THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF PASSING IT ON.
Hilary is possibly the most unlikely hunter I could conjure up: a young suburban woman from Brooklyn, more comfortable with Instagram than with Remington. 1 honestly worried about which end of the shotgun she'd point toward the turkey.
We found ourselves on the Clear Fork Ranch in Texas by a mix of accident and purpose. We worked together--she in the home office of another magazine, I as a field editor--and she had asked a couple times about my photos and stories of hunting. I blurted out, as a matter of habit and good manners, that she was welcome to come along on my next trip.
Her response knocked me off balance. "OK," she said. "I'd like to learn how to hunt." That was the "accident." The "purpose" was an invitation from my friend J.J. Reich of Federal Ammunition. He was putting together a turkey hunt that was intended to provide training wheels for beginning hunters and their mentors. We'd stay in a Texas lodge and have a guide and thousands of acres of land at our disposal.
That hunt was one of our community's first attempts to address what's some assume is an impending death spiral of our cherished field sports. It starts with declining hunting participation. As a group, American hunters are becoming older and fewer. We're failing to replace ourselves with younger, more active hunters as we "age out" of the activity. Extend the trend fine forward 10 years and we don't have enough hunters in America to fund state wildlife management agencies or sustain the $17 billion shooting and hunting industry. The fewer participants, the less relevancy we possess politically, culturally, and, even, practically, as the notion of public management of public wildlife fades to a footnote of American history.
Of course, we can short-stop that spiral by creating more hunters, and one of the easiest ways to do that is when each of us invites someone new into our ranks. That's the whole idea behind mentoring.
The purpose of this story isn't only to tell you the necessity of mentoring. It's also to tell you that it's both easier and harder than you imagine.
I can't imagine a more willing and welcome apprentice than Hilary. She was eager, interested, and capable. She absorbed the various skills and perspectives of hunting like a Hill Country rain. I'll spare you the cheerful details. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoys famous quote about families, all successful hunts are alike; each unsuccessful hunt is unsuccessful in its own way. Our hunt was happily successful, with Hilary shooting two long-beards within five minutes inside 40 yards of one another and then texting photos of her first kill to her non-hunting family back in California.
When we imagine mentoring a new hunter, we picture experiences like the one I had with Hilary. We imagine early success, ample opportunity to teach skills, and then to bask in the glow reflected off our grateful apprentice.
Then there are experiences like the one I shared with Gilbert.
About all that Gilbert and Hilary shared was the way my relationship with them started, with an offhand offer to teach them hunting. Gilbert's acceptance was more jarring, because the minute I made the invitation, I regretted it.
Gilbert was a journalist interviewing me for a story. I invited him into my home and disliked him from the start, considering him a little bit petulant, oblivious to the things he didn't know, and overly confident of the things he did. He noticed a couple rifles on a rack in my living room, and before asking, he picked one up to admire it. I could tell right off he didn't know his way around a gun, and before he painted the room with its muzzle, I asked him to put the rifle down.
That uncomfortable incident resulted in his admission that he didn't know much about guns, but that he'd sure like to learn to hunt. As he said it, I was reminded of something one of my own mentors had told me years earlier, as we discussed the imperative to preach the gospel of hunting to new converts.
"If someone asks you to take them hunting, and you don't do it, then you're an a#%hole," he had told me.
I was also reminded of one of the obvious, if neglected, parts of mentoring new hunters: the need to embrace people who don't look like us or have the same background as us or who may value hunting differently than we do. Gilbert checked two of those boxes. He's white, but that's about where our similarities end. He's urban, gay, grew up as a gamer with an unhealthy affection for pets, and had never shot a gun.
"I couldn't stand to see any animal in pain," he told me. "In fact, I think I'd rather cause pain to another human than to an animal. But I eat meat, and I figure that as long as I do, I need to take responsibility for where it comes from."
His admission was so candid and plaintive that I blurted out that I'd take him hunting. That's where my regrets began.
We arranged that he'd return to my house on a weekend during deer season. I looked forward to his arrival a little like I look forward to pumping the septic tank or cleaning leaves from the gutters. We had traded messages during the previous months, and I knew that I'd have to provide all his gear, right down to his boots. I'd have to teach him the rules of gun safety, how to shoot, where to aim, and how animals behave. I'd have to take time away from my own kids to take him in the field, find him a deer, coach him through the shot, and then help him field dress and butcher his kill.
Wasn't there a clogged gutter somewhere that I could clean instead?
As it turned out, all those things that I had anticipated and dreaded came to pass. Gilbert complained that the deer were too wild or too far away and that my boots gave him blisters. I never lost my patience, but neither was I at my jolly and welcoming best. After busting one stalk after another in the first of our two days together, I made him practice dry-firing on an empty chamber, aiming at going-away deer so he'd get comfortable with the mechanics of the gun. That night, he spent an hour on the phone with his friend, reliving the day. Though we had been in deer nearly constantly, I overheard him say how boring hunting was. (I also heard him say that I was a "bad-ass" and "real deal guide," which raised my estimation of Gilbert.)
My estimation was raised further the next afternoon, when we glassed a mule deer buck bedded 320 yards away. Gilbert settled behind the scope, waited for the deer to stand, and then dropped him with a single perfect shot.
I was elated. Gilbert was in tears. He sobbed as he approached the young buck and continued to cry as I admired the shot placement. I walked away so that he might have some time alone to compose his thoughts and, as I suggested, to thank the deer and the land for the gift of good game. He was still crying when I returned. The only time I lost my patience with him was when I told Gilbert that he needed now to take responsibility for his actions by notching his tag and taping it to his buck. Only then could we "make meat" by field dressing the animal and getting it out of the field.
The honest work of gutting reengaged Gilbert, and by the time we got the buck back to the house and hung in the barn, he was reliving the hunt, talking about the stalk and the shot and the rotund wetness of the internal organs.
I sent him down the road with four quarters of venison, two lovely back-straps and tenderloins, some neck meat, and trimmings. And a 3x3 rack that he didn't want until I told him that in years to come, the antlers would remind him of the day he became a hunter.
Gilbert emailed me the other day. He was down to his last few packages of deer meat.
"I've experimented with different ways of cooking it, and I serve it to all my dinner guests," he said. "They say it's the best meat they've ever eaten. But maybe it's just my cooking. I'm pretty good around the kitchen."
So far, I've held off on another invitation. I have other apprentices to mentor. Besides, I get the feeling Gilbert is going to be just fine.
RACK * ROOM
WHERE: South Africa
WHEN: August 2019
RIFLE: .300 Win. Mag.
HUNTER: Kevin Jones
Monthly Rack Room winners will receive a YETI Rambler.
Every quarter, one winner will be drawn to win an Aimpoint H-2 sight.
Enter your trophy photo at PETERSENSHUNTING.COM/RR