McKean Minute: On Expectations

I’m a sucker for a wide-eyed beginner. Show me an angler who doesn’t know a blood knot, and I’ll swim the river to show her the ropes. Bring me a hunter who doesn’t know where to start looking for gear, and I’ll let him borrow mine.

Maybe that’s the inclination that makes me so open to being a mentor, which can be defined as anyone who has the inclination to share their experiences with someone less experienced. It’s deer season here in Montana, and for the last several years the ritual has opened with a couple days devoted just to young hunters. Kids get a week’s jump on the rest of us, and the only conditions—besides having a valid license—is that youth have to hunt with a non-hunting adult at least 18 years old.

This youth season is tailor-made for mentoring, and through our local sportsman’s group, I’ve helped facilitate a number of mentored relationships. I’ve been handing down gear to a neighbor whose parents don’t hunt, and asked him if he had anyone to share the youth hunt with. When he said he didn’t, we hatched a plan to meet up.

First, we looked over his gear. He needed a rangefinder. I had an extra. He needed a headlamp. I had an extra. Same with bipod, rain gear, and a backpack. They’re yours to keep, I told him. If you upgrade or find you have no use for them, just pass them on to someone in need.

He picked whitetails over mule deer for the first day of the 2-day youth season, so last week we headed out to a chunk of ground that routinely holds deer, and sometimes some pretty good bucks. The trek into the cover was great, with some tutorials on crossing fences, staying quiet, and muzzle control. The wind was right, but I showed him how to check it and what to do if it switched. We used his new rangefinder to range various distances where we were likely to see deer. We talked about deer behavior, and their habits of bedding in the daytime and coming out of cover to feed in the evening.

And then, right on time, deer started feeding out of cover. We looked over a couple little bucks, and then it occurred to me: what was he looking for? A fat doe for the freezer? A young starter buck? An ear-wide 4-point fed out of a line of trees. How about him? I asked.

“I’m sorta waiting for a 6×6,” my apprentice said. I may have snorted. “So am I!” I returned. We watched a number of other deer, including some smaller bucks, mostly within range. Then it was time to go.

On the way out of the field, keeping our profiles low and our scent blowing away from the herd so we wouldn’t ruin the spot, I thought about what had just happened. Are my expectations unnaturally low? Or are his perversely high? I don’t know, but while we both enjoyed the experience, I also wondered if he was setting himself up for the sort of disappointment that older, more experienced hunters need years to put in context. Would his inability to achieve his goal turn him off to hunting in a few more years?

I still don’t have an answer, but my apprentice went out with another neighbor the next day. They chased mule deer.

“Did you fill your tag?” I asked him. “No. We saw some good ones, but nothing I wanted to shoot.”

I think he’ll be just fine. He has the right gear. The right advisors. The right places to hunt. My only hope is that he also allows himself to immerse himself in the experience without being so hung up on the outcome.