By Matt Ledger
Alabama offers exceptional diversity in wildlife for hunters, from white-tailed deer in Madison County to a record 1,011-pound gator caught this August in Camden.
Shawn Smith and John Whitaker are two of several New Hope Telephone Cooperative employees who just want to get in on the action.
Both of them have turned their love of the great outdoors into a family bonding experience. Smith enjoys hunting deer and dove, while Whitaker has a wider range of quarry, also hunting ducks, rabbits and squirrel. “A lot of people think you’re crazy, just sitting there out in the cold,” Smith says. “But I like it, just to get away from everything. I might sit there for six hours and not see anything, but it is just so peaceful.”
The sights and sounds of the wilderness are a sensory escape from the humdrum daily life, he says.
Whitaker appreciates the solitude now, even if he wasn’t patient enough for deer hunting earlier in his life. “When I was younger, I would just duck hunt because you can talk and move,” he says. “I finally have enough of an attention span and patience to sit there waiting for deer. It just gets your mind off everything and you really see what God has created for us to enjoy.”
Passed down to the next generation
Smith fished in bass tournaments every weekend for more than 15 years but now alternates fishing with hunting trips.
For the past four years, Smith has taken his 10-year-old son, Austin, along on hunting trips. “He really likes it,” the proud father says. “It’s a good time for the two of us to enjoy time together. We’ll just sit there and talk. He will ask me about things from the past, and I will tell him about the things he needs to be doing now and in the future.”
As a parent and a little league coach, Smith preaches the importance of safety to children. Taking heed of those lessons becomes more important when they are climbing into a tree stand or handling a rifle.
Smith usually averages one prized deer each season. Over the years, he has mounted three of his best for display at home, ranging from eight- to ten-point antler racks. Austin has even nabbed a six-point buck on one occasion. “Even if I didn’t kill another animal for the rest of my life, I would be happy as long as I am able to see my son do it,” says Smith. “Just watching the expressions on his face, it just tickles me.”
Whitaker’s daughters — 13-year-old Olivia, 11-year-old Ella and 6-year-old Ava — have been fishing with their father many times, and he’s taken the older ones hunting a time or two. “We are just now starting to hunt,” says Whitaker. “Hunting takes more patience, so you have to wait until the kids get a little older.”
Ava will take her first hunting trip with her father this season. “The last two or three years, I’ve also taken a few area kids duck hunting on youth days,” says Whitaker, who believes that all youth should experience hunting at least once.
Hunting is an exhilarating and affordable hobby with a decent rifle and scope ranging from $300-$500.
Both men agree that avid sportsmen like their toys, and some invest a small fortune in the sport, purchasing expensive camouflage gear or building elaborate duck blinds. Add the expense of joining a hunt club, and the sport can become really expensive.
Smith has used the same Remington 270 for the past 20 years. It’s the only one he has ever hunted with and will eventually be passed down to his son in a few years. Smith has his sights set on a bigger caliber rifle to allow larger game hunts, like elk or moose in Northern states.
Whitaker and Smith are both fond of hunting in the New Hope area, which allows each frequent opportunities to enjoy their sport. Whitaker prefers hunting on his 400-acre family farm, seeking ducks in the mornings and switching to deer in the evenings. As a youngster, his father would only allow others to hunt on his property if they would take his son with them.
“My uncle Kylen Cloer was a police officer, and he taught me how to handle a weapon and to be safe with it,” Whitaker says. At age 11 he received a Western Field 12-gauge shotgun, that he still owns.
At the end of the day, both men say it’s not the gear or even the kill that makes the sport worthwhile. In some ways, a simple and old-fashioned hunt with family may be the most memorable.
“My grandpa was one of the best hunters I knew,” Smith says. “He’d go out there in a red t-shirt and pair of blue jeans and wind up coming back with two or three deer.”
Checking hunting dates and regulations is vital before heading to the woods. The state’s website is a great resource and even has online applications for hunting and fishing licenses at www.dcnr.state.al.us/hunting/.