The fall hunting season brings nothing but joy to many waterfowl and deer hunters. For them, this time of year means spending weekends and early mornings outdoors with some of their best friends and family members, and sometimes, going home to a freshly hunted meal. These fun times, however, can easily turn for the worse if hunters aren’t practicing safety by being aware of their gun usage and environment. Sometimes even the most experienced hunters can make tragic mistakes.
Three weekends ago during an early waterfowl hunt two hours west of Duluth in Hubbard County, Adam Poole, 23, stood up in his duck-hunting boat to shoot at a duck the same time as his hunting partner. It went wrong when his partner lost balance and accidently pulled the trigger as he fell out of the boat, striking Poole in the head and killing him.
The recently married man’s death affects UMD alum Mitch Rehkamp, who grew up with him in Nevis, Minn., and used to hunt with him around their hometown.
“He was an amazing guy, honestly,” Rehkamp said. “Probably one of the happiest I’ve ever met in my life — like always had a smile on his face.”
The last time he went hunting with Poole was the summer of 2011. He said that both of the hunters involved were some of the safest hunters he’s known.
He and his hometown friends now talk about what went wrong that fatal day.
“We all went hunting with him,” Rehkamp said. “We’ve all been in the same situation. It’s just, I mean the small stuff you’ve got to think about, you know... Just a mistake. But, stuff happens. You always have to be as safe as you can be.”
Poole’s story also hit home for UMD senior Alex Culp, who often stands up in boats to shoot at waterfowl just like Poole did
“That’s what I do,” he said. “That’s how I duck hunt.”
What Culp took from the tragic story is a reminder of the importance of situational awareness and communication during a hunt — especially when hunting with partners
“It’s being aware of your hunting partner, not just what you’re doing,” Culp said. “If your buddy’s pointing the gun the wrong way, you need to say, ‘Hey, watch your muzzle.’ You don’t have to be mean about it.”
Culp has been shooting guns ever since he can remember and hunting since he was 11 years old — the minimum age for firearms safety training. He also hunts at least four times a week during waterfowl season and considers himself a “gun safety freak.”
“You’ve got to realize what you have in your hands,” he said about his gun. “It’s a lot of power, so it’s a lot of responsibility, you know.”
About gun safety, he said there are many little things to remember, but there are three main rules hunters should follow:
1. Treat the gun like it’s always loaded, keeping your finger off the trigger and using the safety feature whenever not firing at the hunt.
2. Be 100 percent sure of what you’re about to shoot at and what’s behind it.
3. Don’t point the gun at anything you’re not going to shoot except the ground and the sky.
Justin Grossinger, a UMD senior, said following these safety rules becomes automatic with practice. He’s been around guns his entire life and has learned from making safety mistakes. Once, he accidentally shot a hole through the floor of his duck blind while reloading his gun because he falsely believed his safety was on.
“That was scary,” Grossinger said.
Because of that incident, he said being conscientious is the biggest concern of gun safety.
He said that although many hunters are aware of their guns, sometimes they choose to be lazy, especially with using the safety.
“Keep it on safety regardless if you’re walking, if you’re hunting,” he said. “Only make that decision when the bird or deer might take. Don’t say, ‘Well, I can save a second and a half.’ No. Because that second and a half might just kill somebody or you’re going to hurt yourself.”
Duluth DNR conservation officer Randy Hanzel said every year there are usually a couple gun-related injuries during hunting season and zero or one fatalities.
“The leading one is self-inflicted,” Hanzel said. “You’re more likely to hurt yourself with a firearm than somebody who hurts you.”
Many of these incidents are caused by hunters not following the safety rules — a big one being leaving a gun loaded while unattended.
“I think I recall somewhere between 10 and 12 percent of the incidents with guns happen from your best friend stepping on the trigger and discharging your own firearm,” he said.
Dogs will step on loaded guns, too.
“You need to unload that firearm if you’re going to set it down,” he said. “Make sure the safety is on.”
Being safe while hunting is not only a factor of gun safety, but of equipment preparation as well.
Hazel said hunters going into a new area should have gear to help them navigate, such as a map, compass or cell phone.
“Getting lost is something that happens fairly frequently,” he said.
He noted that it’s also important for hunters to make sure someone accountable knows where they’re going and when they’re coming back in case something unfortunate happens.
Tree stand incidents are also common.
Many tree stands sit out all year and the weather and the movement of the trees can weaken their stability. Hanzel said it’s best for hunters to wear some sort of harness to keep them from falling in the case that the stand collapses, they fall asleep or something causes them to lose balance.
Grossinger brought up another safety issue with tree stands: the transportation of the gun.
“On the way up and down, make sure you unload your gun because most of the time you’ll hook it through the trigger guard,” he said. “Well, that’s pretty easy for it to swing and hit the fire trigger.”
Boats, like tree stands, also require extra safety when hunting. Autumn water temperatures are near freezing, and when combined with wind or a setting sun, a flipped boat could get a hunter into trouble.
“Life jackets is a big thing,” Culp said, who owns a hunting boat. “We always make sure we have enough life jackets in the boat.”
Although most hunters won’t experience anything nearly as tragic as Poole’s story, it’s important for them to remember what could happen and to keep practicing safety.
“Accidents do happen,” Grossinger said. “And that’s why you better do your best to keep it as safe as possible.”
BY ALOYSIA POWER