By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
John Kelly decided he needed an early Christmas present after enjoying an Adult Mentored Hunt at the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s Portland Landing Special Opportunity Area (SOA) near Camden.
Kelly, an electrical engineer who works in the defense industry in the Huntsville area, said the experience at the mentored hunt inspired a desire to continue his hunting career. He just ordered a crossbow.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to hunt this year,” Kelly said. “I was on the outdooralabama.com website, just looking at hunting regulations, and I lucked onto a link about the mentored hunts. I thought, ‘Perfect.’ I had looked at websites and read books about hunting. There is only so much you can read. You can read two books and still not learn what you can by spending an afternoon in the deer blind with someone who knows what he’s doing.”
Kelly has family who own farms, but nobody in his family is considered a hunter. After his grandfather passed away, he started exploring the farm where his parents and grandmother live.
“There are these great wild spaces where I’ve never even wandered around or appreciated that much,” he said. “I’m just trying to connect with nature.”
Instead of going on a hiking trip and only observing nature, Kelly wanted to interact with nature, become a part of the cycle.
“When I got the email that I had gotten drawn, I was bouncing off the walls,” he said. “It was great. When I got there, I was expecting to get some educational stuff, like how to shoot, hunt and some demonstrations on how to field-dress a deer. That was the stuff I expected even though it was better than I thought it was going to be. But I think the thing I didn’t expect was how much I would connect with everybody there. I was expecting kind of an outdoor class, but I got really more of an emotional experience that I hadn’t expected at all. I really connected with the instructors and other mentees. It was very unexpected how close you can get to people by spending a couple of days in the woods with them, and just how open, warm and nice the people who were volunteering their time were. They were so incredibly welcoming and happy to have us there.
“It wasn’t like the camp-counselor vibe where the counselor says, ‘Welcome to Camp Idon’twanna. Over here we have the archery range.’ They were the nicest, warmest people. They were treating us like family. And we were so happy that they wanted us there. It was beyond my wildest expectations.”
Kelly showed up at Portland with no experience with rifles either.
“I’d never shot a rifle before, unless you count video games or virtual reality,” said the 32-year-old Kelly. “It was loud and fun. It was definitely less intimidating than I expected. I hadn’t been around them before, so I wasn’t super comfortable. But after spending a day on the range with the instructors, I said, ‘Oh, these are fine.’”
In total, Kelly fired the rifle nine times and discovered he became sufficiently proficient on the rifle range.
“I shot eight times on the range, and the ninth shot went straight through the heart of a doe,” he said.
Kelly said the prequel to the shot at the doe was enlightening as well with the quiet stalk into the woods to the blind, the watching and listening to nature unfold and spying the animals that inhabit the Alabama forests.
“You think, okay, it’s just an animal, like a squirrel at the park,” he said. “All of a sudden, these deer, like ghosts, appeared silently in front of you. You can feel your heart rate pick up. It was surprisingly exciting to see them show up.
“When I actually got ready for the shot, I got calm and focused and took care of business. Everything else, like sitting there watching nature, watching the birds feed and listening to my instructor tell me about the wildlife and plants, that was such a fantastic experience.”
Because of his lack of hunting experience, Kelly wasn’t positive he had hit the doe where he wanted. But they quickly picked up the blood trail and didn’t have to go far to find the deer.
“When I saw the deer lying 10 yards in the woods, it was more of a relief than anything else,” he said. “I was afraid I might have just injured it. To find it quickly was a very nice feeling.
“Now I understand that feeling, thinking about future hunts, that I want to make a clean shot or no shot. I understand a lot better now why people say that.”