotgun.

Many years later, I had to buy a modern black powder side-by-side 12 gauge for duck hunting. The use of steel shot (instead of the classic, but toxic, lead) while waterfowling had become mandatory and steel pellets would have damaged the barrels of my ancient double.

Clearly, my interest in black powder shooting helped trigger my interest in the Vineyard’s primitive weapon deer season. Also, I never liked the idea of going after deer with a shotgun. Whether loaded with rifled slugs or buckshot, a shotgun is a short-range weapon and not very accurate. On the other hand, a properly charged, modern .50 caliber muzzle-loading rifle is an accurate and lethal deer gun out to at least 150 yards. Indeed, its only shortcoming is that you have to reload after each shot. But even that needn’t be too much of a handicap.

Pre-formed powder pellets and projectiles that — unlike round lead bullets — need no cloth patch have speeded up reloading. A couple of years ago on the Vineyard three deer came out of the alders in front of me, about 65 yards away. I shot one, the largest, and had enough time to reload — it took about a minute — and shoot another.

My deer hunting is almost over and is confined to a small area of West Tisbury. The years have slowed me down — I’ll be 90 next April — and all I do is shuffle to a spot where I can sit and overlook a swamp from which deer are wont to emerge late in the day.

Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury was for almost 40 years the outdoor columnist for The New York Times. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne. Later he became managing editor of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire and then a dock builder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard.

About the artist

Glenn Wolff’s career began in New York as an illustrator for clients that included the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York Zoological Society.

For his illustration, “Heroic Wanderers,” Mr. Wolff relied in part on photos of West Tisbury swamps and a deer captured on a hunter’s trail camera in Chilmark.

See related story, “Artist Glenn Wolf and writer Nelson Bryant collaborate once again.”