Neuromuscular control, a gift from the Red Gods that I once believed would endure through my lifetime, has frayed and unraveled and proved to be a perishable grace. Once steady and sturdy I now shake, rattle, and roll worse than the spindle that wobbles and clatters in the worn-out bearings of my old chain saw.
How could I not see this coming? An inevitable malady of the aging process, the “old man shakes” are part and parcel with the corresponding curses of diminishing muscle strength, stiffening of flexible tendons, thinning of skin, increasing brittleness of bones, dimming of vision, and silencing of hearing. Forget baldness and wrinkles; these things are the true and limiting annoyances for the hunting fraternity.
As a riflery coach I always recited to neophytes the mantra “Sit and you’ll hit!” until they accept it as a tenet of the creed. Put your butt on the ground, loop the rifle’s sling around your upper arm, raise your knees, lean slightly forward, brace your arms against your legs, and you will hit what you’re aiming at. I forgot an important factor in this shooting equation: “Don’t get old.”
Although I follow all the rules of the rifleman’s dogma, the target now bounces and bobs in the telescopic sight, refusing to let the crosshairs lock on tight behind the deer’s shoulder, the squirrel’s head, or the paper target’s red dot. Sometimes, when I am tried after long hours in the field or breathless after a run into shooting position, the scope’s bobble is so bad I cannot in good conscience pull the trigger.
There was a day when I considered myself a pretty fair rifle shooter, and any deer within 200 yards was in mortal danger. That day is long past. A deer has to blunder within 100 yards (75 in the low light of early morning or late evening) for me to have confidence that I can make a humane one-shot kill.
My declining shooting skills are less apparent with a shotgun, of course, mostly because I have the blessing of a pointing dog that holds birds until I am ready for a close, careful, and measured shot. Also, I only take shots that I am sure I can hit. A half-hour’s hunt for a crippled-but-running bird has become shameful to me, and it isn’t often I will try to take a bird that is a passing shot or one that is one the fringe of my range.
But with a rifle a hunter seldom has a chance to choose his shots so carefully, and the tremors and shakes are glaringly apparent. Even taking a shot from a sitting position, steady as possible with a tight-and-solid hold on target, is difficult for me these days. Thinking about taking a standing, offhand shot? Forget it.
Hence, for the first time in my life, a device known as shooting sticks has caught my attention. Strictly speaking, this is not true. About 10 years ago I drove to the edge of the South Dakota Badlands to shoot prairie dogs, and I used a bipod attached to the front sling swivel stud of my varmint rifle’s stock. This aid to accuracy was incredible. Shooting from a prone position, supported by the bipod, with a 16-power scope, I shot prairie dogs that were more than 350 yards distant. Let me assure you I did not hit these miniscule critters consistently, but I occasionally connected.
Being a “wily, crafty veteran of the hunt,” I could clearly see how some type of bipod would steady my hold on my rifle and make me a 200-yard shooter again. Well, at least a dependable 100-yard shooter. Unlikely to lie in prone position with a short bipod for two or more hours as I await a deer to emerge from the woodlands, my intent was to buy shooting sticks that would allow me to shoot from a seated position, preferably seated on a camp stool, or at least a padded cushion.
I did some online research, viewed images of different types of shooting sticks, and thought, “Well, hell, I can build those myself from scrap lumber.” A few cedar planks were left over from a home improvement project, and I got to work cutting them into 1 ½-inch wide, 42-inch long sticks connected by a nut-and-bolt at a pivot point about 5 inches from the top.
Voila! A functional set of shooting sticks. Pleased and smug, I quickly made a set for each of my three ground blinds. Hmmm. Dang! Each set proved to be too short to brace a rifle for a shot from the windows of the blinds. Fortunately, I had a lot of cedar, so I made three more sets, 48 inches in length.
As long as I do not venture outside the ground blinds, I’m prepared for the rifle season for deer in the North Country. I have not yet come up with a device that will allow me to shoot with confidence from a ladder stand up in a tree, but I’m working on it. I don’t rifle hunt from a ladder stand very often anyway, I rationalize.
I’m hoping this shooting sticks device will extend my rifle hunts for deer a few more years. If my heart doesn’t give out first. Or the COVID-19 pandemic does not write finis to my days afield. Wily, crafty veteran hunter that I am.
More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page