A Happy Transgression
September 22, 2010
After striking out on the first day of the two-day Kansas Youth Hunt in late September 2007, Jerry Livingston had serious moral reservations about taking
his son James back out on Sunday afternoon. But the father-and-son team did go back out, and they came home with the buck of a lifetime!
Amazingly, 13-year-old James Livingston shot this massive 25-point buck on public land while stalk-hunting with his dad, Jerry, on the last afternoon of the 2007 Kansas Youth Hunt. "The moment he saw the buck, James seemingly cut the cord and took on a life of his own," Jerry proudly remembered. "He was on a mission, and he made a perfect shot!"
My family is from Utah and Idaho. I grew up a passionate mule deer hunter and introduced my sons to the sport when they were old enough to qualify for a license. Some of my fondest memories are hunting mule deer with my dad and my sons in the expansive national forests of Utah and Idaho. I never entertained the idea of living anywhere but in the West.
All of that changed in July 2006 when my work brought our family to northeastern Kansas. Although totally different from the West, Kansas held a lot of intrigue for us. I love pheasant hunting, and we now had 100,000 acres of public land to hunt within close proximity of our new home. As an added bonus, we quickly learned that the area was also one of the top producers of big whitetails.
Pheasants dominated the fall of 2006 for me and my two sons, James, 12, and Tyler, 17. Whitetails were on our mind, but at the time pheasants were our primary focus. Our attitudes toward whitetails changed drastically one morning while driving down I-70 to go pheasant hunting. We came upon a massive whitetail buck that had been killed by a westbound vehicle. I don't know how I ever spotted the deer in the borrow pit, but as my sons and I stood over this massive trophy whitetail, we were amazed at his beauty and size. I wrapped my hands around those giant bases and admired the dense, compact rack.
We obtained a salvage tag for the buck and went to a local taxidermist, Ron Ridley, of Double R Taxidermy, to get it mounted. Spending time with Ron and seeing the massive bucks in his studio was the final step in my whitetail conversion. I was getting hooked, and my boys were right there with me. This was how a family of dyed-in-the-wool mule deer hunters welcomed and embraced a brand-new species into its hunting schedule.
A FIRST STAB AT WHITETAILS
A few days after finding the I-70 buck, we purchased rifle tags for the 2006 season and made a somewhat feeble attempt to hunt the public land near our home. We had fun, but we didn't know the area or how to hunt these deer. We really didn't have the resources to be successful that first fall. However, we did walk away from that season committed to being ready for 2007.
Since you have to choose your weapon in Kansas, Tyler, my older son, and I decided to go with archery tackle. We thought that the ability to hunt the rut would give us our best chance to harvest a monster. James, my younger son, who's simply not yet quite strong enough for a bow, was on the outside looking in as Tyler and I painstakingly selected bows, arrows and all the gear we would need to have a legitimate chance at a whopper in 2007.
I felt bad that James couldn't be a more active participant in this process, but I promised to make it up to him by taking him out on the 2007 Kansas Youth Hunt in late September. I told him he could use his grandpa's .243, the same gun with which he had harvested his first deer (a mule deer buck in Wyoming in 2006). That Wyoming hunt had been a real thrill for James and had solidified his interest in deer hunting.
The Youth Hunt couldn't get here quick enough for James, now 13 years old. A winter, spring and summer of watching whitetail hunting videos had him partially educated and fully wired. Before we knew it, the hunt was only 14 days away. During the preceding 30 days, James had reminded me regularly that we hadn't done any scouting and that we needed to find a spot before much more time passed.
We started investigating some public land in Unit 8, near our home, and found a nice area that we were told held some good deer. We decided to hunt out of our new tree stands the first morning, and we hung two stands in a sturdy pine tree overlooking a large field, with food sources nearby.
DREAMING AND HOPING
The two days leading up to the hunt proved to be long ones for James. He was more excited than I had ever seen him and I know he was daydreaming during school about taking his first whitetail buck. His confidence was high, but mine was waning. I knew we had our work cut out for us just to see a buck. The temperature had been in the middle and to high 80s during the days leading up to the hunt, and the muzzleloader season had been in full swing for nearly two weeks. I was afraid that we wouldn't even see a buck, let alone get a shot at one. I kept my head up as I attempted to temper James' enthusiasm by reminding him that "success in hunting is never guaranteed, and more often than not, you might not harvest an animal every time."
Opening day found us in our stands. It was a cool morning with a stiff wind out of the south. Although this father-and-son team was steeped in whitetail theory, we had no prior tree stand experience as we sat 20 feet above the ground. Although James took to his stand like a duck to water, I'm not ashamed to say that putting him in that top stand was frightening. The wind was whipping the branches, the tree was gently swaying and I was scared to death that the stand was going to collapse before I could secure his safety harness to that sturdy old tree.
But my fears were totally unfounded. That Ameristep stand was "rock solid," and I thanked our Heavenly Father for safely seeing us through that first morning. As a bonus, James got to see a doe and a fawn at 35 yards as they passed by our stands.
"That was so cool seeing those deer!" he later told me. "And stopping them with a loud bleat was fun, too. I was hoping that a buck would be following behind."
DOING IT THE HARD WAY
That evening we abandoned the stands to do some stalking. James thought we might have a better chance on the ground. "Dad, it worked great in Wyoming," he told me.
What could I say? It was his hunt and I wasn't crazy about climbing back up in that tree in what must have been 30 mile per hour winds. For our walk, we had located an area of thick timber that was bordered by bean fields, weed patches, overgrown thickets and grass fields. Between the bean fields were mature hedgerows that could provide cover for a stalk. This was supreme whitetail habitat that just had to hold deer.
As we began, the wind continued to blow furiously ou
t of the south, as it had done all day. I knew that anything north of us would smell us a mile away. We began about 6 p.m., thinking that if the deer were going to move at all in the warm, windy conditions, it would be during the last part of the day. We crept along at a snail's pace, looking and glassing, (okay, it was me doing most of the glassing), checking every possible crevice that might harbor a deer. James got a little heavy-footed at times, but overall, with the noise of the wind as cover, we were doing pretty well.
Our first encounter was with a nice 2 1/2-year-old buck at 30 yards. We spotted him as we crested a small hill. He spotted us at the same time, but he didn't seem to know what we were. He stared intently at us as the wind blew in our faces. James moved to take a shot, but before he could get into position the deer bolted.
"Wow, Dad, that was a nice buck!" he said. Then he added, "By my standards. I wish he had given me a shot."
ANOTHER CLOSE ENCOUNTER
We were working our way up a hedgerow bordering a bean field when we had our next encounter. "Dad, look!" James whispered as he knelt in the direction of a feeding deer. We could see the deer 75 yards away through a break in the hedgerow.
"It's a buck!" I told James as I settled my binoculars on the deer's unique 7-point rack that sported 6-inch brow tines. "He's a young deer, but he has a very interesting rack. I think you might want to take him."
James immediately got on his hands and knees and started inching toward the hedgerow and the buck. The grass in the hedgerow was tall ,and James was having difficulty getting the shooting sticks high enough to give him a clear shot. In the meantime the deer had no idea we were there and started feeding straight toward us. Were it not for a second deer that moved in above us and caught our scent, I'm sure that this 7-point buck would have been ours. However, along with his buddy, the 7-pointer bolted and left two long-faced hunters alone in the hedgerow to end the day.
AN AGONIZING DECISION
The 2007 Kansas Youth Hunt was a two-day hunt. That made it very hard on a God-fearing, church-going family that didn't make a habit of hunting on Sunday. (Perhaps the Department could help us out in '08 by making this a three-day hunt.) I knew that James would be disappointed about not capitalizing on the 7-pointer and that he wouldn't be content to quit after having two close encounters in one evening.
We hadn't been back to the vehicle for 10 minutes when I heard those piercing words: "Dad, will you take me out in the morning?"
James knew I had meetings in the morning and couldn't go hunting but he's a very intelligent 13-year-old. I knew the next question before he asked it. "Well, then, how about tomorrow evening, Dad -- please?"
In my heart I knew this would be a tough call. My very patient wife was nearing her wit's end with all this deer-hunting mania, hundreds of dollars spent on gear, and hiding hunting videos so she wouldn't find out we'd bought yet another new one. This behavior had been going on for 10 months with no end in sight. Now, breaking the Sabbath to take James hunting had her hanging from a thread.
That Sunday afternoon was not pretty at the Livingston house. Against my better judgment and personal convictions, I relented and agreed to take James back out for the evening.
A HEAVENLY REWARD?
Sunday evening came with a hard west wind. It had me baffled. How could I go back in there with a west wind? I knew that James would be so dialed-in on that location that nothing else would do, so we parked in a totally different location and started in. Thirty minutes in, we saw two does that were carefully working their way between a bean field and a thicket. I glassed for the often-present "trailing buck." Fifty yards behind the does, I spotted a large woody plant growing about 10 feet inside the bean field. It was about 200 yards from our location. As I focused on the odd plant and tried my best to identify it, it moved! Suddenly it raised its head, and the largest-antlered animal I have ever seen on the hoof loomed into view! I did a double take and confirmed that it really was a deer! My heart must be healthy. Otherwise I would have popped a valve right then and there!
I immediately dropped to my knees and worked toward James, who was standing 20 feet ahead of me. Emotion overcame me as I put my hands near my head to signal giant buck while simultaneously I whispered, "buck of a lifetime" under my labored breath. James clutched his binoculars and we both slowly inched to our feet for another look.
"Oh, Dad!" was all that James could muster and all I needed to hear. Translated that meant: "Yup, there he is and he's truly a monster!"
Given the distance and the fact that there was no way to use the sticks for a rest, we had no shot. No freehanded shot would do this animal justice, and we didn't even consider it. Our only hope was that the buck would continue to feed until he got to higher ground where we could get a better view and a possible shot.
But he didn't. Instead, he turned and slowly moved into the thicket, snatching an acorn for good measure before he disappeared. I had to sit down to recover. I felt as if I had just run the mile! James looked at me and said "Dad, we're losing daylight. We've got to keep moving."
"No," I said. "What if he reappears?"
"He's not coming out, Dad. Let's try to pick him up from the other side of the field."
MAKING SOMETHING HAPPEN
We jumped into a depression and slowly started working our way toward the other edge of this multi-field grocery store for whitetails. James was way ahead of me. He took on a life of his own at this point in the hunt and he seemingly cut the cord. He was on a mission! From 40 yards ahead of me, James spotted more deer, and then more deer. His hand signals said it all -- we were in deer heaven as the light quickly faded. I figured we had 10 to 12 more minutes of shooting light remaining at best. I quickly glassed the field as we changed perspective. Two young bucks were all that I could see. These small bucks had suddenly become nothing more than an impediment, an unwanted distraction! I caught up with James as he stopped to look.
Then it happened! Standing broadside 100 yards ahead of us was "the buck." How we got that close without getting busted will forever remain a mystery to me. We weren't positive that it was the same deer at the time because the light had faded to the point that making out the details of his rack against the dark background was impossible. But we could see enough to know that this was a giant whitetail.
James set up on his shooting sticks and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened! "Oops, on safety!" He set up again and the shot rang out. I followed the deer as he cantered around some cover and out of sight.
THE SHOT OF A LIFETIME
When James' eyes met mine, I knew that he was confident that he had made a good shot. Still there was enough dou
bt, and this deer was such a monarch, that we (okay, I) wanted to leave nothing to chance. Either we would recover this deer from that shot, or we missed him. It was that simple. Nothing in between and no far-fetched second chances. Our shooting light was all but gone. Against James' wishes and objections, we backed out.
The next few hours were agonizing yet beautiful. We knew we had given it our all. James had made the most responsible stalk and shot on a trophy deer that any reasonable person could have expected. We headed for home to wait it out. Then 2 1/2 hours later we returned to the spot. It was nerve-racking and I wondered how it would all unfold. It felt as if we were "destiny's darling" on this special night.
My spirit quickly dropped when we looked but could find no blood at the point of impact. However, impetuous James headed straight for the last place we had seen the buck before he disappeared.
"Dad, an antler!" he yelled. "Dad, here he is!"
What followed were the most emotion-filled few moments I've ever experienced in my life. James sat on his buck's back, lifted the buck's head and nearly hyperventilated! It was the crowning moment of our life together. His brother Tyler was quickly summoned to the scene to help celebrate. And what a celebration it was! Tyler's reaction was as good as his brother's. Even Mom was quick to congratulate James on this "buck of a life time."
If you think that a 13-year-old deer hunter couldn't appreciate what had just happened to him, then you don't know James. He's been raised around some of the most passionate deer hunters in the world. He's heard the stories; he's seen the videos. James knows -- and now he had his own story to tell about the "James Livingston buck"!
James' incredible 25-point Kansas whitetail was green-scored the next day by taxidermist Ron Ridley. The massive rack grossed 246 non-typical points and netted 238 5/8. I can only hope that the Good Lord will forgive us for our wrongs. Before we left the field that night, we made sure we said a little prayer to thank him for allowing us to harvest such a majestic animal!
(Editor's Note: Our take on James' and Jerry's Sunday hunting adventure is that the deer is a gift from heaven and a true reward for this father and son's team effort, and not any type of wrongful transgression. We feel like the Good Lord wanted things to turn out this way and we heartily congratulate both father and son! We'll let you know how the buck officially scores in an upcoming issue!)