You’d think I’d just confessed to beating my son and his puppy with a tire iron the way people reacted to my admitting that I’d never taken my son hunting. The elated responses I got varied from, “But you’re an outdoor writer! Don’t you believe in what you do enough to share it with your son?” to “How selfish are you?” to, “What else don’t you do for your kid? Provide him food and shelter?!” The truth of the matter isn’t quite as nefarious or abandon on my part. Rather, it just boiled down to my son wasn’t ready or interested in going hunting. Starting when he was eight, I would tell him of some trip I’d be fortunate enough to have coming up and ask if he wanted to go along. His answer was always a polite, “Nah.” And while this never really bothered me it was a situation that I discussed with friends. The best advice I received came from my friend and booking agent Gordie White, the owner of Gordie White Worldwide Hunting. He said, “Hunting’s not like baseball or football where they participate when they’re young then grow out of it. You don’t want that. You want whomever you bring into the sport to want to do so for life and then pass it onto the next person. So don’t rush it. If and when your son wants to hunt, he’ll tell you he’s ready to hunt.”
That happened in the early summer of 2016 when my 12-year-old son said he wanted to take his first deer in the fall. This declaration sent me back to Gordie and together we came up with a list of things that we felt had to happen for my son’s – and any person’s – first hunt. We decided that when taking a new person hunting…
The person has to have fun.
The person has to go somewhere where he or she will see plenty of game and thus not get bored.
The person has to go somewhere that will promote hunting as a lifelong passion.
The person has to go somewhere where he or she will have a better than average chance of success.
My ex-wife added to the list by saying, “That person better not miss any school.”
My first and only choice for meeting all these criteria were Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch.
Located in Bland, Missouri and owned by Donald and Angi Hill, Oak Creek has the well-earned reputation of producing some of the largest whitetails on the planet. And from my hunting there several times before I knew it to have plenty of game, allowed hunting as early as late summer (It’s always a good practice to keep the ex happy), and is one of the most family oriented places I’ve ever been to in my more than two decades of writing about the outdoors.
All of this was cemented when my son Barrett and I arrived in late August. Donald, Angi, and his staff welcomed us with open arms and the desire to show my son a fantastic time. Our guide Shane Dorton was even more excited, admitting to me in private his anticipation at the opportunity at taking someone on their first hunt. “Don’t get me wrong,” he confided. “I love guiding and I love having a client take the buck of a lifetime but taking someone on their first hunt, especially a kid, and seeing the excitement of that experience, that’s what really makes my time worthwhile. That’s what I love about my job.”
And on that note, I’ll state that if Shane’s job wasn’t as a guide he’d make a fantastic teacher because the enthusiasm and patience he exhibited with my son was truly a gift. He walked my son through all the deer and hunting vocabulary needed, shot placement, hunter’s etiquette and ethics, and what to look for when after a first buck. And since Shane wasn’t Barrett’s father, my son actually listened to him.
Funny how that works.
Given Barrett’s lack of hunting experience, Shane opted to have him hunt from a stand rather than by spot and stalk. That first morning found the three of us in a tower blind overlooking a rectangular food plot bookended by hardwood stands thick with oak, hickory, and cedar. First light brought into view does feeding the shadows where the woods met the clover and Shane took advantage of this by having Barrett describe the deer he pointed to in order to make sure the two were on the same page guide and hunter wise. Soon after bucks began appearing, small ones at first then some of the monsters Oak Creek is known for. Barrett counted points and whispered to Shane question after question about body and antler size, age, the amount of food they ate, and how many of them were shooters. Shane was patiently answering when Barrett’s voice rose in excitement far above a whisper.
“That!” Barrett exclaimed, pointing 50 yards before us and to the left.
“That’s a groundhog,” Shane whispered. “I don’t think ya’ have those in Texas.”
I confirmed that we didn’t and Barrett sought to change his first deer hunt into a woodchuck hunt. “I want to shoot one of those,” Barrett exclaimed.
Shane smiled and whispered, “Let’s get you a deer first.”
Barrett didn’t take a deer that first morning or that evening. Heavy rain moved in and stalled over the ranch dropping close to 2 1/2 inches onto the property. The next morning found us back in the blind, this time sweating from the heavy humidity left by the storm and although Shane and I complained to each other about the stifling heat Barrett sat happily watching deer feed and interact with one another. He counted a total of 31 deer that morning and despite not getting a shot at any of them he told Shane on the way back to the lodge what a great time he was having. The compliments continued after lunch when Barrett told the chef that his hamburger was even better than those at Whataburger. Chef Dustin smiled then offered his thanks for what he said was the most sincere compliment he’d had in a long time.
Barrett, Shane, and I returned to the stand that afternoon to find it still hot but not near as humid. Barrett sat enamored at the amount of wildlife he was seeing when Shane directed his attention to the far end of the field. The buck Shane had Barrett study was massive with a mule-sized body and a rack of antlers that stood tall and wide and thick with velvet. The buck fed at the far end of the field then skirted into the edge of the woods and meandered towards us. Shane whispered that he was probably heading to a pond on the other side of the woods to our left and that he would probably cross the field 70 or so yards before us. Barrett seemed to know what this meant and listened intently to Shane’s instructions. Barrett lifted his rifle and eased it onto the sill before him. The buck stepped back into the clover, fed for a moment then walked further into the open. “I’m going to grunt when he gets right in front of you,” Shane declared. “When he stops, shoot him right above the shoulder like I showed you.”
Barrett nodded and eased into his rifle. He was the very picture of calm.
Not at all.
Everything that could go wrong flashed through my head. What if Barrett suddenly started shaking or got buck fever? What if he missed? What if he wounded the buck? What if he suddenly broke down unable to pull the trigger? I was brought back to reality when Shane grunted and Barrett whispered, “Can I shoot him now?” Shane said, “Yes” and Barrett fired. The buck jumped at the impact of the shot, ran a short distance then dropped. Barrett beamed and Shane and I congratulated him repeatedly.
“Nervous there, dad?” Shane joked.
“Just a little,” I laughed.
Barrett’s deer was a true monster weighing 236 pounds and caring 17 points and more than 211 inches. Shane complemented Barrett once more and said, “That was a perfect shot.”
Barrett smiled and innocently replied, “I shot him where you told me to.”
That night, after Shane showed Barrett how to field dress and process his kill, my son thanked his guide once more than asked what the chances of his taking an equally good groundhog the next day were. Shane laughed and said he try his best to put Barrett on to a good one. I smiled at Barrett’s excitement and stood happily knowing that my letting my son wait to hunt until he was ready worked out so well.
Guns, Loads, and Gear