On a frigid afternoon in January, harnessed to a tree stand 14 feet above a thick nest of bittersweet, and well into my second hour of deer-hunting, the parts of me in contact with the steel seat were very cold.
I was armed with nothing more lethal than a camera, but the hunter in the tree stand a few feet away had arrows, and he knew how to use them.
Beau Payne, Shelter Island’s animal control officer, had warned me that hunting with him was likely to be uncomfortable and boring.
“I have no ritual, and I don’t worry about scent,” he said. “I put camo on and get in a tree.”
Although about 200 men and a handful of women hunt on the Island, the responses to a recent town-sponsored survey of residents showed that for many people, deer-hunting is a mystery. Some respondents didn’t seem to be aware that hunting is legal here from October through the end of January.
Since I’m one of the uninitiated, I decided to try and learn what it’s like to hunt deer on the Island.
The first misconception I had to overcome was the idea that it involved a lot of shooting. A hunter can wait silently for hours watching and waiting for a chance to take a shot. It is a winter activity, and snowy conditions are ideal for seeing deer, if not for the comfort of the hunter.
The hunter may sit, lie or climb into a tree erected on the property of a landowner who has given permission, then wait and observe.
It helps not to move too much.
“It’s not particularly exciting,” Mr. Payne said. “The exciting part is seeing game and even possibly harvesting game.”
I’d heard that falling out of a tree stand is a real hazard, so I decided to remove my mittens long enough to make sure I had done a thorough job of closing the carabiner on the safety clip. An hour later, my fingers still aching from exposure to the wind, I understood how a fall could happen.
When the wind shifted the tree against my back, I realized I’d been in that slack-jawed state of consciousness that precedes a nap. If the creaking and shifting of the tree hadn’t jolted me back to awareness, hanging in a harness from the safety strap would have done the trick.
Deer are most active around the first and last lights of day and hunting is permitted from the published sunrise until sunset. Hunters like to be in place well beforehand. That’s why, although we spent the afternoon watching, we didn’t see deer close enough to shoot at until shortly before the time when hunting was prohibited.
With a half hour to go before sundown, four deer appeared, moving in a wide circle around the dense patch of bittersweet in which we watched. They came up around us circling through the brush and appeared suddenly in a grassy clearing directly below us.
The arrow hit the lead doe in the back, and she took off like a rocket.
Mr. Payne was not happy. Later, he said, “It was not a good shot, akin to being shot across the fleshy part of your behind, a very close shave. It might have been more appropriate for me to delay or pass given the turn of events.”
We spent the next hour tracking the doe, starting with a tuft of hair shaved off by the arrow, to the arrow itself, lying near the place where she had bounded into the woods. Mr. Payne was able to judge from the condition of the arrow, her movement as she fled, and the amount of blood, that the wound would not be fatal. But he continued to search.
“I’m probably going to regret doing this,” he said, hunched over, as he entered a briar-ridden thicket of vines so dense it could have been home to a herd.
He extricated himself from the thicket and followed a sign of blood looking like black seeds on the dry leaves — invisible to me — continuing to search until it was too dark to see.
It was a teachable moment on the distinction between hunting deer and culling deer. “If this was culling, the deer would have come to the bait at the exact time and place that I determined, but baiting is not legal for recreational hunting,” he said. “The unpredictability of hunting is what creates the challenge.”
“She was the lead doe in that pack, very intelligent, and this experience will make her extremely intelligent,” he added.
Mr. Payne saw her again a couple of days later, but was not able to take a shot.
The doe was not the only one educated by the events of that day. I saw first-hand the challenges and difficulties of harvesting deer, and the trade-offs between safety and humane treatment of humans and deer on our densely populated Island.
A brief history of deer hunting on Shelter Island
In spite of the local legend that Shelter Island’s deer are descended from a pair brought here in 1892 by Francis Marion Smith, a business magnate, the indigenous whitetailed deer of Eastern Long Island were likely here already, but in much smaller numbers than today’s herd.
Mr. Smith is said to have brought in a non-native species of European red deer or possibly mule deer to stock his deer park, at the site of today’s Deer Park Lane.
Before the turn of the 20th century, Shelter Island wasn’t a good place for deer to thrive because of a limited food supply. But when people began to establish farms and build homes and barns, the deer population exploded as every border between woods and field or house and farm provided perfect places for browsing, which is the term used for herbivores, such as deer, that mainly feed on ground vegetation.
By 1916, the Island’s deer herd was so large and voracious that local farmers called on the state to help eliminate the herd humanely. Over six days in late April 1916, the state answered the call, attempting to relocate all the deer on Shelter Island (estimated at 75 to 200) to Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The project was an abject failure.
After a week of fencing, herding, capturing and shipping, most of the deer were injured, drowned or otherwise killed. About 30 remained at large and only six deer made it out alive and in good enough shape to be transferred to Utica, New York.
Deer in North America had been hunted almost into extinction and public concern led to the formation of a State Conservation Department — the precursor of the Department of Environmental Conservation — established to bring back game species. The conservation efforts worked and by 1969, Suffolk County opened up a limited season to encourage hunting as a way to manage the growing herd.
By the middle of the 20th century it was legal to shoot deer on Shelter Island, but there was not a season. By the 1960s, hunting was such a normal part of Shelter Island life that at least one hunter remembers going for pheasant in the morning before school and then taking his gun to school and leaving it in his locker.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a private hunt club operated on the land that is now the Mashomack Preserve comprising almost a third of the acreage of the Island. Islanders still hunt there as they have for 50 years.
Today, the Shelter Island deer herd is estimated in the thousands, and recreational deer hunting at Mashomack, Sylvester Manor and on a few private properties accounted last year for an annual harvest of about 450 deer.