MUCH has been taught, written about and heavily marketed in recent decades on hunting safety, and the world should know that without a doubt, it is helping make our woods and fields safer.

It is worth celebrating that Wisconsin’s hunter safety program and every spin-off project has resulted in making the sport of hunting one of the safest sports in the state.

Most of us never imagined that in a year such as 2020, when more than 600,000 deer hunters hit the woods on opening weekend of the annual nine-day gun deer season, that there would be just nine gun-related accidents. And only one of them, from a self-inflicted wound, was fatal.

In fact, seven of the past 13 deer seasons were fatality-free and 11 of those seasons involved a single-digit number of hunting accidents.

But even as we congratulate ourselves and everyone who played a part in hunting safety education over the decades, especially the volunteer instructors, we all know any accident is ONE too many.

And so we push on, as the rifle deer season is scheduled to open this Saturday, Nov. 20, reviewing past incident reports and getting out the word on safety.

I’ve said it for years and the message isn’t about to change any time soon. The concern should be on your own safety habits and those of your hunting buddies as opposed to worrying about a bullet hitting you from some mysterious source.

The records show that most of the time, hunting injuries are either self-inflicted or are caused by someone you know — one of your hunting buddies.

A peak at the 2020 Hunting Incident Report compiled by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows the lone fatality occurred as the victim/shooter was exiting his blind in Door County when he tripped and the firearm discharged into his chest.

In the other eight accidents that occurred during the deer season, four of them involved wounds sustained during deer drives — most often with the shooter firing at a running deer. Three others were self-inflicted gunshot wounds and the fourth involved a hunter who thought he saw a deer and shot the victim in the leg.

As Wisconsin enters the 2021 gun deer season, we need to take a moment to thank the DNR and its army of volunteer instructors for the incredible success story of the Hunter Education Program. And that’s been expanded over the decades to include archery, use of handguns and tree stand safety.

Because of that program and other changes such as requiring blaze orange clothing and more shooting from tree stands and elevated platforms, we’ve seen more than a 90% drop in the accident rate since 1967.

It’s been so successful that today, the DNR claims tree stand accidents and injuries are far more common than gunshot incidents. And so they’ve focused on that topic this season, stressing the basic safety rules no matter what type of tree stand you use:

* Always wear a full-body harness also known as a fall-arrest system. Connect to your tether line and keep your tether line short. The tether is designed to keep you in the seat, not to catch you after you fall.

* Always have three points of contact while climbing into and out of the tree stand: this means two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand at all times.

* Always use a haul line to raise and lower your UNLOADED firearm or bow into and out of the stand. Also use that line to raise and lower other gear and equipment.

Every hunter has more control over their own safety than they might imagine. There is some truth in that old saying, “Choose your hunting partner as if your life depends on it, because it just might.”

To do your part to make this sport even safer, there are some activities you should not tolerate from fellow hunters. First and foremost, they should never point their gun at you — loaded or unloaded. I mean never.

Best friend or not, when they point a loaded firearm at your stomach, they might as well put the muzzle right to your temple. Would having the safety on be any consolation then?

If you truly care about staying safe, then make it your job to promote safety. When a hunting partner meets you in the woods with his or her gun pointed straight ahead, say something. When a buddy swings a gun at your face while turning a corner, say something. But yet, duck!

After decades of deer hunting, I believe it’s the only effective way to break a bad habit. Embarrassing or not, something has to be said to that small minority who don’t handle their guns safely around others. They are an accident waiting to happen.

Deer drives are dangerous because too often, shooters aiming at moving targets have no idea what’s beyond the target at any given moment. And knowing what’s beyond a target is one of the main pillars of hunting safety.

Deer drives are much safer when everyone involved knows the plan, understands the plan, and no one decides on their own to deviate from the plan.

As I tell hunters almost every year, never accept that looking down someone’s barrel is part of hunting. We’re talking about your life here, and their life, because they’ll never be the same if they carelessly injure or kill someone.

Remember that the only good hunt is a safe hunt. Best of luck to all.