By Michael Tran
In September, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources organized a mentored deer hunt at Occoquan Bay Federal Wildlife Refuge near Woodbridge, Virginia, in partnership with the Quality Deer Management Association. Each of the 10 new hunters, most of which were from urban areas, were paired with one of the 10 hunting mentors for the day. Three of the hunters harvested their first deer that day, including Michael Tran of Washington, D.C., who shares his story of the day.
I don’t have many reasons to get up before dawn. I’m not good at getting out of bed without waking the person next to me. I stumble in the dark and yawn incessantly. Even with the preparation the weeks and nights before, I hope I haven’t forgotten anything as I leave the house. But once I finally settle into the spot, when the thoughts of preparation and anxiety have passed, the stillness is rewarding.
Hunting is not something I grew up with and can’t say I knew anyone in my youth who hunted. I got interested in hunting because I love spending time outdoors. Over the years of hiking, backpacking, and following trails, I have always wondered, “What if I followed the deer trails instead?” Striving to understand how animals live and their patterns is, in my opinion, admirable. I also believe that hunting, like other activities in the outdoors, gives one an appreciation of wild spaces and thus a desire to conserve them.
I found out about the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) mentored hunt through Elevated Wild’s Instagram account (shout out to chef Wade Truong of Elevated Wild). As someone who didn’t know where to turn, I appreciate the numerous individuals who share their passion for hunting to encourage others to get out there. I had gone out a few times with some friends to Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas (Goshen, Oakley Forest, Mattaponi, and Pettigrew) in the fall of 2019, but with no luck. Knowing what I know now, I would have been unprepared even if I had seen a deer.
Eddie Herndon with DWR organized a great group of mentors and mentees and the logistics of making the hunt happen at Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge. My mentor, Megan Baldwin, was stellar. As a new mentee, I had complex feelings of wanting to learn but also not to seem too much of a noob. Megan is extremely patient and had an easy way of explaining the little things that you don’t learn from an online video but only through experience. “You shouldn’t see any black in the scope when you’re aiming, remember to breathe, don’t rush the shot,” were all small lessons I took away and helped me build confidence. I am grateful she imparted the tradition she learned growing up with me.
The morning of the hunt, Megan and I sat in silence and with anticipation. As the dawn chorus began and squirrels rustled the leaves, the anticipation slipped into an easy conversation. One thing I didn’t expect from the mentor program was the ability to meet people who are not in your immediate circle and where paths may not cross otherwise. After lunch, we slipped back into our blind and settled in for a warm September afternoon. Only after about 30 minutes, a doe and a fawn came out of the tall grass and walked towards the blind. I tensed up but Megan talked me through it. I hesitated as the fawn followed the doe slowly towards me, and I asked Megan what I should do. She said she thought the fawn was old enough to survive on its own, but ultimately, the choice was mine. Questions of ethics and morality came over me, but Megan was a reassuring mentor. I waited until the doe turned broadside and saw that the fawn was not behind it.
I did not realize the work of hunting does not really begin until after you pull the trigger. The doe had run into the woods and Megan taught me to wait so we wouldn’t push it farther away. We then began to scour the dense woods for a blood trail, but did not find any. We continued to look for more than an hour and I started to doubt my shot and that I might have injured it. I was ready to give up when Megan came across the doe under some brush about 75 yards away. I learned that being patient and methodical was important in those situations as deer can be unpredictable. Megan jumped right in and demonstrated how to field dress the deer on the spot.
It’s not so common that a group of strangers get together to teach and learn from one another, and I am grateful to everyone involved. I know that hunting will become a bigger part of my life. I am having my first child this month and hope to pass this tradition and appreciation for wildlife to the next generation.
Wondering how you might get started hunting? The outdoors are better together, and DWR can help you learn more.