Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I deal with animals…it’s my job.

In my world, I don’t often get a chance to have an experience where lives are touched, human lives to be more specific. As I sit here reflecting on this past year’s hunting seasons I am often drawn to reminiscing about the “best” hunts. For a time in my life it was always focused on the animals I pursued and every once in a while it actually included an animal I killed.

Not anymore.

My hunts are measured by the people I take. Whether it be my son, my Dad, my closest friend or complete strangers, “my” best hunts are often “their” best hunts. As many hunters know, there is a standard progression that takes place throughout their hunting career that takes the focus off the animals we hunt and, deservedly so, places it on the entire hunting experience. That point in my career occurred earlier than for most and it was completely due to my job. It was an experience I gained on a Young Sportsman’s deer hunt that was put on by our agency but that story will be shared one day in another blog. This story, the one I write right now, need not take the focus off the true “heroes” of this past season. It is my duty to make sure their story is shared. Luckily for me, it is where my thoughts of this past hunting season not only begin, but it culminates, in a truly wonderful memory.

* * * * *
Some people believe heroes come in larger than life size or with Herculean strength. Some even believe they come with superpowers or originated from far off alien galaxies. A few even think heroes are cast with body parts made from titanium. I am here to tell you that the last statement is sometimes true.

When speaking of these mighty figures you will not find their names preceded by the likes of Mega, Ultra or Super, rather, they go by simple names like Bobby, Brandon, Wilson, R.J., Matthew, and many more. The one thing they ALL have in common is that their signatures are always preceded by their rank.

They are the men and women of our military forces… our real modern-day heroes.

This past season I had the privilege and honor of assisting some of our greatest heroes on a simple deer hunt. What made this excursion of a small group of men and women from Fort Campbell Army Base much different than previous outings is that this time, these brave soldiers were not in pursuit of your freedoms but rather a little well-deserved downtime. They were after all, participating in a Wounded Warriors Hunt at Fall Creek Falls State Park, a time meant to kick back and relax.

So as not to take away from the individual story of any one of these fine individuals for I am certain they each have stories that can bring you to your knees, I am going to focus on me and how blatantly insignificant and unimportant my life felt compared to theirs.

* * * * *
I arrived at Fall Creek Falls at the request of Bill Swan, Safari Club International (SCI) member, to serve as a hunting guide for one of the Wounded Warriors. (Without a doubt, the Chattanooga chapter of SCI, does more for our Wounded Warriors for this hunt than any other group I know, they truly are to be commended!) Upon speaking with Bill about his initial request, I made it abundantly clear that I was unfamiliar with Fall Creek Falls so I wasn’t sure how good of a guide I could possibly be. He assured me I had nothing to worry about. The soldiers did not require or need someone to “put them on an animal”, they simply needed a partner. The task requested of me seemed simple enough. How wrong I was.

As I sat in the Group Camp, the soldiers began to arrive. Seeing the anticipation in their eyes of tomorrow’s deer hunt was enough to tell me that their eyes had seen more than anyone could possibly imagine. The fact that “a day in the woods” was a long awaited and cherished moment, reminded me of how spoiled I truly am. It was because of their service that I am able to selfishly take for granted the things that I do every single day.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to make friends.

As the pre-hunt social continued the last of the soldiers filtered in. Though most of the soldiers were in decent physical shape from appearance, a few were not. Some were missing limbs (yes, new ones made from titanium) while others had difficulty walking or even sitting still. One can only imagine the other wounds they shared, the wounds in which we cannot see.

I promise that is the last of my morose thoughts because this was a time to rejoice and have fun!
* * * * *
Needless to say, I spent the next few days with some of the greatest guys I have ever met. Some deer “met their maker” that week. As luck would have it, my soldier (the one who was originally assigned to me) filled his tag, but only after he was paired with another guide on the last evening. I swear it speaks NOTHING of my guide services! At least I’m trying to convince myself of that.
I do know, without a a shadow of a doubt, that if my guide services for these fine gentleman are ever sought again, I will be there in a blink of an eye.
Reflecting upon this past year, that hunt was by far, one of the greatest memories I will always cherish. On that hunt, a life WAS touched, and it took me all of the rest of the season to realize that I was not the one who touched someone’s life, rather MY LIFE was the one that was touched.

To Bobby, Brandon, Wilson, R.J., Matthew, and the rest of the soldiers …

… I thank you, for you truly are my hero.

PS - I would be remiss not to mention all of the Agency folks who assist with Wounded Warrior Hunts across the state. I am certain all the officers, biologists, I&E personnel and all those who volunteer their time do so for the same reasons as I. You guys rock.

Daryl Ratajczak is the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He is an avid outdoorsman enjoying all forms of outdoor recreation from hiking and kayaking to hunting and fishing. He is dedicated to protecting and managing all of Tennessee's wildlife resources and bringing the outdoors to all citizens of Tennessee.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ethics and Bear Hunters

Once upon a time, just under twenty-one years ago, I moved to the Southeastern corner of Tennessee.
Fresh out of a divorce and with two small children, I - as many others do - found respite from the devastation of my life in this little section of wild lands that we like to call The Cherokee Forest. At the time, I was unaware that the Cherokee was vast, encompassing a large chunk of Eastern Tennessee and joining with the Nantahala (NC) and Cohutta (GA) forests in my immediate 'neck of the woods'. I don't even know, had you told me that I'd be charged by a bear 18 years later just a mile or so from where I would sit and ponder life, if I would have believed you.

Like many people who find solace in nature, I found myself in the company of like minds... those of us who could find some sort of 'reset button' on life when we sat in awe of natural things. I remember, way back during that time, hearing my First Ever Tale of what bear hunting (with dogs) was like. To paraphrase a tale lost to history, I was told how a bunch of "old dudes" sat on the bed of the truck - drinking and smokin - watching their dogs' GPS signals. When the signals indicated they had a bear treed (told like the dogs themselves pushed a button on their collar that instantly informed the 'hunters') the hunters, clad in shorts and tennis shoes, would take a leisurely stroll down a trail and shoot a bear. There was no challenge... the bears had no chance... and to call it a sport was like calling quantum physics recreation. To really add the icing to our proverbial cake, I was told that bear is darn near inedible... so if you hunt bear, it's just a bloodlust. For the next two decades, that was my image of bear hunters.

Now, let's fast forward to present day. If you've read my blog, you read about my epic and unbeatably ludacris first bear hunt... but now I want to tell you about my second hunt (from December). It's not necessarily that I want to go into details about the hunt, at least not like the last time. What I want to tell you is the truth in the work, the unlikelihood of success, and the amazingness of some of the people I've met. I should preface my opinion by clearly stating that I KNOW there are unethical hunters (not like this is unique to bear hunting, either). But many of the perceptions that have been relayed to me over the preceding decades were that all bear hunters were - essentially - villains. Bad guys. Poachers and 'hog hunters in disguise' and so on. To top that opinion, I was pretty much under the impression (from said perceptions) that raccoon hunters were merely bear poachers in disguise. As I've said before, the main reason I ever went bear hunting the first time was because I felt a bit hypocritical for condemning something I had never even experienced. I went the second time... well, half of my reason was to make sure my experience wasn't a fluke, the other half was because bear is officially my favorite game meat.

When I took my recent bear hunting trek, it was in the Northern Cherokee. I was invited to go with one of our former Tennessee Wildlife Commissioners, Mr. Eric Wright. In my personal party was an amazing older gentleman (Ross), Daryl, and Chris (with his son). The other guys out hunting near us that day were about half the age (collectively) as my group... especially considering that, at 40, I was the youngest in my group (excluding Chris' young son). During the course of our day we slogged about 6 miles in the rain, the vast majority of the slogging done "off trail" in real rugged wilderness. At one point I remember we were about 900 linear yards from the dogs' signals (and, presumably, the bear). Around forty-five minutes of steep downhill we had progressed about 60 linear yards. My jaw dropped.

Never had I been so soggy, so muddy, and so exhausted. But the company was amazing and I was always smiling. 

At the end of the day the younger half of the group on our dogs ended up getting to the bear and a clean shot was made. The boy who took the shot was around 16... I could feel him glowing with pride over his first bear and I honestly share in that pride. The people that were slogging all through the mountains with me that day were some of the best people I think I've ever met. Ross and I talked a bit about raccoon hunting, which he had done since he was a boy during half-a-century prior. It was a shame to hear him say that some of the restrictions placed on where he can hunt raccoons is simply the ethical raccoon hunters paying the price for the unethical ones that are actually poaching bears. Remembering that story I was told about "bear hunters" from the early 1990's... well, I was enraged with a story that painted this moral, kind and patient man (who was exceedingly nice to me, pretty much a stranger tagging along) as a bad guy.

I realize this isn't my usual blog full of picturesque places or thrilling tales... but I do hope that it helps someone, as it has me, understand that sometimes we have to experience the world to find the truth in it. That the people we are told are unsavory can actually be some of the best people you'll ever meet... and that the opposite of that is just as easily true. The constructs of the world around us, if they are built by others, shouldn't be the structures that dictate your world... experience it on your own and find your own truth.

In the end, I can't wait to visit with this group again next year and it's my hope that I'll get to trek (notice, TREK and not SLOG) all through those mountains again, simply following the baying call of the hound.

((In case you're wondering, the bear was around 350 lbs and Ross provided me with a shoulder of bear meat... which also reiterated the fallacy in how 'ucky' bear tastes.  It's quite easily my favorite meat.))

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.