Anyone who wants to learn to hunt deer should go into the woods in a wheelchair.
So confined, you will go very slow, won't get very far, and will stop frequently to rest and study the ground ahead. Then you'll be hunting like Pat White of Norfolk, who hunts from a wheelchair because he doesn't have any legs; and White gets a deer or two every year.
White, who lost his legs to blood clots after making it safely through 30 years in the Navy, is president of Handicaps Unlimited of Virginia. As the name suggests, the organization is devoted to expanding the activities of what used to be called cripples.
As president, White feels duty-bound to set an example. Besides hunting, he fishes, bowls and plays basketball. He's tried golf, "But I just couldn't do anything about my terrible stance."
Last week, for the fourth straight year, White went out on the annual wheelchair hunt at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and took home a Sika deer. Deer hunting is permitted on the refuge, by trained and tested hunters and under strict supervision, to keep the herd down to about a thousand. Otherwise they would eat out not only their own habitat, but that of the waterfowl for which the refuge was set aside.
Sikas are miniature Oriental elk that were introduced in 1925 by Boy Scouts. They multiplied so fast that there now are five of them for every native deer. White prefers Sikas over whitetails both for the flavor of the meat and because, since a full-grown Sika usually weighs less than 60 pounds, he can pack them out on his wheelchair.
White's perfect record is no fluke; the success rate of the other wheelchair hunters is close to 100 percent. The abundance of deer on the island is not the explanation, since some "able-bodied" men have hunted there for years without getting a shot. And earlier this season White took a whitetail in Craig County, one of the hardest places in Virginia to hunt deer.
White's advantage is his handicap. He cannot, when restless, get up and wander around. Having spent nearly a decade in a wheelchair, he has learned patience beyond the understanding of people who can go where they like when they please. White will sit as quiet and unmoving as a fireplug for hours on end, watching and listening. If he develops an itch that must be scratched, he does it in slow motion. He is the very embodiment of the proverb that all things come to him who waits; if the deer don't come in the morning, he waits through the afternoon. If they do not come by nightfall, he goes out next day and waits some more.
Staying really still for long periods in the outdoors pays dividends unknown to the average hunter or hiker. At Chincoteague the best hunting spots are also the most beautiful, being where the woods join the marsh. White gets to see not only owls, quail, foxes and raccoons but the huge and rare Delmarva fox squirrels and waterfowl ranging from Canada geese to coots.
There are more deer than ever before throughout the East, and they are crowded into ever-dwindling undeveloped areas; and since they are creatures of habit that tend to use the same trails at about the same time nearly every day, anyone who picked likely spots and waited long and quietly enough could match White's record. But most of us who for the time being have the use of our legs are afflicted with an inability not to use them while waiting in the woods. So we go home with excuses, while White and his fellows go home with deer.
Refuge regulations and common sense require each hunter to take along a "walker" to help dress the deer and deal with such problems as logs in the path or punctured tires. The walker also presumably would be handy for tracking wounded deer, but not once in the five years of the handicapped hunt has that been necessary. The wheelchair hunters do not cripple deer.
White's walker is a big old heavy boy who prides himself on being a stealthy stalker, but he's a tapdancer by comparison. After helping White set up on stand, he goes off and blunders through the woods while listening for the high, flat crack of White's .243 Winchester rifle. There is always just the one shot, and then there is a deer to pick up.
Having passed a state hunter-safety course and the refuge hunting and marksmanship tests, White's helper also is allowed to hunt. Two years in a row, after hours of beating the bushes to no purpose, he has taken a deer at the end of a day while on his way out, moving at White's pace.
White rolled right up on this year's Sika, coming within 35 yards before he took his shot. After the clean and instant kill, and in spite of excessive activity on the part of the overexcited helper, Mary Shaffer of Herndon, wife and walker to wheelchair hunter Gene Shaffer, came along and took another, just as cleanly, from the same group.
There are places in the handicapped hunt area, which is along the Pony Pen Trail, that a hunter can't get to in a wheelchair, particularly the ancient dunes and greenbrier hells where the big whitetail bucks lay up. White has gone hub-deep into the marsh and chin- deep into the thickets but has found that deer, like people, prefer to use easy paths. So he leaves the brush-busting to his walker and uses his head instead.
And the walker's looking for a wheelchair to try out next year.