Tina Weikert: When a boy goes off to hunt, mom has a lot to think about
November came around this year as it always does, holding my birthday and Thanksgiving within its days. I'm a fan of birthdays no matter my age, and this year would have presented no challenge except for this one extra fact: This year, Vermont's Youth Deer weekend opened on the same day, and this year was the first year my eldest son Harry began to hunt.
I can handle wrinkles and arthritic tendencies, but my child learning to hunt involves extra birthday thoughts.
I recognized this emotional concern ahead of time, so I was pre-emptive. I interviewed Harry, to gain his thoughts on the matter, and I reached out to one of his hunter education instructors, Monty Walker, who is also Fish Culture Station Supervisor at the Bennington Fish Culture station.
I am not a hunter. I support hunters. I enjoy eating game. I enjoy target practice. But I am not, nor probably will ever be, a hunter. Becoming a hunter is a rather big deal, though, which is why I was struggling on my birthday with recognizing that my 11-year-old son had the ways and means to go out into the woods and shoot a deer. It felt emotionally akin to the day he learned to walk — which thankfully did not happen on my birthday.
In Vermont, first-time hunters, bowhunters, and trappers must complete their respective course to purchase their first license and begin hunting. There is no age requirement, but all exams are written at a sixth-grade level.
As Walker, a hunter ed instructor since 2007, explains, an online course is available where students can complete the course at their leisure; however, they must print a certificate of completion and attend a "range day" run by a certified hunter ed instructor. The traditional classroom version requires 12 hours of classroom time and at least 4 hours of "range day." The students must attend all classes, complete a workbook, and pass a written exam as well as pass the "range day" activities, which include firearm handling, live-fire exercise, and shot/no-shoot scenarios.
My son took the traditional classroom courses at the Hale Mountain Fish and Game Club in Shaftsbury, and as he went through the work, his confidence grew. I asked him what he enjoyed about the process. "I liked the instructors. They were nice and told fun stories about hunting that made me want to be in the woods," he said.
These stories weren't focused on getting the biggest buck, but more about being outside, appreciating nature.
"For me harvesting an animal is the icing on the cake so to speak," Walker said. "Of course, I enjoy trying to outwit a turkey or whitetail deer, but I also enjoy just being in the woods, the smell of the woods after a rain, and the sounds of the woods waking up on a cool May morning. And the things I have witnessed, such as an ermine stalking and killing a rabbit for its evening meal; squirrels climbing over my boots, a black bear digging for food and of course the many beautiful sunrises and sunsets."
The goal of the class is to make students safe, knowledgeable, and responsible hunters. It got my son thinking deeply about how he planned to conduct himself in the woods. His 11-year-old self discussed ethics with me.
"You got to make sure it's legal, it's safe, and decide if it's ethical. If what you see in the woods, is in range, and would make you happy, then take that shot. But you have to think about it before you pull the trigger,' he said. "It's legal to shoot, but if you see a mama deer with a doe, you are going to have to think what would happen to the baby if you shot its Mama."
That right there is where the hunter ed class proved most valuable to my family. Harry has shooting skills and book smarts, but the involved ethics of hunting needed to be grappled with. It's folks such as Walker who lay that necessary groundwork for Vermont's newest hunters. Like all good teachers, they don't provide all the answers, but questions for which each contend individually.
I asked Walker, a hunter in his own right, to describe his early years.
"I do have many fond memories of hunting with family and friends." Walker said, "My mother would always make us a huge breakfast before the opening morning of deer season. I would eat so much I could barely walk. Most of my hunts as a young boy did not result in the harvest of a deer, but they were valuable learning experiences, and it was time well spent with family and friends. However, I believe my most cherished memories are those of hunting with my children."
My son, as of this column being printed has yet to down a deer. He has been in the woods multiple times since earning his license and has learned much from each hunt. The hunters he's gone with have taught him how to look for scat and how to identify tracks. When one of those mentors shot a deer, Harry learned how to ready it for butchering.
I asked him one more question: What are your thoughts for the remainder of this deer season? What makes it worthwhile?
"I'm hoping to get a deer this season," he said. "but if I don't, it was just fun to go out in the woods and spend my time trying to find one."
Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.