Today my 13-year-old son, Michael, sits in a tree stand one draw over, eagerly awaiting dawn to bring light to his first bowhunt. In these hills and valleys my son will have the opportunity, as did I, to learn of the hunt and nature's ways.
Michael has hunted small game. Yet in hunting deer Michael is a young man pursuing an adult sport. I am reminded of this fact often. But I know Michael is ready. I began teaching him hunter safety and shooting skills when he was in first grade through backyard work with a BB gun. Later, carrying that BB gun, he accompanied me on small game hunts, shooting an occasional tin can and practicing the hunters' most important rule: always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
By fourth grade I bought Michael his first shotgun, a single-shot 20-gauge. Hunting under my careful supervision, he brought home doves, quail, squirrels and finally the question: "Dad, when can I go turkey hunting with you?"
I hesitated. Turkey hunting is a tough sport, requiring loads of patience and the ability to sit still. But I decided to let Michael try, and he succeeded, tagging three turkeys before he turned 13.
His successes, coupled with an interest in Indian lore, led Michael to bowhunting. With lawn-mowing money, Michael bought a bow, and with disciplined practice he developed and honed archery skills. By September he was ready, consistently grouping arrows out to 15 yards. Anticipation for October and the hunt ran high - for both of us.
These thoughts were with me as I waited for first light. They're warm thoughts, thoughts of things done right. But my mind also ponders the hunt. My efforts to kill a deer are serious.
I can now make out the stark shadows of trees. Dawn is arriving, but fog and an overcast sky mute the light. I strain to listen, hoping to hear the clatter of hooves against gravel as deer cross the creek - but another sound breaks the silence.
Directly behind me and in the direction of Michael, something falls. Thoughts of the hunt turn to parental concern. Could Michael have slipped and fallen from his stand? No, I reason. I stood under his stand this morning while be climbed up and had remained there while he fastened himself in with his safety belt.
My mind races. Could Michael have dropped his bow? No. The sound was too loud. Could a large limb have fallen from a tree? It's just now shooting hours, the prime time for deer to be moving, but I have got to check on Michael. Then I think. No, I'll hoot like a barred owl. Michael should hoot back.
I cup hand to mouth and release a rolling series of calls: "hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo hoo-hoo, hoo-hooawwwww." No answer. I hoot again. Still no answer; why doesn't he hoot back? I decide to check on my son.
Minutes have now passed. As I prepare to lower my bow from the stand, the call of a barred owl, just a little too high pitched, comes from the direction of Michael's stand. It's my son. Why, I wonder, didn't he hoot back immediately when I hooted?
Then I understood. A deer had been close, and Michael didn't want to blow a shooting opportunity. It hadn't offered him a shot, and I knew the deer was walking toward me and Michael wanted to alert me of its presence.
Sounds come toward me from the direction of Michael's stand. I quickly nock an arrow. Adrenaline surges and my breath deepens. The light is low but it is legal shooting time, and the deer trail passes within five steps of my stand. Even under low light, I'll have a shot.
There it is! I glimpse the silhouette of the deer 30 yards away, spotting a glint of white off its antlers. Though the antlers are small, the deer is large and broad-backed.
I plan to let the deer walk past, then take a close shot as it walks away, angling an arrow through the deer's rib cage into its heart. The deer continues its steady approach. At 20 yards, it stops and utters: "Dad, I slipped and fell from my stand."
Excitement turns to shock and my legs tremble as I stare in disbelief. The deer had been my son! Despite being a veteran hunter with over 25 years experience, I had made a potentially fatal error: I had mistaken a hunter for game.
"Are you hurt?" I ask Michael as I climb down from my stand. I try to mask my emotion, but my voice cracks.
"No. The safety belt caught me. It pinched my back, Dad, but I'm OK. Just bruised and maybe scratched a bit." Michael reads me well and knows something's amiss. "What's wrong, Dad?"
I had mistaken Michael for a deer. How? Michael and I sat together on the lip of that Ozark draw and talked long, looking for answers.
My attitude? I considered myself a safe hunter. It's how I was raised. But in spite of my upbringing, in spite of my good safety record, my attitude was flawed: I thought I could never mistake a hunter for game.
I often scoffed at accounts of hunters mistaking other hunters for game thinking, "That's not me. That's a foolish error that I could never make." It always seemed incredible that any rational person could make such a blunder. But it's not.
From the time I heard leaves rustle until Michael stood in front of me, no more than 15 seconds passed. Not once during that 15 seconds did I consider that my son might be approaching. I anticipated a deer. With insufficient light to form a clear image and little time to ponder, my eyes sent a picture to my brain, and my brain told me what I saw was a white tailed deer. What I had perceived as the deer's broad back was actually Michael's head and shoulders. The glint of antler, Michael's bow limbs.
If you hunt, answer this question: do you think you could mistake a hunter for game, as I did? Be honest. Take care with the answer. If you think it just couldn't happen, beware. Hunters who believe themselves incapable of errors go to the woods with tragedy shadowing their every move.
After this incident, my son and I made a vow. Whenever we hunt, if we hear or see what might be game, we first think: it's a hunter approaching; look for the hunter. The rational reminder helps cool our adrenaline and keeps safety foremost.
To protect ourselves from other hunters, whenever we move through the woods, even if we are just on a hike, we now use hunter orange. A hunter orange cap can make the difference between a pleasant time afield and disaster. And when we approach one another's hunting area at unexpected times, we now speak before coming in, rather than communicating by owl hooting.
This hunt offered important lessons for Michael and me. We left the woods safer hunters. But as we drove home our mood was quiet and subdued, for in our minds there hung the image of how our hunt might have ended.
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