By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Bryan Nettles of Mobile is of a generation that doesn’t have the connection to the outdoors that I and my Baby Boomer hunting buddies have.
We stayed outdoors and followed in our fathers’ (or mentors’) footsteps into the world of hunting, for both recreation and sustenance.
However, like many from the later generations, Nettles just needed a little nudge to join the hunting community, and he found that encouragement in the form of an Alabama Mentored Hunt.
“I had some interest in hunting, but I didn’t hunt at all when I was growing up,” Nettles said. “My father hunted some up in Monroe County, but it was bird hunting and not deer hunting. I’ve got some friends who hunt. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had an interest in hunting.
“I’ve been invited by my friends to go a few times. Not knowing much about it, I always turned those down. But my son (7-year-old Michael) started showing an interest last year, so we signed up for the hunter education class.”
Daniel Musselwhite, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ South Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, polled the class attendees about their hunting experience. Nettles raised his hand when Musselwhite asked if anyone had never hunted.
Musselwhite approached Nettles at the end of the first day’s class and mentioned the mentored hunts, which he and Jeremy Doss, an Alabama State Lands Division Enforcement Officer, had started in Mobile County on the Frey Tract, a piece of property owned by the Forever Wild Land Trust.
After a successful launch to the program, the Mobile County School Board learned about the mentored hunts and allowed their Russell Road tract to be used in the program. The Mobile County School Board also allowed the mentored hunt participants to use the Girl Scout camp located between those two tracts for their classroom activities.
After Musselwhite gave him the information, Nettles signed up for one of the mentored hunts in Mobile County and was able to gain a great deal of information even before the hunt started.
“After we had the hunter education part, I was able to talk to a lot of people who were hunters,” he said. “Then Jeremy talked to us about firearms safety and got us comfortable shooting at targets at 100 yards. The mentor was really nice. Gary Turner with the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) was my mentor. We went over what we were looking for while we were sitting in the stand.
“I didn’t know how quiet you needed to be or how much you could move. It was nice to be able to find that out with the mentor there.”
As is most often the case for deer hunting in Alabama, there are long periods of little action, followed by heart-pounding excitement.
“I was beginning to think we weren’t going to see anything,” Nettles said. “Right at sundown, there was nothing out there. Then, all of a sudden, there were three or four deer out there. Gary talked to me about staying calm and waiting for the right shot. They walked behind a little stand of pine trees, which was nice because it allowed me to calm down. Gary told me they would be back. About 10 minutes later, they came back and I was able to get a shot. Gary told me to take my time. I thought I might be taking too much time.”
When the rifle fired, the deer bolted into the woods, and Nettles had no idea if the shot was accurate.
“I wasn’t watching as closely as I should have,” he said. “After the shot, I was just shaking because of the rush of the adrenalin. Gary told me take my time and pack up my stuff. Gary watched where the deer went into the woods. We got down and he talked to me about finding where the deer left the field. Then he talked about finding blood and following the trail. It didn’t take long to find the deer. It didn’t go but about 30 yards.”
Nettles admitted that experience stoked a desire to continue his hunting career and to bring his son along.
“Right then I started trying to find a gun for my son,” he said. “I had bought a gun for me before the hunt. We spent most of the summer trying to find a place to hunt. We decided to get into the lease to have somewhere private to go and set up our blinds. I would have never done that if it hadn’t been for that mentored hunt. My 12-year-old daughter, Meg, and 6-year-old son, William, are warming up to the idea of hunting, but Michael is gung ho.
“Since that hunt, my son and I go to the Outdoor Alabama website and find out what’s available. Because of that, we participated in one of the trapping workshops in Citronelle. We also went on a youth dove hunt this year. And I’ve told several people about the mentored hunts since then.”
Nettles’ mentored hunt was a one-day experience. However, for the ultimate Alabama Mentored Hunt, WFF recently teamed with Forever Wild again to acquire the Cedar Creek Special Opportunity Area, a 6,500-acre property in Dallas County. Cedar Creek will hold six mentored hunts, three three-day deer hunts, one-day hunts for rabbits and squirrels and a two-day turkey hunt. The lucky applicants will be able to experience what it would be like at one of Alabama’s commercial hunting lodges for the deer and turkey hunts.
“One-day hunts are great, but what we are wanting to reproduce with this program at Cedar Creek is the whole hunting club experience we all had growing up,” said Chuck Sykes, WFF Director. “This weekend hunting trip will include firearm safety, tree stand safety, habitat analysis, game processing, wild game cooking, and most importantly quality campfire discussions. All mentors and hunters will stay together at a centralized location and spend quality time together both in the woods and around the camp. It will be a great experience for the new hunters as well as the mentors.”
Musselwhite said as the average age of hunters in Alabama gets higher, it’s imperative that outreach focuses on the younger generations.
“The average hunting license buyer is in their mid-50s,” Musselwhite said. “So, we’re trying to get the age groups from the 20s to even the 50s introduced to the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or just watching wildlife. We’re low pressure. If they don’t want to squeeze the trigger, we’re fine with that.
“We’ve seen situations like Bryan’s, where people have turned down invitations because they don’t want to ask what they feel are stupid questions. They feel intimidated when they’re around more-experienced hunters.”
Doss and Musselwhite said participants feel better prepared after sessions on hunter education, time on the shooting range and discussions about deer biology and shot placement.
Quality mentors are also a significant factor in the new hunter’s experience, which is why volunteers from the NWTF are so important to the Mobile County hunts.
“The NWTF has been a great partner,” Doss said. “They not only provide mentors for the hunt, they provide lunches for the hunters, help us clean deer, clean up or whatever.”
Musselwhite added, “The guys from the NWTF are at that stage of hunting where they are more excited to see someone else shoot their first deer than if they were shooting. It reminds them of taking their first deer.”
Five mentored hunts are planned for the Mobile County properties with a total of eight mentored hunters per hunt.
To apply for a mentored hunt event, download and complete the application at outdooralabama.com/sites/default/files/Adult-Mentored-Hunt-Application.pdf. Applicants should be at least 19 years old, possess a valid driver's license, and be new to hunting or have limited hunting experience. Applications for multiple mentored hunts will be accepted, but you may be selected for only one, depending on the number of applicants.
Email the completed form to Justin.Grider@dcnr.alabama.gov. All mentored hunt program correspondence is through email, so be sure to include a valid email address on your application. Applicants will receive an email when their application is received, and those selected for a mentored hunt event will be notified by email.
PHOTOS: Bryan Nettles bagged his first deer on an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Adult Mentored Hunts with the help of NWTF volunteer Gary Turner. Mentored hunts are scheduled for Mobile County properties and the Cedar Creek Special Opportunity Area in Dallas County.