Bobby Harrell doesn’t remember how many deer he has harvested since an accident left him with a disability in 1993, but he does know how much he enjoys “seeing people get back into doing stuff that they used to do but didn’t think they could.” Harrell participates in an annual hunt for people with mobility impairments at Ernest F. Hollings Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. The hunt has become so popular that 15 tags are issued by lottery.
Disabled hunters will find numerous opportunities at national wildlife refuges, many of them long standing. Trempealeau NWR in Wisconsin has offered special weekday and weekend waterfowl hunting since 1989. At Trempeauleau NWR, each hunter may bring one able-bodied assistant who is also permitted to hunt. Hunters may also be partnered with volunteers who assist them throughout the day.
Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware has invited hunters with disabilities to an annual waterfowl hunt since 2003. A 71-year old father came to the first hunt with his 35-year old son who was confined to a wheelchair by an accident. It was their first waterfowl hunt together.
Professional waterfowl guides, Bombay Hook NWR personnel and volunteers from the National Wild Turkey Federation assist more than a dozen hunters during the hunt which is held in late December or early January. The volunteers are the result of a national partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Wheelin’ Sportsmen division (http://www.wheelinsportsmen.org/) that has enabled refuges to create more opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors.
In general, special hunts for hunters with disabilities are usually limited to about fifteen hunters; random drawings are held if more hunters apply. Hunting is often restricted to a specific area of a refuge. All special hunt participants must have valid hunting licenses, and the required state and federal stamps and/or permits; they must also follow the same bag limits as all other hunters.
Hunters with disabilities should be aware that state regulations vary widely. Some states issue free licenses to people with certain disabilities. Some require a physician’s statement of disability before a license is issued. There are often modified rules about discharging a firearm from a vehicle, since this may be the only way a hunter with a disability can hunt. It is critical that hunters obtain information on specific regulations from the appropriate state department or other licensing agency where they intend to hunt. Hunters should also get specific information from the national wildlife refuge where they intend to hunt.
Adaptive equipment and adapted hunting techniques help hunters perform in spite of their disabilities. There are accessible boats, wheelchair-accessible lifts to reach hunting blinds and self-elevating aerial hunting platforms that require no trees.
Rifles, handguns, shotguns, muzzleloaders and even bows can be adapted to accommodate individual disabilities. There are locking devices for compound bows, converted crossbows for people without upper body function and red-dot sighting systems for use with bows and guns. Shooting rests can be mounted on a wheelchair or a tripod to secure a rifle or a bow. Guns can be positioned and aimed with joystick controls. Hunters with limited or no use of their arms can learn to shoot with a special mouthpiece or a “sip and puff tube,” in which the trigger is activated by sipping or puffing air through a tube. There are even wheelchairs built like all-terrain vehicles, with big tires and the ability to negotiate sand, mud, rocks and uneven terrain. There are also outfitters offering training clinics specifically for hunters with disabilities.
The former executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America says events for hunters with disabilities, like the one he attended at Bombay Hook NWR, can be an unforgettable experience. “Events like this renew people’s self-esteem,” says Wayne Carter. “The world comes alive when you get out into the woods, sit in a marsh to see the sun rise, and have the camaraderie of others who are in wheelchairs.”