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Gift of a Mentor

by Kyle Hey

The familiar crack of rifles on the first Monday after Thanksgiving act as an invocation to Pennsylvania hunters who, whispering prayers of hope for success, participate in the holiest of days on the PA hunting calendar. Anticipation and hope mingle to create the opening day excitement shared by hunters both young and old. My earliest opening day memories included cold weather, hot chocolate, and my hunting mentor– my father.

Of all the opening day experiences I have had, one stands out above the rest. The wait for shooting light was as anxious as it had always been in years past. That morning I watched the sun paint the familiar mural of trees on the mountain side, and color the weathered grain in the field far below. As my surroundings brightened, I hoped more than ever to see a tag filled that morning. However, with my buck tag already filled, I was a mere observer that morning, sharing the tree with my father.

Like many lifelong hunters, my father has been my mentor, and in many ways still serves that role, both in and out of the woods. Those in the hunting community that have grown up hunting with our fathers owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for the knowledge and experiences they have passed to us. Even hunters who have not learned directly from their fathers often can point to a mentor that aided their young outdoor education.

Before we get too confident in our photo albums and social media accounts full of our “hero shots”, or puff our chests out as we hang yet another set of antlers from our wall, we are well served to remember that at some point in our hunting career someone had to explain the difference between a deer scrape and a turkey scratching. The influence of a father, or any mentor figure, not only teaches young hunters the 101’s of Woodsmanship and Hunter Safety, but also important lessons about the traits of true sportsman.

Sacrifice in the woods can come in many forms. I am sure my father often agreed to a longer “honey-do” list in order to curry favor in our family’s household for a few more mornings in the woods. Also, fathers and mentors routinely sacrifice time in their best stands to ensure nervous young arrow and bullet slingers an opportunity at a deer. The time spent following a youngster’s blood trail not only is an example of sacrificed hunting time but shows the respect a hunter should have for a fellow sportsman, and the importance of field ethics after the shot. These types of sacrifices and lessons are investments in the next generation of hunters and pay off with the continuation of the hunting and conservation traditions. It’s a lesson in the investment of others that extends far beyond the deer and turkey woods.

Experience and Encouragement:
Humans are always in a rush to accumulate. As a hunter I desire to accumulate knowledge, however, experience is a limiting factor. I have often listened, taking mental notes, to the stories of past hunts that my father, uncle and, grandfathers have told me. As a younger, inexperienced hunter I relished not only the thrills but also the information that came from those tales. Knowledge passed from one generation to another not only benefits the future of our sport but can also generate a thirst in young hunters that encourages them seek their own story worthy experiences in the woods. Watching a young hunter disappear over a ridgeside, venturing off to accumulate valuable experience will make any father or mentor proud. Veteran hunters are a great resource, but they are also an even better reminder to young hunters that there is something new to learn and experience every day in the woods.

Hopefully, every new hunter will catch the “hunting bug”. Infection can manifest itself with the symptoms of frequent daydreams, and large bills to sporting goods stores. The cultivation of healthy perspective is one of the hardest, yet most important, values for fathers and mentors to bring about in young hunters. Missed opportunities to pursue wild game are frustrating, but lacking a proper perspective on the goals and importance of outdoorsmanship and the pursuit of game can have an impact on ourselves and others. Fathers and mentors toe a fine line between promoting hunting as a passion but also instilling the realism that hunting is the pursuit of experience and enjoyment, not always a mad dash to success. It is not just about filling tags, the memories and bonds formed in the pursuit of outdoor passions far outweigh the gratifying feeling of hunting success.

The peace of the opening morning spent with my father was abruptly interrupted with a short burst of welcomed activity. Betrayed by the tell-tale brush cracking of pressured deer, several ghost-like figures appeared in the gray shadows of the dawn. The bark of my father’s rifle sent the group of deer, including a nice buck, running down the mountain. The buck paused, for a brief moment. His legs were locked on as he small rock facing downhill in a strong, near defiant stance, silhouetted against the backdrop of the awakening woods.

Gift of a MentorFrom the backside of the tree, I watched in slow motion as my father’s gun leveled and fired, sending a bright orange spark out the end of the barrel. The shot animated the buck and a moment later, the sound of crashing brush confirmed a tag filled. The rest of the day was spent admiring and celebrating the harvest of a 3 ½ year old Pennsylvania Mountain buck, no small feat in our heavily pressured area. After years of sacrificing the ideal stand, my Father was able to capitalize on this proven location to create a lasting memory for both of us.

The mentor role of one generation of hunters to the next not only increases our role in wildlife conservation, but also extends the legacy of positive values learned in man’s first classroom. As we age our precious memories of our fathers, or mentors, teaching us how to shoot, helping us set-up our first bows, and celebrating our first deer will fade; but the lessons our fathers and mentors teach us become ingrained in our character. As the collective hunting community looks to the future, we must find it not in marketing, or antler size. Instead we must fortify our future in the bond, character, and experience built from the passage of knowledge and traditions that occurs when one we invest in another person.

Teaching pays the bills, but experiencing the outdoors refreshes Kyle Hey’s spirit. A lifelong resident of Southcentral Pennsylvania, Kyle loves hunting, hiking, kayaking, and pretends to know how to fish. To share his thoughts and experiences, Kyle started Relevant Outdoors, which promotes conservation, hunting, and anything that highlights our gift of creation.

Rookie Mistakes

by Caleb Ritenour

My first year as an outdoorsman did not yield Wilt Chamberlainesque statistics. As foliage transcended to folly, I was left with nothing to harvest but the memories of what could have been. It is true what they say – you’ll never forget your first time. My all too virgin hands were forced to wait another season while my mind relived the intimate details of my rookie year on the hunt.

My age matched the caliber most youngsters grow up practicing to shoot – .22. Rather than learn how to align the crosshairs for a fatal shot, my sights were set on athletics during my youth. The only gauge I knew how to handle was the one connected to my soccer pump. Like many late bloomers, I was at a disadvantage when it came to firing a weapon. The scope of what could go wrong seemed to make the Bushnell scope attached to my .243 rifle less certain.

Despite my learning curve, I had one thing most beginner hunters lacked. It was not a secret buck snort or scent attractor. His name was Marshall Nych – friend, teacher, and hunter extraordinaire. To this day, Marshall remains a steadfast hunting buddy. Without the wisdom of the Nych sage, my rookie season would be far less memorable.

Looking back on the last quarter century, there are a few years that standout among the rest. Nine explored the magical worlds of authors and illustrators. Thirteen discovered the importance of being true to oneself. Sixteen was a wreck – literally. Eighteen walked a tight rope of good vs. evil. Yet, the year atop my list remains twenty-two. The year began on one knee, rose into a cap and gown, exchanged it for a tuxedo, and finally changed into a blazer and loafers. By the first of September, I was proudly wed and gainfully employed.

As Thanksgiving drew closer, my friend Marshall strongly encouraged me to join him in the great tradition of white-tail deer hunting. Most rookies make the mistake of trying to do too many things all at once. Who was I to break from tradition? In my youthful exuberance, I was able to make one more wardrobe change – a bright orange vest with matching hat. Being a few years my senior, Marshall reassured me the wife would only love me more when I walked across the threshold bearing venison steaks and trophy wall mounts. What wife wouldn’t want deer meat crowding the freezer or a nice 8-point to replace the frames of recent wedding pictures?

Admittedly, the woman I chose to spend the rest of my life with was raised with hunters of a much more grizzled variety. Where my wife grew up, it was not uncommon for deer to be dangling from the front yard tree any given autumn night. The tire swing rope was promoted to antler harness as children developed into competent bow hunters. Being around this environment as a child had prepared my beautiful bride for any blood, guts, or gore my harvest was hoping to yield. More importantly, it made her patient and understanding with my prolonged absences to the woods.

My first major blunder came shortly after I broke the news to the missus. I explained how I desperately needed a new hobby since my dreams of playing professional sports were completely shot. She was sympathetic and proposed an early Christmas present. It did not come with ribbons or bows, but it was finished in a matte blued barrel. I had officially become the only member of my immediate family to own a gun. I even talked the smiling salesman into throwing in a round of ammo for the greenhorn. Glancing at my checklist of hunting supplies, I felt confident and prepared leading up to Deer Day – the Monday after Thanksgiving and subsequent first day of rifle season.

For a novice hunter like myself, it came as a big surprise when I found out my gun needed “sighted in”. It was even more of a shock discovering this rather important detail the Sunday before Deer Day. Luckily, my wife and I were quick to come up with a plan. We were going to drive to the local sportsman’s club and sight it in my rifle. Neither of us knew how, but we figured Google and YouTube could pick up the slack our ambition was unable to solve. I immediately regretted not asking Marshall for help as soon as we pulled the gun out of the box. The bolt was not connected to the gun. For nearly half an hour, I fumbled with my brand new bolt and rifle. Like a stubborn toddler completing a jigsaw puzzle, I desperately tried to fit the one into the other without success. It was hard to tell which was waning quicker, the daylight or my hopes.

All promising rookies have veterans to help guide them and instill wisdom gleaned from personal experience in the game. As I previously mentioned, I was equipped with hunter extraordinaire Nych. I did not mention said hunter recently welcomed baby number two into his loving family. Needless to say, I was not surprised he did not get my S.O.S. (Save Our Savage .243) late that Sunday evening. Undeterred, my wife and I packed up the incomplete weapon and headed to the only other veteran hunter I knew – Brecken Ellis. Brecken is four years my junior, yet knows more about the woods, guns, and hunting than I’ll probably ever learn. Like Nych, Ellis shared a childhood of shooting, trapping, and exploring the diverse sylvan glades spread out among the country roads. A city boy like me could only hope to see the woods as instinctually as these two experienced outdoorsmen.

To our relief and good fortune, Ellis answered the emergency call and agreed to assist with all bolt related issues (a simple pull of the trigger allowed the bolt to slide in). He was also sighting in his own rifle (a family heirloom passed down four generations) and graciously offered to help me with mine – another stroke of good luck. In less than an hour, my bolt action rifle was hitting the bullseye at a hundred yards every time. Orion himself could not have been more confident tomorrow’s hunt was going to be a killer experience.

Waking up the next morning at 5 o’clock never seemed as easy in my life. With a belly full of Judy’s homemade biscuits and gravy and fresh-brewed coffee in the Thermos, I was rip roaring to shoot my first ever deer. In my methodical preparation, I packed every hand-me-down piece of hunting gear I had acquired into my father-in-law’s timeworn Air Force rucksack. Realtree and Mossy Oak were not yet in my vocabulary. I donned a bright orange jumper, looking more like an escaped convict than a determined hunter. The old adage “ignorance is bliss” certainly applied to my rookie debut.

Not knowing what to expect my first time out, I was like an obedient Labrador when Brecken placed me on a mound in the woods. I planned on staying until given the order to move. The excitement of seeing the woods for the first time was exhilarating. Every rustle of a leaf made my heart skyrocket. Quickly, I developed a deep loathing of squirrels. Like fireworks that fail to detonate, those bushy bandits had me staring with bated breath all over the horizon only to leave me feeling deflated and slightly less hopeful. By noon, there were no deer sightings and my legs were growing restless. It was back to the garage for halftime.

Over the course of history, many of sport’s greatest comeback stories begin at halftime. The coach usually storms into the locker room and delivers a hair-raising speech that rallies the team to victory. When we hunters made it back to the garage for lunch, such a speech was not delivered. Nor were my squashed turkey sandwiches inspiring either. With my sails deflated, I trudged back into the woods to stare at the unmoving wood line for a few more hours. As the deerless day crept closer to dusk, my mind grew content with the excuse of getting skunked.

At the time, I was unaware of a popular and effective deer hunting strategy called pushing. When the patriarch of the homestead, known by many as “Pap”, suggested he try pushing, I mimicked the others agreement, hoping to hide my amateurism. Using logical deduction, I learned a push meant he was going to walk through a thick part of the woods in hopes of scaring a deer my way. Pap is respected by everyone and highly revered as a hunter. When he looked me in the eye and assured me a deer would be pushed my direction, I knew my moment was near. My melancholy melted into exhilaration as the seasoned hunters debated the location of the push.
Following Pap’s plan, Brecken placed me on a mound next to a thicket. Alone and anxious, I began getting some serious Rookie jitters. What if I miss? I could hear Marshall in my head, motivating me to be a man. As every second passed, my hope to shoot a deer played tug-of-war with my fear of missing. I wondered if other hunters ever felt this nervous. I determined the true test of my character would reveal itself in the moment.
Looking toward the thicket, my insides performed a somersault as the sound of twigs snapping pierced the muted wilderness. With sweaty palms, I raised my eager barrel in enthusiastic anticipation. My rifle felt light as a feather in the moment thanks to the adrenaline coursing through my body. All my doubt from before was erased – I was ready to kill. More snaps came cascading through the still silence that once blanketed my small section of the forest. Every hair on the back of my neck was now standing at full attention. This was the last second field goal or the walk-off homerun to engrave a brown W next to my first season. That was when I saw it…

It was not antlers. It was not a prancing doe. It was the orange glow of a vest, signaling the push was over. My Hail Mary attempt did not yield a touchdoewn; my buzzer beater sadly missed the bucket. My rookie debut had faded like the day’s sunlight. I turned around to grab my rucksack from the branch behind me, only to come face to face with opportunity. A mere 20 yards away stood the creature I so desperately desired to see – a legal buck!

Afraid of forfeiting the staring match, I stood frozen and transfixed. The beast’s unflinching gaze seemed to penetrate my very soul. The birds and squirrels must have paid top-dollar for tickets to witness such an intense duel. In a matter of a split second, the deer conceded the staring contest for an opportunity to win the game of survival. Both species’ instincts kicked in as the buck kicked up dirty leaves. I drew my Savage .243 into firing position. My nemesis was less than 30 yards away. Pressing my eye to the scope, I instantly realized I had made the biggest Rookie blunder of all…

I had left my scope turned up all the way to 9 power. The only thing I could see was a blurry shade of brownish green when I pointed toward the escaping deer. My chances of harvest decreased as rapidly as my scope’s magnification when I quickly tried to amend my folly. In desperation, I threw two rounds of ornery lead toward my target. They chose to domesticate a couple maple trees rather than my disappearing deer.

When the smoke cleared, Mother Nature declared me the loser; but not without first teaching me an invaluable lesson. To this day, I always leave my scope on low magnification when posting or moseying through the woods. I owe more than one harvest to the wisdom gleaned from my biggest rookie mistake.

Caleb is no longer a rookie, but still considers himself a novice hunter and fisherman. He lives with his wife in Grove City, and teaches third grade at Mercer Elementary School.

Still Beating A Dead Horse

by Marshall Nych

Still beating a dead horseThere is nothing I hate more than sequels to hit movies or popular television programs ending with “to be continued…” I also despise when a fine literary trilogy is somehow morphed into seven Hollywood movies. Hypocritically, I did feel the need to provide an update on a prior story. If you are amply unprivileged and unfortunate, you may have read “Beating a Dead Horse” from my 2nd mistake of a book Field Tested: Back to Abnormal.

For those who have enjoyed peace, happiness, and sanity up to this point, here’s a quick recap: An eccentric lady, Gertrude, moved herself and thirty some horses from New England to our western Pennsylvania farm. Gertrude enjoyed the humanitarian prestige and high public opinion more than actually caring for her horses or shoveling their exhaust. Gertrude elegantly named all of the horses after her favorite pastime – hard liquor.

One character forgotten in the pages of the first story was her enslaved boy. He was likely in hiding when I twisted the original tale. Whether he was a son, other relative, hired hand, or kidnap victim never was clear. As I sit here now, I can still hear Gertrude holler his name across our fields. What was it? I know it started with a B. Oh yes…

“Get ta’ work B-A-R-N-Y!”

Barny, I am left to assume, was short for Barnacle.

So the crazy horse lady and her equally crazy horse boy continued their equestrian quests following the controversial, publicized demise of their prize horse Kaluha. Though four digits richer after cashing the check from the Humane Society, the pair quickly became unstable once more, unable to tame the wild debt owed to my grandparents. Monthly rent came yearly. Money for oats and hay, which should have arrived in a bale, came in grain-sized increments. The amount of time, energy and sheer creativity, the duo put into their excuses was admirable. If Gertrude and Barnacle would have harnessed this evasiveness into work, they could have really done well in life.

Perhaps that was part of the problem. Gertrude enslaved Barnacle to do all of her dirty work with the horses. Dirty work with horses ends up being all work with horses. The problem was Barnacle hated all forms of work. The boy put constant effort into avoiding his greatest fear – a job. The only finger I ever saw him lift was his social one. He showed it to me a couple of times. No one ever accused Barnacle of being a nice kid. At the boy’s idle leisure, the horses suffered.

Around the peak of Barnacle’s equestrian apathy, my father-in-law Jim and I were working around the farm. As luck had it, we were able to use my truck to complete the tasks that particular day. With all of the work, I had forgotten about the deepest rut on the back forty. As I hit the chasm going full speed, Jim and I were taken aback when a “YELP!” erupted from the bowels of my truck. Upon investigation, we found the horse-boy-stowaway in the bed. Unbeknownst to us, we had been Barnacle’s taxi all day, making his chores far less laborious. Had I known Barnacle had attached to my Chevy, I would have embraced and sought out every one of my farm’s delightful features.

It was quite common, after a day in and around the farm, to drop the tailgate and find Barnacle had covertly placed feed, fence, tools, and other symptoms associated with Gertrude’s horse disease. I found little comfort in knowing I helped haul Barnacle’s junk.

I tried to lie to myself that by helping the lethargic troll, he could do a better job caring for the horses. At the fingertips of his handiwork, the herd escaped as frequently and reliably as Houdini. The horses looked at the fence Barnacle haphazardly erected to be as threatening as marshmallows. Gertrude’s entire top shelf brands of liquor poured into my garden and spilled through my landscaping as they pleased.

One June, various uncles, aunts, and cousins were stacking hay bales in the barn. Below the barn is where Gertrude stabled some of her victims. Grandpa had noticed stacks of hay getting shorter. While we tossed bales to one another, the imp climbed through a small opening. Barnacle was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Mystery solved…to avoid walking across the property and carrying hay to the horses, Barnacle simply pushed the stolen hay from Grandpa’s barn. The horse boy was so lazy he made gravity feed the herd.

Upon us catching him in the act, Barnacle clung onto desperation and offered to do a couple hours of work. Knowing full well his couple hours would be worth a couple of minutes, we let him go. Our family simply added it to his tab.

Approaching a $4,000 debt, my grandparents applied some pressure to these festering wounds. More importantly, Grandma did not want associated with a herd of horses that had the health and disposition as one residing in the town where Purina and Elmer’s factories were found. Secretly, Gertrude cooked up and stuck to a plan involving a West Virginia escape. The last invasive species the wild and wonderful state needs invading were Gertrude and Barnacle. West Virginia would be forced to add wacky to the state motto.

Oft we have heard the saying pertaining to riding a horse off into the sunset. Gertrude and her imbecile boy waited a few hours after sunset. In the middle of the night, it required two fools to take one foal each mission. Their goal was to sneak off the farm, one horse at a time.

The Nych family was well aware the horses were slowly dwindling. We were reveling in the fact. Some of the cousins were even thinking about showing up one midnight to help speed up the secret operation. Tough Guy even considered giving Gertrude the four grand to just disappear.

Still investigating the mysterious death of Gertrude’s Kaluha, federal agents observed these late night escapades. Before long, two officers appeared on Grandma’s front porch. The closest the agents’ spotless, clean-cut look fit in was about an hour’s drive south.

Grandma, who smelled a problem through aromas of chicken soup on the stove, asked, “What kind of trouble did my boy get into now?”

The agents, putting away their perfectly polished badges, were caught off guard. The female officer said, “M ‘am, we are not here in regards to your son.”

“This time,” added the male officer.

The lady agent continued, “We are looking into Gertrude and her horse operation. Such mistreatment of horses is highly illegal…”

“And highly expensive,” interjected the man, likely sensing this was the kind of case you could retire on.

“The landowner can also be held liable in such investigations. It is in your best interest to sever any ties you have with Gertrude and her property immediately,” finished the agent.

“And that odd horse boy too,” added the male.

Grandma, with her uncommonly strong common sense, snapped, “It’s easier to get yourself in trouble abusing a horse than a child nowadays!”

Both agents, unable to argue, nodded then dismissed in unison, “Have a good day M ‘am.”

This little visit from the Feds was all the motivation Grandma needed to evict the future convicts. Gertrude, a few dozen mange-infested horses, and Barnacle fled to the wilds of West Virginia before the agents were able to catch them in Pennsylvania.

Justice prevailed. The local paper (perhaps another slow day in the news) reported Gertrude had been arrested and imprisoned for the cruel and unusual treatment of equine species. Her bail was set at $90,000 (a bit more than she owed us for our bales), thus confirming Grandma’s theory about animal and child abuse. Looking closely at her son Barnacle, one can see why law books were written in such a way.

Anytime someone found themselves behind bars in one of the old western flicks, there was usually a steadfast horse parked below the jail cell window. A posse then prompted the prison break with rope, which could somehow jeopardize the entire soundness and structure of any correctional facility. At this point, the prisoner would hop onto the horse and gallop towards freedom and a remarkable sunset.

Had Gertrude taken better care of her horses, perhaps there would be one willing to saddle up to the plot of her escape. Plus, the way she worked poor Barnacle, it’s no wonder he didn’t round up a posse and ample rope.

After Gertrude gets out of jail in 4 – 6 years, likely about 20 in horse years, the crazy horse lady will pursue greener pastures. Such fields, far from our family, will be without stallions, mares, or roans. However, there will always be one fool…a nag still beating a dead horse.

Marshall Nych’s habitat is a family farm in New Wilmington, PA. When Marshall isn’t writing outdoor humor, he is an elementary teacher misguiding the youth of Mercer County. Although Nych has fished 15 states and 4 countries, his best catches remain his wife and daughter.