Max Lamm has gone from skeptic to believer.
His father, Eric, isn’t a hunter. So he didn’t grow up on tales of camp and whitetails and shots made and missed.
In fact, when the Mars Area High School sophomore would hear his friends talk about getting up early and sitting in the cold woods all day, perhaps to come home empty-handed, he didn’t initially get the attraction.
“How is that fun? That’s what I thought before,” he says with a laugh.
But he’s as adventurous as he is determined. And he eventually decided to give hunting a chance.
“I just wanted to try something new,” he says.
Opening day of the 2017 firearms deer season found him sandwiched in a ground blind in Venango County. On one side was his dad, on the other family friend and veteran hunter Greg Ronczka of Mars.
There were deer aplenty, too.
A group of six or seven, one maybe with antlers, passed just after daylight without offering a shot. Minutes later two more ghosted by. Then, around 8, two does appeared.
All approached from Eric’s direction, which had him worried.
“I thought, oh no, it’s going to be up to me to help him and I don’t know what I’m doing,” Eric remembers.
Max switched to that side of the blind.
Not long after, a 5-point buck came into view. It moved steadily closer and closer, first in the open, then behind trees, then back in the open.
Finally, it stopped.
“Greg leaned in and whispered in Max’s ear, ‘You are going to shoot this buck,’” Eric says.
He did. It ran, but not far, the double lung shot downing it within 30 yards.
Max didn’t know that right away, though.
The 16-year-old didn’t see the deer fall. Of course, he hadn’t seen it approach either, or slip behind trees, or re-emerge or ultimately stop. He hadn’t even seen it when pulling the trigger.
Max is blind.
He was diagnosed at 9 months of age with retinoblastoma, “which is a fancy way of saying he had cancer in both eyes,” Eric says.
According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about 300 children nationwide are diagnosed with the disease annually. About 95 percent retain their vision with treatment.
Max didn’t. His retinoblastoma was already at stage 5 – the most severe designation — when discovered.
His vision got progressively worse until it disappeared completely around fourth grade, he says. Today, he distinguishes only shades of light and dark.
Not that you’d know it.
An accomplished drummer, water skier and high school wrestler, he’s fit, active and energetic. And relentless.
“He’s handled everything with such poise, such grace,” says Eric. “And he’s so determined. He’s always coming up and saying, ‘Hey dad, I want to try this,’ or ‘Hey mom, I’d like to try that.’”
Hunting presented obstacles, of course. Shooting was one.
Ronczka took him to Mars Rod and Gun Club with a .22-caliber rifle and tried directing his aim. That didn’t work.
“We just couldn’t see, in looking from behind him, where he was pointing the gun. He got to experience shooting, but we never even hit the paper,” Ronczka says.
Next, they tried a laser sight.
They mounted it on the .22 and later a 30-06. They fired at paper targets and, for Max’s sake, other, more audible ones.
“I would use anything metal, old pots and pans, roof vents, whatever, so that if he hit it, it would make a sound,” Eric says.
Even so, improving his shooting required subtlety.
A shot that is, say, off by inches 50 yards downrange requires the tiniest of adjustments at the shooting bench, as Max learned.
“With the rifle, it’s like barely a movement. You’re just barely budging the gun,” he says.
He was quickly grouping his shots, though.
“Out to about 50 yards, he was able to hit within 2 inches of the bull’s eye,” Ronczka says. “So we knew it could work.”
Next was the issue of hunting with the laser. That’s illegal in Pennsylvania.
But the state Game Commission offers a fix: special use permits to accommodate hunters with medical conditions. About 90,000 are granted annually, most commonly to allow those with limited mobility to hunt from a vehicle, says Chad Eyler, chief of the commission’s special permits enforcement division.
Requests from the blind are rare, though.
“In my eight years on the job, I don’t know if we’ve ever gotten more than two or three a year,” Eyler says.
But the goal, he says, is “to get as many people in the field as we can.” So when Max met the requirements, he got a permit.
Next, he had to pass the same safety course required of all first-time hunters. It challenges students to, among other things, identify the parts and actions of rifles and shotguns based on pictures.
Jim Daley of Cranberry wasn’t initially sure how to handle that. Neither he nor any of the other instructors had ever taught a blind student.
In the end, they allowed Max to identify firearms by feel. He aced that, as well as the rest of the test, without requiring other accommodations.
“His mentors spent a lot of time with him before the class studying, and you could tell. He was really prepared,” Daley says. “Give him a lot of credit. He could probably have passed the test as soon as he walked in.”
Finally, it was just a question of whether Max could put everything together under real world hunting conditions.
He was tested. His chance at the 5-point came at 70 or 75 yards.
“It was probably beyond where I thought we’d be able to take a shot, to be honest,” Ronczka says. “But sure enough, when he lined up, I was able to see the green dot on its shoulder. And he took it with one shot.”
Ronczka left the blind to look for the buck. It was special when he returned saying it was down.
“I was shaking,” Max says. “In my mind, I’d been thinking hopefully we got it. So whenever he came back, it was just awesome.
“I don’t know if it was just luck. But I was just thrilled to be out there. I really enjoyed it.”
He’s not the only one.
Ronczka calls the day with Max one of his best in the woods.
“I couldn’t have scripted it any better than the way it worked out,” he says. “I was glad to be a part of something that was good for him and good for me.”
Max doesn’t want too much made of his success. Humble and polite – he peppers conversations with “yes sirs” — he didn’t do this for the attention.
“I’m not trying to make a big story out of this. I just wanted to hunt,” he says.
Now he wants to do even more.
A spring turkey hunt would be great, he says, as would trips to Texas for hogs or to the West for elk.
“I’m already looking forward to next season,” he says.
Max Lamm with Greg Ronczka.