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On the final Wednesday of Sonoma County's seven-week deer hunting season, 17-year-old Jessica Clark sat in her honors English class at Sonoma Valley High, studying Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and watching the clock.

After school she could have hung out with friends, gone shopping at the mall, played video games or listened to music on an iPod.

But when the final bell rang, Clark was off like a shot to get in one last hunting outing.

Like many Sonoma County teen hunting enthusiasts, Clark has come to love the woodsy traditions passed down in her family. And the confidence she's attained through hunting helps her face even the harshest criticism.

"The negative response we get can be intimidating, but I try to stick up for deer hunting. You can't just shoot anything. Hunting is for the production of meat. We eat the deer we shoot. And we help Fish and Game gather data," she said.

For some, hunting season is also talking season.

Clark hunts with her father, Bob, and her sister, Jennifer.

"I was out hunting, sitting on a hill with my daughters once," Bob Clark said. "We had been out six or seven times without getting anything, but Jessica said, 'We haven't even fired a shot, but that's OK. I'm making memories with my dad.' That'll get ya' misty-eyed," Bob Clark said.

All young hunters must take a Fish and Game hunter education course and be tested in gun safety. They join 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 20,000 to 30,000 of whom are deer hunters, according to Capt. Roy Griffith of the Department of Fish and Game Hunter Education office in Sacramento.

Hunters must purchase a license and can buy one or two tags for male blacktail deer, depending on the local deer population that season. Immediately after killing a buck, ideally with one shot and without a chase, hunters are required to fill out brightly colored tags on the spot. Tags provide crucial field information to Fish & Game.

"You can get a hunting license at age 7, 8, or 9. Big game, deer hunting, it's 12. A 7-year-old will hunt turkeys, doves, quail, rabbit, goose or ducks. They need maturity and the muscle strength to shoot," said Griffith.

Hundreds of those hunters sign up each season for big-buck contests in the Petaluma/Penngrove area alone.

Used to be that the big-buck contest was the domain of Charley's Liquors in Petaluma. When that ended about five years ago, Penngrove Hay & Grain, Jay Palms Saddle Shop and The Traxx Bar and Grill started their own competitions.

It's not unusual for hunters to pay to be in all three.

For Bob Moretti, who owns Penngrove Hay & Grain with his wife Alice Killgore, teaching their children how to hunt goes a lot further than lining up a shot. His contest supports a fund named for his late father, Mike Moretti, in support of Future Farmers of America at Petaluma High and the Brett Callan Foundation, a memorial fund named for a student at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma killed in a car crash in 2004.

"In our family we pool our meat, with first portions going to the elders and then on down a posted list," he said of a tradition that teaches about a dozen children at camp to share with grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Big-buck contest divisions include juniors (teens age 12 to 16) adults, seniors, women and archers.

"I'm not a hunter but so many of my clientele are. They just live for those seven weeks. We keep a photo album and people look at it all year long. They love to see who got what each year," said Chris Cheney, Traxx owner.

After dressing their deer, hunters bring the head with antlers to be measured at the contest site. They cover them in bags or tarps or place them in large tubs to avoid inadvertently scaring folks.

Some bring "caped" deer, which includes a long measure of skinned fur to be utilized during taxidermy. In a tie, eye guards at the base of the antlers can give one hunter the win over another.

If hunters don't have their own meat room at home to age and dress the venison, they can head to places like Bud's Custom Meats, owned by Matt and Natalie Gamba. At Bud's an average size buck might cost about $75 to process, usually into sausage or jerky, according to owner Matt Gamba.

"When kids come in here with their first buck, they are excited but at the same time they're very respectful. They respect the animals they kill. They know a life has been taken, so not many brag," said Gamba.

The contests culminate with hearty dinners at social halls or restaurants, camps and clubs. Winners are announced and prizes handed out, usually taxidermy services, rifles, or belt buckles.

This year Brandon Cramer, a 14-year-old sophomore at Casa Grande, who won the youth division last year at the Penngrove Hay & Grain Big Buck contest, won again.

At a rollicking dinner at the Penngrove Community Hall Sept. 29 he was surrounded by his family and fellow hunters. Other winners that night included Jim Pacheco in the Open division, Ron Pomi for 60 and Over and Dawn Bettinelli, who bagged perhaps the most memorable rack of the season. It had four points on one antler and seven on the other, making her the overall winner, in addition to the Women's category winner.

"I've been deer hunting since I was 5 years old," said Cramer. "That's when you go to deer camp with your father and you learn to be quiet, to follow directions, to track animals," he said.

At his home, guns are kept in a locked safe to which only his dad has the combination. In the field, he must get his father's permission -- a silent nod -- before every shot from his .243 Ruger. He always takes a couple of breaths to steady himself before he pulls the trigger.

"You hear about kids bringing guns to school. Kids who hunt would never do that. Brandon's on the Honor Roll. There's never any problems with kids who really know what a gun can do," said his father, Daron Cramer.

Many families maintain deer camps, rural gathering spots on private land for hunting. They can be rustic or comfy. Some are for men only, others focus on family gatherings.

Tales and traditions

Deer camp is where nicknames are born, where stories are retold and zealously guarded secret recipes for marinades are passed down.

This year they talked about North Bay dairywoman Judy Buttke shooting one early morning in her flannel pajamas and missing. They traded stories about another hunter nicknamed "Old Big Dust" for landing more shots in the dirt than in any deer.

Teen hunters love telling their stories, too.

"My cousin and uncle and I were sitting together and the same deer came out twice and they both missed it - twice. It's all fun and games some days," said Andrew Murphy, 16, a sophomore at Tomales High School. He enjoys hunting with his dad and grandpa.

"By six or seven I was going hunting. I love it. Our parents teach us discipline, to be patient and calm," he said.

For 16-year-old Mac Milne, a sophomore at Petaluma High, a hunter for 10 years, it's about being where he belongs. He was too busy with football to sign up for a contest this season, but he managed to get out a few times.

"You like to get a big deer, but really it's more about having a good time. My favorite part is coming back to camp and listening to all the stories," he said.

Even local royalty relish deer season.

"People don't understand why hunting is more of a way of life than a sport, unless they're involved," said Annie McIsaac, who was named Dairy Princess in 2006. She got her first hunting license in sixth grade.

She recently took a summer break from Cal Poly to drive home for a bit of deer season. She hunts using her late grandfather Neil McIsaac's gun.

"He'd been in a wheelchair my whole life. I've often thought how I wished I could have hunted with him just once," she said.

He died when she was a high school sophomore. At his funeral, as a symbol of a common thread running through the generations of her family, McIsaac said she slipped two special spent shells in his casket.

"Some people have shells that they carry every day in their pockets. They look at them, feel them and remember. They can be precious," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Rayne Wolfe at 521-5240 or rayne.wolfe@pressdemocrat.com.

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