On hunting adventures, the road is permanently covered with tire tracks … the trail with footprints. Memories are forged from the very beginning. Planning, storytelling, laughing, teaching, learning—all are meaningful elements of the hunt. My time behind the mentoring wheel with my younger brother riding shotgun as a first-time hunter has consisted of all those things. Of course, the teaching and learning parts are most crucial from the standpoint of a mentor.
Accepting the responsibility of preparing a young hunter for a lifetime in the field means commitment. Before you can move forward, you’re forced to put your own hunting-self in perspective. Safety, techniques, tactics—your entire approach should be evaluated closely before leading the way. But how do you view the sport itself? What does hunting mean to you, and what mindset do you want to instill in your apprentice?
It’s easy for any hunter—myself included—to get wrapped up in the kill. The kill means a harvest, and possibly a trophy. There’s no shame in the felt pride from overcoming one’s prey. But the end of the day the real payoff comes from the collective power of the outdoors, and the permanent mark it leaves on our hearts.
Getting In Gear
My young apprentice and I hit the road for his 3-day inauguration into chasing deer with a firearm. The heavy northbound traffic created the perfect excuse to pick one another’s brains and talk hunting. By the end of the drive it was clear he didn’t fully know what to expect from the hunt. One thing was clear: We’d try our hardest to get a deer into his sights. By the time we hit the sack that night, we were confident that our daybreak plan would bring opportunity. But hunting is hunting.
The first morning we sat in a crowded tower stand on the north end of a small strip of woods surrounded by open fields and soaked sloughs. I taught him how to judge range by marking stationary objects like trees and bushes around the stand. After several hours of listening to noises in the brush—some foreign, some familiar—the cold began to set in. I taught him the importance of layering and dressing for the elements, but that not even the toughest hunter is comfortable forever. We spotted a buck and doe bolting full speed across the field in front of us, but their day was planned. I taught him that deer don’t always invite hunters to their gatherings. By noon we headed back to the farm, following the property line looking for fresh sign. I taught him what to look for, including scrapes, rubs, tracks and beds.
The author taught his young hunting apprentice how to recognize deer sign.
After a mid-afternoon break and snack, we set out for a long evening sit. The hope was that the same stand would provide us with some p.m. deer. Evidence of deer was abundant, and we’d been told they were recently frequenting the field edge near the stand. The young apprentice got some shooting at a doe in a group of deer I wasn’t able to spot. Later, I determined they were safely out of range from his 20-gauge youth model Remington 870. I taught him—once again—how to properly judge range. We departed at dusk and spotted a doe as we approached the field edge on foot. I taught him how to stalk an unassuming whitetail in low light. By the time we closed within 40 yards of her, it was too dark and she became wise. I taught him what a “flag” was as she ran away.
The evening was spent taking in a home-cooked meal of pronghorn chili prepared by a hunting vet aka our great uncle. Each generation of hunter provided unique stories and knowhow. I taught him the importance of listening, yet contributing where contribution is due. We relaxed and reviewed the weather forecast for the next day. I taught him to pay close attention to the wind.
The next morning we made a last-ditch effort to secure a sunrise deer on the same stand. This time we saw nothing, but heard plenty of activity in the brush to our rear. I taught him about optimism and patience. After a trying sit, we walked back to the farm to establish a new game plan. The night prior we’d received a phone call from a friendly neighborhood hunter who spotted numerous deer on the field of our plan-B property. That tip-off made it easy to decide where to hunt in the evening. I taught him to soak up all available local “scouting” intelligence.
With time running out in the hunt, the author/mentor pulled the trigger on this nice doe.
Full-Throttle Evening Action
Our ideal sunset stand—a wooded edge along the supposed field hangout—presented a difficult approach. The wind was blowing from the main trail directly into our intended haunt. We made a wide “safety swing” to avoid disturbing the bedding area. I taught him the importance of scent control. We allotted a few additional hours for our sit to ensure things had ample time to relax in the woods. Before I knew it, I heard whispers of buck. Soon it became known that branches can closely resemble antlers after a long day in the woods. I taught him about “buck fever.”
As the light disappeared to the west, we could almost feel the deer itching to hit the field. Suddenly a few does and fawns made their way out. Something spooked them and they sprinted around a corner to our left, so I had my apprentice stay put while I attempted to put the sneak on. I hurried behind a small rise and crept up to its peak. I watched as my doe dreams vanished over the fence line onto the neighbor’s parcel. I focused my attention back on the field and watched as deer after deer piled out. From my position they were well out of range. I taught him that whitetails aren’t so predictable.
I quickly, stealthily made my way back to our original position. The deer were entering the field beyond the reach of his slug gun—but not mine. The light was fading quickly. I taught him that the heat of the moment often calls for split-second decisions. I fixed my sights on a cautious in-range doe as she warily scanned the wood edge we occupied. Her senses weren’t as keen as my aim. My rifled bore spoke and the field answered with an eruption of chaos, revealing two coyotes harassing the herd. I put my sights on one and squeezed the trigger, but it darted away unscathed.
Things settled down and darkness set in. My doe had bounded away after the shot, so we carefully approached the area she last occupied. Our flashlight illuminated a glimmer of red amongst the dull grass. I taught him how to find and follow a blood trail. After 150 yards of uncertainty, there she was. We high-fived in the glory of successful teamwork and sealed our memories in photos. I taught him how to field dress a deer, and why it’s essential.
Kicking Up Dust
The next morning we sat in another section of woods on the same property. Our return home was imminent, so we were limited in time. After hearing some activity, we watched a small doe fawn finally appear within a stone’s throw. My apprentice sat above me in a low treestand, beyond a whisper, so communication was minimal. The young deer bobbed its head and stared at us, unsure of why the trees were shaking. I waited for a shot from above, but it never came. She nervously walked away after several minutes. I looked up and asked why he hadn’t shot. He asked if it had been close enough. I taught him—again—the necessity of learning how to judge range.
Our vehicle waited less than a mile away. As we exited the woods I taught him the hunt isn’t over until the gun is cased. Sure enough, two final deer raised their flags from the brush. They didn’t hesitate to tactfully retreat from our two-man blaze orange army. I taught him that shooting at running deer isn’t for first-time hunters.
The rearview mirror collected dust one more time as we departed from gravel roads and solitude. I knew the quality one finds in a hunting experience shouldn’t be judged by the successful pull of a trigger, but even I needed a reminder. As I questioned the success of my mentoring wisdom, the young hunter chimed in with a relieving statement: “This weekend couldn’t have gone any better. I mean, it would have been nice if I could have got something, but it was still great.”
My 12-year-old brother’s first whitetail weekend didn’t grant him a harvest, but his positive reflection of the hunt signaled an altogether different accomplishment.
This young hunter’s first deer hunting experience taught him many lessons.