Her First Hunt
License? Check. Training? Check. Now it all comes down to the moment you pull the trigger.
By Stephanie Salinas
When the moment came, everything stopped. The scene before me froze; the bees buzzing by the window of the blind went silent. I couldn’t even hear myself breathe. I steadied my hands on the rifle, slowly moved my finger to the trigger and waited …
My father was an avid hunter. I relished the delicious meals that were the natural result of his passion, but I never knew exactly what went on between the time he donned his camouflage and walked out the door and later returned with meat for the family. My only interaction was “petting” the trophy heads mounted on the living room wall. In middle school, I finally got my invitation to accompany my dad on a hunt. I would finally find out what happened with the gun he slung over his shoulder.
My first impression was that being outdoors made my dad happy. There was a look on his face I’d never really seen before, a peaceful serenity. From the blind, we sat silently watching for white-tailed deer, enjoying a serenading chorus of cooing and trilling songbirds and glimpsing wildlife I never saw growing up in the city. The intoxicating aroma of a herd of javelina was strange and feral; to this day, I can still smell it. The sharp contrast to my city life opened a window I never wanted to close.
Opportunity knocked when a chance to hunt came along last fall. I signed up online for a hunter education course to get ready. And, of course, I extended an invitation to my dad to help me prepare. After all, he’s the one who got me interested.
After my initial excitement wore off, a few worries started to creep in. What are the rules? I sure didn’t want to break them. I didn’t really know much about handling a gun. What if my ignorance caused an accident? Yikes.
Hunter education helps with all of that. It’s mandatory for those born on or after Sept. 2, 1971, (like me) but also beneficial to any first-time hunters or those who haven’t been in the field for a while (like my dad). Children as young as age 9 can get certified.
Our first lesson was equipment.
The author gets some pointers from her dad.
We learned the parts of a firearm, different types of firearms, basic components of ammunition, how to match firearms and ammunition correctly, the range of each firearm, also the cleaning and storing of firearms and ammunition. There was a lot to learn, but it was fascinating.
I was exposed to a wide variety of rifles I never knew existed, including muzzleloaders. I learned new lessons, like the importance of the correct ammunition for your firearm. For example, you cannot put .270 Winchester ammo into a .270 Weatherby rifle. If the ammunition you put into the chamber does not match the ammo specified on the barrel, you could cause an explosion, which could injure or kill you or anyone nearby. (Did I mention how glad I was to have this class?)
Another thing that blew my mind was the distance a bullet can travel. A fired 7 mm Magnum rifle bullet can travel more than three miles (five miles at a 12,000-foot elevation). It is important to know the direction of your shot and what lies beyond to prevent injury and damage to people, animals or objects.
We learned how to be safe hunters, including how to safely carry our firearms in the field, how to load and unload equipment and what constitutes a safe zone of fire. I paid careful attention to the four main causes of hunting accidents: hunter judgment mistakes, safety rule violations, lack of control and practice and mechanical failure. I didn’t want to become a statistic.
We also learned the importance of staying up to date with state rules and regulations, easily found in the Outdoor Annual each year. There’s a handy app now too, so you can pull up the rules no matter how remote your location. You’ll find the season dates for each species, along with bag limits for all game animals and all other regulations for legal harvest for hunting and fishing in the state of Texas.
Other hunter education topics that day included being a responsible and ethical hunter, how to prepare for a safe hunting trip, how to deal with medical and survival emergencies while out in the field, basic shooting skills, hunting strategies and wildlife identification.
After a full day of class, Dad and I took our tests, and we both passed. I proudly took my hunter education course completion certificate to the desk at Cabela’s and bought my first hunting license. I guess I’m a hunter now.
A Little to the Left
Enter lingering worry No. 2: What if I miss? Or worse, what if I only wound the deer and then can’t find him?
The answer, of course: Practice makes perfect.
The author takes aim during a practice session at a gun range.
Dad and I met helpful colleagues who are great outdoorsmen at the Lone Star Gun Range in Lockhart to get started. This outdoor range had separate areas for handguns and rifles; I headed straight for the rifle range to practice shooting.
My nerves were jangling, and all my little fears fluttered by. I had heard about the kick that rifles give, and it made me wince to think of it. An endless stream of questions flooded my mind. Would it bruise my shoulder? Would it hurt? If it hurt, what would I do during my hunt?
After setting up the target, I took my seat at the firing line and readied myself to shoot my first hunting rifle.
“The line is hot!” a man shouted next to us.
I looked through the scope, lined up the crosshairs on the target and squeezed. I hit the target, which was a good start, but my mark was too far to the left.
In my head, I heard my hunter education instructor stressing the importance of having a clean shot to the heart so the animal will feel no pain. I was determined to practice to make the bullet go precisely where I aimed it.
After several rounds of practice, I was getting closer toward the middle but was still to the left of the center of the target. One colleague noticed that I kept anticipating the shot before I pulled the trigger, so he offered to reload the rifle for my next round. I looked away as he reloaded, as instructed, and then reset myself for my next practice round.
I lined the crosshairs up with the center of the target and pulled, but there was nothing. No shot.
He laughed and said he pretended to reload to see how I reacted when pulling the trigger. After setting myself up, I would anticipate the sound of the shot and the pressure of the butt of the gun against my right shoulder, which caused me to jerk slightly toward the left away from my body. Even when there was no shot, apparently!
He told me to take a deep breath once I was aligned with the target, then pull. The rifle was reloaded, for real this time. I adjusted, took a breath … and squeezed.
We looked through the binoculars and scope and saw that my shot was significantly closer. Finally!
After a few more rounds with a steadier hand, I felt comfortable enough to know that I could hit the target while out in the field.
Into the Woods
Then, it was here, the day I had been preparing for and anxiously looking forward to for months. My hunt had arrived.
My hunting mentor Steve Lightfoot and I arrived in Lampasas, greeted at the gate by a herd of cattle. We packed up our gear and headed to the blind.
Our field of hunt was not far from the 100-year-old ranch house where we parked. The beckoning clearing gleamed golden in the midafternoon sun, and in the middle of that field stood a juniper tree with an elevated box blind leaning against it.
We climbed into the blind, got comfortable and waited silently.
Getting a closer look at deer approaching the feeder.
After a while, I noticed my senses heightening from the forced silence. Leaves were breezily rustling, a bee was buzzing around the windows, animals scurried in the shadows around us, and the sweet fragrance of the juniper tree we hid in began to seep into the blind.
After the bustle of work and city life, I felt completely at ease. I felt that happiness I had seen on Dad’s face so many years ago. I was pretty sure my smile was the mirror image of his that memorable day.
Just as I was basking in the scenery and daydreaming about my childhood, Steve whispered to me and pointed in the direction of the feeder about 50 yards from us.
I eased up to the front window and noticed a doe emerging from a culvert just beyond the tree line. Scampering behind was a fawn that heedlessly headed straight to the feeder.
I gasped and pointed out of the window excitedly.
“Don’t stick anything out the window,” Steve warned me, smiling. “If they see you, you can lose your chance.”
I drew my finger back from the window, a bit embarrassed, and tried to curb my enthusiasm.
Slowly, small groups of white-tailed deer made their way to the offered meal, pausing often to look in any direction they heard a noise.
Then, I saw him. A seven-point buck fearlessly glided into the field.
Steve and I looked at each other. Steve’s look said that if I was going to harvest a deer that day, this would be the one. I slowly raised the rifle to the frame of the window, centered my scope and waited, barely breathing, for my moment.
The buck paced back and forth, and, just as I was about to aim, something spooked the herd and they all scattered. My buck was gone. I’d not taken the shot.
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Would they come back? Had I lost my chance due to my own hesitation? My mind was a flurry of questions. I was about to give up hope for the day until I noticed one of the does shyly peeking out from the trees and tentatively crossing to get to the feeder once again.
Seeing her safely cross, the remaining does, spikes and fawns slowly walked back out from hiding to try to finish their meal. On our right, the bucks were the last to emerge. I waited for the buck I had set my sights on, and he finally began to make his way out again.
He made it to the feeder area. I steadied my hands, but every time I was about to take my shot, he would move to cover again.
“He’s teasing you,” Steve whispered.
This back-and-forth game continued for a while, until finally he walked into the clearing and stayed. He stood there in a perfect position for me. I took a deep breath, moved my finger to the trigger … and squeezed.
Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine photographer Earl Nottingham had told me that when I pulled the trigger on my first hunt, I’d never hear it. The notion seemed odd to me; during my time at the shooting range, I’d definitely heard the loud blast. But at this moment, I knew just what he meant.
After the deer is shot, a hunting license tag is filled out and attached to the buck.
I squeezed the trigger, and there was nothing but silence. I didn’t hear the hooves on the ground from the deer running away, didn’t hear Steve congratulate me and didn’t hear the shot.
The buck walked for a moment and fell faster than I’d imagined. We waited for a while so we wouldn’t spook him if he was still alive. Watching the deer go from his feet to the ground was a remarkable moment, one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I walked up to the deer after some time passed, and once I saw that he was dead, I wept.
I paid my respects to the magnificent buck by taking part in a first hunt tradition, the smearing of a small amount of the animal’s blood on the face of the hunter. It felt ancient and primal.
Steve cleaned the deer, explaining the intricate process to me along the way, and we went into town to drop it off for processing. I’ll be eating venison all year, and savoring it, just like when I was a girl at Dad’s table.
And now I can’t wait until next season.
Take hunter education: Hunter education is mandatory for anyone born on or after Sept. 2, 1971. Courses are offered all over the state.
Learn Texas game laws and regulations: Familiarize yourself with statewide hunting regulations and check for any special regulations that may apply. Regulations can be found in the Outdoor Annual (available in printed form, on the TPWD website and as a mobile app).
Purchase a hunting license: Hunting licenses, sold across the state and available online, are required to legally hunt in Texas (and depending on what you hunt, special stamps may be needed).
Get your equipment ready and practice: It’s important to match the firearm you use to the kind of game you wish to hunt. Sporting goods stores that specialize in hunting and firearms are an excellent place to see what’s available. Being an accurate shooter is also important. Maintain and develop your shooting skills at rifle and clay target ranges.
Find a place to hunt: Texas has nearly 200 public hunting areas, including wildlife management areas, state parks and leased private lands.
More information can be found at: tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt.