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It's three o'clock in the morning. I've been sleeping since eight p.m., and now my alarm clock is telling me that it's time to wake up. Most people are sleeping at this hour of the night, but I'm just now waking up to pack up my gear and head into the forest for the morning. Last night I packed my .30-06, tree stand, a small cooler full of food and a rucksack full of hunting equipment including deer scent, camouflage paint and a flashlight. I've been planning a hunt for two weeks, and the weekend has finally come. I get up from bed, shake off the cold of the morning and get ready to leave by four.
It's five a.m. when I get to the dirt road winding into Ocala National Forest. I park my car in a clearing gather my gear and head into the forest with my eyes to the trees. By five-thirty I'm set up in a tree, my rifle is loaded and I'm quietly sipping hot coffee from my plastic thermos cup. I'm well concealed by tree limbs, and I have a clear shot at the ground below within my line of sight. My camouflage pants and jacket keep me hidden from the poor eyesight of the deer below, and my height above the ground keeps the smell of a human away from the sensitive noses of animals on the ground.
Six a.m. and the sky is turning a light blue. The night's shade is dissipating slowly, and I can begin to see my surroundings a little better. A shot rings out from the west, and that signals nearby hunters. I hope they drove some game my way. Within a few minutes, there is rustling in the brush below me. A young buck is coming within range. He's a big one too; I can see about eight points from where I am. He is cautious and sniffs at the air and flicks out his tongue often. His coat is a light brown color like khaki. There are white markings along his flank, and he has a stubby little white fluff of fur for a tail. I disengage the safety on my rifle. The bolt is forward on the gun, and I know there's a round in the chamber. I steady myself. I turn ever so slightly to get a better angle.
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I clean and dress the animal for transport, and I carry the carcass back to my car. I still have to bring the buck to the ranger station and get him checked out. The ranger nods his approval of my kill and gives me leave. The drive home is satisfying: my first big game kill. It's eight a.m., and I'll be home before noon. There's just a quick stop at the taxidermist, and he'll strip the meat and mount the head for me.
I spent four hours at the range in Apalachicola State Forest shooting my .30-06 caliber rifle the day before. I had to sight-in (adjust the scope for accuracy). I shot just over fifty rounds doing so, and when I went into the forest the next morning, I knew that my rifle would be true. I've been hunting for five years. My first experience was with a group of guys hunting meadow grouse, and since then I've become independent and killed two beautiful bucks on my own.
Since I was sixteen, I spent a lot of time shooting various guns. My good friend's father had an assortment of rifles, shotguns, pistols and bows that we used to shoot on his property in Brooksville. I started off eager to shoot. I spent as much time as I could with my friend's dad shooting all of his weapons as much as I could. I loved the feeling of hard recoil against my shoulder. Power entranced me. I loved the power of a rifle and the loud bang of a shotgun. It all intrigued me. I started where a lot of hunters start, in the shooter stage.
There are five stages of a sport hunter according to the Florida Hunter's Education Manual. It states that, "all hunters do not pass through each of the stages. Everyone does not pass through them in exact order" (FWCC 7). They include the shooter stage, the limiting out stage, the trophy stage, the method stage and the sportsman stage. Each stage is specific to a certain behavior that is exhibited either due to excitement or intrigue. The first stage, the shooter stage, generally deals a lot with those individuals practicing and getting a handle of their new tools.
Practice in any art form or sport is crucial to mastery. For this reason many hunters spend their weekends on gun ranges. A typical gun range is a long, flat field that stretches out from a firing canopy where hunters and shooters setup and fire their weapons. The state of Florida owned firing range in the Apalachicola State Forest stretches out one hundred yards to a tall mound of dirt and grass (the backdrop) with staggered wooden stands between the canopy and the backdrop for scoring sheets. The hunting public of the Tallahassee area uses this range regularly to practice shooting.
As I grew into the sport of hunting, I gained a very fond attachment to my guns. They were an extension of my body: a tool that was a part of me. I got tired of clay pigeons and long range marked papers. I wanted a real, living target. I wanted something that would put up a fight, maybe even run away. That is when I first experienced grouse hunting, and I learned for the first time that all of my time on a shooting range wasn't really enough. I was simply "plinking" when I needed to learn the art form behind hunting.
Plinkers are the group of people new to firearms that take their guns out and shoot anything that can be shot. They're the nouveau shooters. They're kids or men that just bought their first .308 or .30-06 and want to burn their money on ammunition. These individuals are in a stage of sport hunting known as the shooter stage. The Florida Hunter Education Manual says, "this hunter thinks of 'good hunting' as meaning 'much shootin'.' Beginning deer hunters tell of the chances they had to shoot. Missing game is not as important as pulling the trigger" (FWCC 7). They also say that these types of hunters make dangerous hunting partners. Fellow hunters see them as beginners getting the feel for their new tool.
In talking with a fellow hunter I found that everyone started off plinking at one point or another. George Ghent is a hunter that spends a lot of time at the Apalachicola range. He said that as a kid he would go out shooting squirrels and raccoons on his family's ranch in Ocala. During season George hunts whitetail deer in Ocala once a month using a black powder fifty-caliber rifle. These rifles are more primitive than the customary rifles. With this rifle the hunter has to pack his own powder into the barrel along with the shot and use a priming cap to ignite the powder. It is somewhat archaic, but the experience shooting them is like none other. Ghent's time on the range is the most valuable time he spends. "When I'm in that tree, it's me and nature. Nature has a way of fuckin' with you, so I get myself ready by using this here range. The practice helps me quickly load another round into the barrel if I need it."
The next stage is the limiting out stage. "These hunters still talk about enjoying shooting. More important to them is the number of birds or game animals shot" (FWCC 7). I don't recall ever going through this stage. When I hunted fowl, I shot one bird and that was sufficient. However, I know some duck hunters that spend hours in a boat and come home with their absolute limit for ducks. They get quite a bit of meat from these fowl, and the sport is wonderful for the experienced hunter. However, the idea of limiting out is juvenile and selfish, in my opinion.
When they talk about a limit, they mean that every wildlife area in the United States has what's called a carrying capacity. This is how much wildlife a given area can support in a year (15). As animals breed, they add more wildlife to an area, and other animals may starve or die off as a result of sickness because of a lack of food. This is where hunters come in. By allowing hunting to a certain limit, hunters can thin out a population to a size that the wildlife area can support. "Hunters take animals from the annual surplus that would be lost anyway" (17). This makes hunters sort of like wildlife conservation activists.
Next is the trophy stage, and I'll be the first to admit that this is the hardest stage to move on from. "These hunters try to shoot only certain game. They look for one special deer and may travel far to find their trophy" (FWCC 7). Sometimes I regress to this stage, and I'll pass up a smaller buck for one that may or may not come along. I've spent many weekends for eight hours in a tree stand and come home with nothing because I was stubborn for that one particular buck that never came along. It's an invigorating feeling shooting that huge animal and having its head to display proudly. My ultimate goal? A ten-point buck. That's a male deer with antlers that have ten different points on them, and usually the more symmetric the better for display.
Next is the method stage. This stage is characterized by a love for the sport of hunting. You're getting along in your thirst for the kill, but you're choosing different methods of the kill. Also, "these hunters study the habits of their game. They choose special equipment which may be primitive, such as the bow and arrow or black powder. Equipment use and the best hunting skills mark this stage" (FWCC 7). I am about at this level. I enjoy using different tools for the hunt, and I enjoy hunting in its entirety. Everything about the hunt is exhilarating to me, but my ultimate goal is the sportsman stage.
In the sportsman stage, it's not so much about hunting but just being with friends. They enjoy the entire experience of hunting, and they don't feel discouraged if they come home without anything to show for their efforts. These are the men and women that have experienced hunting full scale and have moved from wanting to shoot to needing to shoot.
In my experience with locals, I've learned a lot about the inner group of north Florida hunters. Being a hunter myself, I can relate to their stories and experiences and understand the need to practice with your weapon of choice. Gun owners from this small group use everything from shotguns to high-powered rifles to handguns and even compound bows to hunt in these forests. North Florida hunters are bound by the same ethics and recognize the same code of honor that every hunter in the United States recognizes.
I went out recently to the Apalachicola gun range to shoot my M40 sniper rifle and Ruger 9MM handgun. While I was there I had the opportunity to speak with many of the shooters at the range. Some of them were hunters and others were there to sight-in or just target practice. It's important to note that there's a difference between shooters and hunters. Hunters are shooters, we have to be, but not all shooters are hunters. A lot of those shooters are still in the shooter stage or just enjoy the feeling of the gun and have no interest in killing an animal for sport.
How many hunters actually spend time on the shooting range? It can be estimated that sixty to eighty percent of hunters spend more time on the range than in the trees. The reason behind this is common sense: practice makes perfect.
Safe firearms handling requires certain skills. A responsible hunter must understand shooting fundamentals. He needs to develop marksmanship. What can your firearm do? The answer tells you about shooting fundamentals. Can you correctly place a shot? That is marksmanship. Fundamentals are knowledge. Marksmanship is skill (FWCC, 37).
Hunting is a grand sport. It has been the source of life for mankind since prehistoric times. Only recently has industrialized America provided food to the American people in the form of shrink-wrapped steaks and burger. Hunting interest has waned as a result of America's lazy ways. Some people of the US even consider hunting barbaric. "Past studies have shown that a majority of the population favored some hunting, but there were some that felt hunting was wrong," says the Florida Hunter Education Manual (8). They don't understand that hunting is a tradition and a sport requiring both skill and ethics.
Sportsmen follow an established code of ethics. I discussed range shooting as a way of priming hunting skills, and this is actually one of the guidelines to be followed by all hunters. "I will acquire good marksmanship and hunting skills to ensure clean, sportsmanlike kills," says the Code of Ethics in the Florida Hunter Education Manual (8). When hunters don't practice, it's actually a breach of their established ethics.
Another ethical standard that we uphold is that of landowner rights. A lot of hunting takes place on private property. Hunters are ethically bound to obtain permission from the landowner to use his or her property. When on that person's property, they should consider themselves an invited guest and treat the land as if they were in the landowner's home. When this law is breached, sportsmen see more No Trespassing signs and encounter more anti-hunter landowners, thus thinning out our hunting grounds. Hunters would rather see "Hunting With Permission Only" than "No Trespassing."
Finally, game laws are the most popular citations for activists crying irresponsibility. Poaching is a prevalent form of irresponsible hunting. Poaching is taking game out of season or after shooting hours (8). However, poachers represent the smallest number of hunters. Hunting is a privilege, and most poachers take advantage of that privilege, some even going so far as to say that hunting is a right. They're wrong.
North Florida's hunters are a diverse mixture of men and women that have the same respect for wildlife as the hunters of the United States. We are blessed with dense forests and good fishing grounds in this part of Florida. We're also lucky to have a state government that hasn't completely shut down gun facilities such as the state maintained range in Apalachicola. The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission has been dedicated to providing adequate grounds for this state's hunters and fishermen, and while our wildlife isn't as diverse as other northern hunting states, we're lucky to have a climate favorable to longer hunting seasons.
Hunters are wildlife managers. They practice their hobby on shooting ranges and utilize their skills in the forests and countrysides of the US. Each hunter progresses through those five stages of a hunter, and the time that each hunter spends in each stage is contingent upon how much the sport of hunting grows on them. I've grown into a hunter, and in many ways I have a long way to go before being able to call myself a sportsman. However, I am diligent and enjoy the sport of hunting and the sport of shooting. Hunting has been given a bad name in many social circles. However, I believe that being armed with information is the most important part about being a hunter. We are responsible people bound to gun laws and wildlife laws, and we love our second amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. Florida Hunter Education Manual.
Seattle: Outdoor Empire Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Ghent, George. Personal Interview. 17 November 2001.