I Started hunting with my father when I was 9 years old. That Ithaca Model 37 was longer than I was and my heavy insulated rubber boots made walking through the fields and woods quite difficult. Hard as it was I loved every minute of it. Whether it was hunting deer or squirrel in the woods, rabbits in the brush or groundhogs in the fields, I never turned down an opportunity to get out there.
brown fur, a flash of white from a twitching tail, or a snort would make me want to whirl around and take a shot. My father and experience had taught me that it was better to be still and wait. “Wait for them to come closer” he would always say and often times they would. We had done our scouting and were familiar with the area. We knew they went this way in the morning and that way in the evening. They bedded down over in those pine trees and filled their bellies at night in the cornfield on the other side of the hill.
The wind was lightly blowing into my face so the deer in front of me wouldn’t be able to smell me. At that moment patience was my best weapon. I waited for the deer to move closer and my heart started pumping faster, the cold started to creep into my toes and fingers as I held that Deerslayer tighter. “Don’t move a muscle” I thought to myself as my leg went numb from sitting cross legged too long. The deer took a step, pawed at the leaves, looked around then nibbled on acorns as he inched forward. I motionlessly watched him and started planning my next move. If he kept going in that direction for a few more feet his head would be behind a large tree. That would give me enough time to get my sights on him without spooking him.
Several excruciating minutes later he stepped out from behind the tree presenting a near perfect broadside shot. I silently took a deep breath, aligned my sights, carefully took the safety off with my right index finger. He turned his head towards me flicked his left ear and stared right at me with his big black eyes. I saw his muscles tense up and knew that it was now or never. I squeezed the trigger and immediately felt the recoil of a 1oz slug slam into my shoulder. The deer darted off as I pumped the Ithaca’s slide getting ready for an unlikely second shot.
As the smoke cleared I felt good about the shot. My sights were aligned just behind his front shoulder and I thought I saw him fall as he jumped a log not far away. I wanted to run over to check for blood and hair immediately but I knew it was best to wait a few minutes. If he was still alive but hit good I wanted him to lie down and pass calmly. I switched the shotguns safety back on and started wiggling my fingers in an effort to warm them back up.
Several minutes later I carefully stood up to allow the blood to rush back into my numb legs. After the pins and needles sensation subsided I crept over to the spot where the deer had stood. I could see the leaves turned up from his hooves along with a few tufts of brown hair. As I looked around in the direction he ran I saw some more hair and a few spots of bright red blood on the brown leaves that covered the ground. A few feet away I saw much more blood confirming it was a good hit.
After following the trail for a few more yards I was relieved to see him crumpled on the other side of a large fallen tree. I took a few moments to quietly celebrate as I attached my tag to his antlers trying not to think about what would come next. It was 5 degrees and the truck was almost a mile away on the other side of a very steep ravine.
The above account while fictional is heavily based on my own hunting experiences. I am sure many of you can recall very similar memories. I think about what these experiences have taught me. Lessons in patience, discipline, attention to detail, perseverance, control, and focus, are just a few that come to mind. Later on these same lessons were helpful to me in the military.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs there are approximately 22 Million living veterans in the United States of America. Many of those veterans myself included are sportsman. So what happens when a sportsman joins the military or better yet what benefits does the military get from recruiting a sportsman?
Secondly how does the military experience impact the sportsman’s fieldcraft? Obviously the answer to these questions will vary widely based on the experiences of each person, and the job they had in their respective service branch. I won’t pretend to know all 22 million unique experiences but I can tell you mine.
How did being a sportsman help me in the Military?
Through a lifetime of shooting and hunting I had learned to respect firearms and was comfortable carrying them in the field. The types of firearms I carried hunting squirrels and deer were much different than the ones I had on the dropzone but the same firearms safety principles applied. Treat every firearm like its loaded, don’t point it at something you don’t want to destroy, keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire, be sure of your backstop, these all still applied in the military. Many of my fellow soldiers had a difficult time learning how to hold, shoot and carry a firearm safely and effectively. Some even got into serious trouble for having a negligent discharge caused by their lack of respect and unfamiliarity. Beyond the safety aspect hunting deer and groundhogs had taught me how to shoot fast but accurately. This skill certainly helped on the qualification ranges and training excercises.
I learned how to be still and quiet in the woods. I was much better at walking quietly in the field than many of my peers that hadn’t spent as much time in the woods. This skill of course is very useful when trying to move into position or stay hidden without the enemy being alerted.
I learned how to stay warm when outdoors. Many long winter days in the deer woods had taught me how to dress and little tricks to staying warm while I waited for my quarry. Things like dressing lightly for the walk in and unzipping your jacket if you start getting hot. Then adding clothing once you stop moving.
I learned how to start a fire. A lifetime of starting campfires and lighting the woodstove at deer camp taught me how to get a fire going quickly without relying on accelerants. Every MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) comes with a book of matches but I knew many fellow soldiers that couldn’t get a fire started before running out of matches.
How did the military help me become a better Sportsman?
It taught me to be more disciplined. Much of what I was taught in the military had to do with being responsible for my actions and doing the right things even when they were difficult. I think as a sportsman it takes a lot of discipline to do the not so fun things that go along with it. Getting up early in the morning when you would rather sleep in your warm bed can be challenging. Sitting in the stand while freezing rain drenches your clothes when you could be sitting next to the fireplace takes heart. Preparing wild critters for the table after bagging them, waiting for a good shot, all of these things take discipline to overcome. The military further enforced the value of discipline.
It taught me how to be better at planning. Everything you do in the military starts with a plan. Someone smarter than me said “If you fail to plan you plan to fail”. Having a plan especially when others are involved helps things go more smoothly. Even when things don’t go exactly to the plan having a starting point and ending point worked out ahead of time helps everyone get closer to the mark.
It taught me how to navigate through unfamiliar territory. Land Navigation is probably the most important outdoor skill that I learned in the military. Before I joined the military I knew that a compass points north and that a map was good to have on road trips. I had never actually used a compass and a map to find my way across unfamiliar territory. The military gave me extensive land navigation training and months of practice using what I learned in a variety of environments. I learned to read topographic maps, how to shoot an azimuth (Azimuth is a fancy word for an imaginary line in a specific direction on the compass), I learned how to keep an accurate pace count that would tell me how far I moved along the azimuth. I learned that a map usually uses True north and your compass will show you magnetic north and the mathematic calculation needed to reconcile the two. I learned how to use a GPS, Aerial imagery, and much more. After the military I have used this training successfully several times to self-guide hunts on unfamiliar tracts of land.
It made me more confident by forcing me to do some very difficult and sometimes scary things I wouldn’t have tried on my own. I climbed ropes, Fast Roped out of helicopters, parachuted from planes, rappelled down mountains, and walked ridiculous distances with heavy packs. I always thought I could probably do these things but thinking is different than knowing. The military likes to build a confident force by training people to do various tasks then pushing them past their preconceived limits in the worst conditions. This was not just to see what the military as a whole can accomplish but as a way to show the individual that they can do more than they think they can. It also helps build a stronger team by proving to your teammates that you can hang with them when things get tough. This enhanced level of confidence encouraged me to explore new hunting areas and go deeper in the woods than I previously felt comfortable with.
It exposed me to new types of climates and terrain as well as how to function there. I grew up in the Midwest so if it weren’t for the military I wouldn’t have experienced swamps in the southeastern USA, the Jungles of Panama, the Mountains of Afghanistan or Death Valley in California. Each area had its own beauty and its own difficulties. For example, walking at night in the dessert was preferred while walking at night in the swamps was extremely taxing on your body.
It taught me how to tie a few good knots. Before I joined the military I could tie my shoes and a square knot when it wasn’t a granny knot. I subscribed to the adage “if you can’t tie knots tie lots”. Anytime I needed to tie something I would make a few loops and twists, pull it tight then do it over again hoping it would hold. By the end of my time in the military I could tie a Bowline, waterknot, prusik, girth hitch, figure 8 retrace, overhand knot, clove hitch, and knew how and when to use them. The end of the rope bowline and water knot have been my favorite general purpose knots that seem to solve most of my knot needs.
It taught me how to recon an area before operating there. The concept of scouting was familiar to me but the military brought it to a whole new level. Before any mission you always did a recon of the area using all available information including: road maps, topographic maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery written descriptions, personal accounts, and if possible you went there or sent someone to check it out beforehand. Scouting a hunting area can be done in a very similar way. I especially like to look at Google Earth and topographic maps of an area before I go there in person. These tools give me a head start in understanding the terrain, water sources and potential routes of travel for the critter I am after. In some cases, such as hunting prairie dogs you can zoom in and actually see where they are or were when the photos were taken.
It taught me how to take care of my feet. When your job entails lots and lots of walking you realize how important your feet are. Before the military I knew dry feet felt better than wet feet but didn’t think much about it. It comes down to a few simple components, get boots that fit your feet, keep your feet dry, change your socks often, and use foot powder. If you don’t have to walk in the water don’t. If you change your socks often enough even soaked boots will dry out after a few miles. Tying your wet socks to the outside of your backpack allows them to dry as you walk. Next time you stop you can shake off the dust and use them again.
I am sure I am missing many more things that tie the experiences of a sportsman to the military experience and vice versa. These are just the things that stand out most in my mind that surely many other veterans and non-veterans alike can relate to. Have fun and stay safe!