On Saturday, thousands of Maine youngsters will wake early and head into the woods with a parent or adult mentor for a day of deer hunting that’s set aside for them. It’s called Youth Deer Day, and since its establishment nearly 20 years ago, it has helped families create lasting memories of times spent afield together.
I know the vast majority of those youth hunters will learn some important ethical and safety lessons. But there’s always room for improvement in that regard, so I hope you forgive me today as I hop on the old soapbox and explain how you might be sending the wrong message to our young hunters during their hunts.
First, a personal story that will show you how easy it is to do the wrong thing, and to get in trouble for it.
A few weeks back, a man with a youngster in tow pulled up across the street from my house in a semi-rural neighborhood. To be perfectly clear, this neighborhood looks like the kind of place you’d want to hunt, with fields and woods all around. And to be honest, many people do hunt there, albeit with archery equipment.
But my neighborhood is in a firearms-restricted zone within the city limits, you see. You’re not allowed to shoot a rifle. Or a handgun. Or a shotgun. Period.
The man who pulled off the road and into the field didn’t know that. But he did know this: There were wild turkeys in the field, and the fall turkey season was open. He hopped out, along with a youngster, and began blasting away at the flock, according to my neighbor.
Then he hopped back in the truck and drove into the field to retrieve his birds.
Needless to say, those of us in the neighborhood were not overly impressed. Nor was the game warden, when he arrived, took a few measurements and determined that the shooter had fired his shotgun too close to a nearby dwelling.
The warden made quick work of the case, tracking down the shooter quickly. Notice I’m not using the word “hunter,” here? I save that term for folks who don’t drive into fields without permission and who don’t start discharging shotguns when they’re less than 100 yards from a dwelling.
Over nearly two decades of writing about hunting, fishing and the outdoors, I’ve learned that situations like this are frighteningly common. In the worst cases, I’ve had to talk to family members after their loved ones have been shot and killed during deer season.
And those incidents didn’t have to happen. A quick knock on a door, or a phone call, and a landowner might have been able to say, “No, not this year. We’re doing some work down back. It’s not safe.”
Or, in my neighborhood on that day a few weeks ago, the shooter might have heard this: “Well, if you want to walk up there and try to get a turkey with a bow, feel free. But you can’t use a shotgun within city limits.”
Personally, I think pulling into someone’s driveway and asking if you can load up and blast the deer or turkey that’s standing in the homeowner’s field is a bit offensive. More offensive? Not asking, and blasting the animal anyway.
So here we are, heading into one of my favorite times of year: Firearms season for deer. We’ve got a chance to get out there, enjoy some fantastic times with family and friends, and maybe put some deer meat in the freezer.
Do we need to ask permission in order to head into our neighbor’s woodlot? For years, Mainers have been governed by a custom that allows hunters to access the land of others if it is not explicitly posted otherwise.
But should we ask?
In most cases, especially away from the big woods where the forest is owned by large landowners and there are few dwellings, I’d say, “Yes.”
As you head into the woods this year, be safe. Teach your children the right way to do things. Hold yourself to a high standard.
And have fun. Responsibly. Just like most of you already do.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.