Kainen Gilley waited patiently in the deer blind with his dad, Bryan, and their guide, Scott Adams. Although Kainen had been hunting with his dad before, this would be his first chance to harvest a deer of his own. The trio of hunters eventually “saw” thirty deer. Finally, the moment of truth came for Kainen when his dad tapped him on the shoulder, signaling that it was time to shoot. The young hunter squeezed the trigger, and his first deer was history. Over the years, thousands of youngsters have harvested their first deer in much the same fashion. However, it’s a pretty good bet that most of them weren’t blind when they did it. Gilley has been blind since birth, but he didn’t let that stop him!
Hunting. Fishing. Highly competitive sports. These activities play a significant role in the childhood of many Mississippians. Kirk Thomas was no exception. However, after a life-changing hunting accident left him paralyzed, Thomas realized there was a world of people with special needs who loved to hunt. From that realization, sprang the Wheelin’ Sportsmen organization.
Now an outreach program of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Wheelin’ Sportsmen is dedicated to the education and entertainment of disabled outdoor enthusiasts. The recent NWTF/Wheelin’ Sportsmen Celebrity/Youth Team-Up Hunt held in the Metro Jackson area provided several of those individuals a chance to do things they had never even dreamed of.
Exhausting All Avenues
Like so many youngsters, fifteen-year-old Patrick Townsend dreamed of deer hunting with his dad. He wanted to experience the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the kill. There was one small problem, however. Patrick had not yet been able to pass Mississippi’s required Hunter Education Course.
Patrick is a fun-loving youngster who enjoys being in the outdoors and meeting new people. If you have the good fortune to meet him, you’ll quickly gain a friend. Unfortunately, young Patrick has a learning disability that keeps him from comprehending what he reads. Therein lies the problem. While he’s able to learn in a one-on-one setting, the test for the Hunter Education Program was just too difficult for Patrick to understand on his own.
After a few years of struggling with the situation, the future deer hunter was at his wit’s end. Late one night, Patrick went to his mom and poured out his heart in despair. Tears of frustration welled up inside both mother and son and were unleashed in a torrent over the seemingly hopeless situation. Sure, Patrick had been to the woods before, but never with a rifle of his own. He wanted the opportunity that Kainen Gilley and thousands of other youngsters have experienced –– to feel the rush of adrenaline pulsing through his veins as he anticipated the big buck that was sure to be his. If only he could achieve that Hunter Safety certification, he could reach his goal of going deer hunting with his father.
Numerous phone calls to different people only yielded more frustration for Patrick’s dedicated mother, Naomi Smylie. Everywhere she turned, it seemed she ran into a dead end. “If he didn’t pass the test, there’s nothing we can do,” was the standard reply she received. The Smylie’s neighbor, Brad Waldrop, had often heard Dan Robinson of Mississippi Woods & Waters magazine on US 96.3 during the radio station’s Friday morning outdoor report. Waldrop knew of Patrick’s situation and told Naomi that she should give Dan a call.
Although she didn’t know Dan or much about the magazine, Naomi went online to the Mississippi Woods & Waters Web site and found Dan’s e-mail address. He was the proverbial last straw for Naomi Smylie –– if he couldn’t help, then all avenues were exhausted. Though she had heard “no” for so long, she made one last plea for help and sent the publisher of the magazine a heartfelt e-mail.
A Shift in Fortune
As fate would have it, Robinson was scheduled to attend a meeting at the Bass Pro Shops in Pearl on the same day that Smylie’s e-mail arrived. The meeting was being held to discuss the NWTF/ Wheelin’ Sportsmen Celebrity-Youth Team Up Hunt that was to occur the following weekend. Just before Robinson left for the meeting, he read Mrs. Smylie’s e-mail and was deeply moved by her predicament.
Arriving at the meeting slightly late, Robinson wasted no time once he got inside. He quickly secured the attention of all in attendance as he passed out copies of the touching e-mail. All eyes and ears were on Steve Thomas, Regional Director of Wheelin’ Sportsmen, as he read the e-mail to the group:
Dear Mr. Robinson,
I have a special needs teen that wants so bad to go hunting with his dad. He is 15 years old and has a learning disability that prohibits him from passing the hunters safety course provided by wildlife and fisheries. He is a special education student at Pisgah High School. His individual education program in the public school system states that he requires one-on-one attention in order to pass his classes. He is in the 9th grade and still requires a lot of assistance. We own 93 acres of land in Newton County which we have turned into a deer camp for a few select friends. Can you help me get a hunting permit of some sort so that Patrick may go hunting with his dad? Patrick has already tried to take the hunter’s safety course and didn’t pass it. He is such a wonderful child and wants to be treated like everyone else. He doesn’t understand that he is different and to be honest with you, I don’t want him to see himself that way. Is there any special classes that I can enroll him in, which would enable him to go hunting?
Naomi R. Smylie
All of those in attendance were touched by the mother’s sincere plea, as indicated by the response that followed. Lieutenant Jimmy Stringer, a Conservation Officer with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, answered the call without hesitation. “I’ll make sure he passes that course. I’ll work with him one-on-one, and by the time we’re through he’ll have that certificate!” exclaimed the inspired officer.
Steve Thomas immediately offered as well, “Dan, Patrick can hunt with us [at the Celebrity/Youth Team-Up Hunt] if he can be here Friday morning to register. This is exactly what Wheelin’ Sportsmen and this hunt is all about.”
Robinson could hardly contain himself as he called Naomi Smylie to relay the message. Upon receiving the good news, Smylie shed tears of joy and was joined by Robinson in that expression of emotion. In this special circumstance, plans were quickly made for Patrick to miss one day of school in order to attend the weekend hunt, and Lt. Stringer went to work with him on his Hunter Education course.
The Event Begins
On Friday morning, shortly after registering at Bass Pro Shops, Patrick Townsend and his dad, Ken Smylie, went to the rifle range with a few other hunters. They were joined by guides Paul Meek and this writer. Available for instruction and guidance were veteran conservation officers Freddie Overby and Kenny Neely. It was apparent that Patrick was ready for action, as he found the kill zone with both of the shots he took. Patrick’s anticipation of the hunt grew with each passing moment, but first, he and the other participants had a full day of exciting activities at the event headquarters.
Conservation officers and others were on hand to assist with shooting crossbows, paint guns, pellet rifles and laser rifles. Additionally, Pete Ponds, Preston Pittman and a few others were available to help with fishing. Yes, they even had fishing at Bass Pro Shops that day –– and a few of the anglers were fortunate enough to make a catch! Patrick and the other participants thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on attention they received from the many professional athletes, outdoors celebrities and conservation officers.
Jimmy Primos, of Primos Game Calls, held one-on-one sessions to demonstrate how to make a grunt call. After showing each youngster the basics of making a call, he then observed and gave instructions as needed. Each student was given the call they had made for use in future hunts.
Friday night finally arrived, and the festivities began with Wheelin’ Sportsmen Founder Kirk Thomas welcoming the crowd. Howie Damron led the group in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Paul Ott addressed the crowd and assembled a group of celebrities on stage to help in his howling hound dog rendition of “Ole Blue” which celebrates coon dogs, hunting and the outdoors. Among those howling with Ott and Thomas, were NWTF founder Rob Keck, United States Congressman Chip Pickering, and former National Football League player Scott Adams.
After a tasty meal of fried alligator and scrumptious catfish, the pairings of hunters, guides and celebrities were announced. The weekend would include hunts on the properties of various private landowners around the area. Hunts would be held on Saturday as well as Sunday morning. The anticipation for Patrick and the other hunters was really building as they awaited Saturday’s hunt.
The Winds of Change
As luck would have it, a front passed through shortly before daylight on Saturday and high winds greeted the hunters as they made their way to their early morning stands. While Patrick and most of the other hunters saw nothing, a few did get opportunities and some harvested deer. With one hunt down, Patrick had yet to spot a deer.
By Saturday afternoon the winds had died down and the temperature was slowly falling, making the conditions just right. Joining Patrick on this hunt were his dad, guide Gary Gray, cameraman Shane Easterling, and celebrity guide Mike Giles. The group knew that they were almost certain to see deer, as the animals frequently visited the location in the afternoon hours.
After about an hour with no luck, Patrick pulled out his custom-made grunt call and went to work. There was no response at first, and things just didn’t seem to be going right for the youngster. Soon, however, a doe was spotted milling about at the edge of the woods about 150 yards in the distance. First one, then another deer skirted the edge without offering a killing shot. Patrick and his entourage were really beginning to get primed. About thirty minutes later, yet another deer slipped quietly by in a thicket just to our left. Once again, Patrick didn’t get a shot, as the deer stayed hidden from his view as she passed.
Time was passing swiftly and the sun was setting. Snap! Crack! Suddenly something was moving to our left. Within seconds a deer walked out into the clearing and began to feed. Closer and closer it came. Gray handed Patrick the rifle and the youngster looked for a killing shot. Finally, the deer turned broadside at 30 yards and the moment of truth had come. As Patrick centered the crosshairs on the deer, he could feel the adrenaline pulsing through his veins. This was what he had been waiting for –– the chance to harvest his first deer, while hunting with his dad.
Minutes passed and the deer continued to feed with no shot coming from the youngster. “Do you think we should let her grow up?” Patrick asked his guide. “It’s up to you, but ask your dad,” replied Gray. Ken Smylie knew that a real deer hunter was in the blind with them as he answered his son, “It’s your call but you can let her grow some more if you want to.”
A Mature Decision
Looking through the crosshairs once again, Patrick squeezed the trigger ever so slightly as he pondered what to do. Finally easing pressure off the trigger, the young deer hunter clicked the safety on and watched the doe slowly disappear into a thicket. Even though Patrick had set his sights on killing a buck, this doe had provided him with an opportunity to observe a deer firsthand at a mere 30 yards.
Only a true hunter can understand the significance of Patrick’s passing on the doe. While some would have made a shot at any cost, this youngster had made a decision to let the deer walk. In so doing, he showed maturity and an appreciation for wildlife that belied a novice hunter. As the hunt came to an end, young Patrick knew that he had reached a goal he thought unattainable only a few days earlier. He had made a deer hunt with his dad, while carrying his own rifle to the woods.
Back at camp Smylie was elated at the outcome. “He’s never seen deer that close before with a chance to kill one,” exclaimed the proud father. “This week has been… amazing!”
On Sunday, Patrick joined guide and hunt coordinator Jim Erben in an elevated stand for the last hunt of the Wheelin’ Sportsmen weekend event. Although they did not see a deer that morning, two huge gobblers appeared on the other end of a food plot. Erben started purring and clucking like a flock of turkeys, and the old birds turned and came straight for the stand. Patrick was astounded that Erben had called the gobblers to within thirty yards of their position.
“How did you do that?” asked the excited youngster. Erben replied, “I just talked to them and told ‘em to come on down here with us, we’re eating too.” Patrick hoped to do it himself one day, as well.
Topping It Off
As the weekend hunt came to a close, there was one last presentation to be made during the closing ceremonies at Bass Pro Shops. Lt. Stringer told the group of a young man who had tried valiantly to get his Hunter Safety certification. He then called Patrick Townsend and his mother, Naomi Smylie, to the front. After telling the crowd about Patrick’s perseverance, Stringer presented Patrick with his Hunter Education card. Almost everyone in attendance was moved by the presentation, and once again, many shed tears of joy.
Although Patrick didn’t harvest a deer, he did achieve his goals. He obtained his Hunter Safety certificate and made a “successful” hunt with his dad. He even had the opportunity to kill his first deer!
Stringer also made an announcement that will impact other special needs people. Inspired by Patrick’s predicament and determination, Stringer plans to hold a Special Needs Hunter Education Class in Rankin County in the coming year. Patrick Townsend will be present at the class in order to help other young hunters.
NWTF/Wheelin’ Sportsmen provides people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in outdoor activities. Founder Kirk Thomas says, “We can’t reach everybody in the world, but my goal is to touch every individual I can, by giving them the opportunity, one at a time.”
“This is a volunteer organization and every individual here [at the weekend event] is a role model. There’s not a person here that shouldn’t give thanks every day.” Kirk, a paraplegic, challenges able-bodied individuals, “When you volunteer, you can be their eyes, feet, legs, or brain, and you take away their disability. Special people need special opportunities.”
If you want to get involved or if you know of an outdoor enthusiast who has special needs, contact the NWTF/Wheelin’ Sportsmen by calling 1-800-THE-NWTF or visit their Web site, www.wheelinsportsmen.org. MWW
About the Author – Michael O. Giles of Meridian is a lifelong outdoorsman. He is an award-winning member of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and a contributor to various newspapers and magazines.