Our friendship was born from his mother’s desire for someone to take 11-year-old Jacob Holem hunting and fishing. The e-mail said the boy’s dad died in 2006 and “all he’s ever wanted is to be a hunter like his dad.”
Five months later, Jake has used a crossbow to kill a rut-crazed trophy whitetail deer so close that we could see the wildness in its eyes. He filled all four of his fall turkey permits from excited flocks coming to calls. He has also shot ducks after watching them spiral down through a cottonwood canopy, to a rare open riffle on a mostly frozen river.
In more than 30 days afield, he’s had “the best day of my life” seven times. The sixth-grader has also learned some life lessons not taught in classrooms.
Honestly, I’ve probably gotten more from our friendship than Jake.
An easy bond to build
In early September, Kimberly Holem sent an e-mail to Mike Christensen, of Pass it On Outdoors Mentors, saying she’d failed at more than three years of trying to find an outdoors mentor for Jake. Christensen circulated her e-mail.
The timing was remarkable. Just the day before, I had decided to try to find a child to mentor through the seasons, trying to regain some of the joys of when my own kids were small.
Christensen put us in touch, and Kimberly said she’d do all she could to make schedules work, no matter the distance or time of day. She would make sure Jake was properly equipped.
“Some moms are soccer moms, but I’m an outdoors mom,” she later said. “This is Jake’s thing, all he wants to do. It’s important to him so it’s important to me.”
Kimberly often thinks Jake has used all things outdoors as a connection to his dad. She wants to encourage that bond.
Jake and I bonded fast and easy.
At our first meeting to shoot targets, we learned we have much in common. I, too, lost a parent when I was young and understand what it’s like to be an only child. We both were born with an instinctual love of the outdoors so strong it often overpowers our minds, but we both have struggled a lot to keep concentration in classrooms.
I wish we shared the same personality. Jake carries more innate happiness than most golden retrievers. Rare is the kid not smiling and positive, which are welcome traits after I’ve been on so many trips where others mostly complain.
It’s also been refreshing to again see the outdoors through the eyes of a beginner who is thrilled just to get to go. We saw no deer on our first hunt, but as we left the blind Jake said, “That was fun,” and asked if we could go again.
In these days when many hunts are measured by inches of antlers or limits, it was good to see someone get excited when a small buck with antlers the size of crawdad pinchers passed by.
I’ve bow-killed quality bucks the past three seasons, but none are as memorable as when that buck, the first Jake had seen while hunting, passed at 20 yards. The plan was for Jake to tap me twice if he saw a deer. Jake’s dozen “taps” felt like a jackhammer. Buck fever hit the kid so hard, he actually had the cedar tree in which we were hiding shaking.
Two weeks later, Jake shot a buck larger than many hunters ever kill. But his reactions are more memorable than the buck’s size. Four times I hissed, “Shoot him,” and four times, Jake hissed, “Now?” After so many years of dreaming of hunting, he couldn’t believe what was happening.
After the shot, Jake’s emotions exploded so hard he fell from his seat. His jabbing fingers kept missing the phone as he tried to text his mom the good news. I wasn’t much better, and probably got more excited over Jake’s buck than when I killed my biggest bull elk.
And after decades of sharing the fields with some who take hunting with life-and-death seriousness, I’ve enjoyed the silliness an 11-year-old can bring.
We’ve started a club he calls “Turkey Busters,” complete with a song and dance. He’s left turkey yelp messages on my phone to show his progress with a new call. Tuesday, we had a speakerphone calling lesson.
Life lessons afield
Kimberly wanted Jake to learn hunting, not just go on guided hunts. That has meant many hours shooting targets, scouting, and placing blinds and stands. He has also learned to clean and cook his game. Like me, he’s had to earn the privilege to access some special lands by working for the landowner.
Jake, often with his mom’s help, has probably invested close to 40 hours on the property where he shot his buck and some turkeys. That includes working on food plots, filling feeders, gathering trash, clearing roads and running a line of trail cameras, then delivering the best photos to the landowner.
He’s learning the best things in life are earned.
He knows his mom holds complete veto power over our trips if grades or home behavior slump.
His grades had his mother concerned, but are now good. A final grade of a B or better in math, the subject with which we’ve both struggled most, gets him a fly-fishing trip with me this summer.
We’ve had many conversations about how things he’s encountered while hunting — such as making ethical decisions when no one is around, restraint, respect, and adhering to laws — will be important in many other areas through his life. Passing up shots that might be unsafe or just wound a bird is teaching him that doing nothing is often better than doing something wrong. Having held animals he’s killed has shown him that some actions, once committed, can never be undone.
And he’s learning the importance of setting goals, and working until they’re a reality. If he builds enough strength by fall, he can use a compound for deer hunting. A long-term goal is to get strong enough to shoot a buck with his father’s bow.
Jake has also made a pinky-swear pledge that he’ll get good enough at calling to call in a turkey for his mom to shoot this spring, as partial repayment for her dedication to getting him outdoors. It would be her first turkey.
Ongoing lessons are that his personality, strong work ethic and appreciation are solid ways to make friends. Every place we’ve been, Jake has been invited back. His thank-you notes and photos have opened more hunting and fishing opportunities.
I’m hoping in a few years, when he’s more experienced, Jake enters a “pass it forward” stage and helps when I work with other beginners. A few decades after that, I have a feeling our roles will be reversed, and I’ll be the one desperately wanting to go, but needing somebody to take me. I think Jake will do so.
Among so many other things, from our time afield, I think he’s learning that really good friendships only strengthen through time.