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Prairie chicken dance

8/18/2010

Editor's note: To accompany Deer Camp '09, we've asked athletes, prominent figures and outdoorsmen to relate their first deer kill.

Passing a hunter Education class is now required to get a hunting license in all 50 states.

Since this requirement has been instituted, accident rates have declined dramatically, and continue to do so every year so that hunting is now about as safe as ping pong.

The umbrella organization that works with all the 67 voting jurisdictions consisting of the 50 states, Canadian Provinces, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and South Africa. Those jurisdictions along with their 70,000 volunteer instructors, is the International Hunter Education Association.

IHEA's office and Executive Director are based in Colorado. The President is elected every two years from the voting jurisdictions and the current President, Timothy Lawhern, is also the Hunter Education Administrator for the State of Wisconsin, as well as state game warden.

I first met Tim at an IHEA convention in Springfield, Mo., where he demonstrated the mating dance of a prairie chicken — more about that later.

Tim has been hunting for 47 years and got his feet wet as a hunter early in Tennessee.

"I was 7 when I started hunting with my family, just tagging along. At age 10 I started hunting deer with a single-shot shotgun with a slug.

"There were not many deer in Tennessee in those days. The biggest concentration of deer was in the Land Between The Lakes and Fort Campbell area. If you saw fresh tracks, that was a big deal, but we had lots of turkeys, squirrels and other things to hunt.

"When I turned 16, I got a driver's license, and I bought a Remington Model 700 .243 rifle. I was really proud of that gun. I could hit a Styrofoam cup at 100 yards free-hand with it.

"I asked my father if I could borrow the family car to go deer hunting. He asked me where I was going to go, and I said that I was planning to go to my aunt and uncle's farm, which was located on White's Creek Pike (located just on the north side of Nashville). He said yes.

"In those days there was no requirement for blaze orange, so we used safety pins to attach swatches of red cloth to our clothes. I drove over to the farm and my aunt and uncle said that I could go hunting, but that there were not any deer on their farm as far as they knew.

"I headed for a brushy area, walking slowly; I guess you would call it 'still hunting.' This four-point buck stands up out of the brush. I just knew that if I stopped to shoot, the deer would spook. So, I came to the conclusion that I would have to prepare to make the shot in mid-stride, while still walking. I took off the safety, kept up a slow pace, slowly raise the rifle, turned, sighted in and took the shot.

"The buck jumped once. Then it jumped again, and it fell and never got up again. I had this Fight'n Rooster single-blade knife, with a tortoise shell celluloid handle and carbon steel blade. It was shaving sharp.

"All I knew about dressing a deer I had learned from reading outdoor magazines at the local drug store. Those magazines actually gave me the incentive to read, which helped me with school. Jack O'Connor, Townsend Whelen, Jim Carmichael and John Wotters were my heroes.

"I knew that I had to take its innards out, and I did that the best I could. I tagged the deer and walked back to the farmhouse.

'You gonna come and help me drag the deer out?' I asked. My uncle did not believe me that I got anything. My aunt, however, saw that I had blood on my hands, and so we went out and half dragged and carried that deer back to the farmhouse and butchered it.

"No one had ever killed a deer in that part of the state before. From the hill where I shot that deer, you could see the state capitol building of Tennessee. Today, it's all shopping malls, multiple unit housing and parking lots there."

Today, Lawhern is the Wisconsin Hunter Education Administrator and a game warden. He's been in Wisconsin for 25 years. There is some irony in that — Tennessee built up its deer population from deer imported from Wisconsin in exchange for Tennessee's wild turkeys.

I asked Tim to reflect on hunting today, versus what it was nearly 40 years ago.

"There are three things that a really different," he said. "The first is the social stigma. Today even in Wisconsin, we are seeing the percentage of the population that hunts decline. Stores that sell equipment are declining in numbers or the inventory of gear is going down, even in stores like Wal-Mart.

The second challenge to hunting is access. How many hunters can we tolerate? Where can they go? It used to be that there was a lot of public land, and if you wanted to hunt on private land, you just asked. There was no fee.

The third big change is that small game hunting really used to be popular. Every one hunted squirrels, pheasants, grouse, quail, and the land was developed in such a way that large populations of small game could be sustained. Today, all the media attention is on big game.

The casual hunter, the kid who hunts after school, or the family that wants to go out for a couple hours, can't do that as easily any more. They have to drive farther, access is more difficult, and often they have to pay."

I asked Tim to look in the crystal ball.

"I think that we may have to redefine hunting," he said. "We need to find ways to get more access and opportunities for people to get out and enjoy hunting without having to always spend a lot of money."

And walking his talk, Tim is working with IHEA on some new ways to help change the image of hunting. Let's hope they work.

Oh yeah. About Lawhern doing the prairie chicken shuffle. If you have not seen Missouri Department of Conservation Public Relations Specialist Ralph Duren in action, you are really missing one of the great entertainment acts of our time.

Duren, also a fine country musician, discovered at an early age that he could mimic over 100 animal sounds with great accuracy, often using only his mouth. Over the years, Duren has taken this ability and woven into a stand-up comedy act that has enchanted audiences all across America.

He has appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, CBS "This Morning", CBS Tom Snyder "Late Night", 'Swan's Place" and "Home Life" on Family Net, Michael Feldman's "What Da You Know" on National Public Radio, Agri Talk Radio, Steve & D.C. Morning Show and numerous outdoor television shows.

At an IHEA convention in Springfield, a few years back, Duren was the main event one evening. Duren asked for a volunteer to come up on stage to help him. As Lawhern was then the President of IHEA, Tim was quickly cheered on to the stage.

At first Duren just had Tim handing him calls, etc. Then he asked to start helping my making some animal gestures. Suddenly Duren said that he wanted to perform one of his special calls, the prairie chicken mating call, and then he instructed Tim the steps to take to mimic the dancing chicken, much to the delight of all attending. He was caught.

Cheered on by the audience, Tim danced the prairie chicken shuffle, while Ralph Duren chortled prairie chicken love songs for almost a minute. Both got a standing ovation at the conclusion of their performance.