Some women would be upset if their husbands went deer hunting on their birthday.
Not Deanna Rittel of Independence. She’ll be along when her husband, John, travels to their land in Hickory County for the Missouri deer opener.
In fact, so will the rest of the family. Alex, 19, and Andi, 17, will be there, as will other friends and relatives. For the Rittels, the deer opener is a major holiday, second maybe only to Christmas.
“We’ve been setting up a deer camp as a family for years now,” Deanna said. “We’re an outdoors family; we do everything from float rivers together to fishing to camping. But deer hunting is our favorite.
“We look forward to the opener for months. It’s just a family tradition.”
Like many other Missourians, the Rittels will have set up a minivillage in the woods by the time the deer season opens Saturday. They will dine on meals that they planned long in advance, they will get together with relatives and close friends, they will follow longtime traditions and they will reminisce about past deer seasons.
That’s the intrigue of Missouri deer hunting for this family. It’s much more than just pulling the trigger, they’ll tell you. It’s being a part of a major Missouri event.
Almost 500,000 hunters now take part in the Show-Me State’s deer season. They bring color to the woods, with splotches of orange (the safety clothing hunters are required to wear). The big bucks of the state also generate big bucks for the economy. Studies by the Department of Conservation indicate that deer hunting is a $750 million industry in Missouri.
The Rittels are more than happy to contribute. Their tradition started back in 1977, the first year John went deer hunting in the Ozarks. He got together with friends and relatives in Morgan County and was the rookie out in the group.
“They knew where the deer usually hung out, and they sent me down to a tree stand,” he said. “I thought at the time, “They’re just putting me someplace that doesn’t get much action.’ But I got a spike buck (a young buck with two spike-like antlers) that day, and I was excited.
“I knew this deer hunting was for me.”
Rittel hasn’t missed an opening day since. Later, he set out to get his then-girlfriend Deanna involved.
“We were dating at the time, and I was only 17,” Deanna said. “I was the only woman in deer camp, and to talk my mom into even letting me go was a big deal.
“But I shot a doe that day — the first deer I had ever taken — and I was thrilled. I knew I had to come back.”
Once the Rittels got married and had kids, they passed on that love for the outdoors and deer hunting to their family. Both teenagers remember tagging along with their parents at a young age to see what deer hunting was all about.
“My first hunting trip was during the youth season when I was 10,” Andi said. “I was with Mom, and we saw deer but I didn’t get a shot. My dad took Alex and he got one.
“Then, on opening day of the regular season, Alex got another deer. And that evening my mom shot a doe. I was getting frustrated. But the next morning I … finally shot a small buck.”
Today, Andi is a hunting veteran. She shot her first buck with a bow this fall and is looking forward to more success in the firearms season. As usual, her dad took two weeks off work so that he could go down to the Rittels’ land in Hickory County and bow hunt for a week before the firearms season opens Saturday.
He will meet up with his family today, set up deer camp, position his family where he has seen deer and anticipate his most fun week of the year.
The Rittels have been active in spreading the word about the enjoyment of deer hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation. The entire family serves as volunteer mentors at the Department of Conservation’s Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs.
It started when Alex, who had attended courses at the nature center, decided he wanted to give back by helping teach some of the courses. He went through training, then persuaded his sister to get involved. It wasn’t long before mom and dad were also helping to teach classes.
They are now familiar faces at the nature center, teaching everything from hunting to fishing to canoeing. Andi has become so involved that she was named 2011 Volunteer of the Year by naturalists at Burr Oak.
John Rittel has helped with courses on deer hunting, among other subjects. And he has seen and felt the gratitude that mentoring can bring.
“I was helping with one of the courses out there one day and a boy came up to me and told me that he shot a 10-point buck during youth season,” he said. “At first, I didn’t think much about it. But then I remembered that he was one of the boys who came with his dad to one of my beginner’s classes on deer hunting.”
For John, experiences like that remind him of the special rewards that volunteering offer.
“A lot of these people are just trying to get started and they’re lost,” John said. “We try to give them the opportunity to get out there and at least having a working knowledge of what is going on.
“l was lucky because when I was a kid, adults stepped up and got me involved. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t gotten that opportunity.”