THE YOUNG BUCK, a spike or maybe a small forkhorn at best, stopped at the sound of the loud fawn bleat I made with my mouth out the window of the hunting blind.
It had bolted as my hunting partner shakily attempted to position the muzzleloader out of another window. The deer paused in the green, muddy field, holding broadside in the rapidly waning daylight for what seemed to be an incredibly long time.
Yet, the smoke pole didn’t go “boom.”
“Are you on him?” I asked. “Is the hammer back?”
“Yes. Yes,” was her breathless response.
It turns out, though, that the hammer hadn’t been pulled back. Gabriella Hoffman, my young, inexperienced hunter, finally realized that and pulled it back. Just then, the deer decided it had tarried long enough and wheeled to hightail it back into the thick cover.
In both my head and heart, I knew Gabriella had missed. She waited too long and, from my angle, looked like she shot both above and behind the fleeing animal.
“Do you think you made a good shot?” I asked. “Yes. I think so,” she responded, somewhat hesitantly.
I ran a couple of patches down the muzzleloader to clean the fouling and reloaded. Then, with it almost dark, we slipped out of the blind and headed to where the deer was at the time of the shot. A search of the woods began. It was swampy, with pools of water and undulating land. A downed deer could be hard to spot. After a couple passes, crisscrossing between 25 and 100 yards into the woods, we found no evidence of a hit.
For Tuesday’s hunt, I asked Bruce Lee about bringing Gabriella to his Kinloch Farm in Essex County. Lee has a soft spot for novice and youth hunters and annually hosts a hunt for kids graduating from local hunter education courses.
I’d estimate a hundred or more youngsters have taken their first deer at his conservation-easement-protected property adjacent to Fort A.P. Hill over the last 15 years. He has comfortable two-person box blinds arrayed around the property, making it an ideal setup for coaching and controlling a novice hunter.
During the ride to the farm, Gabriella and I discussed her range of experience. She said she had shot a rifle, but my guess is that experience is very limited. Her uncertainty about how to properly snug the muzzleloader buttstock against her shoulder bolstered that realization. She acknowledged both before and after the hunt that she hadn’t had a lot of practice.
I wish we’d had an opportunity to get in a little range familiarization time prior to the hunt, but busy schedules precluded that. Little things that seem basic to experienced hunters, such as pulling back a hammer and cocking a gun, can be problematic for novices, especially when they’re in the adrenaline-fueled state that happens as they contemplate squeezing the trigger on their first deer.
While my CVA Accura muzzleloader is easily capable of taking deer out to 150 yards, I determined any shot Gabriella took would have to be in the 60-yard, maximum, range.
We settled in and within an hour a doe and couple fawns moved in and out of the wood line about 100 yards away. She obviously delighted in seeing them and they safely remained out of my established range.
The deer she eventually shot at materialized to our left, necessitating a shift inside the blind so she could shoot out of another window. I positioned the rifle for her to grab and she tried to get into position. She was obviously nervous and shaking a little.
The outcome was predictable. But, in many ways, I think a miss can be a better outcome for someone who is a complete novice. It’s humbling. For a person with a good attitude, it motivates improvement. And a miss sure beats a wounding and not recovering a deer.
Gabriella, a media consultant living in Alexandria, posted about her experience on Facebook. She was philosophical and humble. She made no excuses. She wrote, “I blew it. Sigh. I fired but missed. The deer wasn’t harmed, thankfully…”
After the hunt, she explained that she wants to learn all she can about hunting and appreciates people willing to invest time in her and other young, inexperienced hunters. She knows she needs to practice.
“I just started hunting fall 2017,” she said, “and I’ve got many years ahead of me and experiences to be had. I’m not doing this for kicks or fame. I like organic meat and enjoy testing my endurance to an extent.
“Admittedly, I was nervous taking that shot. Not because of impending or supposedly impending guilt, but I’ve never pursued animals like this. It’s a conflicting feeling. Hunters care deeply about the wildlife they pursue. Alternatively, they enjoy fair chase and free-range meat.”
She wrapped up her thoughts with, “Hunting is NOT just the harvest; it’s an all-encompassing experience. The mistakes, the surroundings, the lessons, the little instances of hope—that’s what matters. The harvest is a bonus.”
I like Gabriella’s perspective. Taking another life, including one of a beautiful white-tailed deer, should be a serious, contemplative act. Taking that first deer is a life-changing occurrence.
I warned her that Lee had a display at the barn of all the shirttails he had cut off from hunters who missed a buck and was probably sharpening his knife. She gulped and agreed to take her medicine.
Lee, in on the joke, was waiting as we entered. We all laughed, and she looked a little relieved when advised we were just kidding.
Mentor young hunters. It’s an investment in conservation and the outdoors we all love.
Ken Perrotte: Outdoors@FreeLanceStar.com