It was early in the afternoon and early in the season when a yearling doe stepped into the opening in front of my elevated bow stand. For several minutes she gleaned acorns from the forest floor, offering a clear, broadside shot that didn’t come. Then she slowly walked away. It was a conscious decision and the first time in my hunting career that I passed up a legal deer, but would ultimately prove a pivotal point.

The standard hunter safety course curriculum includes the five stages through which hunters progress, based on a University of Wisconsin study. The progression is a generality. Not every hunter goes through the stages in order. Some plateau at early or middle stages. Some skip a stage. Some even regress over time, or with circumstance. It applies to all types of hunting, but deer hunting offers a good example.

Most start at the shooting stage; they just want to shoot things. Success could mean any deer, regardless of sex, size or age. That may remain the objective for many a Maine deer hunter simply seeking meat for the freezer. Success is important as it builds confidence and reinforces the urge to go back out again.

Some of those who experience early success, and hold additional permits, then step up to the limit stage, where the goal is to fill all their tags or bag limits. Here too, some hunters plateau. They may continue to experience success but they don’t progress. As someone once told me: “They may claim to have 30 years of hunting experience but if they do the same thing over and over, they really only have one year of experience, 30 times.” However, as they build confidence and gain experience, some advance to the next stage.

In the trophy stage, hunters begin placing voluntary restrictions on themselves. If their first deer was a fawn, they may target an adult deer. If it was a doe, they wait for a buck. If it was a yearling spike or forkhorn buck, they hold out for an older, bigger buck. They may even target a specific buck. Doing so, they gain still more experience, develop a greater, more diverse skill set, and a greater appreciation for and understanding of the game they pursue, and they grow as hunters.

Next, or possibly even before, comes the method stage. It may involve taking up bowhunting, or still-hunting rather than simply sitting on a stump. In this stage the hunter begins to realize that how game is taken is more important than what is taken.

The pinnacle is called the sportsman stage. Here, the whole experience is more important than merely bagging game. It includes time shared in camp and in the woods, swapping stories, sharing advice and teaching new or young hunters. This stage is generally more common in older hunters, and takes time to achieve.

Barely an hour had passed after that yearling doe left when she returned, offering a rare second chance. I mustered every ounce of restraint I could, and was soon rewarded when another deer approached. It was a buck with a sizable eight-point rack and my shot was true. That restraint and success gave me the will and confidence to improve and mature as a hunter. I’ve taken many smaller deer since, but under circumstances where the hunt, not the deer, was the real reward.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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