It was in all respects a beautiful, almost perfect day when he slipped into the woods at Mounds State Recreation Area near Brookville Reservoir to hunt for wild turkeys, something he'd been doing each spring for close to a decade.

Keller, who lives in Martinsville, was in the Brookville area as part of his job as a fisheries biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"I saw a bird pass through that looked like a gobbler to me," Keller said, recounting what happened on April 26, 2000. "I repositioned myself around a tree and kept calling, but I didn't see it at all. I figured the bird moved off, so I just kind of gave up on it."

Still, accidents like his are on the decline, not only in Indiana but also nationally, according to the International Hunter Education Association, a Colorado-based organization that collects state-by-state data and reports that hunting-related accidents are 30 percent below what they were a decade ago.

Fatalities attributed to hunting accidents have dropped from more than 200 nationally in 1987 to fewer than 100 annually from 1996 through 2002, the most recent year for which IHEA has a complete report.

That's no consolation to Keller, who was peppered by about 40 shotgun shell pellets the day he changed from the hunter to the hunted. One pellet pierced his right eye. Four narrowly missed his left eye. He still carries 10 to 12 pellets in his face and neck and no longer has straight-ahead vision in his right eye, which he said required cataract surgery as a result of the wound.

"Now I've got glaucoma," Keller said. "Whenever I go to eye specialists, they say I've got the eye problems of someone 75 years old. And I'm only 39."

Keller's case is one of 367 hunting and sporting arms reports examined by The Journal Gazette that were filed with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources between January 1998 and December 2004.

•An additional 138 were Category B accidents - those that resulted in death or injury by some means other than firearm or bow while hunting, such as falls from tree stands or heart attacks.

•An additional 85 incidents were Category C and mostly involved target-shooting accidents or mishandling of firearms in non-hunting situations.

Of the 279 reports classified as A or B incidents, 29 resulted in fatalities - 10 involving the discharge of a firearm or bow. Three of those 10 were reported as accidental self-inflicted gunshot wounds, one as a suspected suicide.

Three years ago, a 13-year-old DeKalb County boy was found dead beneath a tree where he had been hunting. The DNR report concluded that the boy dropped his gun and looked down, only to be struck by a round that fired when the gun hit the ground.

In 2003, the DNR's investigation of a St. Joseph County case determined that a man found dead in his truck had stopped by a roadside to shoot at an animal, most likely a deer, and the gun accidentally discharged, killing him.

Nearly twice as many fatal accidents, 19, did not involve firearms but were largely the result of falls from tree stands (nine), heart attacks (six), or a combination of the two. One hunter was believed to have died from natural causes, and another drowned when a portable duck-hunting blind flipped over.

The degree of detail on the reports examined varies widely in fatal as well as non-fatal incidents, but the records show that when accidents do occur they're far more likely to involve falling out of a tree stand than one hunter being shot by another.

Saturday was the opening day of deer firearms hunting season in Indiana, arguably the busiest hunting day of any year. Lt. Col. Michael Crider with DNR law enforcement said there are about 215,000 deer hunters in the state who collectively spend 2.5 million days afield.

It is by far the most popular game animal in Indiana, and by association the one listed most often on DNR accident reports as the animal being hunted - 142 times, or slightly more than half of the 279 A or B reports.

While Indiana hunters were involved in 40 accidents last year (four resulting in deaths), about the same number of boaters were involved in 51 accidents resulting in seven deaths.

Comparing state boating and hunting accidents for the same seven-year period - 1998 to 2004 - there was an annual average of 103 accidents and 9.3 fatalities for boating compared with 39.9 accidents and 4.1 fatalities for hunting.

Nationally, the figures aren't much different - about the same number of registered boats as hunters. In 2002, the last year for which complete hunting accident figures are available, there were 72 recorded hunting-related deaths and 750 boating-related fatalities.

There is a common perception - perpetuated in cartoons, movies and TV shows - that hunters are a reckless band of camo-clad Bubbas blinded by their pursuit of booze and big-antlered bucks.

One song that gets radio airplay at this time of year is "Da Turdy Point Buck" by Bananas at Large, a rap-style spoof punctuated by slurping sounds and belches.

"There's that perception that some people have that hunters tend to be a bunch of drunken slobs," he said. "I'm not saying in a deer camp after hunting hours that somebody won't knock a few beers back.

"I'm saying that while they are actually out in the field hunting, my experience and our statistics bear out that it is not common for people to be hunting while under the influence."

Only a handful of the DNR reports show that hunters involved in shootings were tested for drugs or alcohol, although Crider said that as a rule everybody involved in a fatality or serious accident is tested. Other cases are at the investigating officer's discretion.

"If they detect an odor of alcoholic beverages on the person, and they feel like the person is impaired, that is something they will take action on," he said. "The fact that we don't have statistics that show that indicates to me (drunken hunting) is probably not happening.

"I can't remember a case where alcohol was a contributing factor to a (hunting fatality). I can think of only two or three on a national level where that has happened."

Nevertheless, Eric Nuse, executive vice president of the International Hunter Education Association, said hunters can do more to polish their public image by rooting out those who are reckless or careless in the way they hunt or misbehave in other ways.

"You hear people say, ‘You always have some bad eggs' and this and that," Nuse said. "There's some truth to that, but I think it is incumbent upon us to understand we can't afford that.

"We need to bring in some real peer pressure on these folks and force them to decide either you're going to behave impeccably or take up something else, because we don't want you. We really need to behave better than the general public does."

Nearly all of the DNR accident reports list one or more contributing factors to each accident, and "fall from tree stand" was noted as the top factor most often - 114 times.

"When I first started, it seemed like loaded firearms and falling over logs or into ditches was the main thing," said Crider, who has been with DNR about 20 years. "Now it's falls from elevated stands."

Careless or reckless behavior was marked on 44 reports as the top factor, followed by the victim being out of the shooter's sight on 15 reports. Mistaken for game was the top factor on 13 reports.

Accidents occurred in nearly every Indiana county over the seven-year period, topped by Posey in the southwest corner of the state with 12. LaGrange was next with 11 accidents.

Of the 141 Category A reports, 120 included the age of the shooter, ranging from 11 to 74. The average age was 31.9. The average hunting experience, recorded on 108 reports, is 14.8 years with the highest being 60 years.

What bothers Keller most about being the victim of a hunting accident is the shooter, a man from Ohio, went unpunished. Despite being charged with criminal recklessness by DNR law enforcement, the charges were never pursued, Keller and DNR officials said.

"I really didn't care if he got a misdemeanor or felony conviction out of it," Keller said. "I'd hate to just really beat up on this guy over the whole thing.

"What really struck me most was if this guy would have identified his target before shooting, he would have known something that was sitting there that's 160 pounds no way is a turkey," Keller said. "There was no red, white or blue (the colors of a male turkey's head). I did not have a decoy out there. There was just nothing that he could have seen that looked like a turkey, but he heard the sounds coming out of the (call) that was in my mouth."

That also annoys Keller. The sounds he was making imitated a hen turkey, which are off limits to hunters during the spring season. The guy had no business shooting in his direction.

"He must have just said, ‘I'm not going to eat this (license) tag, I'm going to eat a bird,' " Keller said. "He was trying everything he could. Unfortunately, the one thing he shot cost his insurance company a lot of money."

It has cost Keller, too. He had to give up bowhunting because of the lost vision in his right eye, but he has learned to shoot firearms left-handed to take advantage of the good eye.

"I still hunt," said Keller, who planned to deer hunt this weekend in an area along the Tippecanoe River in Pulaski County. "I haven't given up any of my hunting. … I'm just a lot more aware of my surroundings now."

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