Lynn Henning / The Detroit News - November 11th, 2009
Whitetail deer are the jewel of a wildlife mosaic at Kirk Gibson's 1,300-acre ranch, a heavenly parcel in Michigan's northeast Lower Peninsula dotted with wetlands, hardwoods, apple trees, and deer-dining crops of corn, soybeans, rye, clover, and alfalfa.
It's a personal slice of paradise the ex-Tigers player and coach co-owns with two other baseball names: David Wells, Gibson's Tigers teammate, and their latest partner, Jake Peavy, who now plays for the White Sox.
"This year we got eight different (black) bears on camera," Gibson was saying at his Grosse Pointe Park office this week. "We have 10 different bald eagles. We've got partridge, rabbits, woodcock, butterflies, frogs, beaver, otter, mink, muskrats, bobcats, ospreys -- it's just incredible. And I mean abundant!"
Gibson was a day from heading north for the start of Michigan's firearms whitetail season, which begins Sunday. But he already was into character.
He wore a camouflage shirt and camo cap as he spoke with one man's inimitable passion for the outdoors.
Gibson talked about a hunt he and his partners sponsored last week for two boys in wheelchairs, aged 14 and 11 and afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Each shot an archery whitetail on the ranch. It was part of a $100,000 donor's pledge to the Pathfinder Program, a kind of Make-A-Wish charity sponsored by Safari Club International, which Gibson and his partners support monetarily and with the use of their ranch, where Wells helped by guiding the two boys on their happy hunt.
"These two kids each got to harvest a whitetail buck," Gibson said, awe in his voice. "It was snowing up there, and here they were, riding around in their wheelchairs catching snowflakes in their mouths.
"One of the boy's mothers came by later, saw him with the deer he had taken, and -- I wanna tell you, everybody just lost it. That's what nature is. That's why it's so powerful."
Gibson, 52, has a kind of Teddy Roosevelt makeup when it comes to the wild world. Roosevelt, who put into motion the concept of national parks and who was America's first great presidential steward over the environment, was also a passionate hunter.
Some see a contradiction there. Others believe hunting is intrinsic to experiencing nature and its bounty. The latter philosophy is pure Gibson.
"Deer are a renewable resource, and I appreciate that," he said. "I like to shoot big bucks. But does are tasty, and you're servicing the herd by taking an appropriate number of them.
"We survey our numbers constantly. Dave, Jake and I have the wherewithal to manage these things based upon sound science. On our place, we've been able to take politics out of the mix."
He refers to the ongoing state debates about whitetail deer policies. There's invariably controversy, particularly with respect to the Quality Deer Management school, which some counties have adopted. Generally, only bucks of six points or more are allowed to be shot in a QDM region, while does are harvested in relationship to what a particular area or tract of land is capable of supporting.
QDM, its proponents argue, helps ensure that older, more mature bucks with trophy antlers and more robust genetics become a herd's master breeders.
"I preached that 15 years ago," Gibson said. "I remember asking (then-Gov.) John Engler: 'When is the biggest landowner in the state going to do this (QDM)?'
"I got a dirty look."
Gibson has sat on various state commissions, including the first group dedicated to eradicating bovine tuberculosis in Michigan's deer herd.
"I wouldn't say I'm exactly a biologist," he said. "But I know a lot of biologists. I get a lot of opinions from them and share a lot of data with them. Every animal on our ranch was born on this ranch. It's a natural herd."
He has personally taken some monsters from his ranch, including one buck that weighed 340 pounds.
But his biggest trophy came not from the ranch but from nearby state land. Gibson had seen the buck and set up a tree stand deep into a swamp. He got the 10-pointer a few days later, a beauty that scored 152 points on the Safari Club International scale.
But trophies are only a bonus from Gibson's hunts.
Venison is the great reward. He eats it regularly, in homemade burgers, sausage, jerky, steaks and chops. He dined Sunday on some "fabulous" venison enchiladas. Gibson's venison chili is a staple, he says, the essence of venison's flavorful, high-protein, low-fat glory, all free of the hormones and chemicals Gibson finds repugnant about so much store-purchased beef, pork and chicken.
His venison processing begins with meticulous field-dressing, followed by a washing of the body cavity, after which the deer is hung for a day at chilly temperatures. Then the deer is moved to a cooler on his ranch, set at 42 degrees, to age before the whitetail is carved into cuts.
Then, it's time to feast.
It's the capstone to a great hunt, a way to give thanks for, and to be nourished by, a whitetail deer Gibson can't help but see as the grandest occupant on a ranch that in three men's view is an altar to Mother Nature.
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