EDGEFIELD, S.C. — The vast expanse of the outdoors presents boundless opportunities for adventure. For many of us, it serves as a sanctuary, offering a break from life’s worries and an opportunity to enjoy the wonders of nature. For a resilient young boy facing the challenges of cancer, the outdoors became a source of healing and connection as he participated in one of America’s greatest traditions.
Gage Smith, a 13-year-old boy from Tennessee, recently experienced a dream-come-true deer hunt, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Illinois NWTF Wheelin’ Sportsmen, United Special Sportsmen Alliance and other local organizations/businesses. The inclusive youth deer hunt was hosted at Southern Illinois University’s Touch of Nature Outdoor Education Center.
The NWTF Wheelin’ Sportsmen events offer outdoor opportunities to individuals with injuries, mobility impairments or those requiring additional assistance. Similarly, the United Special Sportsmen Alliance, a non-profit wish-granting charity, specializes in providing critically ill and disabled youth with the chance to embark on outdoor adventure of their dreams.
“This year was our first year of hosting the NWTF + USSA partnership hunt,” said Lindsay Meverden, Assistant Director of Inclusive Recreation at Touch of Nature. “USSA provided us with the hunters and paid for their tags and NWTF Illinois Wheelin’ Sportsmen and their volunteers took care of the rest! They set all of the blinds, assisted with transportation to and from blinds, and provided each child with an experienced guide.”
Gage first became interested in the outdoors through small game hunts and fishing with his family. However, he had not had the opportunity to hunt any big game before the archery hunt in Illinois. Gage, accompanied by his parents, arrived excited for what the weekend had in store for him.
“I was excited and a little nervous … and looked forward to seeing deer, I like getting to watch them, and maybe getting the chance to shoot one,” Gage said. Gage’s dream of an unforgettable deer hunt was about to come true.
Ahead of the hunt, the NWTF Twin Rivers Limbhangers chapter in Tennessee played a crucial role in providing Gage with camo for the big hunt.
Held the first weekend of November, the archery deer hunt provided an expansive 3,400 acres open exclusively for the Wheelin’ Sportsmen events, including on-site meals and lodging.
Upon arrival, Gage’s appointed mentor, Walter Ruiz, briefed him on the hunt. Ruiz also guided Gage through crossbow practice and assisted him in preparing for the anticipated hunt the following morning.
Following a morning filled with anticipation and patience, Gage finally spotted an impressive 8-point buck.
“I was excited, but I just stayed calm,” Gage said.
With Gage, his mentor and his father in the blind together, they observed the buck for a while. Initially, the buck was surrounded by does, with no suitable shot opportunity. Eventually, the buck moved behind the blind, lingering there for approximately 20 minutes. At this point, the group assumed the buck would leave, however, the buck reemerged directly in front of the blind, providing an open shot.
Gage took his time to make the shot; unfortunately, the shot was a little low and didn’t quite reach the lungs, leading to a challenging tracking process.
A tracking dog was called to help search for the deer, and although the search spanned about two miles, the deer was not found. Although the deer was not recovered during his time at Touch of Nature, Gage was in great spirits and was eager to return next year for redemption.
Leading up to the next weekend’s adult Wheelin’ Sportsmen hunt, the deer was spotted alive by volunteers scouting the area, setting the stage for an unexpected turn of events.
On Thursday evening before the adult hunt, Michael Howie, NWTF Illinois Wheelin’ Sportsmen coordinator, offered $100 to anyone who found, shot and donated back to Gage the deer he had shot the previous weekend. Within five minutes, the pot had grown to over $400 as a reward for the recovery of the deer.
Unfortunately, the deer, having traveled a considerable distance, was found expired and recovered by a family camping on the opposite side of the lake bordering the property. The family returned the deer to volunteers during the adult hunt, and declined the offered reward. Instead, it was collectively decided to utilize the donated money to mount the deer and present it to Gage as a reminder of a pivotal moment in his hunting journey.
When Gage received the call informing him that his deer had been located, excitement filled him. “I couldn’t believe it,” Gage said.
In reflection, the entire experience left an indelible mark on Gage, who learned valuable lessons to fuel his growth as a hunter. Patience and the unwavering resolve to never give up emerged as the two paramount lessons derived from this memorable hunt.
“Never give up, never lose hope,” Gage said.
This lesson holds significant value for hunters at any level of expertise. The virtues of patience and endurance are key contributors to success, and maintaining a positive mindset throughout enhances the overall hunting experience.
Following the hunt at Touch of Nature, Gage intends to persist in deer hunting alongside his father and has already began hunting back home since the event.
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