I Let My Son Try Archery Deer Hunting in Philly. Here’s What It Was Like

He is one of five first-time youth hunters participating in an archery deer hunt at "America's first urban wildlife refuge."

You might say that my wife and I were more than a little surprised when our 13-year-old son announced that he wanted to go deer hunting at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, the 1.5-square-mile park adjacent to the Philadelphia airport. You’ve seen the sign for Heinz a million times on I-95.

My son, who has lived his entire life in West Philly, doesn’t exactly come off as an outdoors type. And while I can build a pretty damn good campfire without any of that cheating fire-starter crap, that’s about it for my woodsy skills. Actually, as far as my wife and I know, there are no real hunters in our entire family.

That said, my son does enjoy fishing, but only if he can keep the fish and eat it, something we realized after a stay several years ago at Glendorn, a luxury lodge and resort in northwestern Pennsylvania. There, he learned to fly fish for trout and caught some sizable fish, and the chef at the on-site restaurant was kind enough to prepare it for our family.

Ever since then, as far as he is concerned, a fishing outing is unsuccessful unless he comes home with dinner. So, I guess in that sense, the desire to go deer hunting at Heinz wasn’t that much of a stretch. After all, there’s no catch-and-release option for hunting deer. But, still, we weren’t expecting the question to come up.

“Mommy and I Will Discuss”

A few months ago, we learned about the deer hunt while at a public archery event at Heinz, where we regularly go for hiking and birdwatching.

Folks showed up to learn how to shoot a crossbow, and my son had already had some experience target shooting with a bow and arrow thanks to his best friend, who is an enthusiast. My son turned out to be a great shot with the crossbow at the Heinz event, and it was over dinner later that same day when he told us he wanted to sign up for the deer hunt.

The idea behind the deer hunt at Heinz was both to introduce non-hunters like my son to the sport and also to cull the herd.

Heinz is tiny and, according to officials, the deer herd is simply too large for the size of the refuge. That overpopulation leads to an ecological imbalance. And then there are all the deer hit by cars near the refuge, which is surrounded by very active civilization. Heinz is America’s first “urban wildlife refuge.” There are people, cars, and industry everywhere.

heinz deer hunting

Heinz Wildlife Refuge sits next to the Philadelphia International Airport and is surrounded by cars and civilization. (Google Maps)

After my son asked if he could join the deer hunt, I recall taking a big gulp of wine, looking at my wife across the dinner table, and saying something to the effect of: Mommy and I will discuss.

Naturally, because he’s 13 years old, he immediately laid out his various arguments in favor of us granting him permission. To the best of my recollection, they were as follows, in no particular order:

We’re not vegans, unlike Nana and Grandpa.
(My mother and her husband went plant-based a couple of years ago.)

We just finished eating meat for dinner.
(I had grilled up Lancaster Brand steaks from Acme that night.)

You’re always telling us that it’s important to know where your food comes from.
(I was thinking more like farm-to-table, not shooting a deer, but OK, smartass.)

I already fish, so what’s the difference?
(I knew I should have shown him Bambi when he was a tot.)

His logic pretty solid and his enthusiasm strong — and, let’s be honest, the fact that none of this would cost us a cent didn’t hurt — we decided by the end of the night that he’d apply to be a part of the deer hunt at Heinz.

No Hesitation. Whatsoever.

Participation was determined by lottery, and out of 80 total applicants, he became one of five first-time youth hunters to participate. There were 20 adults. All of the participants would be paired with an experienced mentor, and the hunt would take place over eight days in October.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought him to Heinz for an all-day mandatory training and education session.

Chuck Matasic, CEO of the West Chester-based direct-to-consumer crossbow company Kodabow, instructed the mentees on how to (and how not to) use the Kodabow gear. Using a $1,000 Kodabow with a draw weight of 200 pounds and the ability to fire at about 350 feet per second, my son hit a bullseye at 20 yards and then retrieved his arrow.

deer hunting at heinz

Kodabow CEO Chuck Matasic teaching my son how to shoot a crossbow at the training session at Heinz Wildlife Refuge prior to the deer hunt.

For his next shot, he said he was going to get it in the same hole left by his first. He was about a centimeter off, forming a figure eight with the two shots. Matasic qualified him to participate in the deer hunt.

Then Mariana Bergerson, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy manager of Heinz, showed him how to track the deer after you shoot it, following the trail left by the blood and, perhaps, other bodily fluids.

The idea is to get a shot straight through the heart, with the arrow passing completely through the deer’s body. If that happens, the deer should die in a matter of seconds.

Hit the deer elsewhere and it might suffer for hours, and the hunter must track the deer over potentially long distances during its slow death. Not what you want.

We also met my son’s mentor, longtime hunter Derek Stoner, who is the hunting outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission as well as the manager of the hunter mentor program in the state.

Stoner had shot a deer the day before in Lancaster County, and he let my son, a budding hobby chef, cook up some slices for the group using a Coleman camping stove that had been set up on a deck at the Heinz Welcome Center. Absolutely delicious. When was the last time you had red meat that was alive 24 hours before you ate it?

After the orientation, I double-checked with my son that he was ready to do this. No hesitation. Whatsoever. And so, on Saturday of last weekend, it was time to do the real thing.

A Waiting Game

Stoner suggested to us that we do a morning hunt and then come back again in the late afternoon. These would probably be the best windows of opportunity, Stoner explained, based on temperatures and other factors.

So we arrived at Heinz at 5:30 a.m. last Saturday.

Stoner, my son and I hiked out to a hunting blind — for the non-hunters among you, it’s a camouflaged tent with gaps and windows in it that you can shoot through — that had been set up in one of the three designated hunting zones at Heinz. The six mentees hunting that day were spread out throughout the zones so that nobody would be anywhere near another hunter. The refuge was also closed to the public, since a hiker and an arrow moving at 350 feet per second are not exactly a good combination.

As we hiked, we spotted two deer in the woods along the path, so we arrived at the blind with high hopes.

And then we sat inside the blind. And then we sat some more, my son with the loaded crossbow in hand. And then, yes, we sat some more.

heinz deer hunting blind

A blind set up at Heinz on the morning of our deer hunting excursion.

As we sat there silently, the uniqueness of Heinz’s setting came into focus.

We heard and saw lots of birds — more than 300 species can be found on the refuge at various times. We enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. A gentle breeze rustled the changing leaves. Waterfowl explored the nearby lake for prey. Serenity.

And then there were the sounds of jumbo jets taking off — the airport is literally right there — and of tractor trailers throttling down I-95.

At one point, a small deer did come into our field of view as we sat in the blind, but my son didn’t have a clean shot, so he didn’t take one. All in all, we spent about four hours there on Saturday morning before deciding it was time to pack it in.

Given that he’d been up since 4:30 a.m. and had not been able to take a shot, I really wasn’t sure if my son would even want to come back for the afternoon session. But as we made our way to brunch, he insisted that he was prepared to return, so I texted Stoner to expect us around 3 p.m.

“Did I Hit It?”

By the time we met up with Stoner again and hiked out to a different blind, I could tell that my son wasn’t as focused as he was in the morning. He was pretty zapped.

We arrived at the blind around 3:30 p.m. and all agreed that we’d call it a day at 5:30 p.m. That didn’t leave us much time, but at least then we could say that we gave it the old college try.

My son had the crossbow in a tripod for stability and was facing in a southerly direction with the crossbow at the ready in the only open section of the blind.

We waited and waited, but no signs of any deer. The clock edged closer to 5:30 p.m. and then, wouldn’t you know it, within a minute or two of our exit time, in walked a sizable deer.

But this would be no easy shot.

Due to a variety of circumstances and complications, including the direction that the deer had approached from, the tight setup inside of the blind, and the need to create as little commotion as possible, the only way to make it work was for my son to significantly shift his position and open another blind flap, hold the crossbow in his arms instead of resting it in the tripod, and take the shot with his foot on top of his backpack instead of firmly planted on the ground. There just wasn’t time or an opportunity to make other adjustments, at least not without causing the deer to detect us and go tearing off into the thickness of the woods.

Then, the deer wound up facing my son head on, and shooting the deer in the head with a crossbow was not an option. Then the deer quickly turned so that it’s butt was facing. Also not an option. My son was trying his best to hold up the bow, but his arms began to quiver. I was pretty sure that the deer was going to dart off at any second.

But then, the deer turned so that its side was mostly facing my son, enough to where a shot was possible. My son took a deep breath. His arms somehow steadied just enough. And he squeezed the trigger of the crossbow.

deer hunting at heinz wildlife refuge

The deer’s position immediately before my son pulled the trigger.

A split second later, the deer bucked into the air and leaped away from us. I gasped. I looked at Stoner, and he seemed stunned.

My son lowered the crossbow, turned to us and asked, “Did I hit it?”

“Oh, you sure did,” Stoner told him. My son wasn’t convinced.

But as we left the blind and walked in the direction of the deer, the outcome of his shot became clear. I found the bloody 430-grain carbon-fiber arrow laying on the ground.

Beyond it, my son tracked the deer via a trail of bright, bubbly red blood. And then, there was the deer, lying motionless.

The arrow had gone straight through the heart. Stoner said that the deer most likely died within a matter of seconds. Later analysis of a video we shot during the hunt indicated that there were about eight seconds between the pull of the trigger and the deer falling to the ground.

“That deer hunting experience with you and your son is a true highlight of my 30 years as a hunter and two decades of mentoring,” Stoner would later tell me. “I cannot believe how well that all worked out, with certainly a bit of luck and good fortune coming our way. It was an incredible sequence of events.”

Truly, a perfect shot.

Field to Fork

Just as we began to lose light on Saturday, we transported the deer, a 130-pound doe, from the woods where it was shot to a spot at Heinz that had been set up for field dressing, the process of removing the internal organs of the deer.

I had to make my way to an evening engagement — no, really, I didn’t leave because I’m squeamish or anything — and my wife and 12-year-old daughter drove to Heinz to witness and, in a limited way, participate in the field dressing of the deer. Stoner, who kept reinforcing the idea of “field to fork” — i.e., we’re not just hunting for the fun of it here — harvested two tenderloin cuts from the deer on the spot and gave them to my son with cooking instructions.

deer hunting at heinz venison

Slices of venison tenderloin that my son cooked on Sunday, less than 24 hours after his successful deer hunt at Heinz.

After the field dressing was complete, the father of another young mentee — who’d managed to get a doe and a buck that day — brought all three deer to a butcher in Aston.

Both Sunday and Monday, my family enjoyed the tenderloin to varying degrees. And then on Monday night, my wife and kids picked up steaks, roasts, ground meat and the prized backstrap cut, all from the very deer that he had shot two days prior. All of that butchering work was also covered under the free Heinz program.

What isn’t covered is the pelt. My son has insisted on keeping the pelt, so the butcher, who is also a taxidermist, is tanning it for him at a cost of about $150. We should have it in time for Christmas.

All in all, the hunters walked away with nine deer over the first four days of this mentored hunt. And they’re not done. My son and others are set to return next week for another hunt, and his enthusiasm shows no signs of waning.

“The deer will provide many high-quality, healthy meals for your family and is the ultimate example of locally sourced protein,” Stoner told me after the hunt.

Or, as my son put it:

“We’re going to be eating a lot of venison this winter.”