Juan Acosta has caught “buck fever.”
At age 25, he will soon participate in his first Missouri deer hunt. He will travel to Worth County with his friend and mentor, Alex Mullock, and hunt on Mullock’s family farm. With any amount of luck, he will return to the Kansas City area with some venison for the freezer and maybe even a big set of antlers.
The anticipation of those cool fall days is dominating his life these days. He can’t wait until he can climb into a tree stand and experience what it’s like to hunt Missouri’s famous deer with a rifle.
“I’ve always had an interest in hunting, but I never had anyone to take me,” said Acosta, who grew up in Springfield, Mo. “My parents weren’t interested in the outdoors, and not many of my friends were into it either.
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“I didn’t have anyone to teach me. I got into shooting at the ranges, but I never felt confident enough to go out on my own.”
That changed though when he went to work at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Parma Woods Shooting Range in Parkville. He met Mullock, a fellow resource assistant and an avid deer hunter. The more Mullock talked about his experiences hunting deer on his family farm, the more intrigued Acosta became.
When Mullock asked Acosta to join him during the Missouri firearms deer season, which opens Saturday, Acosta jumped at the chance.
“We’ve talked about it quite a bit, so I’d know what to expect,” said Acosta, who attends UMKC. “I was planning on going out anyway this year, even if I was going on my own.
“But being new to this, I probably would have messed up. This way, I’ll have someone who is experienced and can tell me what to do.”
Acosta is an example of a growing trend in Missouri. The state is the nation’s leader in hunter recruitment and retention. At a time when most states are losing hunters, Missouri is staying ahead of the game, recruiting new hunters at a faster rate than it is losing them.
Part of that is because of an active youth program by the Department of Conservation, teaching children how to hunt at a young age. But especially in recent years, the department also has been reaching out to adults who have shown an interest in hunting but have never tried it.
Acosta has seen those programs at work. At Parma Woods, beginner workshops teach potential hunters everything from firearms safety to how to get started as a deer hunter to how to process a deer once it is taken.
Acosta already had the firearms part down. He became an active shooter at the range, taking target practice several times a week. That led to his temporary job at Parma Woods and a better understanding of deer hunting.
He and Mullock quickly became friends, and Mullock offered to take him hunting. Mullock, 25, has hunted deer on his family farm for 14 years. And he has seen the excitement deer season can create.
“Up in northern Missouri, deer hunting is a culture,” Mullock said. “Going deer hunting was always an excused absence from school.
“I was lucky enough to have adults to teach me. Now I try to give back.”
Mullock attended Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo., and he continued to hunting during his college days because of its proximity to his family’s farm. As other student heard about his deer hunting and expressed interest, Mullock invited them to give it a try.
“We were even taking international students, who didn’t know a thing about deer hunting,” Mullock said. “It was great. They were just amazed to even touch the antlers.”
Mullock isn’t the only one who enjoys mentoring beginners, though. Tyler Dykes, a middle-school science teacher from Blue Springs, also has taken an active role in introducing other adults to deer hunting.
He was lucky enough to have family members who taught him outdoors skills when he was a boy. He got his start in hunting when he tagged along with his dad on their family land near the border of Ray and Carroll counties, but that was mostly for quail and doves. He learned about deer hunting from his uncle Joe.
“I was terrible at first,” Dykes said with a laugh. “I made stupid mistakes. I had no patience. I would move at the wrong time, you name it.
“It took me three years to get my first deer.”
Still, Dykes took to deer hunting, loving the solitude, the camaraderie, the challenge of figuring out when and where deer would move. And eventually, he got good at it.
He and a friend, Chris Huelsebusch of St. Louis, return to Dykes’ family land every year. And few years go by when they don’t shoot deer. Last year, for example, both took 11-point bucks on opening day.
But some of their most memorable experiences came when they took others on their first deer hunts.
Last year I took my neighbor out on opening day of bow season, and he shot his first deer,” said Dykes, 35. “I take a lot of adults who haven’t hunted before.
“I love deer hunting, and I want others to experience it, too. If they like it, fine, If they don’t, that’s fine too.
“But most of them can’t wait to try it again.”
Missouri’s biggest hunt: The chase for deer
▪ WHAT: The firearms hunt that annually attracts more than 400,000 hunters.
▪ WHEN: The season opens Saturday and continues through Nov. 25.
▪ SHOOTING HOURS: A half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.
▪ LIMITS: Only one antlered buck may be taken during all portions combined of the firearms season. Each county has a limit on the number of antlerless deer that may be taken.
▪ CHANGES: In recent years, hunters could purchase unlimited numbers of antlerless tags. But that has changed in light of recent population declines. Now hunters will be allowed only one antlerless deer in most counties during the firearms season.
▪ TELECHECK: Deer that are taken must be checked in by 10 p.m. the day they were shot by using the Telecheck system. Call 800-314-6828 or go to the website mdc.mo.gov. and follow instructions.