As rifle season opens this weekend, there is one message which is being pushed above all others: be safe.
In the wake of the death of Allen "Randy" Smith, who died on Nov.13 as a result of falling from a tree stand, safety while hunting cannot be emphasized enough.
Of course, it goes without saying that almost every hunter is responsible and cares about the safety and welfare of other hunters. What is important is that hunters do not become lackadaisical while waiting for a monster buck to cross their path. Hunting demands focus and concentration at all times, including while hunters are still at home preparing.
A buck stands apart from his herd of fellow deer in Boulder, Colo. on Friday.
Bob Thurman recovers at The Med in Memphis, Tenn., from injuries sustained when he fell out of a tree stand he was setting up for deer season in Fayette County. Thurman was forced to crawl for hours up a hill to his 4-wheeler after breaking his femur in three places.
"The biggest thing that all new hunters are taught is this: know your target and beyond," said Craig Robbins, Post-Journal outdoor writer. "Sometimes we forget those simple but very important lessons that we're taught when we're very young. Once you pull that trigger, there is no bringing that projectile back. Once it's gone, it's gone, and it's going to hit whatever is in its way."
"Hunters have to be certain that their bullet is not going to travel somewhere where it will not injure another person or property," said Sheriff Joseph Gerace. "This is especially important with rifles, because an unobstructed bullet will continue to travel until something obstructs it, whether that's a person or property."
Of course, hunters can make it easier for other hunters to identify their surroundings by always wearing blaze orange clothing. This, according to Gerace, means not only an orange outer layer, but orange from head to toe, base layer to jacket.
"Everyone needs to be properly clothed," said Gerace. "Blaze orange is imperative not only the outer shell of the hunter, but if they anticipate taking their coat off at any time, the under clothing should also be blaze orange. This way they can be easily identified as a human being and not mistaken for a target."
Of course, identifiable clothing is the first thing hunters should do to promote safety while in the field, however it is not nearly the last thing. According to Gerace, all firearms should be handled with the utmost care, even with the safety on. Guns should be carried in a manner where, if one were to accidentally discharge, the projectile would fire in a direction where it is unable to hurt anyone or anything.
Additionally, especially with recent events, tree stand safety cannot be emphasized enough.
"From the time you step foot off the ground, to the time you step foot back on the ground, you need to make sure that safety harness is attached and attached properly," said Robbins. "Tree stand safety is the topic right now. No deer, no bear, no game is worth losing your life over. With that harness, with that safety strap, you need to make sure that strap is on. It's just the way it's got to be. You are taking your life in your own hands when you climb up a tree 20 feet and don't have anything tethering you to the tree. In fact, all tree stands that are made by the Treestand Manufacturers of America come with a harness, so there is no reason why hunters should not have a safety harness."
Unfortunately, one aspect of hunting safety which is commonly overlooked is honoring property, public or private, which is posted. Whether property owners are simply not comfortable with hunters being on their land, or whether land is deemed unsuitable for hunting, posted property must be respected by all hunters, even when tracking a deer.
"Our big concern is trespassing or hunting too close to a residence," said Gerace. "That's one of our biggest complaint areas. People post their land for a reason, and hunters need to respect that posting. Hunters should always gain permission before going onto posted land, even if they've been given permission in past years. Hunters cannot assume that just because permission has been granted in the past that such permission will automatically be granted again. ... We've even heard of hunters tearing down posted signs so they could claim (ignorance) when hunting on posted property. If safety is the first priority of a hunter, they will not hunt on posted property."
"If land is posted, it is imperative that you know where you're at in the woods," said Robbins. "If you're not quite sure whether land is posted or not, you need to back out and do some research. Find out whose land you're going on that's so important. Back out of the woods and knock on some doors. Most neighbors won't care that you're going through their property as long as they're aware of it. Just gain permission at all times, and usually everything will be okay. If you're tracking a deer and it enters posted property, there's that urge to follow it regardless, but hunters that put safety first won't follow that deer into posted property."
Finally, both Gerace and Robbins encourages hunters to enjoy themselves as they put safety first while hunting. Deer hunting has a rich tradition in Chautauqua County, and whether hunters are first-timers or seasoned veterans, the two believe that hunters will have the most fun by being safe.
Legal hours for hunting begin at sunrise and end at sunset. As the days grow shorter, this means that hunting hours will grow shorter, too, so be prepared to come home earlier as the season unfolds.
Enjoy a safe, happy hunting season, and best of luck to all.