Back in the winter of 1984, I was duck hunting from a canoe on the Neuse River near Morehead City, North Carolina. I’d pulled into a small creek and, almost immediately, “saw” a duck about 15 yards ahead of me swimming across that creek.
I raised my shotgun and was ready to shoot, once it got up off the water, but something started nagging at me.
I still saw what looked, for all the world, like a mallard hen, but I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t jumped when it had seen me.
By now, there were a lot of things crashing around in my head because the duck was almost to the other bank and still hadn’t gotten up.
About two seconds later, it reached the bank and a very excited young doe climbed out of the water and, literally, took off for the woods.
My brain finally “saw” a deer when the “duck” came out of the water with a neck and four very long legs attached to a body that looked nothing like a duck.
I was stunned.
I put my gun down and just sat quietly.
I’d literally just "seen" a “duck” turn into a deer right before my eyes.
I learned a lesson that day that’s, over the years, caused me to pass up more shots than I can count.
What all of this has to do with anything is that, as I write this, there’s a trial going on in Mount Vernon (Washington).
It concerns a young boy, now 15-years-old, who shot and killed Pamela Almli last August while she was hiking on Sauk Mountain.
The boy and his older brother were bear hunting. Both have said that they believed they were looking at a bear when the younger brother - then 14 - fired.
I wrote about this incident several months ago arguing that there should have been an adult present and that a minimum age limit should be reinstated in this state before someone can hunt without adult supervision.
Whatever the court decides, I’m certain of one thing. There will be no “winners” in this case. Two families have been traumatized. A young boy and his older brother will likely have nightmares for the rest of their lives. The shooter’s been convicted of second degree manslaughter. The Almli family lost a loving and loved member.
Nope, there’s no good ending to this one.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this piece.
I mentioned that “duck” in the hopes that another hunter might read it and, on some future day in the field, remember it and, then, take just one more very long look and ask “Is that really what I think it is?” before he or she even raises a firearm.
That’s because there have been studies (and many tragic instances) that show there are times when our brains will let us see exactly what we want to see - until it gets some cue that snaps things back into proper perspective.
Hunter orange is one such cue. Even though I believe it would be a good idea for non-hunters to voluntarily wear it in hunting areas, I don’t want to see a law enacted forcing them to do so. That’s because the responsibility for identification belongs to us - the hunters.
We decided to take up this sport and that decision carries a boatload of baggage. It is our responsibility to know - with absolute and unquestioned certainty - what we are about to shoot.
Any nagging doubt. Any question. Any feeling. Anything that’s less than absolute certainty means that we keep the binoculars busy and the firearms down. And, if those doubts, questions, or feelings just won’t lie still, then whatever it is we’re looking at gets to go on its way unharmed.
That “duck” fooled me and I was only yards away. Thankfully, some part of my brain kept nagging at me long enough to keep me from shooting.
I just wish that those two kids could’ve learned a similar lesson before they went up on the mountain that day. Too, I wish that we’d never have dropped the age limit for requiring them to have an adult along.
That extra set of experienced eyes might’ve prevented this entire mess.
And, as for our legislators failing to get such a law back on the books - good grief, what the hell were you thinking?