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A cautionary tale: Lawton deer hunter thankful to be alive after falling from tree stand

Thousands of Oklahomans hunt deer from tree stands, and state wildlife officials encourage hunters to wear a safety harness while in the tree to prevent falling. Oklahoma's deer muzzleloader season opens Saturday. [PHOTO BY OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT of WILDLIFE CONSERVATION]

Thousands of Oklahomans hunt deer from tree stands, and state wildlife officials encourage hunters to wear a safety harness while in the tree to prevent falling. Oklahoma's deer muzzleloader season opens Saturday. [PHOTO BY OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT of WILDLIFE CONSERVATION]

Donny Wooldridge of Lawton knows he is lucky to be alive after taking a 21-foot plunge out of a tree.

“Everybody tells me how lucky I am,” said the 56-year-old maintenance supervisor for an oil company.

Wooldridge, a self-described “tree monkey” who has been a deer hunter for almost 40 years, had just finished installing a new, more comfortable tree stand two weeks ago when a section of the climbing stick from the old stand snapped.

“I went to step off and the top piece of the climbing stick pulled away from the tree,” Wooldridge said. “I remember looking and thinking that's not good, but I have had stands pull away from trees before. You can usually manage that with your body movement. The next thing I knew I was on my way down.”

Wooldridge wasn't wearing a safety harness.

“My wife has made it very clear about the nice harness that she had bought me,” he said. “I had one and did not wear it. I always wear it when I am hunting. I just ran out to do a little bit of work. Quite honestly, I didn't even think about the fact that you need to put your harness on even if you are just working on the stand.”

Wooldridge was taken by helicopter from the Comanche County alfalfa field to an Oklahoma City hospital. He fractured a rib, his sternum and a bone in his back, but it could have been much worse.

Wooldridge was with his son, Donny Wooldridge Jr., who was on the ground and redirected his fall.

“After I ping-ponged down off a couple of limbs he made an effort to try and divert me a little bit,” Wooldridge Sr. said. “Obviously, he knew he couldn't catch me. He probably weighs 125 pounds soaking wet and I'm about 230. He stuck his arm out because he said I was (falling) completely head first.

“He caught me somewhere around the head and shoulders and turned me just a little bit to where I landed on the back of my neck and across my shoulders. If he hadn't done that ... I look at it like he quite probably saved my life or saved me from a life in a wheelchair.”

Thousands of Oklahoma deer hunters will be climbing into tree stands during the archery season — which is now underway — and the upcoming muzzleloader and gun seasons.

More hunters are wearing safety harnesses while in a tree than they did a decade ago, but still most do not, said Lance Meek, hunter education supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Education.

“I know a lot of hunters who climb into a tree stand without wearing a harness,” Meek said. “We get three or four reports a year of people falling out of a tree, but since it's not mandatory to be reported (to ODWC) there are probably a 100 more that we don't find out about."

Today, tree stand safety is emphasized in hunter education courses as much as gun safety is, Meek said.

For Wooldridge, the deer hunting season is a highlight of his year. He has always hunted from a tree but his injuries will keep him on the ground the rest of this season.

“I hate hunting from the ground even if I am holding a rifle, but we've already purchased ground blinds,” he said.

He hopes to be hunting from the ground blind on the opening day of muzzleloader season. Next year, he plans to be back in the tree stand after he is fully healed, but he will always be wearing a safety harness in the tree and using a safety rope when going up and down the ladder. He also plans to invest in better equipment.

“After this, you can't really put a price tag on a piece of equipment,” Wooldridge said.

Wooldridge said he's always been comfortable in a tree and never thought he would be one to fall. He wanted to share his story in hopes other deer hunters will think twice about getting in a tree without a safety harness.

“If some wife will read this story and goes down to Walmart even and buy some kind of harness for her husband or her son and it stops that man from getting hurt, that would be great,” he said.

DEER HUNTING SEASONS

Archery: Open now through Jan. 15
Primitive Arms (Muzzleloading): Oct. 27 through Nov. 4
Gun: Nov. 17 through Dec. 2
Holiday Antlerless: Dec. 21 through Dec. 30

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›

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