More Than the Harvest

By Kristie Hilgedick | June 1, 2024
From Missouri Conservationist: June 2024
Dissability Deer Hunt
More Than the Harvest

On an early December morning in Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the world was quiet in the way only a deer hunter’s encampment can be quiet. Even the simple shifting of one’s weight in a chair, the hushed rustle of Carhartt overalls, or the unintended shuffle of leaf litter underfoot sounded like noisy explosions in the small deer blind.

But 36-year-old Justin Montgomery of Poplar Bluff has mastered the art of perfect stillness. Of the people sitting in the blind with him, including his father, David Montgomery, and family friend James Cody, Justin was the stealthiest and least fidgety by far.

“I do still get anxiety,” he confessed. “But I was intentionally trying to be calm and remain still.”

Born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused by the incomplete closure of the spinal column, Justin’s mobility is limited. But he hasn’t allowed his circumstances to keep him from living a full and interesting life. And part of that zest for life is his love of the outdoors and a passion for deer hunting.

A Sensory Experience

True: He needs help to hunt. But equally true: Preparing him for a successful hunt is a labor of love for his father and Cody — a task the two men undertake with equal parts enjoyment, devotion, and copious amounts of good-natured ribbing.

Seasoned hunters know the beauty of the experience is so much more than the fleeting, isolated moment of a successful harvest. Hunting is a complex sensory immersion. It’s the earthy smell of the forest floor. The first sip of hot coffee from a thermos. The coziness of winter weather gear contrasted with the cold, damp air. The thrill of seeing the sun rise over the cypress-tupelo swamp. The sounds of the forest waking up.

But mostly, it’s an opportunity to see wildlife in its natural element. And this morning was off to an auspicious start when a large flock of turkeys — 36 in total — left their overnight roost. After an hour or more of noisy and persistent gobbling, the birds crossed directly in front of the blind.

“It was incredible,” Justin said. “We also saw some deer, but they were out of range that day.”

Although the men were diligent from sunrise to sunset in hopes of harvesting a deer, luck wasn’t with them that day. To the unobservant, some might consider the day unsuccessful. But not Justin’s crew.

“It’s not about harvesting a deer,” he explained, with a shrug. “That’s why they call it hunting. The true meaning of a successful hunt is seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. Sure, it’s a great and worthwhile experience to take a deer. But you can have a 100 percent successful day and not harvest a thing if you have an interesting wildlife encounter.”

Connecting with Nature

On the same day at Mingo NWR, another hunter, William Hall, was equally challenged by the damp and foggy conditions that muffled the sounds of nearby deer.

Hall agreed, it’s healthy for all people, disabled or not, to find ways to connect with nature.

Hall was a lifelong passionate and devoted outdoorsman when he was permanently disabled in a 2002 construction-related work accident.

“When the injury came about, I didn’t know if it was going to be possible for me to continue hunting,” he said.

But eventually he found hope in an organization that was beginning to coalesce in Missouri: Missouri Disabled Sportsmen. Other opportunities — such as the MDC’s managed hunt program — also helped Hall get outdoors.

Today, Hall spends most of his winter weekends in the woods pursuing big game all over the state. He does this with the assistance of a close friend, a wheelchair lift attached to his pickup, a supportive wife, and an indomitable will.

Hall is an accomplished hunter who passes on more quarry than he harvests.

“My goal, whenever I hunt, is to harvest bucks that are three-and-a-half years or older,” he explained.

He sets the bar high for himself, but he’s careful to explain the pursuit of a trophy animal isn’t his sole motivation.

“My family and I consume every deer I harvest,” he said. “We haven’t bought ground beef from the grocery store in 10 years.”

Just like Justin, hunting is more than just an opportunity to take a trophy.

“I’ve driven across the state, hunted all weekend without taking a deer, and returned home without an iota of regret,” he said. “Yes, I have felt a little bit disappointed on the way home. But that’s part of the experience.”

It’s the connection to nature — a connection he can’t fully articulate — that keeps him coming back to the woods.

Hall works full-time in the freight transportation industry.

“You’re working towards that weekend. Once the workweek is done, this is what I call ‘my office,’” he said, gesturing to the surrounding woodland. “Nothing is more fun than watching two fawns play.”

Overcoming Challenges

Twenty years ago, opportunities to hunt for people with disabilities were few. People were limited to the abilities and willingness of family and friends to assist. Today, more and more opportunities are available.

Pete Eisentrager first volunteered with Missouri Disabled Sportsmen (MDS) in 2009. He joined its board in 2011 and has served as president since 2017. Those early volunteer experiences opened his eyes to challenges that people with mobility impairments face, he said.

During a mid-December MDS hunting event at the Leonard, Mo., farm of Randy and Jenny Walker, Eisentrager joined more than 50 volunteers to assist 16 hunters.

“I’ve had a lifelong passion for hunting, fishing, and the outdoors, but I took being able to do it for granted,” Eisentrager said. “MDS gives other people an opportunity to do what I love so passionately.”

MDS’s mission is to help mobility-impaired people, young hunters, and terminally ill youth. No one has ever been turned down for being too disabled, although sometimes the needs are significant, he said.

“We can overcome the vast majority of challenges,” he said.

MDS is increasingly using a variety of innovative technologies and specialized equipment to address the needs of people with disabilities. These technologies include motorized track chairs, tripods to support firearms, smart phone-assisted eye scopes, and sip-and-puff guns, to name a few. The nonprofit organization has five track chairs, 12 mobile hunting blinds, and 18 Bog chairs available to help get people into the field.

And every year, with practice and experience, more solutions and refinements are discovered.

Uplifting and Motivational

Randy Walker said the idea for his family’s event started about 15 years ago with an impulse to help a disabled friend, Rick Van Dyke, he’d met through an online deer hunting forum. Today, the inclusive, weekend-long event — named in memoriam for Timmy “Taters” Smith, an early participant — is hosted in a shop building that normally houses the family’s woodworking business. Nearby farmers contribute 3,000 acres of private land to the hunters. A long trestle table serves as a buffet. And tents for overnight stays sit at the room’s edge.

“We ended up with 25 deer harvested in 2023,” he said. “Of the 16 hunters, three of the four first-time hunters harvested their first deer. All but one got shots at deer, and that one hunter had many sightings and good opportunities. We feel blessed and it’s nice to be able to share.”

Jenny Walker said it’s been gratifying to see people who were depressed and struggling find new reasons to be uplifted and motivated. Sometimes people are moving through a stand of timber for the first time in their lives.

“It’s a gratifying feeling, knowing they appreciate it so much,” she said.

At the end of the long, busy, and cold days, the room is filled with a sense of fellowship and camaraderie rarely experienced in today’s modern world. That sense of communal joy is the real motivation, Eisentrager said.

“While we are extremely successful in helping people harvest game, it’s not the primary focus. Experiencing nature, creating and strengthening friendships are the real goals,” he said. “We are making a meaningful impact on every corner of Missouri through partnerships with private landowners and other like-minded outdoors organizations.”

Giving More Back

Fourteen-year-old Hannah Montgomery (no relation to Justin) harvested a buck last fall at a Missouri Disabled Sportsmen’s hunt. She tried again a few weeks later at a doe-only hunt, but her quarry eluded her. It didn’t matter; she said both experiences were amazing. At the latter hunt, she relished the freedom of operating a track chair over the steep terrain and loved slaloming her volunteer aide, Jake Williams, on a sled past mud puddles even more. (They were testing to see if the track chair could handle the weight of a deer. It could.)

“We saw bucks fighting three times,” she said. “You could hear the antlers clacking. They were so close you could spit on them.”

Coping with acute transverse myelitis — which has left Hannah with two metal rods and a few dozen metal screws near her spine since 2020 — has been a tough blow, but this outdoorsy FFA student from Memphis, Mo., seems determined to live her life. Quoting her favorite paralyzed barrel racer, Amberley Snyder, Hannah said: “No matter what the world gives you, give more back.” 


Are you disabled and looking for ways to get involved in exploring the outdoors? Here are some organizations and programs that may be able to assist you:

Duckhorn Outdoors

Missouri Disabled Sportsmen

Missouri State Chapter National Wild Turkey Federation Wheelin’ Sportsmen

MO Vets Outdoors

The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Managed Hunt Program

Peterson Outdoor Ministries

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation – Marcia Hale