A Change in a Hunter’s Life Course

By: Steve Brandle


This appeared in the October “97 issue of Michigan-Out-of-Doors

One year ago today, my life changed forever. Three hundred and sixty six days ago, I was a married thirty-nine year old father of two boys and an outdoorsman. My job doing sheet metal work for my uncle’s roofing business was going well and we were very busy. I had been duck hunting the day before, which had included dragging the canoe full of decoys and gear through a couple of hundred yards of river bottom muck. It was a tough outing, but the effort was rewarded with some good shooting. Yearly, almost all of my “relaxation” time in October has been spent slogging around the Shiawassee Flats State Game Area, waterfowling. This continued until the season closed in November or when the ice would get too thick to push the canoe through. These months were also packed with deer seasons, steelhead fishing and small game hunting. I’m 41 now, the boys hunt and fish with me and my love of the outdoors is as strong as ever. It’s all different now, though, never to be the same. I had a heart attack on October 30, 1995.

michigan doeBy the grace of God I was home with my wife when it happened. Running red lights, she bravely drove me to the hospital on that quiet Sunday morning. I don’t know why we didn’t call an ambulance. During the whole ordeal I wasn’t sure what was happening to me, but I had some of the classic symptoms and heart problems ran in my family. By the time we reached the hospital I was thankful that I didn’t wait to seek help. The pain was bad and I knew that I was in trouble. The fact that my father had died from an attack when I was eleven passed through my mind over and over.

The doctor told me it was a mild attack, with only a small amount of damage to my heart muscle. In the emergency room they gave me a new drug called TPA which dissolved the clot in my coronary artery very quickly and prevented worse damage. I could tell instantly when the blockage cleared because the pain in my chest abruptly stopped. It was like the feeling you get in the dentist’s chair when he puts the drill down for the last time, the worst was over.

After my stay in the hospital I had exactly ten days to convince my doctor that I was well enough to hunt deer on the November 15th opener. I’d really looked forward to it because my oldest son had turned fourteen that July and it would be his first year to hunt. He had also drawn a youth permit to hunt deer on the Shiawassee Federal Refuge.

As I recovered at home, I would walk around the subdivision daily for exorcise. I slept whenever I felt like it and tried to eat healthy meals. I wanted to do everything that the doctor told me to insure my recovery. I didn’t want to be sitting home on the 15th for the lack of trying.

My appointment with the doctor was two days before the opener and I hoped that he would approve of me going. After my check up he couldn’t find a reason for me not to go as long as I took it easy. My wife agreed to go along with his decision, but I knew she had concerns about me being one of the people you read about in the newspaper that keel over in the woods, but I needed to at least make the attempt.

Over an inch of snow was on the ground opening morning. Fluffed up on the weeds it felt like shuffling through piles of sand to me, draining the strength from my legs. We only had to walk about a half of a mile, yet I was starting to question the wisdom of doing it. The extra weight of felted boots and layers of warm clothes placed a strain on my body that I wasn’t prepared for. By the time we reached our spot to sit I was whipped.

The tightness I felt in my chest really alarmed me. It must have been the combination of the cold hike in and the excitement of opening day. I was afraid of the feeling and the thought of what my son would have to go through if I had another attack here in the woods. Without him seeing, I slipped a nitro pill under my tongue while we unpacked our gear.

I double checked my pack to make sure I had the battery powered cellular phone that I’d brought from work; it was there. The relief from nitro is very fast and I felt better, but I was still uneasy. I had pushed my body to the boundary of its endurance before; this was different, it wasn’t the same anymore.

My son and I were going to sit together. I showed him how to plow the crackly snow covered leaves away from where our feet would rest on the ground. As we did this, I had a hazy memory of turning around in my blind on another morning years earlier. The leaves rustling under my feet flushed the approaching deer before I could even see them. No one had ever shown me.

It was still too dark to see in the woods and we sat quietly, side by side and lost in our thoughts. My son was hunched forward in his seat straining to see into the blackness for the first deer to pass by. I found myself leaning back against a tree thinking about how the priorities in my life were changing lately, as I “watched” with my ears.

Ever since he was born I’ve anticipated spending time outdoors with my son. The awareness of my health problem placed an urgency on teaching him the little I know about the mechanics of hunting, fishing, and life. My approach in the past was mostly just that, the how, when, and where’s to be successful. I’m confident that he would be successful if he continued to hone these skills and take advantage of my limited experience.

It occurred to me now was the time to attend to other topics like ethics and conservation. To show a son how to take fish and game without any concern for the future or for his fellow sportsmen wouldn’t be much of a legacy. That morning I decided to spend more of our time outdoors guiding my boys instead of filling our limits.

We started seeing a few does about the time the temperature plunges at daybreak. About nine o’clock my son noticed a walking deer on his side of the woods as I watched three of four slide past in front of us. He told me he thought it was a buck and I slowly turned to look at it through my rifle’s scope. It had stopped, but the deer’s head was hidden from me behind a cedar bough and for what seemed like hours I contorted around trying to confirm that it did have antlers. The aggravating thing about it was that I could see, and had a clear shot at the entire animal, minus it’s head. Well, when he decided to move on, my view reversed for a couple of seconds. I saw all of his head and antlers, but no body. He vanished into the dense cover and I lowered my rifle. Rats!

That’s as close as we came to a buck that day. Around 2 in the afternoon we slowly walked back to the truck and I didn’t have any discomfort in my chest at all. I was sort of worried about the trek back to where we were parked all the time we were at the blind. Normally, I packed a lunch and stayed at my post all day, but this year I was going to start taking it easy.

My devotion to hunting and fishing the past twenty years would mildly be described as hard core. Up until last year I had stood for hours in icy water, huddled against snow- storms, and waded through miles of cattail marshes pursuing ducks and geese. No matter what the weather was doing the first few days of the season, I would abandon my deer blind only to darkness. Some years, stubbornness would be the only secret for success. An addiction of trolling for salmon around Rogers City in August was frustrated only by windy days that built waves to unfishable heights. Coping with the tough conditions always made the trips more rewarding. My penchant for these adventures was a major part of the attraction I felt for hunting and fishing. This season I’ve reluctantly abandoned the intensity I once had.

Back at my truck, a neighboring landowner stopped to talk as we peeled off a few layers of clothes. It sure feels good to shed some bulk and move around freely after sitting almost motionless for hours. Midway through the ageless process of rehashing the mornings hunt, I came to our hard luck story about the headless buck. The man tells me, “You should have just shot it, we have a doe tag you could have put on it if it didn’t have horns.” At the time I just sort of ignored his remark, but later when my son asked why I didn’t shoot the deer and use the man’s doe tag, I truly wished he never had made that statement.

It’s really tough to train kids about following the laws when people make comments like that in their presence. It fits their, “everybody else does it” excuse perfectly. As we rolled down the gravel road into town I reminded him of what he was taught in hunter safety class two years ago: To obey the laws and do the right thing.

My oldest son, Peter, didn’t get a deer those first days of the season. The following weekend his two-day youth permit on the Shiawassee Flats became valid. One of the rules for the hunt is an adult must accompany the youth, but he cannot carry a gun or shoot for the youth. This would be a new experience for me, being the “outfitter” only.

michigan buckOn the last morning of the hunt the first deer to walk by was a nice six point buck. I can only imagine Pete’s feelings as we watched the buck pass in the open woods, pause just thirty yards from us, and then disappear into a swail. The shotgun never moved from his lap. The permit he had was one of the 15 that were for shooting a doe only. About an hour later a single doe came down he same trail. When it came to the point of the trail where it would not be any closer, I whistled, hoping to get it to stop and provide a standing, broadside shot and the doe froze in just that position. A well-placed shot put the deer down. I’m not sure which one of us was more excited. The conclusion of that hunt is a fond memory that I’ll always keep.

Both of us pulled on the rope, dragging the deer back to the truck, but I didn’t even do half of the work. The reality of my condition stopped me from overexerting, still I felt guilty not helping him more. Since having the heart attack, I often feel that way about many things. I start wondering if I’ve done my part as a parent to help him become self-reliant, or has my effort been lacking? I have to admit, though, I know Peter could have done it all by himself.

We hunted together again on last November’s firearm deer opener. Peter got another doe and I tagged a seven-point buck.

Learning how to adapt to the changes in your body seems to be the key to continue being active. It’s just like when the conditions change while hunting or fishing. Before hunting season this year, I had a treadmill stress test performed to see if there were any new problems. The demands on your heart can be lessened by simply staying warm. A hat and pair of gloves are the first things packed when I go outside now. When walking for exercise, small weights or boots could be worn to duplicate hunting conditions. Above all, use common sense.

These have been remarkable years for me. Extraordinary changes have occurred in my life that I would not have expected until much later. My outdoor activities haven’t been the strenuous expeditions that I enjoyed in the past, but now the outings with my boys, or sometimes alone, are of a sterling quality that I can be content with.

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