Like thousands of young hunters, 15-year-old Gert von Gontard headed out the first of November for the first day of Missouri's youth firearms deer season. It was his first deer hunt, and, like many of his peers, Gert tagged a buck for the very first time that day.
But that's where the similarities between his hunt and everyone else's end.
Sure, there were probably other youngsters who bagged a 10-pointer that day, just like Gert did. And others probably made nice shots on their deer, too, just like the 85-yarder that Gert connected on.
But every other young hunter afield that day had a decided advantage that Gert did not: the use of their eyes. Blind since birth, Gert had never fired a gun before last summer, let alone taken a crack at live game. That all changed when family friend Tom Sommer came up with the idea to modify a rifle so that Gert, with a little help, could try his hand at shooting.
“I came up with this design for a scope mount where I could look over his head and let him shoot,” Tom said. “So I designed that [last] summer, and we started shooting a lot of pop cans and targets.”
Tom had a machine shop, JJ Welding Service in Fenton, Mo., mount a vertical 16-inch plate to the top of a Ruger 10/22, which was then topped with a pistol scope. That setup allows Tom to stand behind Gert and look through the optic, all the while directing Gert on where to aim.
“I look through the scope and tell him right, left, up or down, and he pivots the rifle where it needs to be,” said Tom. “When he gets to the proper target, I tell him to shoot.”
To overcome the distance between the scope and the barrel, Tom puts the crosshairs more than a foot above where he wants the bullet to hit. The pair practiced with the gun all summer and became quite good with it, so Tom, with some help from Adolphus Busch IV, of Anheuser-Busch fame, decided to pursue a deer hunt for Gert.
“I came up with the crazy idea, ‘Hey, let's do a deer hunt,' and Adolphus was behind everything that I suggested,” Tom said. “We pursued it a little further and redesigned the scope mount for a deer rifle, and it was underway.”
Tom adapted his innovative mount to a Browning A-Bolt in .270 WSM, but the design had to be modified further. You see, Gert has had several strokes over the past few years and is wheelchair-bound. He cannot handle a rifle on his own, so Tom cut the stock off the deer rifle and bolted it into a rifle rest that swivels. He then bolted the rifle and rest to a table in a deer stand, allowing Gert to fire the gun without absorbing any recoil.
With the rifle taken care of, Adolphus offered up his 2,000-acre estate, Belleau Farm, as the site of the hunt. Adolphus, Gert's father and Tom are all good friends and have duck hunted together for years. While not able to take any ducks himself, Gert has gone hunting with the group since he was young, and those hours spent in a duck blind are where Gert developed his passion for hunting.
“I like just going out into the duck blind and helping everybody call the ducks in,” Gert explained. “That's what I do. I call the ducks in since I can't shoot them. It's pretty exciting when you've got a lot of ducks overhead and you're trying to get them to come down and drop into your decoys.”
According to Adolphus, Gert's presence on duck hunts is a pick-me-up for everyone in their hunting party.
“It's always entertaining,” he said. “He's always cracking jokes and talking with us, just shooting the bull with the boys kind of thing. When he's not doing that, he's very, very serious about his calling. He's always trying to learn more about it.”
While calling ducks is one thing, Gert never in his wildest dreams imagined that he would actually be the trigger man on a deer hunt.
“I always wanted to be because I had seen my dad and other people take down ducks before,” Gert said. “But I had never seen anybody shoot a deer before, or, for that matter, I had never gone hunting up in a deer stand. So I never really imagined that I could do it.”
Thanks to Tom's hard work and Adolphus' support, Gert got the chance he never thought was possible on the opener of this year's youth season.
The hunt began at 2 p.m., when Tom had a young man deliver Gert and himself to within 100 yards of their stand. Because Gert cannot walk, Tom put him on his back and carried him to the stand and then up the 45-degree ladder to the platform.
Once settled, a buck slipped through about 2:45, but it was too far out for a shot. All was quiet until about 4:15, when a doe passed through and then disappeared into the brush. Tom looked back and saw a 10-pointer trailing the doe. The only problem was that Gert was out of position for a shot.
“I had to physically pick up Gert, the table, the rifle-everything-and make a turn because the deer hadn't come into the area that we expected,” he said. “I told Gert that we were going to have to do this quickly. I said as soon as you get yourself comfortable, I'll take the safety off, and the next time I tell you I'm on, you shoot. He shot and it was just a perfect chest shot. The deer ran about 100 yards and piled up. Gert just screamed louder than you can possibly imagine.”
Said Gert, “Tom basically aimed the gun because, unlike our practice, he couldn't tell me to go left or right. So he basically aimed the gun, and then I shot it. Tom was like, ‘you hit him, you hit him!' It was just the coolest thing in the world.”
Gert's 10-pointer sported a 19½-inch spread and green-scored at 135 inches. Those numbers suited the St. Louis native and Ladue Horton Watkins High School student just fine.
“It was pretty cool because when Tom showed me all of the points and said it was a 10-point, I had always heard that a 10-point was one of the bigger deer that you could get,” he said. “When I heard that, I was pretty excited.”
Gert's deer is already at the taxidermist, and he has a spot reserved for the mount in his bedroom. Perhaps when he grips those antlers again it might finally register that he achieved something most people thought was impossible.
“I was impressed that I had done it, you know, but it didn't really register for me when I first felt the buck,” said Gert. “At first it really didn't sink in that I'd done it. I think that I kind of knew that I could do it, but all the same it was great of Tom and Adolphus to let me have this opportunity.”
Tom has taken a lot of kids hunting over the years, but he says that Gert was easier to teach than many sighted youngsters he has hunted with, largely due to his passion and drive.
“He knew his limitations, but he also kept pushing forward,” Tom said. “There wasn't the boredom or the noise that you find with other kids. His strong desire to do this made him almost one of the easier guys that I've taken hunting.”
If there's one thing Gert has already shown, it's that nothing is out of the question.