By Jon Bryan
-- At the opening of hunting season each year, the Georgia Game and Fish Department hosts a special deer hunt for kids between the ages of 12 and 14 on Sappelo Island, which lies several miles off of the Georgia coast between Savannah and the Florida state line. The state supplies the food and the deer, which have over run this small island. Drawings are held in August, and the winners get to participate in a two-day hunt in early November. Randy, my youngest son, and I had applied in August 1977, but weren't drawn.
Then in August 1978, we were notified that we had been drawn, and we needed to report to the Game and Fish Department, Sappelo Island Ferry by noon, on Friday, Nov. 11, to be ferried to the island. We were told to bring our sleeping gear, tents were okay, and for Randy to be ready to hunt by 2:30 p.m. that day.
Excitement reigned in our house the weeks before the hunt. Randy didn't have a rifle so we bought him a Remington 660 bolt action, carbine, in .243 caliber. This wouldn't "kick" him too much, and with a Weaver 3X9 scope, he would be able to score a hit at over 200 yards. We added two boxes of Remington, 100-grain bullets and the entire bill came to less than $250. We sighted it in at the River Bend Gun Club and the rifle shot right on the money. At that time, this little rifle was Remington's "loss leader," and today, 30 years later, it is a much sought-after item by collectors.
The week before the big hunt on Sappelo Island, the excitement hadn't ebbed at our house. Then one day, I returned home from a quail hunt with a hair-raising story of a hand-to-hoof struggle with a wounded deer, making Randy doubly excited!
Driving to Savannah and onto the ferry landing, we were both thrilled. We had been told that cars weren't allowed on the island and all transportation was mule-pulled wagons. When I was a young boy, mules and wagons were the main means of transportation in rural Falls County, Texas. I was glad Randy was going to get to experience this also.
The ferry ride was a pleasing 2-3 miles across a small bay to the island. The ferry was full of excited boys and girls and equally excited dads; at the time no moms were allowed. We were met by the wagons. The smell of leather harnesses and mule sweat brought back memories of a long ago, happy time.
Taken to our camping spots, we were told to "make camp" and report back to the check-in station in 30 minutes to get our hunting area assignments and rules for the hunt. The tent was up in record time, and we hurried to the meeting area.
We would hunt in Area 4, the fourth father/son team to be unloaded off the first wagon. There were five wagons and 25 hunters all told. The game warden in charge told us, "Shooting time will begin at 4 p.m. and pick up will be made whenever the teams are able to get back to the roads. All hunting will be from blinds, which each hunting party will have to build for themselves. No, absolutely no, stalking of deer. When you shoot your deer, don't gut it but carry it out to the road and await pick up. Examination and gutting of the deer will be handled by the state. Get your guns. Good luck and good hunting."
As we got off of the wagon, the kids were quiet in anticipation of the hunt. Our spot was about one-half-mile square, with a creek that had only a trickle of water in the bottom, running west toward the small bay. There was a rough, wooded bridge over the creek, and we found plenty of deer tracks. About 60 yards out from the bridge, we made our blind out of long marsh grass and dead limbs, and our area of opportunity for a shot was from 9:00 to 3:00 o'clock clockwise.
Pulling two bigger logs into our blind for seats, I pulled out a Tom Clancy book, "The Hunt for Red October," and began to read. Suddenly Randy almost yelled, "Dad, I see a deer."
Novel aside, I tried to give him some last minute instructions, "Aim a little high and take a deep breath and ..." Bam!
His .243 shattered the stillness. "Dad, I don't know if I hit him or not, but he has antlers," Randy exclaimed through his ragged breathing.
"Let's go find him, Son." We searched for over an hour. It looked like a clean miss. Randy was deflated.
Waiting for the pick up, we got the last wagon, and it had four deer on it with lucky hunters telling of their accomplishments, just as hunters have since the beginning. "See any deer?" a boy asked.
"Yeah, I missed one," said Randy.
Then the young boy surprised me by saying, "Hey, don't worry, you'll get one tomorrow." The deer were deposited and Georgia's biologists went to work.
The venison steaks were excellent, and we went to bed with full tummies. Lying in the tent, one more time, I went over the basics of rifle shooting with Randy, finishing what I had been interrupted in saying, "Aim a little high, take a deep breath and let out half of it and your scope's crosshairs should settle on your target. Only then squeeze the trigger. Don't jerk it!"
Randy finished my talk with a sleepy reply, "Okay, Dad."
Up early the next morning, we ate breakfast in the dark and got on the wagon for the trip to the hunting area. The sun was peeking over the eastern horizon as we got into our blind. Reassuring Randy, I told him that we should have no problem getting his deer since we saw so many tracks yesterday afternoon.
Back to "Red October" and Randy whispers, "Dad, I see a spike."
"Relax and breathe deep, let half of it out and squeeze gently," I whispered the abbreviated shooting orders. Randy took the shot.
"Dad, he's down," the shaky words came out of Randy's mouth.
I got out of the blind and said, "Let's go get him."
"I'm right behind you," Randy responded. He took two steps out of the blind and fell to the ground.
"Dad, I'm so nervous I can't move." Acute buck fever has set in.
"Randy, we've got all day, just lie there until you feel okay."
Shortly, he gets up saying, "Dad, I don't think I can breathe."
"Once we get moving, it will go away," I said, laughing inwardly.
Randy shot a nice spike. I was a proud dad and happy for him.
Randy still uses the little .243 with the same scope. He has taken 26 deer with it over the years.