Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Lesson for All Outdoor Mentors

I took a buddy and his son out hunting deer yesterday. The boy had never shot a deer before and I have had the privilege of gaining access to some pretty awesome hunting grounds and to be honest, I'd rather see a kid shoot a deer than myself so I was glad to take them out. I want to share this trip with you, not to be critical of anyone but to share a valuable lesson when introducing kids to the outdoor activities we love so much and sometimes take for granted.

When I was a kid, my family was crazy into hunting and fishing. I had a BB gun by the time I was five and my first shotgun when I was nine. I was shooting as soon as I could hold a gun up and was more than comfortable pulling the trigger on just about anything. However, I had my own experience with not being able to shoot when put into a position I wasn't ready for and I should have learned from that.

I was with my brother hunting deer when I was 11. I wasn't legal to carry a gun for deer just yet but we had been reading about rattling deer in with antlers so we figured we try it out. We had picked out a spot behind the house in some thick brush and plopped ourselves down and I did my best to sound like two bucks fighting. I was going at it. I smacked the antlers together and then rattling them vigorously like two deer locked up. I then used the antlers to scrape the brush and the ground like they were tearing things up. I got so into it I think I even started using my own sound effect with my mouth by grunting and snarling and whatever I could do to sound like there was an all out war going on. All that work and I only lasted about 10 minutes before being whipped myself.

My brother took over on the antlers and told me to hold the gun. I had never shot a .30-.06 before but I really didn't think it was going to matter anyway because we were pretty skeptical that this was going to work. About 2 minutes after my brother started banging away with his rendition of fighting whities, the craziest thing happened--the antlers of a huge buck rose up above the brush only 30 yards away.

I'd never been so nervous in my life and without saying a word or even having to have my brother tell me, I lifted up the rifle to train it on the buck. It was crazy. I couldn't believe this thing was standing right in front of us. I couldn't believe the rattling actually worked and as I tried to put him in the crosshairs, I couldn't believe I couldn't find the f'n thing in the scope!!

I tried so hard to find that deer but all I could see is black. I don't if I my eye was too close to the scope or too far away or maybe I closed the wrong eye. Who knows but all I could see was darkness and all I could hear in my ear was my brother whispering, "Shoot, shoot, you're right on him...Shoot!"

I didn't shoot and that buck wheeled and took off.. My brother was so disappointed. I was disappointed and embarrassed. All I wanted was a second chance and prayed the last minute was a bad dream but of course, it wasn't and we had to walk home; instead of getting help dragging and being victorious hunters, telling the story of me getting buck fever so bad I couldn't pull the trigger.

So yesterday, we glassed a nice buck from a few hundred yards away and the three of us put the sneak on him. We used the hillside for cover and then worked our way into an outcropping of rocks on the other side of the coulee from the deer. He was a good one and for a first deer, you couldn't ask for anything more. We ranged him at a reasonable distance and got John on the sticks. The deer stood perfectly broadside.

"Ok," I said. "Find him in the scope and put the crosshairs on him. Do you see him?"


"Ok, do you have the crosshairs on him?"


"How does it feel?" I asked.

John said he felt good so I instructed him to put a shell in the chamber and bring the gun up again. Once he had the deer in the crosshairs I told him he could take the gun off safety and shoot.

"I can't." He said. "I'm too nervous."

His dad and I spent a few minutes telling him it was ok and to just take his time. We were staying positive and supporting him. A few minutes into it, the deer bedded down and we tried it again. It took a few times but John did finally pull the trigger but he missed.

The deer stood up and took a few steps and stopped broadside again.

"You're going to have to shoot again," I said.

John didn't shoot and eventually the deer walked off. It was ok though and we did everything we could to support him. It was a good first step even pulling the trigger and we told him that. We would find another one.

We did find another deer. This time it was a big whitetail and as I went through the same process of getting John on the sticks, finding the buck in his scope and then taking the safety off, John just couldn't pull the trigger.

After the deer walked off I said, "Johnathan! What's going on buddy?"

"I don't know," he said. "I'm sorry."

Those words, 'I'm sorry,' were like a 16oz. Foreman boxing glove smacking me in the face. He wasn't ready and him hearing me being disappointed sure as hell wasn't going to help.

"So tell me, buddy," I said. "What's going on? Are you afraid of the gun or do you just have a moral problem with killing a deer? If you don't want to shoot it, that's perfectly fine. You don't have to but lets figure that out then and you don't have to go through all this again."

"Well," he said. "It's kind of both. I don't want to wound it and not have it die right away and I've only shot this gun a few times so I don't know that I can shoot it without it suffering."

"That's definitely something we can work on," I told him. "And you know what? That's also a really good reason not to shoot."

Pulling the trigger on a deer is a huge responsibility for a kid. Feeling that pressure is natural and something we all have to fight through the first time but there are some things that we should do as mentors to make that easier. The most important thing is building confidence in their ability to be successful, which comes with practice and experience. Again, I don't want to sound critical but it is a valuable lesson we can all learn from. If we want kids to have a positive experience so they learn to enjoy the activity, we need to set them up for success.

I was tagging along, hunting with my dad when I was five. I was target practicing with a BB gun first, then a .22 and then a shotgun. I killed small game before ever pulling the trigger on a deer and even then, it was hard the first time. And then, when I was old enough to carry a rifle while deer hunting, we practiced shooting a lot and we made the process of sighting in our rifles a yearly ritual that we just had to do or we didn't hunt.

John learned a valuable lesson too and he will be out there again. He learned that there is some work involved and it's also up to him to initiate some of those opportunities to build that confidence. In all, we didn't shoot anything yesterday but I'd say it was a pretty successful hunt.

Keep 'em where they live...

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