Renaissance Man in mid-50s Takes Up Deer Hunting -- Bourbon Steward Takes It Outdoors
In a time when many newcomers to any pursuit want or, even, expect success to come in extremely short order, George Braxton says patience will be his strong suit when it comes to hunting. That’s a good thing because after three late-season deer hunts in Virginia, he and I came up short when it came to filling the freezer.
The 56-year-old, first-time hunter is a true latecomer to the game. A Richmond, Virginia, native and resident, he decided he wanted to hunt after taking up competitive shooting several years ago. He grew up, as he terms it, “city people,” with no family members who hunted and just a single hunter friend in high school. He never got an opportunity as a youngster. Once he decided he wanted to learn, none of his several competitive shooting buddies who also hunt invited him along.
“I fished as a kid and have been on some day trips,” Braxton said, “but I am not really good with water, so I prefer hunting.”
After high school, he attended The University of Maryland-College Park where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and made “a feeble attempt” at trying out for the football team as a walk-on. From there, it was on to the University of Virginia’s School of Law where he completed his Juris Doctor degree.
A Passion for Fine Bourbon
One of his passions is fine bourbon and through our whispered discussions in a hunting blind, I learned that he is an “Executive Certified Bourbon Steward” and member of the Stave and Thief Society.
“Through my business, ‘Bourbon Excursions,’ I facilitate tastings of American whiskey, primarily bourbon and rye,” he shared. These tastings can take many forms. For example, he sometimes curates blind and high-end tastings for connoisseurs. Other events might be introductory tastings and education for novices. Then, there are the large-scale events where he might be at a station for folks to visit or providing entertainment for the evening. He also advises chefs on pairings for bourbon dinners.
His new-found hunting bug was amplified in 2019 when he was appointed Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources. In that role, he works to promote a diverse and inclusive work environment where all can reach their full occupational potential free from artificial barriers. Led by Braxton’s office, the department is working on policies and initiatives designed to connect underrepresented Virginians to outdoor activities.
Among the early efforts are new recruiting strategies for the agency’s conservation policy officer academy. Braxton said the latest class saw the most diverse applicant pool ever, resulting in a class made up of one-third women. Externally, DWR is connecting with several outdoor affinity organizations such as Outdoor Afro and the Hispanic Access Foundation to form partnerships.
Braxton joked that after joining DWR, he realized there was a more practical use for all the ammo he was wasting punching paper.
“Actually,” he explained, “I have always loved venison and relied on friends to provide it. After joining DWR, I realized that hunting was more accessible for me than I knew. I started to talk to some members of my gun club who hunted, and they opened my eyes to wildlife management areas and urban archery. I’ve long believed that hunting was a great way to provide organic, free-range protein and now I know I can do it myself.”
Some new hunters have family or friends that may be a little surprised when they want to pick up the gun or bow and bring home their own locally sourced meat. Braxton said his wife wasn’t the least surprised, mainly because of his firearms training.
“My close friends are a mix of country and city guys,” Braxton said. “The former are skeptical of my interest and probably want me to harvest something before inviting me out. The latter likes the idea of getting out of your comfort zone. Most of us are golfers and are used to taking on non-traditional sports.”
Let’s Go Hunting
Virginia DWR Executive Director Ryan Brown was the person to first suggest helping Braxton begin his foray into the world of hunting. He said new adult hunters are a key segment of the population for the agencies R3 (recruit, reactivate, retain) efforts.
“Often, they need only to develop an interest and have the benefit of some shared expertise in order to be equipped to begin pursuing the sport,” Brown said. “The key, of course, is the development of interest; with everyone’s free time being very limited, we need to show potential newcomers that hunting is an activity worth choosing over other options.”
With Brown’s support, Braxton joined me at an improvised shooting range at Monquin Creek Outfitters, a vibrant hunting operation in Manquin, located northeast of Richmond.
Owner Chip Watkins manages several properties for deer, waterfowl and small game hunting and we were planning to hunt one of his comfortable, elevated box blinds.
Watkins supports a multitude of youth, veteran, disabled and new hunter programs, believing helping others, even if it’s one day of volunteering for a veteran deer hunt or introducing a newcomer to hunting, is worthwhile. He said it exemplifies the Ferrum College "Not Self, But Others" motto, one he internalized from his studies there, where he also starred on the baseball team.
He believes pointing new hunters in a positive direction is essential. “Investing the time and resources into educating the new hunter is critical to keep up conservation,” Watkins said.
Braxton would be using a new a Mossberg Patriot rifle chambered for the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge, a superb choice for whitetails anywhere and a perfect option for the farmland Watkins manages, where shots can extend over cut corn or soybean fields or across spacious food plots.
The rifle was topped with a GPO Passion rifle scope, a 4-12x42 model offering ample eye relief, excellent edge-to-edge clarity and easy adjustments.
The rifle was loaded with Hornady Precision Hunter ammunition -- the 143-grain ELD-X round. Green Top Sporting Goods’ firearms department pros mounted the scope and bore-sighted the rifle. The ample store is a 50-year outdoors fixture in Glen Allen, Virginia, just north of Richmond.
Watkins greeted us on his range. Like many outfitters, he likes to check out client equipment and shooting ability before sending them on a hunt. A Caldwell Lead Sled sitting on a picnic table provided a reliable rest. Reactive targets were placed at 25 and 100 yards.
Once Braxton got used to the rifle, it was obvious he could put rounds on target. He regularly shoots handguns, shotguns and modern sporting rifles in competitions, saying his favorite rifle can be adapted for either 5.56 NATO or .300 Blackout. The big question, as it is with all new hunters, is how he would perform when a deer was in the crosshairs.
Oh Dear - No Deer!
As luck, or lack of, would have it, we didn’t get the chance to see that performance under pressure. Our first time out, we saw absolutely no deer. They were around, as nighttime trail camera photos showed, but as often happens in late season, weeks of pressure leads to nocturnal dispositions.
Our second time out, we saw no deer – at least not while it was legal shooting hours.
As we prepared to climb down from the box blind, I lifted my binoculars and looked to a far wood line. There, five minutes after legal shooting, some 600 yards away was a buck and two does. Oh well.
After letting things “rest” for a week, with Virginia’s general firearms season rapidly winding down, Braxton and I gave it another go. Watkins warned that the deer still seemed to mostly be nocturnal, but we hoped a forecasted minor cold front with a little rain might get deer moving earlier.
I hatched a plan to bring a full-bodied Flambeau doe decoy with me. Perhaps, deer would see it as they staged in the wood line waiting for darkness and feel confident enough to come into view.
While heading toward the box blind, I saw what appeared to be a ground blind now positioned in the distant field, not far from where we spied the deer at nightfall a week earlier. I phoned Watkins and asked about it. He explained the blind was one a storm had blown down a couple weeks earlier. We were welcome to hunt it but since it was on the ground, we’d have to use a shotgun or muzzleloader. Stands need to be eight feet or higher off the ground to use a rifle in the county we were hunting.
As luck would have it, I had a 20-gauge rifled-barrel slug shotgun my truck. We discussed our options and opted to go to the new blind where we saw the deer a week earlier.
It didn’t matter. The wind increased and swirled toward dark. The deer stayed put. Our season was over.
Braxton was philosophical.
“I’m disappointed that I haven’t had a chance to see a deer (within shooting range or legal light), but the experience has been great,” Braxton said. “Harvesting doesn’t make you a hunter; hunting does. I feel that I have followed the process and learned a bit more each time.”
He shared that he owns a crossbow and that his mother-in-law’s backyard regularly has deer in it. Virginia has an urban archery season designed to control suburban deer populations. It can be a bit of a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel proposition, but Braxton is eager to fill his freezer with venison sausage, steaks and roasts.
“At that point, my other hobby, cooking, will come into play. I’ve only made venison chili in the past but would love to get my grill and smoker in play,” he said.
One of Braxton’s biggest concerns was not knowing how to properly field dress the animal, something that worries every new hunter. I suggested watching several instructional videos and, when the time comes, he could call and put me on the speaker. I’d walk him through the process. Brown offered to do the same.
Brown said engaging potential new hunters requires those of us who grew up in the woods to realize that their experience of the sport, their individual goals for their time in the field, and their vision of how hunting fits into their overall lives may be different.
“That is perfectly okay,” he declared. “Hunting is a recreational activity that has something to offer everyone, and at the end of the day the most valuable outcome of any hunt are the good experiences and memories that we have, which are personal to each of us.”
As Braxton begins and progresses through his hunting journey, he hopes he can be a role model for others who don’t hunt or don’t even know where to start.
“Basically, a city guy who takes on an outdoor hobby in his ‘50s should send a positive message to some,” he said. “There are lots of cultural fears associated with hunting for black people in general. One is safety. Walking in the woods hasn’t always led to the best results for us. But as we see more examples and images of underrepresented people participating in hunting, that could overcome the ‘If I don’t see me, it won’t be me,’ mentality.”
Braxton said he sees a bright, booming future for hunting. He offered five points as to why.
“First, the proliferation of gun ownership will ultimately end the romanticization and fear of firearms for many who did not own guns in the past. Second,” Braxton continued, “the fastest-growing group of gun owners and competition participants are black, a group traditionally underrepresented among hunters. Third, wildlife agencies are making efforts to connect new participants to hunting. Fourth, hunting is shedding some of its rural and southern image and actually looking more appealing to those who may consider themselves more sophisticated. Fifth, people who may see themselves as more progressive see hunting as a humane way to both protect animals and provide organic protein compared to meat found in stores from Food, Inc.
“Of course, I could be wrong, but I only see this growing among my friends.”
So, at age 56, it sounds like George Braxton is committed to the challenge. I only wish we had spent one more afternoon in the blind. I forgot to get the answer to a most-important question, namely, “What bourbon is best before or after an elegant meal of roasted venison?”
Guess there’s next year…
Note: This article appeared in The Hunting Wire.