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Fall from stand ends 30-year streak of Missouri openers

By: Mike Suchan,

BALLWIN, Mo. – Missing his first Missouri opening day in more than 30 years hurt, maybe not as bad as his broken heel, but it hurt.

Tony Balducci was all set on hitting Deer Camp, but a fall from his makeshift stand put a hold on plans to enjoy his time outdoors and bringing home venison.

“I’m not all that happy about it, because I like to do it. I love to just melt into the woods,” he said. “It’s exciting. You hear some noise and you think something’s about to happen.”

The last big noise he heard in the woods was a thud when he landed 12 feet from a fallen tree on Pelican Island in the Missouri River. After years of applying, he had finally obtained the special hunt permit.

It allowed him, his brother, Mike, and cousin, Davy Borreson, to boat in and hunt the weekend before the regular season gun opener. After the three fanned out, Balducci left his first location because a hunter nearby was constantly grunting. He saw a large fallen tree leaning against another and walked right up it for a perfect vantage point.

“It had a beautiful seat right where it was meeting the other tree,” he said. “I will normally go for a natural stand, way back in the thick scruff, and they’re going to come.”

There were some small branches in his way, but they pulled off easily for the general contractor known as a rather spry monkey when it comes to climbing up and working off things like ladders and scaffolding. One stubborn branch needed some more oomph, and when it broke it sent him backward off the tree.

“I don’t fall off. If it would have been slippery, I might have been holding onto something,” he said. “I never thought it’d be me.”

The worst of the fall was taken by his heel, which suffered a fracture, but he also wrenched his back and, adding insulting injury to injury, his rifle cracked him on the head.

“Put a nice little hole in my skull. Blood running down my head,” he said. “Too bad we didn’t have film, a don’t-do-this kind of training.”

A nearby hunter, Andy, who saw or heard, came to his aid, but Balducci didn’t want to ruin his hunt and sent him away. Andy came back, saying he couldn’t leave him. Balducci asked if he could find one of his partners while he called to tell his wife and began crawling toward the boat.

X-rays showed a fracture, but swelling held off surgery with a plate and screws until six days later, leaving Balducci in the hospital lamenting his situation during Saturday’s opening day of gun season.

He wasn’t alone. His brother works at Barnes hospital and said they’d treated other hunters who fell off stands, one with broken toes and another who had “fallen on his arrow somehow.”

National studies have found it’s usually not the gun that injures hunters, but the tree. The National Shooting Sports Foundation conducted a recent study that found hunting is a relatively safe outdoor activity -- bicyclists are 25 times more likely to be injured than hunters.

In 2010, approximately 16.3 million hunters went afield and 8,122 sustained injuries, or 50 per 100,000 participants. Of those, 6,000 were tree-stand related.

Doctors told Balducci his injuries could have been worse. And he heard the previous week’s horror of the young Indiana hunter who suffered a fall that resulted in a spine injury and paralysis. A newlywed with a baby on the way, he chose to remove himself from life support systems and died.

Accurate fatality statistics from hunting accidents aren’t recent, but there were 99 hunting deaths in 2002. Last year, Pennsylvania reported its first season without a fatality.

“I never thought I’d be a statistic,” Balducci admitted, adding the lesson he’s taken. “Be extra careful, old-timer.”

He’s still dreaming about going. Some buddies said they have a wheelchair and could wheel him down a logging road.

“Then I thought, what if I got one? If I didn’t have to track it very far, I could go over and gut it,” he said, “but I don’t want to mess anybody else’s hunt up.”

Balducci said Borreson went back and got his doe the next day, and ran into the Good Samaritan, who he hoped had gotten his deer.

“We had heard a shot back in the woods half an hour after I was still crawling for the shore,” he said. “But Davy talked to him the next day and he didn’t get one. I ruined his opening morning of the special hunt.”

Balducci is a sustenance hunter, mostly hunting public land in Missouri, gathering with family and friends in a week-long Deer Camp. No early scouting, no game cams, just set up tents in an area and hike out looking for sign and likely spots.

He’s all about the venison. He has one buck mount in the basement and would like another, but that’s not why he hunts. Gathering protein to help feed his wife and three children is foremost.

“I hunt for the food. I like to eat it,” he said. “I had (the family) to where they wanted venison over a cow.

“Sure, I’d like to have a big trophy on the wall, but the last time I got a nice buck, the thing tasted like balls. I ruined the family. They wouldn’t eat it. When I bring them sweet little does, they like it.”

A cast will come in the next few weeks, and he said he’s not ruled out going out to hunt.

“I still want to go and get one. I usually get one with my bow or my gun,” he said, adding he might have to reassure his wife, Rhonda, that he’ll be OK. “She just thinks I’m crazy. But she says, ‘You’re going to do whatever you want.’

“Usually she says be careful, and don’t get into any trouble.”

Two days after the incident, Balducci was stir crazy and hobbled over to a client’s home and did some ground work – he figured he could scoot around laying tile. So this setback probably won’t keep him from a late season bow hunt.

“I love being out there,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to come, what it’s going to be? A lot of days I say I should have had a camera. It’s awesome out there.”

Go to 2013 Deer Camp

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