- Ken Perrotte
Cool Hand Kimberly James Savors Newcomer's Success, Tagging Her First Deer with Skillful Shot
Late November winds were blowing steadily, and the peak of Virginia’s first white-tailed deer rut was at least a week in the rear-view mirror. I knew deer likely wouldn’t move until sunset when those daytime winds diminished and, if nothing else, the approaching darkness offers wary deer a sense of security.
I advised my protégé to be vigilant.
The cut cornfield was bordered by thick, shrubbery edge habitat that led down to a swampy area with a pond. The field had been overseeded with brassicas, attractive feed for late-season deer.
As predicted, our gusty winds vanished as the field fell into complete shadow. Kimberly tapped me on the leg and pointed toward a window in the elevated Banks blind.
“I see a deer,” she whispered.
I slowly moved my head and peeked through another window. Sure enough, about 120 yards distant, a young deer was eagerly helping itself to turnip greens.
I could tell the magnitude of the moment - the anticipation, the decision, the contemplation of the act – was racing through Kimberly’s mind. Deciding to shoot and then skillfully executing a shot is a process, one easier for experienced hunters who’ve steadily become more attuned to the many components needed to reliably decide and act. Field judging, assessing distance, quality shot angles, stealthy movement, adjusting optics, transitioning a gun from safe to fire, breathing control and trigger squeeze -- these are all matters most experienced hunters execute using a form of autopilot, with muscle memory and cognitive wiring synchronized to manage the situation quickly and effectively.
For a novice, staring through the scope at her first big-game animal, nothing happens automatically. Moving down the mental and physical checklist is laborious and anxious. Let’s face it, taking the life of any animal is a big deal – and it ought to be. I worry about any hunter or would-be hunter who doesn’t appreciate the gravitas of this.
Evolution of a Hunter
Kimberly James, age 37, of Richmond, Virginia, is a hunter, albeit a novice. As many who mentor “adult onset” hunters come to realize, a lack of experience in no way relates to lack of commitment.
James works for the Virginian Department of Wildlife Resources as a fixed asset accountant, tracking agency assets such as land, equipment, infrastructure, buildings, and vehicles.
Her mom helped process rabbits and chickens when she was a girl, but her family’s female members didn’t offer Kimberly any hunting role models. “It never crossed my mind growing up,” she said.
“Mainly, the men on my mom’s side of the family hunted. It was never anything discussed around me as a kid, or I just never paid attention whenever they talked about it.”
She was in her late 20s when she first heard the word “venison” as her grandmother prepared a roast.
“I thought it was pot roast, but they told me the truth and I thought it was delicious,” James said. “It still did not make me want to hunt; I just wanted her to get it from wherever she got it from and make it again.”
Her dad enjoyed fishing, but young Kimberly discovered she had an aversion to worms, causing her to pass on father-daughter expeditions. Later, though, she reconsidered and when a work trip with DWR took her to an area known for its fishing, she told her dad that they should go there together. The plan never came together. “He passed away in May 2021. When I do go fishing, I will just have to be brave for him and hold up the wiggly worm,” she said.
Her interest in hunting evolved after she began working for the DWR in 2014.
A shotgun shell on the desk of an African American coworker’s desk piqued her curiosity. “I asked her about it and she told me it was related to a program for people who were never exposed to hunting or wanted to be new hunters,” James said. “She was the first female African American I ever met who actually spoke of being a hunter. At that point I knew I wanted to experience that as well.”
James began seeking out opportunities to get into the field or the woods. Even though she has what might be considered a “desk job,” she regularly volunteered to assist in the field, helping with goose banding, fish stocking, catfish sampling and participating in events that educated schoolchildren about the importance of safety equipment while boating or fishing. Despite her aversion to worms, she handled and exhibited the agency’s snakes at the Virginia State Fair for six years.
Eventually, she signed up for the Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow program, open to men and women from across the nation who might envision a future in a conservation-related role but don’t have a lot of personal, practical experience.
During a week-long session in Colorado, the budding leaders learned how to use traps, track wildlife, shoot clay pigeons, and handle a fly rod. The session culminated with a pheasant hunt, an event that sent her heart racing as she loaded her shotgun, realizing she was actually going hunting.
James wasn’t successful in knocking down a bird but was impressed as she watched the guide’s dog Rio flush and fetch pheasants with natural aplomb.
She collected her first game animal, a gray squirrel, in 2019, proudly sharing the achievement with coworkers and reveling in cooking something she had personally taken.
Home on the Range
Hunting regulations in eastern Virginia are complex. Some counties only permit hunting with shotguns or muzzleloader during the general firearms season, which follows early archery and muzzleloader seasons. A few counties permit centerfire rifles when used from elevated stands.
For our hunts with novice adults, we assembled a sweet-shooting combination that included a Mossberg Patriot rifle chambered for the incredibly popular 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge. This round offers abundant potency for whitetails without the substantial recoil thump of other traditional deer cartridges such as the .270 Winchester. .30-06 Springfield or even the .308 Winchester.
Loaded with Hornady Precision Hunter ammunition, specifically the 143-grain ELD-X bullet, we could take down the beefiest buck should the opportunity present while also having good flexibility to shoot point blank out to 300 yards if we zeroed the gun properly. That’s where GPO’s Passion rifle scope, the 4-12x42 model came into play. This scope offers ample eye relief, excellent edge-to-edge clarity and easy adjustments.
The pros at Green Top Sporting Goods in Glen Allen, Virginia, mounted the scope and did an excellent job bore-sighting the gun. Zeroing the rifle was part of Kimberly’s hunting lesson.
We hunted with Monquin Creek Outfitters. Chip Watkins, the owner, met us at an informal range his base of operations in Manquin, Virginia. Like many outfitters, Watkins assesses client equipment and shooting ability before sending them on a hunt. Hunters typically shoot off a rest positioned on a picnic table. We used a Caldwell Lead Sled, which offers shooters more stability, especially when zeroing (versus verifying) the rifle. Targets were placed at 25 and 100 yards.
James said that once she began expressing an interest in hunting, her mom’s protective instincts kicked in. “She was concerned about who I would hunt with and where. I’m only 4-foot 10 ½ inches tall so the family wanted to make sure I would always be in good hands,” she said.
I worried that the longer length of pull on the adult-sized rifle might affect her ability to get a good sight picture and make quality shots. She adjusted well, using a cushion to elevate her shooting position. Her biggest challenge came when reaching around the rifle to load a round into the chamber.
The new reactive target I had set up at 100 yards had a little “street wear” on it, dinged up from being rubbed and scratched on the floor of my truck. Consequently, identifying the shooter’s precise bullet holes in the target was sometimes challenging, necessitating multiple walks to and from the 100-yard placement. Oh well, I need the exercise.
Our first shots at the 25-yard target were several inches low and left. Methodically adjusting the GPO’s ¼ MOA optics up and right had us at the bullseye after just a few shots. At 100 yards, the rifle was still around the bull. Tweaking further, James’ final three shots achieved a nice 1.25-inch grouping. More impressive was the fact that, while discussing MOA and scope adjustments, I completely neglected to advise her about adjusting the diopter for optimal clarity. I also forgot she was a newbie when it came to variable power scopes. Most of her early shots were taken with the GPO scope set at 4x-power, the lowest magnification.
Still, a youth-sized rifle is a better long-term fit for her.
With the Mossberg, GPO and Hornady combination well-dialed-in, we were ready to hunt. I was confident the equipment would do its job if my rookie hunter did hers.
When James pulled up in her sedan, I asked her about her plans for dealing with a dead deer. Those details hadn’t been considered. New hunters, unaware of the process and the logistics needed to transform a dead deer in the woods to protein on a plate, can easily underestimate the effort.
She laughingly admitted having lofty aspirations for a big buck, but then reconsidered when I asked her what she was going to do with that sedan if she got a 10-point, 200-pound buck. Of course, I was there to help with my truck, my knives, my skinning pole and more, but it was important to have her thinking ahead to what happens after the shot.
“I think I was looking at that part more for bragging rights - not the best mindset for a first deer. Then, reality set in. I didn’t think of the bigger picture about having to drag it in, field dress it and even transport it.”
“Do you want to hold out for a trophy buck? What will you be happy with?” I asked, silently hoping she’d elect to not be too particular.
She thought about it and declared, “I think I’m going for the first target of opportunity.”
Watkins led us in mid-afternoon to the comfortable, elevated blind. James joked that when she first saw this style of blind at Green Top, she thought they were porta johns.
We settled into the chairs. I began reviewing with her some of the things we needed to successfully shoot should a deer show up. The blind had long vertical windows that opened and closed. Stealth in accessing the appropriate window was essential.
Getting the Mossberg into proper shooting position was another consideration. I brought a tripod rest to help stabilize the shooting, but the blind’s cozy confines didn’t allow for it to be easily set up or moved. Watkins had a piece of carpeting that could be either draped over the bottom of the window or rolled and nestled atop the bottom of the window to help with rifle elevation and to quiet things.
For the next 20 minutes, James quietly practiced opening multiple windows, placing the carpet, and positioning the rifle.
As daylight waned, James said she began giving herself a small, silent pep talk, saying it would be okay if she didn’t harvest a deer because it was such a windy day and it was getting closer to sunset.
The late arrival of the lone deer rapidly changed things, causing a wave of excitement to rush through her, he said.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, even though she had previously answered the question. “Want to try a shot?”
“Since I already practiced my aim and angles, I got ready,” James said. “I took the safety off, took about three deep breaths and relaxed. Then I pulled the trigger and the deer hopped away. I started second guessing myself, but I knew I hit it because the scope was right on. My heart was racing.”
We climbed down from the blind, gathered our gear and lights and moved to where the deer had stood in the field. The blood trail was substantial, but we waited for Watkins to arrive to be part of the finale.
“When I saw the first sign of blood, I was like “wow, I did it!” James said. “Once it was tracked in the woods, I said a small prayer over my Lil Buck Buck - that’s the name I gave him.”
James had taken a button buck, a young deer. She said its age bothered her for a quick moment. Watkins and I assured her that the trophy quality of a young deer on the plate can’t be beat. “I Thanked God for the opportunity because I knew I would not let the meat go to waste,” James said.
Postscript and Analysis
The cold evening let me bring the deer to my home where it safely hung overnight. The next day, the rest of the lesson ensued, from skinning to boning out and packaging meat.
“Oh, my goodness! Seeing the process all the way through is truly important especially for a first timer,” James said, adding that the “top tier” of that process begins with hunter education and learning the safe handling of firearms.
“The field dressing was a little traumatic, but I watch enough pimple-popping videos I felt I was okay,” James said. “The skinning was neat as it made me think of people that used hides as blankets and covers for warmth.”
She said the meat processing tutorial was useful, giving her the confidence to try it herself next time. Simple tips such as vacuum sealing and then labeling each cut of meat were also valuable.
James was eager to sample her bounty, cooking a lightly seasoned piece of backstrap to a perfect medium in a skillet as soon as she arrived home. She texted a photo of her culinary accomplishment.
“It was very good,” she said. “I was pleased and happy to be able to say I harvested this, from the field straight to the table.
“All in all, I truly love seeing people expressions when I tell them I’m a hunter. Now I can share that I harvested a deer. The feeling is unreal at times. It’s a feeling I can’t describe but something I want to share with everyone.”
James believes that people who see someone who looks like them may feel a little more welcome when it comes to hunting. That shotgun shell on a coworker’s desk, after all, did get her ball rolling.
“Since I grew up in the city, I didn’t know of any African American female hunters. Nor did I see any on TV or movies,” she said. “So, I feel I can be a spokesperson or someone that can introduce other females to it. As of now, one of my best friends is interested in deer hunting. It made me light up! This is something that had never come up in conversations until I harvested my first deer.”
The fire seems kindled. James said she envisions eventually guiding other hunters, maybe even becoming a Hunter Education instructor.
Note: This article appeared in The Hunting Wire.