"Hunt of a Lifetime"
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
Hunters in front row: Scotty Fox, Charles Sample, Jonathan Smith, Victor Jordan, William Vosios. Assistants for hunters in back row: Kelly Smith, Victor Fox, Claude Cogdurn, Ronny Finley, Don Vasios. Credit: USFWS
The alarm on my cell phone had been set to vibrate and I could hear my phone humming on the night stand next to the bed. I reached for the phone to silence it before it would wake my wife and children and in my slumber stupor, knocked a water glass and book to the floor. I heard my wife give a sigh of discontent with my less than stealthy morning maneuvers as I lay back down for a couple more seconds of reflection under the warmth of the covers.
This is how I have started many mornings before going out for a day of hunting. I think every hunter participates in the habitual act of weighing pros and cons before heading out to the field. The pros are the hunt, the chance to see wildlife, and watch the sunrise over the Refuge. The cons are getting out of bed, not being able to find a stand in the dark, and freezing while you wait for the sunrise. After the hunter has compared these quick mental scorecards, a decision is made to either head to the shower or put your head under the covers. This morning’s decision was almost instantaneous as I remember why I had set my alarm for 3:30a.m. After fixing a cup of coffee, I was on my way to Cook’s Lake to assist in this year’s mobility impaired hunt.
Cook’s Lake refers to more than a body of water. The name refers to a unit of the Refuge that is managed by three partners in a truly symbiotic relationship. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation comprise this triad of cooperation. The area has been set aside for use as an outdoor classroom by schools and youth groups. It is also used twice a year for the Refuge’s special hunt program. Cook’s Lake can be described as having marvelous inherent properties. There is something wonderful about this place that you can sense without anyone having to tell you why it is special. This morning I felt that I would have the chance to be part of this inherent property as I was taking five new friends on the hunt of a lifetime.
Dozens of hopeful hunters had applied for this year’s mobility impaired hunt at Cook’s Lake. We randomly drew five names that met the Refuge’s criteria of mobility impaired and notified the lucky winners. For weeks now, I have been receiving phone calls from Scotty, Victor, Charles, William, and Jonathan, the hunters selected for this year’s hunt. Some called asking what to bring and what would be provided, while others called just because they were so excited that they didn’t know what to do with themselves.
As I pulled into the lodge at 4:00a.m., I thought about some of my conversations with the hunters and a smile came to my face as I secretly hoped that each one would harvest the deer of their dreams this weekend. We ate breakfast and took the hunters to their stands one at a time. Each hunter was carefully loaded into either a hydraulic lift stand or a ground blind. Back at the lodge, all of us working the hunt strained to hear the sound that would signify success of an early morning pursuit of the elusive white-tailed deer. Throughout the weekend, four of the five hunters harvested deer. Charles was finished by Saturday morning filling both of his tags and Jonathan, William, and Scotty all filled a tag and were able to take meat home for the freezer.
As the hunt was winding down on Sunday, I sat with Victor and asked if he had a good time. I knew Victor hadn’t shot a deer and I wanted to take some time and ask him about his hunts. I knew that he had deer close to him on the morning’s hunt and I asked why he didn’t shoot. I asked him several questions about why he didn’t shoot as I assumed the deer was too far or maybe he couldn’t see through the scope. Each question I asked he shook his head “no.” Finally, very slowly he said, “gut shot.” Then I realized what he was trying to tell me.
The deer had come in but stood behind a tree. Victor had a shot but the vitals were not in view. The only shot he had was a gut shot. Rather than risk a poor shot, Victor decided to let the deer go. Victor may not have the opportunity to go on many more hunts like this, but he would rather miss the chance at harvesting a deer than risk making a wounding shot.
When all the hunters had left, I packed up my supplies and started to drive home.
I drove past the entrance to Victor’s stand and saw a couple of does walk
across the road. This time a smile came across my face as I realized this may
have been one of the deer that Victor decided not to shoot. The memories of Cook’s
Lake will last longer than the venison in the freezer and I am sure that each
of these hunters experienced the inherent nature of this remarkable place.