Reelfoot Lake State Park encompasses 25,000 acres in rural northwest Tennessee. The lake itself has a 15,000 acre surface area and is Tennessee’s largest natural lake. The surrounding area is thick, murky swampland notable for its cypress trees and bald eagle population.
Among the waterfowl hunting community, Reelfoot is a mecca for duck hunting. Unfortunately, it’s also public land hunting, which means there is considerable competition for space and hunting-blind rights.
public land hunting
As the name implies, no one owns public land. However, local hunters who were taught the trails and wildlife habits by their fathers and grandfathers inevitably feel a deep sense of ownership over the land. They build their own personal hunting blinds, they know the game wardens personally and they observe public hunting etiquette. They don’t shoot at flocks that might be over another hunter’s blind, a dangerous practice known as ‘shooting the swings’.
Was that what happened in January 2021 when 70-year old David Vowell shot and killed Chance Black and Zachary Grooms at Reelfoot Lake? Were they in his personal hunting blind? Was he going to the blind—that he possibly built himself—only to find it occupied by two young men in their 20s who had gotten there just a little earlier?
Under Tennessee hunting laws, at a certain time each day during hunting season, blinds are first-come, first-serve. Had this happened to Vowell before and he just couldn’t meekly surrender his favored hunting spot again? We may never know.
Roughly one week after the murders, Vowell himself was found dead in the marshes of Reelfoot Lake, taking the mystery (and motive) of the murders with him. Although the questions surrounding this tragedy are numerous and answers remain elusive, there are perhaps some lessons we can extrapolate.
All hunters are students
No matter how many years you have been hunting, somewhere, sometimes, you’re still an amateur. There simply aren’t enough years allocated for a single human life to learn everything there is to know about hunting. You might know all about whitetail deer, but what about the other 42 species of deer? Are you a master of them all?
Oh, so you know ALL about deer? How about waterfowl hunting? There are at least 41 unique species in North America alone. If you think you’re well-versed in bird hunting, what about bears? Feral swine? Pythons? Minke whales? Face it – you don’t know everything about hunting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and enlist the aid of a seasoned professional and play the role of student.
The young men killed at Reelfoot Lake might have benefited from having an old hand at their side. He could have shown them some less-crowded areas, maybe guided them to some uncontested hunting blinds or simply explained the general protocol of Reelfoot Lake duck hunting.
This isn’t to imply the young men deserved their deaths—they didn’t—but hunting can be a dangerous activity and local hunting laws and education courses aren’t always sufficient to prepare novice hunters.
A solution or two
State and federal wildlife services have their hands full every season with America’s millions of hunters. They have to worry about licenses, bag-limits, sustainable animal populations and nature conservation. They simply don’t have the resources to teach and guide every young hunter in America best hunting practices.
A solution? Hunting apprenticeships.
Like the name implies, hunting apprenticeships involve seasoned hunters teaching youngsters about best hunting practices, wilderness survival, firearms safety and other hunting-related concerns. There is simply no substitute for a real life flesh-and-blood instructor who will teach you the proper way to conduct yourself while hunting. Currently, formal hunting apprenticeships are only available in a handful of states.
Another solution? Open more federal land.
Over 10 million acres of ‘public land’ in the western US are legally inaccessible. But how can this be? Most of this acreage is ‘landlocked’, which means it is surrounded on all sides by privately-owned lands, so there is no way to physically reach these places without crossing someone else’s private property or skydiving onto them.
In essence, the only people who can use this land (aside from the Bureau of Land Management) are the people who live adjacent to it.
Here at GunLove, we appreciate nature conservation. Like the rest of the country, we don’t want to see areas of pristine wilderness overrun by shopping malls and used-car lots. However, with the ongoing crowding of public hunting lands, there are no great reasons that access to landlocked federal lands can’t be granted.
We’re not saying to build roads or destroy the landscape, but controlled, limited access to landlocked federal lands will allow America’s hunters some elbow room and reduce the competition over highly-sought hunting locations.
The murders at Reelfoot Lake were an extremely rare occurrence. The last time a hunter murdered fellow hunters (likely over a public vs private land dispute) was in a harrowing Wisconsin incident in 2004 by Chai Vang.
Most hunters are safety-minded and conscientious of their fellows. You know what’s more dangerous for hunters than firearms? Falling out of tree blinds. That’s right, there are fewer than 1,000 hunter-on-hunter shootings in the US each year (less than 75 are fatal) versus roughly 6,000 accidents involving falling from a tree blind.
Hunting is a fantastic activity. Nearly 25 billion tax dollars are generated each year by hunters and hunting-related accessories. Hunting enables people to more closely connect with nature and get outdoor exercise. Hunting provides a place to get away from the humdrum of traffic, insurance, pollution and the noise of city life.
In truth, walking the streets of America’s big cities is far more dangerous than hunting.
Hunting is GREAT…if you’re responsible and prepared. If you’re feeling depressed, angry or disassociated, hunting with firearms might not be a great outlet. Before you do something you may regret, get help from a professional first.
No one may ever fully understand what happened that fateful day at Reelfoot Lake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from that tragedy. When you’re doing something as consequential as hunting, take EVERY precaution EVERY time.