Since the birth of my son Ryan, I have dreamed of the two of us hunting together. I started tutoring Ryan on safe shooting skills once he reached his eighth birthday. Ryan quickly developed good shooting skills practicing with a lever-action, .22-caliber rifle with open sights.
Once he became proficient with that rifle, I allowed Ryan to shoot a scoped, .243-caliber, bolt-action rifle. The rifle is a Ruger Model 77 and was the first bolt-action rifle that I had purchased on my own. Now it is Ryan's first deer rifle.
Ryan could operate and shoot that heavier gun, but he needed sandbags or shooting sticks to support the forearm of the rifle. Ryan enjoyed shooting, and in the summer of 2003, he began begging me to take him deer hunting during the upcoming 2003 Youth Firearms Deer Season. I agreed.
The night before the two-day season opened, I recognized the enthusiasm and excitement in my son that I had many times experienced. It reminded me of my childhood when I would lay out all my hunting clothes the night before a quail hunt with my father. I never got a good night's sleep before any of those hunts.
When my alarm sounded, I went to Ryan's room to wake him. I had barely turned the doorknob when I heard him ask, "Is it time to go, Dad?"
As we donned our hunting clothes, I told Ryan how dressing in layers would keep him warm. I went to the kitchen and began to make a pot of coffee.
"Dad, can you make me a cup of coffee?" he asked.
"Don't you mean a cup of hot chocolate?" I replied.
Ryan nodded. I guessed he just wanted to do what his dad does.
It was a long drive to the property on which I had received permission to take Ryan hunting. He sat silently, drinking his hot chocolate. I couldn't help but think about what must have been running through his mind. He was probably picturing the same hatrack bucks that I was seeing. Hunting together reduces the age difference between men and their sons.
We arrived at the property well before daylight and began walking, but heavy rain forced us to seek shelter in one of the landowner's outbuildings. The rain broke at daybreak, and we continued on to our hunting spot. On the way, I told him the proper ways to carry a firearm.
I also showed Ryan how to maneuver through the woods and explained to him the importance of wind direction and how to recognize the various signs that animals leave. I told him to that the best way to see deer was to look for horizontal lines in the mostly vertical woodland.
Occasionally we heard the calls of wild turkeys and pileated woodpeckers, the chatter of squirrels and the wingbeats of waterfowl as they passed over the forest canopy on their way to the nearby Niangua River. Ryan asked about them all, and I answered him as well as I could.
After we sat for a while without seeing any deer, I took Ryan to another part of the property. We were looking for a place to sit down when I noticed movement to my right. I told Ryan to stand still and to be absolutely quiet. Like a ghost, a nice-antlered buck walked toward us. The wind was in our favor. I slowly positioned the shooting sticks I carried to help Ryan support his rifle.
I told Ryan to shoulder his weapon and to load it like we had practiced. Light rain began to fall. The deer moved closer. It was traveling a draw, which would provide a perfectly safe backstop for a shot. I encouraged Ryan to place the crosshairs just behind the deer's shoulder, switch the safety off and squeeze the trigger when he had clear shot.
The deer was now within 50 yards. It was an exceptional 8-pointer, a bigger deer than I had ever taken with a rifle.
Ryan continued to aim. Whispering, I asked Ryan if he could see the deer in his scope. He said he could, but that he was nervous and that the deer kept moving. Ryan attempted the breathing exercises that we had practiced for shooting, but I noticed that his breathing was short and excited. I could only imagine the amount of adrenaline rushing through his small body!
The deer continued to move slowly away from us. I whistled, and the deer froze, presenting himself mostly broadside. He looked in our direction and began stomping his front feet. Just as I whispered to Ryan that the deer wouldn't stay around long and that he would have to shoot soon, the deer turned and bounded away, his big, white tail waving until he was out of sight.
I asked Ryan why he didn't shoot. A tear began to well up in his eye. He told me he didn't feel comfortable with his aim and that he was afraid his shot would not cleanly kill the deer.
"I'm sorry, Dad," he said.
I reassured Ryan that he had done the right thing and that he had no reason to be sorry. He had made a conscious decision not to take a shot because he didn't feel ready for it. I told him I was very proud of his decision because it showed respect for the game he pursued.
We continued our hunt and saw more deer, but we didn't get another chance to shoot. Later, a small 6-pointer walked up on us. He was very curious and put on a good show. We opted to let this small buck grow and discussed the importance of harvesting does to help balance and stabilize the deer population.
Ryan continued to talk about the big buck and how he wished that he could have taken the shot. I tried to convince him that he had made the right decision and that he would have many more days of deer hunting. I explained that, with more shooting practice, he would gain more confidence in his marksmanship. He thanked me for taking him deer hunting and told me that he was really having a good time.
The day had provided a wonderful experience for my son and me. I wished that Ryan could have taken the buck, but Ryan had shown a surprising amount of maturity for his age. Being a Conservation Agent, I know that lots of adult hunters would shoot at a moving deer without giving any thought to the possibility of injuring the deer and never recovering it.
The Youth Hunting seasons were introduced by the Department of Conservation to help introduce kids to hunting. They provide an opportunity for adults to spend quality time with kids and to teach them how to make good decisions when it comes to taking wildlife.
Ryan probably experienced a kind of buck fever, but he didn't let it cloud his judgement. He had shown respect for wildlife by letting the deer pass to wait for another opportunity when he would be ready to make his shot count. I was proud of the decision Ryan had made and feel confident that he is well on his way to becoming a responsible and ethical hunter.
Ryan and I have gone camping, canoeing, fishing, shooting and hunting squirrels, but the time we spent together during the 2003 Youth Firearms Deer Season was one of our most successful outings.
I couldn't have imagined the measure of success of our hunt together that day. We spent quality time together. We strengthened the bond between a father and his son. We enjoyed the blessings of the many natural resource treasures that Missouri has to offer, and we learned more about each other. We didn't obtain venison for the freezer or antlers to hang on the wall, but we did come home with a good feeling of why we hunt. We were successful beyond measure.
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