Holden Decker was enjoying one of his first big game hunts in the Adirondacks when something magnificent happened. The 15-year-old had just made his way over a mountain ridge in a quest to bag his first whitetail deer, and there it was — a black bear sitting right in front of him.
The young hunter quickly raised his rifle, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. He shot and the bear ran, then the creature turned back and looked at him. Holden fired again and the bear bolted down the hill and out of sight, completely unscathed.
Anyone who knows anything about hunting knows stories like that are commonplace. Usually the escapee is the largest specimen of its kind to ever walk the earth, a creature straight from a book of amazing and bygone beasts. But not this bear. Holden admits it was average, probably in the 300-400 pound range, and the missed opportunity was simply a result of being relatively new to the sport.
"It was an adrenaline rush, and I was shaking a bit," Holden said. "I think that's the hard part. Every animal you see in the woods gives you an energy rush, so you have to learn to stay calm when that happens."
Holden's father, Andy, assured him that missing a target because you were too caught up in the moment to think clearly is normal.
"Anybody who's into hunting knows that your adrenaline gets going, and if it doesn't, then there's no sense in even bothering to go into the woods," Andy said.
Andy remembered his own missed opportunity two years ago. It was the end of a discouraging season, and Andy was hunting in a new spot when he saw a trophy deer heading along the bottom of the mountain to his left. By the time he noticed the award-worthy animal, it was too late to take a shot.
"That was certainly an impressive deer," Andy said. "But who knows? Maybe I'll get a shot at it again some day."
More than a sport
Hunting isn't something Holden picked up on his own. In his family, as is the case in many families, the sport goes back generations. Andy grew up in the Adirondacks and hunting with his father, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, and family friends was a common occurrence.
Back then, hunting wasn't just for sport, it was a necessity. If people didn't hunt, they didn't eat. It was especially important in winter.
Andy recalled a well-told family story about his grandfather tracking deer through waist-deep snow, shooting one, slinging the animal over his shoulders, and then carrying it for several miles to get home. That's no easy feat — deer can weigh more than 130 pounds, even after they've been field dressed.
"By the time I started hunting, we still ate everything we killed, but we left the idea that we have to be hunting behind," Andy said. "We still use it to supplement what we eat, but there isn't as much pressure."
A FAMILY TRADITION
Andy and his family now live near Saratoga, but the Adirondack connection is still strong.
Andy's father introduced him to hunting and fishing as a child, and Andy has in turn taught Holden and his daughter, Ella, those same skills. That's part of the draw: It's a bonding experience that brings the family closer to each other, and closer to nature.
Before he was old enough to hunt, Holden said he would tag along for the experience. When he turned 12, he started hunting small game like grouse, rabbit, and squirrel. At 14 he started hunting deer. Like Andy, Holden said there are too many memories of spending time with his father to remember any one particular moment. They all sort of blend together, each one as fondly recalled as the next.
One thing Holden does remember is the first time he shot an animal, a rabbit. He was 13 and had followed a set of fresh tracks through the woods.
"It was definitely exciting because it was the first animal I worked for," Holden said. "That's the whole point of hunting; working for the animal. I would say that's the best part about the sport itself."
It's been a little over a year and Holden still hasn't shot his first deer, but he's ready. He's learned how to stalk the elusive beasts, about how to look for deer sign, and how to use your hunting partners to drive deer in the direction you want them to go. That knowledge makes him feel more connected to and more aware of the woods around him.
Hunting seasons in New York state vary by region, so be sure to check the state DEC's website before planning your trip. There is so much state land in the Adirondacks, it's easy to find a place to hunt. For example, the 50,000 acre Moose River Recreation Area, which has seasonal roads and 140 primitive camp sites, is one example. Hunting in the Adirondacks is a true wilderness experience; consider hiring a licensed outdoor guide to make the most of your time here.