Today marks 23 years of being married to the most amazing woman in the world.
She knows I know it, and now you know it.
This is a story about my wife becoming a hunter. It was originally published in American Hunter magazine.
“I think I’d like to try hunting.” I couldn’t have been more astonished if my wife would’ve told me she wanted a sex change. After 20 years together I wanted to think some of me had rubbed off but I knew credit for this directional change was owed to another. No matter, the thought that my best friend might help me pass on the legacy of hunting to our children was inspiring. Memories of time spent in the woods with my mom began to stealthily creep out from where they’d been hiding.
Three things, sustenance, security, and sex primarily drive humans. Almost everything humans do is to fulfill these lusts. Next on the list of what drives our species is entertainment and it influences the three primary motivators. If humans can flavor their acquisition of food, shelter, and sex with entertainment, they’re happier humans. We’re driven by instincts, but gourmet cooking, fancy homes and various fetishes are the secret sauce that makes us smile.
Through our years together I’d never pushed Drema to hunt. I did encourage her to carry a gun; 13 years of chasing bad guys leaves no doubt in your mind about the importance of being armed. Finally she caved to my urgings and she and my sister attended a defensive handgun course at Gunsite Academy. For Drema it was an empowering, life changing experience. When I asked her about it, her response was not about how much fun she had. She simply said, “If someone was trying to hurt our kids or me, I’d shoot them to the ground.”
Shortly after, I introduced Drema to Linda Powell. Like my wife, Linda is a lady but Linda is also a hunter. They hit it off and for three years they and several other ladies conduct an annual pilgrimage to Gunsite to receive shooting instruction. Though I mostly looked at their escapades as extended weekend retreats, little did I know something else was occurring.
As Drema became more proficient with shooting and underwent repeated exposed to Linda’s stories about hunting all over the world, she began to find the combination to unlock the hunting gene embedded in us all. I think Drema realized her interests in prowling the isles of grocery stores and continually searching for tasty recipes to enhance her desire for sustenance were nothing more than the hunter in her wanting out.
Armed with a rifle, warm clothes and advice I put her on stand during the opening day of deer season. Within 30 minutes she had a close encounter with a mature buck. She did not get a shot but she was bitten with the whitetail rush. The combination lock popped off the chains holding the hunter inside her at bay. She told me, “I don’t know how I’ll feel if I kill a deer but I want to.”
After deer season Linda called asking if I thought Drema might like to go to Africa with us to test a new rifle from Mossberg. Drema was euphoric about the prospect but noticeably apprehensive. We practiced religiously prior to the trip. Boarding the plane I knew that, one way or the other; the next 10 days would change Drema’s life. Also, with euphoric anticipation, I realized instead of hunting with my Mom I would be hunting with the mother of my children.
Gerhard “Gerry” Pretorius with African Bullet Safaris met us at the airport in Johannesburg. We drove straight to the lodge, just outside of Lephalale, and close to the green and greasy Limpopo. With an after midnight arrival it was next day noon before we hit the bush. Gerry, Drema, and I headed out to a water hole. A hushed conversation with Gerry clued him in on Drema’s background. Grinning, he said, “No worries.” Still, knowing the importance of the event and the anxiety on Drema’s shoulders, I was.
Few things are comparable to the wonderment of an African waterhole. Your ears take in a musical soundtrack reminiscent of the movie Hatari and your eyes are awash with kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. A red hartebeest cow and calf walked under our elevated blind. A waterbuck emerged from the bush to get a drink. Egyptian geese fed on the far bank. Drema looked at me, eyes wide like when they beheld at out first-born, and whispered, “Wow!”
The plan was to start out slow; let Drema take a sure shot at an impala or a warthog and several were frequenting the waterhole. Gerry had her track a young impala with her rifle for several minutes. He and I knew it was immature but we also knew time behind the rifle would ease the tension and ready her when the real time came. Moments later it did when two regally massive gemsbok marched into the water hole. I whispered to Gerry, “That’s what she really wants to try for.”
Calmly, Gerry asked Dream, “Do you want to try for the gemsbok?”
Drema nervously grinned, like a kid who’d been offered their first chance to ride a roller coaster, “Yes! Can I?”
Exhibiting true field earned professionalism, nonchalantly Gerry told her to wait for a good shot and go for it. Later, he told me with that tremendous trophy within her reach, and knowing Drema had never shot at an animal, his heart was beating out of his chest. He said, “I knew if I let my excitement show it would be contagious, possibly inducing a bad shot.”
The little Mossberg .243 Winchester barked and an 85-grain Partition started its critical journey across the waterhole. For Drema, it was the most important bullet she’d ever fired. Her future as a hunter depended on its point of impact and performance. The bullet struck a third of the way up the gemsbok’s chest, straight above the leg. I knew it was over. Drema shucked the bolt like the Gunsite trainee she was and the gemsbok disappeared behind a tall stand of papyrus. She turned and looked at me with an expression that in 20 years I’d never seen on her face.
“Did I get it?”
Wiping a tear that had already appeared in the corner of my eye I said, “Yes, she is yours!” and I pointed to the other side of the papyrus where the gemsbok had piled up. Drema had trouble speaking during the laugh-like cry bursting from within. Tears welled in her eyes and I desperately fought to hold back mine and to let her see nothing but a smile. Gerry was congratulating her but I don’t think she heard a word. Visibly shaken, it was a several moments before Drema could stand.
Gerry went for the truck and Drema and I walked the hundred plus yards to the gemsbok. I watched her touch the horns and bury her hands in the mercury colored hide. And, in her eyes, I saw the unmistakable look of a hunter. Yes, she could shoot an animal and yes, she could kill it humanely. Drema was experiencing a Christmas morning sensation generally only reserved for adolescents.
The next day Drema took a close range impala while I acted as her professional hunter. That evening, while hunting with Linda, she fired her final shot of the safari. Linda was after an eland when they stumbled on a herd of wildebeest. She suggested Drema try for one and a stalk began. At 180 yards they ran out of cover and Drema, shooting off the sticks, sent another Partition on an even longer journey.
Drema then got to experience another sensation. “There was very little blood and I was upset that I had only hurt him. I know it happens, but I was not ready for it to happen to me.” The bush was thick but a brief search turned up a massive bull only 30 yards away. “He was amazing! He just looked so massive and beautiful laying there.” That night at the fire ring Drema told her tale and we later enjoyed the wild protein she had harvested.
Surveys and experts suggest more women are becoming interested in hunting. For some, like my sister who hunted with her mother, it’s a natural instinct. Her hunting gene was unlocked and nourished from birth. For others, the journey can be as far as from the West Virginia hills to the bush veldt of South Africa. All humans are predators – hunters. It’s why we have depth-perceiving eyes, teeth designed to chew meat and the intellect to help us outsmart our quarry. Those of us reared like lion clubs – by parents who hunt – are destined to carry on that instinctive tradition. Others need a helping hand along the way.
After Drema’s departure from South Africa I headed south of Kimberly, to ground just north of the Orange River to hunt with my son. One night at the fire ring I heard a most profound statement. Geoffrey Wayland, who operates Fort Richmond safaris said, “You must take what Africa gives you.” Africa gave my best friend the key to unlock her hunting instinct. It gave me another hunter to share my life with. And, it gave our kids the opportunity to grow up like I did, hunting with my mom in a family that recognized that’s what humans are supposed to do.
On West Virginia’s opening day of deer season during the fall following her safari, Drema headed out in the dark. She was on her own and had no assistance from me. A few hours and one shot later she had venison on the ground and our two daughters and I helped her bring the protein home. When it comes to passing on the hunting tradition, moms matter. For the next generation of my family that tradition is now guaranteed to continue.
SIDEBAR: Hunting Tools for Moms
The term “lady’s rifle” gets tossed around by those with a harry chest like it is a lesser firearm. Often, the focus is on the cartridge but where it should be is on fit. When it comes to women, they need the same thing from a rifle a man does. It needs to fit them. But, that’s the problem; most hunting rifles are sized for the average man, which is, on average, bigger than the average woman.
Mossberg’s media relation’s manager, Linda Powell, outfitted Drema perfectly for her safari. Mossberg’s compact ATR Youth Super Bantam has a length of pull adjustable from 12 to 13 inches and with its short, 20 inch barrel, overall length is less than a meter. Weighing in at less than seven pounds, a quality, high-resolution scope, like Swarovski’s Z3 3-9X 36mm, can be added without over burdening the shooter.
As for cartridge choice, some will question the .243 Winchester for use on African plains game. Drema manages the accounts payable department at a large coalmine, where most of the hairy chests are hunters who think magnums are needed to kill a whitetail. The key to cleanly taking any animal is shot placement and bullet performance. Hunters shoot better with rifles that don’t knock them cross-eyed and terminally speaking, the Nosler Partition cannot be outclassed.
Drema delivered textbook shot placement and humane kills during her first Safari. All told, better than the veterans she hunted with. This happened because she had good training at Gunsite Academy, because she had a comfortable shooting rifle that fit her, and because she practiced often beforehand. With that road map and a little help unlocking that sometimes hidden gene, the term “hunter” can apply equally to the fairer sex. Just ask the next lioness you meet.
Today is my father’s birthday, and this is an excerpt from my book, Under Orion.
Happy Birthday Dad!
December 1964: The deer hunter set on a rock with his rifle across his lap. It was the last day of season and any deer was legal. He was hunting a ridge that fed down from a high mountain. Closer to the top than the bottom, he could see below him well. To his right and left the ridge fell down into deep hollows. Clumps of head high mountain laurel dotted the landscape. The temperature was cool but comfortable and the hunter was wonderfully content, alone on the mountainside.
He was a long way from camp and farther from home. His wife, who usually accompanied him, was at home pregnant with their soon to be first-born. After 12 years it looked as though he would now become a father. Munching on an apple his thoughts drifted. He was anxious, about deer he may see and the son he may soon have.
As dusk approached the hunter heard something off to his left. Several deer were moving down the ridge just over the break. Finally, he managed to make out the body of one of the larger deer as it browsed among the thick tangle. With the deer at about 60 yards he shouldered his rifle and squeezed the trigger. At the shot the deer disappeared and he called a miss. In an instant there was another deer, a wide racked buck, coming his way. Under the premise his first shot had gone wide, he worked the pump on his rifle ejecting the empty. That’s when the rifle’s magazine fell to the ground. The big buck slid to a stop some 30 feet away and watched the hunter desperately trying to ready his rifle.
More movement distracted the hunter and his attention was drawn back to the spot where he had fired at the first deer. There, another buck with a nice rack was trying to gain his feet. The hunter’s first shot had been true, breaking the deer’s back. The remaining buck bounded away as the hunter stood, satisfied that he now had venison for his freezer and horns for his wall.
The hunter that day was my father and the deer he took was a 10-pointer with mirror image left and right antlers. Not a trophy book deer but one that would hold the title as being the best buck to come off our hunting property for 35 years. Over those 35 years more than 50 different hunters searched that same property for a buck that would un-throne my father’s deer. As you can guess, I chased after that dream too. At first by my father’s side; where he taught me how to hunt, how to slip along quite-like, and how to find the deer. Later, I chased that bigger buck on my own. I hunted hard.
When I was 17 I had my first chance. I was still-hunting an old timber trail on opening day. Gun at the ready, I eased along; one step, stop and look, one step, stop and look. I was checking every bit of the forest for any sign of deer. Another hunter appeared. He was doing the same, headed toward me on the old logging road. When we met we exchanged greetings and passed. Confident the other hunter had spooked any deer in sight of the road, I slung my rifle and started down his backtrack.
I hadn’t gone 30 feet when the largest deer I had ever seen stepped into the trail. We were only a handshake apart. Our eyes met and we both knew the other had made a mistake. I struggled to bring the rifle to my shoulder and the buck bolted into the timber, disappearing as quick as he had come.
Two years later found a hunting partner and I as guests at another family’s hunting camp. Just at daybreak on opening morning we were all gathered at the back porch talking strategy and readying gear. A field rose away from the little camp and across a high knoll. Feeling a little out-of-place in the family conversation, I eased over to the fence and started watching the sky turn orange. It was deer time.
As morning arrived, there silhouetted on the ridge at about 200 yards, was a wonderfully nice buck. His rack was easily seen without the aid of binoculars. I dropped to a prone position as I alerted the other hunters to my find. One of the family members quickly yelled, “I got him, I got him!”
So, there I lay with my sights on this monster buck’s back waiting for the landowner – who so graciously allowed me to hunt his farm – to shoot and hopefully miss this wonderful buck. The hunter fumbled with his rifle for what seemed like an eternity as the monarch walked into the woods.
It was a long time after that before I got another chance at a deer that might equal my fathers. Sure, I put deer on the meat pole but they were nowhere near Dad’s deer. The funny thing about his deer, each year it seemed to demand more respect. I was still chasing.
About 10 years ago when I got out of the service the folks had bought a small farm that was absolutely littered with deer. Home just before opening day I was without a rifle so I borrowed Dad’s. I was working nights at the time and did not get into the woods until around noon. My hopes were that other hunters coming out for lunch might get the deer moving. As I entered the timber in a deep hollow at the edge of a field, I saw a heavy racked buck running down the ridge toward open ground. Another chance!
When the buck entered the field I applied what I calculated to be the proper lead and fired all 5 rounds from the rifle. The buck disappeared over a little rise in the field and I was in shock that I had not connected. I quickly slammed a fresh magazine into the rifle and sprinted to the top of the rise. And there, standing proudly about 150 yards away across a draw in the field, was the buck. With a rack much wider than his ears I knew this was the one. After the next five shots the buck slowly walked into the tree line, with me, out of breath and out of ammunition.
“Did you hold a fine bead?” Dad asked.
“No.” I mumbled.
The 2000 hunting season found me back at our old hunting camp. On the same ground the now almost mythical 10-point my father had taken 35 years before had come from. A much-improved hunter, I had taken the love of the outdoors and the skills my father had shared with me and built on them. I knew how to hunt deer now. Dad didn’t get out quite as far as he used to. Bad knees and an obligation to stay close to take care of Mom, should she need something or should he think she does, keeps him and his rifle near camp. We had worked together that summer to build him a stand in earshot of the cabin.
It was the day after Thanksgiving. I left Dad at his stand and eased up to the top of the mountain. It was a cold 13 degrees when I slipped into the area I had been scouting. In September of that year, just below where I now set, I had found a 13-inch strip of velvet at the base of a battered laurel bush. I knew he was there and I was in his bedroom before daylight.
Just as the sun cracked the darkness, with its golden rays breathing life into the colorless forest floor, it happened. A doe burst from other side of the hill onto the big flat I was watching. Right behind her, nose down and in a strut, was the buck. She darted among the wind-blown oaks on the hilltop flat with the buck in tow. I had to make a move before she led him away. I found an opening and fired. He was hit. The buck spun and come toward me and when he stopped broadside at 60 yards I put the second bullet through both shoulders. He wheeled toward me again, head down and coming fast. At 23 steps the rifle roared for the third time and he fell. Three shots, three hits: one for every missed opportunity over the years.
I desperately wanted to drag the big 12-point into camp by myself but even downhill it was too much weight. As bad as I hated it, I left him on the hillside and walked to Dad’s stand at the bottom of the mountain.
“That you doing all that shooting up there?” Dad asked.
“Yep.” Trying to stay calm I held out a shaking but bloody hand.
“After the second shot I figured you missed. Is he a nice one?” Dad was smiling.
“He’s the bull of the woods Dad.” I was smiling too, and I thought the chase was over.
That evening around the campfire under the stars of Orion, I watched my father as the flames danced between us. I thought about how he had put up with my rowdiness in the woods and other places. It was appropriate that he had been there to help bring out the deer that would finally eclipse the one he had brought out 35 years ago. It added to the fond memories of being at his side during the many hunts he was never to busy or selfish to take me on.
It was then that I realized that this trail my father had blazed for me to chase him down was much more than for the quest of a bigger buck. It was a road he had built to help me become a hunter – and father. And my chase I now realized, was far from over. For I had a young son at home too.
It’s not the 10-point buck anymore; it never really was about that at all. It’s the obligation to instill the spirit of the hunt in my son like my father did with me. He must be provided with goals to pursue and he must be taught by the good example I must set. I have the obligation to lay the footprints for him to follow while he chases the wide antlered dream just as I did. The gift must be passed on. I must make him a hunter too.
Dad, I’m still chasing you.
Last week NRA’s American Hunter published an article on their website titled, “The 30-06 Sucks.” I wrote that article. In less than a week, all over social media I have been branded as just about every bad thing a human could be. The NRA has received demands that I be fired, and I’ve received death threats.
One reader messaged me to make sure I was OK, after all the stuff being said about me. I assured him I was, and that if what folks said about me worried me, I’d have never written the article or became a cop.
Actually, what I’m really worried about is the emotional state of the folks who left the hundreds of thousands of comments. The idea that a human could be so emotionally attached to an inanimate object is kind of frightening. Imagine what would have happened if the article had been, “Ford trucks suck.” (They do by the way, and so does Pepsi Cola.)
I stand by the article and the facts that support my conclusion/opinion. An African professional hunter friend of mind likes to use the phrase, “the big thing is,” and I’ll borrow it in here. The big thing is, if you shot 10 elk with a 30-06 and 10 elk with a 308 Winchester, using the same bullet, and then conducted an autopsy of every animal; you could not tell which cartridge killed which bull.
The other thing is, I’d recounted the story of an uncle whom everyone in the family despised. I shared that his love for the 30-06 prejudiced me against it. Many of the commenters said that was a “silly” reason to not like a cartridge. But the truth is – and the underlying message of the article was – that’s as good a reason as any to not like any cartridge.
If you don’t like a cartridge because its 100 fps slower than another, that’s fine by me. It won’t matter unless you’re shooting at distances where you can’t hit anything anyway. If you don’t like a cartridge because it has Winchester instead of Remington on the headstamp, that’s just fine too. It still does not matter. And, if you don’t like a cartridge because your wife’s x-boyfriend used it to kill a bunny rabbit bigger than the one you killed, hell, that’s even a better reason.
We have so many cartridges that essentially do the same thing, pick one you like – for any reason at all – and learn how to shoot. 260 Remington, 308 Winchester, 270 Winchester, or even the over rated 7X57, for the true rifleman it will make no difference.
Sadly, the political correctness overcoming our nation has slipped into the world of guns. It’s just not acceptable anymore to state facts, because someone will get their feelings hurt. Fortunately for me some guy on the Internet realized that if you drop a SIG P320 a certain way it just might go bang. That little gem of a video might have saved me from some lunatic trying to attempt an exorcism.
The lesson here is, regardless of who made it, don’t drop you handgun on a hard surface. There will be, and always has been, the potential for something bad to happen.
I still think the 30-06 sucks. For most stuff it’s too much, and for what little is left, it’s not enough. If that hurts your feelings to the point you gotta go ballistic – yes, pun intended – dude, you need serious help. Oh, and by the way, cartridges don’t have feelings.