Sportsmen are ever-mindful of the importance of passing on their sport to young people and deer hunters are especially passionate about welcoming children into the woods. To this end, “new special pre-season Youth Days provide[d] youth hunters 17 years old and younger with the opportunity to harvest one antlered deer on the Saturday before the start of the regular season in each game zone in South Carolina,” explains the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Charles Ruth is a certified wildlife biologist and holds the title of Big Game Program Coordinator for DNR. According to Ruth, “the original youth hunting day legislation from the year 2000 gave DNR authority to establish through regulations the dates for youth days for the various game species. We have historically done that and the youth deer day was set for the Saturday after the close of the season due to some wording in the enabling legislation.
“This youth law was revisited during the last session to eliminate the tagging requirement since all deer must now be tagged and we felt like this may be an impediment to the ‘spirit’ of the youth hunt, which originally was proposed as a recruitment tool for non-hunting youths. While the General Assembly was taking care of the tagging issue, they put this new youth deer hunt day in law.”
My old friend Tom Hartnett of Mount Pleasant wanted to provide his son, Nicholas, an opportunity to harvest his first buck on the early-season Youth Day. He and his wife Alison have three boys who are growing up in the sporting tradition: Thomas (16), Rhett (14) and Nicholas (11).
Most of Tom’s deer hunting takes place at a hunting club in McClellanville. At the recent Eighth Annual Lowcountry QDMA (Quality Deer Management Association) Banquet, Tom bumped into Chip Davis, who invited Tom and his boys to his place on Wadmalaw. Since Chip is Nicholas’s godfather, the invitation was marked with a special significance.
Tom begins the story with an accurate statement sure to evoke laughter and unique memories from all acquaintances of Chip Davis: “Well, you know, with Chip, it is always an adventure!”
Tom is also keenly aware that Chip’s passion, preparation and attention to detail increase his guests’ odds of a successful harvest. He continues: “Chip had been putting out corn for awhile; he starts feeding those deer early.
“He sent me some pictures from the trail camera, but he told me not to show Nicholas. Chip said: ‘I want him to be surprised if he sees the bucks, but I don’t want him to be disappointed if he doesn’t see these deer.’”
Thomas and Rhett both took their first deer with their father’s rifle, a Sako 7mm-08. Early last year, in the same deer stand this story is set, Rhett took his first deer. Tom wanted to ensure that Nicholas was aptly prepared, so a few days prior to the August 12 hunt, he took the boy to Twin Ponds Rifle Range in Awendaw. “I let him shoot the Sako a few times, until the game warden working the range told me: ‘Don’t make him shoot anymore. He’s good! He is ready to kill a deer!’” Tom relays with a smile.
Now, a deer stand fashioned and fabricated by Chip Davis is as unique as its creator. The expansive and extravagant tower even includes air conditioning, which was not in use this afternoon so as to prevent the rifle scopes from fogging and minimizing visibility.
The square footage of Chip’s stand lends a social aspect to still hunting, a sport frequently experienced alone or in pairs. Chip sat with his daughter, Merritt, who recently began high school. Tom and his boys, Rhett and Nicholas, rounded out the party.
Shortly, deer began to appear. Merritt drew first blood, selecting a big eight-point from a dozen bucks. After her shot, the other deer took off. “They’ll come back; just give them some time,” Chip reassured the group.
Within 30 minutes, the deer returned, this time with nine bucks. Tom said: “All right, Nicholas. Grab your gun. Get ready and pick your deer.” The boy fell victim to buck fever, an adrenaline-induced trembling that indiscriminately afflicts all hunters, regardless of age or experience. “He whiffed it and they all ran off,” Tom explains. I was thinking to myself: “Well, that’s it for this hunt.”
But the godfather remained hopeful. “Don’t worry. They’ll come back,” Chip repeated.
Sure enough, the herd reappeared, but “the bucks stayed in high grass at the edge of the woods, a shot Rhett could make but Nicholas could not.” So Tom instructed Nicholas to offer the rifle to his older brother.
“No. Just wait.” Chip said with the assurance of a consummate optimist and indeed the wisdom of an oracle.
After a while, a score of whitetails emerged, including all nine bucks from the earlier visit. For Nicholas, the hunt required patience and a bit of adversity. Tom describes the scene: “Once the buck came out, he either wouldn’t present a broad shot, or he had a doe in front of him.” Nicholas couldn’t get a clear shot for some time.
“Then, a wasp landed on Nicholas’s elbow and we kept saying: ‘Don’t look at the wasp; look at the deer,’” Tom adds.
Nicholas recalls: “The wasp flew off right before I shot; once I was about to pull the trigger, he left. I literally got to pick my deer and I chose the one in velvet,” the boy adds. “I did what my dad taught me: I took a deep breath and I steadied myself.”
“I’m sure he wanted me to shut up!” Tom laughs.
At about 7:45 p.m., Nicholas pulled the trigger. “He dropped right where he stood. It was like you took his legs out from under him!” Tom declares with paternal pride.
When Tom went to get his Jeep, Nicholas announced: “Dad, you go; I’m gonna go ‘track’ my deer,” a quest that consisted of Nicholas simply running up to his visible quarry.
After thanking the Davis family for their fine hospitality, the Hartnetts headed to Cordrays Processing & Taxidermy in Ravenel. “Kenneth Cordray gave Nicholas the treatment!” Tom chuckles. Nicholas almost got out of there unscathed, but Rhett gave up his younger brother and upon realizing the buck was Nicholas’s first deer, Cordray rolled back out the “gut bucket.”
“He held me over the trash can and it smelled pretty ripe! It was bad! I thought they were gonna put my head in it,” Nicholas laughs, with new knowledge that the experience is entirely for show.
As for Tom, he hopes to return to Wadmalaw after the opening of doe season. “My excuse will be that I need to put out campaign signs on the island.” This November, Tom is seeking election as the Republican nominee for Charleston County Register of Deeds (formerly known as RMC).
Cordrays is preparing a European mount for Nicholas’s buck. Since Nicholas is the youngest of three boys, the milestone of his first buck is especially rewarding. “My brothers always told me I can’t say anything about hunting because I have never shot a deer.” Now, the young hunter has earned the honor of waxing poetic among a new generation of outdoor raconteurs.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.