Thirty-five years have passed since my first deer hunt. I was 13. Somehow, I can recall every detail.
I remember pitching tents and running nets the men had set in the river.
I remember the aroma of fried catfish filling the cook tent that night, and the wonderful taste of those just-caught fish piled high on a plate with heaps of fried potatoes.
I remember the cool interior of my hand-me-down sleeping bag as I climbed inside, full as a tick.
I remember the cold November air when we rose next morning. Frost glistened in the beam of my flashlight. I was taken to my stand — a five-gallon bucket beneath a big oak — and left there to wait.
At 6 a.m., the first rays of sunlight hit the trees lining the river. I fidgeted, sighting down the barrel of a borrowed 12-gauge, booming away at imaginary bucks with hat-rack antlers. Then a yelp rang through the bottoms, followed by the hullabaloo of the beagles.
The dogs had struck; a race was on! I stood and faced the baying, my heart beating rapidly as I strained to see what the dogs were chasing.
I hoped it was a big buck. One of our party had killed a big 8-point a week before from my stand.
"After I shot that buck, his grandpappy ran hell-for-leather out of that thicket," Wilson told me as we arrived at the stand that morning. "Ten points at least. And he'll be back. Sit still. And when the dogs start running, watch for that buck."
The pack was in full chorus, headed straight to me. Then the beagles veered away. I heard a gunshot and a yell, and the pack headed toward the river. Off in the bottoms, I saw a deer's white flag. The dogs were in hot pursuit.
The hunt had passed me by, but I was elated. I could breathe easy again.
It was 11 a.m. when my growling stomach convinced me to return to camp.
But as I stood, a movement caught my eye. I slowly turned my head and saw an enormous rack of antlers protruding above the thicket. Ten polished points gleamed in the sun. The deer stopped, looked back, then continued its unhurried advance. I picked an opening and braced myself to shoot.
The deer was more spectacular than even a young boy could have imagined. When it was in full view, I was overcome by a sickening feeling. I was mesmerized, unable to fire, and the deer moved slowly out of sight.
My first deer hunt was over.
I was 41 years old before I told anyone about that deer. My son Matt and I were sitting beneath an oak not far from that place where I hunted long ago. Matt was 13. It was his first deer hunt.
"I was embarrassed then," I told him. "I didn't want anyone to know I'd frozen up with buck fever when I had a chance at the deer of a lifetime.
"I know now that lots of grown men face the same problem sooner or later. A big buck comes along and they get the shakes. They can't concentrate. And the biggest deer they've ever seen walks away."
"What if you saw one now?" Matt asked. "Could you shoot it?"
"I'm not sure," I answered. "That was one of the biggest deer I've seen. I'm not sure what I'd do if I saw him again. How 'bout you? What if a big buck walks up right here and you get a shot? You think you'll get the shakes like I did?"
"No way," he said confidently.
We never got a chance to find out. Matt and I hunted together two days without getting a shot.
We were together though, and I felt closer to Matt than I ever have. We shared the tradition that started for me 35 years ago, a tradition I hope he will share with his children someday.
Few children have opportunities to hunt these days, at least compared to the "good ol' days."
When I was young, chasing rabbits, squirrels, deer, ducks and other game was as much a part of life as Friday-night ball games and Sunday-morning church.
All boys and many girls learned to hunt at an early age. The game they killed helped feed the family. But it doesn't happen as much any more. Our society is losing touch with the hunting tradition.
Competitive sports, home computers, shopping malls and television are a few of the things that draw our kids away from hunting.
On top of that, many men don't hunt. They, too, are drawn to other activities, especially those living in urban and suburban areas. Some try hunting but find it difficult to locate good hunting areas near home. Hunting regulations are complicated and confusing. Many give up out of frustration. And so the tradition dies.
For children in single-parent families, the chance of becoming a hunter is even less. Women seldom hunt, and dad has the kids only on alternate weekends, if at all. In many cases, there is no one to pass on the tradition to the new generation.
It doesn't have to be this way, and many people work hard to ensure our hunting heritage doesn't die. They will tell you that the means to the end boils down to four simple words: take a child hunting.
Share with a child the excitement of the hunt. Teach them that hunting is an important way of managing our game animals. Show them we are not separate from the natural world; we are part of it, and everything we do affects it in one way or another.
I came from a single-parent family. My mother did not hunt. My father was never around. Yet thanks to the many men in our community — relatives, teachers, friends, clergymen — the hunting tradition was passed on to me.
It happened on that first deer hunt, and it happened time and time again because the men around me cared enough to share their lives as hunters with a young boy who had no father at home.
I have six sons now, ages 13 to 27. I hunt with them often. We've spent many days chasing cottontails, squirrels, ducks, deer and other game. They are hunters, and someday they will pass on the hunting tradition to their children and grandchildren.
I take comfort in that fact because I know the things they learn while hunting will make them better men.
It bothers me, though, that thousands of children will not have a chance to hunt this year. They will never learn the things a hunter learns. And because of that, the world will be worse for the wear.
We can change that, though, by taking a child hunting this year. Take your own children, or a neighbor's child, a child from your church, a friend's child, a relative's child, any child who might not otherwise have the chance. Pass on the tradition.
Here are some pointers to guide you along the way:
Attend a hunter-education class with a child. Share with them the importance of safety and ethics.
Start them out on small game, such as squirrels and rabbits. Hunt behind a dog, if you can. This provides more shooting opportunities. And for a kid just starting to hunt, shooting is everything.
Leave your own gun at home. Some game will escape, but so what. Kids must shoot to learn and have fun. Don't be a game hog and leave the children out. If game is scarce, find a place to shoot cans or targets. That will hold their interest and make the experience worthwhile.
Invite other adults and their children to hunt with you. Many men and women would love to hunt with their children, but they don't know how to do it, or they don't know where to go, or maybe they've never had the chance to try the kind of hunting you enjoy. Share your experience, and make their day. It'll put a smile in your day, too.
Pass on the tradition this year. Take a child hunting. If hunting is to survive, it's something we all must do.
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at email@example.com.