Adventures in Suburban Bow Hunting

“Now this is suburban hunting at its finest,” says Howard Curtis, the square-jawed owner of a Northern Virginia tree-removal company, sweeping his upturned palm towards the Fairfax Station McMansion that we’ll be hunting behind on a chilly November afternoon. “My relatives who hunt out deep in the woods of Pennsylvania — this kind of hunting blows their minds.” As we walk across the backyard and past the in-ground pool, the house’s owner — one of Howard’s customers — pulls up in a Mercedes SUV and parks in front of the three-car garage.

“You kill any deer lately?” he calls to Howard.

“Yup, got a doe here last week,” Howard responds.

“Now that’s what I like to hear,” he calls back.

We’re heading into the spindly second-growth woods behind this man’s backyard because of the ruts that local deer are continually digging into his mulch and the damage they do to his garden every summer — and because in Virginia, like several other states, game officials have recently established guidelines for urban archery in an effort to cut down on deer populations in developed areas.

While it’s hard to strictly say that the area is “overpopulated” with deer (their habitat, after all, has been rapidly colonized and fragmented by suburbs), state officials try to keep their population within what they call the “cultural carrying capacity” — in other words, the amount of deer people are willing to tolerate.  “It’s often a tug-of-war between wildlife lovers, who want more, and farmers, hunters and motorists, who want less,” Nelson Lafon of the Virginia Department of Game told me shortly before I went hunting with Howard. In many developed areas — especially the Northern Virginia suburbs — deer populations have decidedly outstripped this cultural carrying capacity, so, he says, “we started this program to turn a problem into a recreational opportunity.”

Previously, they’d hired professional hunters and police to sharpshoot with silenced weapons on state parks and golf courses; elsewhere, officials have implemented contraceptive injections to control the herds. Now, with the permission of a landowner, hunters can use a bow (no guns, for noise and safety reasons) to hunt in many municipalities for a much longer season, anytime from early September to late March.

For Howard, getting permission is easy: Many of his customers ask him to come hunt at their house because they’re sick of the deer.

For Howard, getting permission is easy: Many of his customers ask him to come hunt at their house because they’re sick of the deer. He grew up in the area and has spent his whole life hunting here, both with a gun in more remote locales and with a crossbow here in the ‘burbs. “See those little plants there in front of the window, totally stripped clean?” he asks me, pointing back towards the house. “That’s how you know the deer are here. These people have literally have had deer put holes in their pool cover, and you know how expensive those are.”

Before we set off from his pickup truck, and after tossing me a camo-colored windbreaker, Howard lets me heft his bow and look through the scope, and shows me his quiver of ultra-sharp arrows, with tiny razors that hinge outward when they enter a deer’s flesh.

“The great thing about the crossbow is it’s more lethal,” Howard explains. “One of the few things I agree about with the animal-activist people is that wounding is a bad thing, and a compound bow makes it harder to kill in one shot.” Then he shows off proof of the crossbow’s efficacy: A picture of a doe his son had shot and killed behind the same house just a week earlier.

Howard Curtis on a hunt. Photo by Joseph Stromberg
A deer killed in suburban Virginia by Howard Curtis. Photograph by Howard Curtis.
Posing with a recently killed deer are Howard Curtis' son (back) and nephew (front). Photo courtesy Howard Curtis.

    Full disclaimer: I’m a Jew from the suburbs, and thus, have never been hunting in my life. I’ve never shot a gun or a crossbow, and I’m not even much of a carnivore — I try to avoid eating factory-farmed meat, on account of what I see as inhumane and unsustainable rearing practices. But I’ve long felt that hunting — inflicting a few moments of agony on a creature that’s otherwise lived a natural life — is far more ethically defensible. Add in that growing deer populations and rapidly sprawling suburbs have lead to increasingly frequent car accidents; that excessive deer grazing has been found to reduce a forest’s biodiversity; and that Howard makes good use of his kills, feeding his family, friends and sharing the venison with local food banks — all of this lets me make the case to myself that joining Howard on a hunt is a good idea. As someone who’s never actually seen an animal killed, though, a mix of anxiety and anticipation is churning in my stomach as I seriously consider the possibility that we may bag a deer.

    As someone who’s never actually seen an animal killed, though, a mix of anxiety and anticipation is churning in my stomach as I seriously consider the possibility that we may bag a deer.

    We walk into the forest, clamber up the 12-foot metal tree stand Howard has left there, and settle in. Through the trees, we can make out houses on the other side of the woods’ hollow, and local residents walking their dogs along a dirt path.

    Though we are supposed to be silent and absolutely still, Howard can’t resist chatting. “Oh, I’ve got a million weird stories about hunting in the suburbs,” he whispers. Once, when he was hunting nearby just after dawn, he’d shot a deer with the crossbow, but it bolted, and he thought he missed. About an hour and a half later, after giving up on the hunt, he went to look for it just in case he’d scored a hit, and ran into a crew of lawn maintenance workers on an adjacent property. “I speak a bit of Spanish, and I asked if they’d seen a deer,” Howard says. “They told me, ‘Oh yeah, we saw it lying in the creek, and our boss told us to bury it.’” Flabbergasted, he had them escort him over to the dead animal, which was covered with a thin layer of sticks and leaves.

    “I thought it was hilarious,” he adds.

    Other times, bystanders are an aid in hunting: recently, when Howard spied a group of deer milling in a backyard, he called the property owner and asked her to let out her dog, in hopes it’d chase the deer towards him.

    Sitting there in the tree stand, I discover the secret of hunting: 99 percent of it is meditation. It’s about intense awareness of one’s surroundings, looking for movement and listening for the crunch of leaves while ignoring the desire to urinate and the need to cough.

    Eventually, we both quiet down. Sitting there in the tree stand, I discover the secret of hunting: 99 percent of it is meditation. It’s about intense awareness of one’s surroundings, looking for movement and listening for the crunch of leaves while ignoring the desire to urinate and the need to cough. As dusk fell, we heard sounds of the forest coming alive (crickets and birds chirping) and the suburban development settling in for the evening (school buses dropping off children, dogs welcoming their owners home).

    As we stare into the forest, as though we can will deer into existence with our eyes alone, I think about just how many factors are beyond our control: the animals have to come to us, enter a small 20 to 30 yard radius near our stands, remain unaware of our presence and stay still in the right place to give Howard a clean shot. We aren’t stalking it through the woods, spraying bullets, but waiting for it to unknowingly enter our trap, within shouting distance of families sitting down for dinner.

    Then, gradually, from our right, comes the louder-and-louder sound of hooves crushing dried leaves. Howard had explained to me the difference in cadence between squirrel and deer noises, and this sounds like our target. The rustling continues, at irregular intervals, growing almost imperceptibly louder, then gradually quieter. This continues, over and over, for  half an hour. Unnervingly, it reminded me of the sound of my childhood dog wandering among the leaves of our backyard. I stare at the crest of the knoll to our right, behind which I imagine the deer is innocently grazing, entirely unaware of our bated breath.

    Then, suddenly, through the brush: a discrete movement, a flash of fur. My adrenaline spikes, as I imagine Howard sighting the animal through his scope and pulling the trigger of his crossbow.

    Then, suddenly, through the brush: a discrete movement, a flash of fur. My adrenaline spikes, as I imagine Howard sighting the animal through his scope and pulling the trigger of his crossbow. Once released, the cable would jerk the arrow forward with 80 foot-pounds of kinetic energy, propelling it through the air at 300 feet per second. It’d penetrate the deer’s hide, near the “kill zone” at its shoulders, and the razor-sharp blades on its tip would hinge outward, gouging the creature’s innards. The animal would stumble, tumbling down the hill, carried both by the momentum of the arrow and its last, desperate instincts for survival. We’d chase it down, and it’d collapse, maybe within a hundred yards, a mess of bloody fur and gangly limbs caught in the stream valley at the bottom.

    When I swivel my eyes to look at Howard, though, his fingers grasp the stock of his crossbow, and he doesn’t raise it to his shoulder. The deer is beyond the bright pink flags he’d tied on the trees to mark 20 yards away from the stand, far outside the range of his weapon. For a moment, we stare at it, hoping it would come closer, but it startles — perhaps picking up our scent on the wind — and charges away, up the hill on the opposite side of the valley, its white tail flashing goodbye.

    No more deer come that night. Not long afterward, we trudge back up past the pool, towards Howard’s pickup. “Well, I’m sorry about this,” he says, genuinely regretful I hadn’t gotten to see a kill. “That’s just how it is sometimes.” But as we drive back towards the gas station where I’d left my car, his headlights pierce the night and fall upon four young deer, grazing meekly in a wide grass median. They look up in surprise — literally deer in headlights — then go back to browsing. Howard slows, grinning at them, and for a second, I think he may pull his crossbow out of the back seat, but of course, he doesn’t — it’s illegal to shoot a deer from a vehicle on a public street. Instead, we drive away, letting the deer live off the fruit of the suburbs.

    Adventures in Suburban Bow Hunting