The hunter who makes it out of the house alive has survived the most dangerous part of his sport, since 70 percent of all firearms accidents happen at home, but he isn't out of the woods yet.
While hunting is nothing like so dangerous as most nonhunters seem to believe, almost anyone who has spent much time afield has a story or two to tell about some fool who walked into his line of fire or a bullet that came whining out of nowhere.
Virginia has just completed a 16-year study of hunting accidents, which were reported at the rate of about 60 a year -- six toa dozen of them fatal. Nearly all of them could easily have been prevented.
Capt. Jim Kerrick, state hunter safety administrator, reported in the October issue of Virginia wildlife magazine that half the 972 recorded accidents were caused by bad judgment, a fourth by lack of physical skill, and most of the rest by mishandling of guns in camp, car or carrying.
The accident rate was 14 per 100,000 licenses sold, which cannot be compared with, say, the rate of accidents per licensed driver because there is no way to estimate how much time the average hunter spent in the field. Nor was the age and experience breakdown very instructive; while younger and novice hunters caused more accidents, there were plenty of "old woodsmen" who blew away buddies or bystanders.
Kerrick drew one overwhelming conclusion from the study: No matter how skillful and careful a hunter may be, the way to stay safe in the woods is to hunt defensively. As in defensive driving, see the other guy first and anticipate what he might do.
Big-game hunting (deer, turkey and bear) is almost twice as dangerous as the pursuit of any other game in terms of hours spent afield. Any deer hunter who does not wear blaze-orange clothing is a fool, because deer are color-blind and anyway react not to shape but to movement, sound and odor. If the clown was downwind and standing still, a deer couldn't tell Ronald MacDonald from a stump.
When hunting waterfowl or upland birds, safety is largely a matter of using common sense -- especially in picking companions -- but woods hunting is another matter. Even a fool who shoots at sounds and movementts is fairly unlikely to bag another hunter while in pursuit of squirrels and rabbits, but dumb big-game hunters are looking for something roughly man-sized, and God help you if you come along at the wrong time.
Since God moves in mysterious ways, self-help helps. The best rule is to hunt where other people are not, which isn't much help because few are privileged to have private game lands, and anyway "posted" signs are widely ignored. So wear blaze orange. Wear lots of blaze orange. Wear blaze orange all over. Bears have very ordinary vision and, like deer, rely mainly on their other senses. Turkeys have acute color vision, which leads turkey hunters to don elaborate camouflage; yet several turkeys have walked up to me while I was sitting or standing in the open radiating blaze orange in every direction.
Which brings us back to deer hunting, the single most dangerous blood sport in Virginia and presumably the rest of the region. The safest way to hunt deer is to hunt other deer hunters first and deer second. Assume that any shape, noise or movement you see is an armed man, and keep assuming that until it is proved otherwise.
Since one cannot assume that other hunters will maintain the same attitude, give them as few chances as possible to make a mistake. Don't go slipping along a deer trail, because somewhere along it there is likely to be an excitable person with a gun. Anyway, you will be wasting your time, because not one hunter in a thousand is quiet or keen enough to walk up on a deer.
Scout the area you're going to hunt before the season opens and pick a place where several deer trails join or cross. Choose a spot where there is a tree, rock formation or hillside that will protect your back. Memorize the route to the chosen spot and go to it at least half an hour before first light -- while the slobs are still in the sack -- which will give time for the disturbance and scent of your passage to fade before legal hunting time; deer are usually seen early or notat all. Come daylight there probably will be other hunters blundering around who may push deer past you. Best of all is a tree stand, which gives you more scope and makes you more visible. Even jerks can be expected to know deer don't grow on trees.
Speaking of scope, use one on your rifle, The finest iron sights are inferior to an ordinary scope even for shooters with splendid vision: with a scope there are two points rather than three to line up, the target is magnified and the light is intensified. Shapes that look like deer to the naked eye often turn into bushes, boulders or men when seen through a scope. Leave the safety on until you're sure you are lined up on something you intend to kill.
All of the above is more or less useless without practice. Practice at stalkingduring the closed season is valuable -- the best cure for buck fever is to watch deer in a nonhunting situation -- but shooting practice is essential. A hunter who does not know how his weapon operates and where it shoots is going to have too much to think about if a deer comes along.
The price of learning that in the field is cruel, especially if it is the deer that pays.