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Keep Hunter Safety the Top Priority

By DAVID RAINER

The buzz is definitely in the air, especially with the cold front that moved through earlier this week that piqued the interest of those who anxiously await the opening day of Alabama’s gun deer season.

Because of the excitement generated, there is one issue that is infinitely more important than where or when you’re going to bag that big buck – hunter safety.

“It’s been a long time since people have been in the woods and people need to make sure all their equipment is in order,” said Ray Metzler, Hunter Safety Coordinator with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “They need to check everything ahead of time. They need to go to the range and make sure their gun is sighted in.

“All the basic aspects of hunting apply, as well. They need to make sure they are abiding by all the laws and regulations, including wearing their blaze orange. I also highly recommend carrying a flashlight. That’s not a regulation, but I refer to that as something hunters can do to protect themselves from the actions of other hunters – moving around the woods in dim-light conditions. It distinguishes you as a human. There’s not a deer in the woods that carries a flashlight.”

For those who haven’t been bowhunting, each hunting stand needs to be checked, especially climbing stands or fixed position stands that are locked onto the tree with a cable, chain or nylon strap.

“I’ve got five stands that I checked back in September before bow season started,” Metzler said. “When I check my stands I’m looking for broken welds or any cracks. I make sure all the material, including the seat, is in good working order. I check the nuts and bolts and make sure they’re in good shape.”

During the 2009-2010 season, there were 14 tree stand-related accidents, including one fatality, which occurred in Escambia County. Metzler said the report indicated the 39-year-old victim fell from the tree after a pin came out of climbing stand while he was descending the tree. His safety belt was not attached to the tree.

“Everybody should know by now that you should wear your full-body harness from the time you leave the ground until the time you come back down,” Metzler said. “Of the accidents we have, very few of the people have on a full-body harness. People will put it on but won't attach it to the tree until they get where they are going. What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of accidents don't happen when they're sitting there. It happens when they're going up or coming down, unless they happen to fall asleep in the stand.”

There were 10 non-fatal firearms accidents last year and one fatality where the victim was mistaken for game in Monroe County. Metzler said mistaking a hunter for game is the most common reason for firearms-related accidents.

“You don't pull the trigger unless you know what it is, especially in the morning or late in the afternoon in dim-light conditions,” he said. “Almost all of the firearms accidents we see are during dim-light conditions. Again, that’s the reason people need to carry a flashlight. The thing is you have to make sure of the target and what’s beyond. And you need to identify your target with your binoculars, not your scope.”

As tragic as the fatalities and accidents are, Alabama’s hunter safety record has improved dramatically during the last decade. Hunter safety has been mandatory since 1993 and anyone born on or after Aug. 1, 1977 is required to complete the course before the person can purchase a regular hunting license. A recent addition to the license law allows people of license-buying age (16 and older) who haven’t completed the hunter education requirement to purchase a restricted license to hunt with a properly licensed hunter as a mentor. The license will indicate ‘supervision required,’ which means the new hunter must be within normal voice control – not over 30 feet – from a properly licensed hunter who is at least 21 years old.

Metzler said during the past seven seasons, the statistics indicate that Alabama has between three and five accidents per 100,000 licenses sold.

“That’s a significant improvement,” he said. “About 15 years ago those numbers (ratio per 100,000 hunters) were in the teens. I think hunter education has been a part of the decline, but I can’t say it’s the only reason. The way we hunt is different. More people are sitting on stands and not moving around the woods like they used to. Clubs have sign-out boards to let people know where they are. Safety equipment is better, as well. Plus, we have a mandatory blaze orange requirement (a minimum of 144 square inches of hunter orange or either a full size hunter orange hat or cap).”

Metzler said he understands the excitement Alabama hunters experience on opening weekend, but he urges those who take to the woods to keep their wits.

“They just need to be calm and abide by all your basic safety rules,” he said. “Don't get excited. Walk carefully and be cognizant of your surroundings. Don't get in a hurry, especially going up and down a tree. Take it one step at a time, whether going up a ladder stand or in a climbing stand. The main thing is not to get in a hurry. That's a simple way to say it.”

And remember the 10 commandments of firearms safety:

1.      Treat every firearm as if it was loaded.

2.      Control the muzzle of your firearm – keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction; never point a firearm at anything that you do not wish to shoot; insist that your shooting and hunting companions do the same.

3.      Be sure of your target and beyond – positively identify you target before you fire and make sure there are no people, livestock, roads or buildings beyond the target.

4.      Never shoot at water or a hard, flat surface – there is no control of a ricocheting bullet.

5.      Only point a firearm at things you want to shoot – and don’t use a scope for target identification, use binoculars.

6.      Never climb a tree, cross a fence or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm.

7.      Store guns and ammunition separately – store firearms under lock and key and use a gun case to transport firearms.

8.      Make sure your barrel and action are clear of all obstructions.

9.      Unload firearms when not in use – never take someone else’s word that a firearm is unloaded. Check yourself.

10.  Avoid drugs and alcohol when hunting or shooting – even some over-the-counter medicines can cause impairment.

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