A diving accident into a Pensacola, Florida, hotel swimming pool left Pierre’s Greg Brandner paralyzed.
“I remember (thinking), ‘my God, I’m only 19 years old and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,’” Brandner said. “I had no idea how I was going to deal with it.”
He found a way.
On Saturday, for the 29th year, the 65-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran participated in the annual Oahe Hunt for hunters in wheelchairs. It’s the only time hunting is allowed within Oahe Downstream Recreation Area during the fall hunting seasons.
Using a .270 rifle, Brandner took a doe 75 feet from his blind with a single shot. During the same hunt last year, he harvested his biggest buck ever — a 5-by-6 trophy whitetail.
“That was a heart pounder,” Brandner said.
Sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the hunt on Saturday and Sunday marked its 30th year. Five of the seven hunters took deer, Pat Buscher, regional park supervisor with Game, Fish and Parks, said.
Russell Somsen, a natural resource specialist with the Army Corps, co-founded the event in 1993. Now, Somsen and Buscher co-coordinate it.
Twelve tags and 10 shooting blinds built with donations were available for this year’s hunt. Volunteers drove hunters and their equipment, including propane heaters, to the blinds. Left alone, hunters had their phones to let volunteers know if they shot a deer. The volunteers then tracked the deer and dragged them to a truck.
That is except for Jason Mathews, who dragged the doe he killed with one shot at 8 a.m. on Saturday driving an all-terrain motorized wheelchair.
“It allowed me to pull my deer up to the truck,” Mathews said.
Left paralyzed at age 14 after a car accident, Mathews has participated in the Oahe Hunt for three years in a row. Last year, the 40-year-old killed a 5-by-5 whitetail.
Mathews only wishes he would’ve found out about the hunt years ago.
“(After) I signed up for a tag (the first time), I fell in love,” he said. “It gives us back our independence.”
After the crippling crash, the 6-foot-2 Sioux Falls man lost the chance to play varsity basketball, but participates in wheelchair basketball. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and works for a Sioux Falls law firm as a private investigator and with municipalities.
At age 16, friends took him hunting. Because Mathews cannot walk, he can get a special license that allows him to hunt from a vehicle.
The Oahe Hunt can’t compare.
“This gives us the opportunity to be able-bodied hunters by not making us sit in a truck,” he said.
As for Brandner, a state Department of Human Services retiree, the hunt is one of his favorite events. There were times he received double tags. Brandner figured he’s taken about 40 deer.
“The blind I was in yesterday,” he said. “I’ve hunted out of that blind more than any other blind. It’s been a very good blind for me.”
He also shared the story behind Saturday’s kill.
“I just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time and saw the flicker of her head,” he said. “And then she disappeared behind a tree for a while. She started to move and then she came into full view.”
Mike Olson, 75, broke his neck in a car accident 49 years ago that left him with quadriplegia. He spent nine months in hospitals and rehabilitation and in time went to Dakota State University in Madison and studied psychology.
He also received permission to hunt from his vehicle, but prefers the Oahe Hunt.
“This is the real deal,” Olson said.
A director with North Central Paralyzed Veterans of America, Olson did not participate in this year’s hunt.
“I like the tradition of coming out here now,” he said.