It was a wet, foggy day in October, cool, with little wind -- perfect for an afternoon of hunting white tailed deer. Perfect for meditation time alone, for seeing nature from a perspective only a hunter can by sitting nearly motionless in a tree stand for several hours. If I was lucky, I might get a chance to fill my freezer with delicious and healthful venison. I tied my bow and arrows to a hoist line hanging from the tree stand and began carefully climbing the tree using metal steps I had attached to the trunk. I was only 8 feet up when suddenly I had the surrealistic feeling of finding myself in mid air. Then, wummpf, impact! It was stunningly sudden. I had no time to react to the slip. I could not believe that this had happened to me. I was on my back on rocky ground and my pelvis really hurt.
Luckily, the story did not end in tragedy, just a bit of a limp for a couple of weeks. But for too many, the story does end tragically with paralysis from a broken back or even death. It should not have taken a close call for me to take hunting safety more seriously than I previously had, but it did.
Hunting is actually a very safe activity. Serious injury occurs from two main causes: accidental shootings and falls from tree stands. Firearms injuries have been steadily declining. In New York State, hunting-related firearms injuries and fatalities both dropped by 60 percent over 20 years. Nationally, accidental firearm fatalities in all settings have dropped by 93 percent since 1903. The shooting injury rate is 1 per 20,000 participants per year with 15 percent being fatal. Falls from tree stands occur in one per 14,000 participants per year with 1.5 percent being fatal. The overall hunting injury rate is 1 per 2000 participants per year, similar to bowling and 100 times lower than football and 24-40 times lower than basketball, soccer, baseball and bicycling.
To what do we owe these encouraging statistics? The answer is mandatory training. In Vermont, New York and Massachusetts, passing a hunter education course is required to obtain a hunting license. In addition, a bow hunter education course is required to bow hunt. These courses are rigorous and reinforce the fundamentals of hunting safety.
The fundamentals of firearm safety are:
1) Muzzle control. Never allow your firearm’s muzzle to point at any part of a person, even for a millisecond. This can be hard to do in a group, but with practice becomes second nature. If you see unsafe muzzle control, point it out to that person immediately. This is how we learn to do better.
2) Be sure of your target and beyond. A large percentage of accidents occur when a person is in the line of fire of a legitimate target.
3) Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
4) Treat every gun as if it were loaded, even if you know it is not.
5) Wear hunter orange - it will make you 7 times safer. Deer cannot distinguish fluorescent orange from brown. This is because our eyes have three color receptors and deer eyes have only two. Fluorescent orange absorbs ultraviolet light that deer can see and then radiates it as the color orange that deer cannot see well. In New York in the last 10 years, all shooting fatalities due to a hunter being mistaken for a deer by another hunter were in persons not wearing hunter orange.
If you use a tree stand for deer hunting, follow these rules to reduce your chance of serious injury:
1) Use a manufactured portable tree stand. Homemade wooden stands can develop unseen rot and fail suddenly.
2) When climbing up or down the tree on a portable ladder or tree steps, use a lineman’s belt or a fixed rope with a Prussik knot and harness. Most falls occur when climbing or stepping into or out of the stand. Clipping yourself to the tree only when you are in the stand is inadequate protection.
3) When in a fixed stand or when using a climbing stand, always wear a modern harness with a short tether to the tree.
4) Never climb with a gun or bow. Use a haul rope to raise and lower unloaded weapons.
Finally, always have a means of emergency communication. If you are injured or become suddenly ill, it can prevent needless suffering and lead to a better medical outcome. A cell phone or a two-way radio kept on your person is best. Always carry a whistle for signaling in case there is no cell phone service or the battery dies. In addition, always let someone know your detailed hunting plans so that help can be sent if you do not return from the woods on time.
If you enjoy hunting, get out in the field as often as you can this fall and be safe by following the guidelines outlined in this article. With safety, it is much better to do things right from the get go rather than learning from your mistakes as I did.
An avid hunter, Dr. Eric Seyferth is internist in private practice in Bennington and on the medical staff of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.