PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. — When Don McCarthy purchases ammunition, the store clerk simply takes his money.
McCarthy insists no one has ever been unkind or scoffed when they hear he is going hunting.
That McCarthy, 63, is blind is unremarkable.
Maybe it’s because he is a lifelong resident of Wauzeka, a Crawford County village nestled alongside the Wisconsin River. Most everyone knows McCarthy’s family, and drivers are happy to give him a lift when they see him out walking.
Save for an occasional flash, McCarthy sees blackness through his milky blue eyes. So, he raises his head, turning from side to side, to better absorb the sounds around him.
“You just gotta take off and start walking,” he said. “Once you do go blind, you don’t got no choice but to go and do it.”
Last Saturday, McCarthy grasped the blaze orange sleeve of his friend’s hunting jacket.
Dustin Flansburgh, 28, led McCarthy to a hunting stand where they spent the afternoon waiting for a chance to make a perfect shot.
The day marked the opening of Wisconsin’s gun deer hunting season for people with disabilities.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has for decades designated the special season, which continues through Sunday, Oct. 11. This year, about 620 hunters are participating, a significant increase over recent years.
“I think that’s probably a sign of the current state of things, whether it be being cooped up for a while or meat shortages,” said Matthew Gross, assistant big game ecologist with the DNR. “People are looking to getting back to doing the simple things.”
McCarthy selected a 200-acre stretch owned by Prairie du Chien Fire Chief Tad Beutin, who has sponsored hunters for about 10 years. Beutin constructed a wheelchair-accessible hunting stand that overlooks a wooded hillside.
“Every disabled hunter I’ve had has gotten a deer,” he said.
Feeling his way along its wooden gunstock, McCarthy loaded several 7-millimeter cartridges into his bolt-action rifle. With a snap, he cocked it and braced the gun atop a wooden ledge.
McCarthy only hunts while stationary, generally in stands.
“You wouldn’t want me out there,” he said, chuckling. “When you’re on the other side and I’m on this side — no.”
Wisconsin has never banned blind people from hunting, but the state began requiring they be accompanied by sighted companions in 1987.
Flansburgh was born five miles down the road from McCarthy, and the older hunter has long known his guide’s family.
“I see him at the tavern one night,” Flansburgh recalled. “We would always give each other a hard time all the time, you know? We just started talking and he said, ‘Wanna go ‘coon hunting one night?’ So, we went. And we’ve just been hunting ever since.”
The Wisconsin DNR issues special permits to hunters with disabilities that enable them to shoot from a stationary vehicle or install adaptive devices on firearms.
McCarthy uses a laser sight that emits a green beam, pinning a luminous dot on his prey. If Flansburgh spots a target, he looks through the scope and aligns the rifle for a clear shot.
“He’ll go, ‘Shoot!’ and I’ll just pull the trigger,” McCarthy said. “I don’t need to see because he is doing all the aiming for me.”
While they managed to shoot a turkey in the spring, black bears eluded them in September, even when they loaded tree stumps with sweet rolls and danishes. McCarthy last bagged a deer two years ago and butchered it on his kitchen table.
But whether his fortunes improve this season is secondary to the time spent outdoors, chit-chatting with Flansburgh or family.
After a hunt, McCarthy often accompanies his brothers, nieces and nephews to a log cabin located outside of Wauzeka.
“I just like to be included with the whole gang,” McCarthy said. “We might have a beer or a soda, just listen to the stories of who got what or how we got this and have a bowl of chili or stew and the nice warm heat and the cold weather.”
McCarthy’s father taught him to hunt at age 12, and the boy traversed the bluffs that surround Wauzeka, harvesting wildlife.
Organized sports took McCarthy’s sight. He remembers an incident in his mid-20s when he stepped up to bat during a game of fastpitch softball. A ball struck the side of his head and tore his retinas.
Multiple reparative laser surgeries left behind scar tissue that stole his vision. His eyesight continued to evaporate.
McCarthy still hunted, but after a few years, he ceased to feel safe handling a firearm when other people were in the woods.
After he graduated high school, McCarthy worked at a hardware store and, for a time, ran his own drywall business. Later, he was a school janitor until retiring in his 40s.
“My eyes just got too bad,” he said. “When you can’t see what you’re sweeping, it’s time to get out of there.”
McCarthy now lives off of Social Security and disability payments in his childhood home. His dog, Ringo, a Walker Coonhound, keeps him company, and McCarthy’s three brothers visit regularly.
He never married or had children.
“I had a couple of girlfriends, but they went one way and I went the other,” McCarthy said. “I guess I was too hard to get along with.”
As the sun began to disappear behind violet clouds Saturday, the hunters still had not spotted any deer.
But with a thump, a ruffed grouse suddenly landed on the hunting stand, softly clucking.
“It’s like one-foot behind us, Smooth,” Flansburgh said. “I can’t believe that bird is sitting there.”
Seeming to sense the puffy grouse’s cream and coffee plumage, McCarthy’s lips curled into a smile.
Years ago, a buddy gave McCarthy the nickname “Smooth.”
“If you take your hat off and don’t got no hair, you’re kind of smooth up there,” he explained.
That’s different than being a smooth talker, McCarthy noted.
“That’s what you call slick.”