After the heartrending loss of his daughter in 2004, Michael Devaney of Dallas, Georgia, traveled to Saskatchewan and shot a B&C typical. He returned to the same stand in 2005 and shot a near-record-book non-typical.
Back in September of 2005 my story "An Unbreakable Bond" appeared in Trails & Tails. It described a very special hunting relationship that developed between my 8-year-old daughter and me in the fall of 2003.
At the time, Emaleigh was fighting a courageous battle with Wilm's tumor, a very deadly type of childhood cancer. During her treatments, she was sometimes confined to a hospital bed for many days, causing her to become quiet and withdrawn. In an effort to cheer her up, her Uncle Brad and I spent many enjoyable hours watching deer hunting videos with her. Instantly, her passion was ignited. She became enthralled with watching those "heavy hitter" bucks.
Emaleigh fantasized about her first-ever white-tailed deer hunt with me, and I made plans to make that dream a reality. She looked forward to her first target practice session and the upcoming 2004 deer season. But her dream would never be realized. In January 2004, she lost her battle with the very aggressive cancer. Needless to say, it was the lowest point in my life. For a time, deer hunting was the last thing on my mind.
Shortly after her passing, however, a series of events unfolded that made available the opportunity to go on a whitetail "trip of a lifetime." Compared to the loss of my daughter, everything else seemed insignificant, and my first reaction was to turn down the offer. But with a great deal of loving encouragement from my wife, I finally agreed to go on the hunt with friends to Saskatchewan, Canada.
As I began to acquire necessary items for the trip, something odd happened. Because of our hunting connection that grew from Emaleigh's experience in the hospital, I began to use her room as my refuge. I stored most of my gear beside her bed as a symbol of our unbreakable bond. Each time I turned to close the door, I softly whispered a reminder that her absence would not hinder us from being together on this hunting adventure that I was about to embark upon. That chance trip, with Emaleigh's spirit always by my side, led to the fulfillment of a lifelong hunting dream.
A GIFT FROM HEAVEN?
On Nov. 12, 2004, the last full day of my hunt in Saskatchewan, I was sitting in the same stand for the fourth consecutive day. Just before dawn, with the temperature a frigid 9 degrees, I restlessly waited for the sun's rays to signal first shooting light. As daylight gradually transformed my bird's-eye view, I contemplated my decision, made earlier in the week, to let several good 140- to 150-class bucks pass.
At 8:45 a.m., I perked up when several does appeared and casually fed their way into the area. At 9 a.m., I heard the distinct sound of crunching snow. I perched my Browning .30-06 out the window of the box blind I was in, just in case it was him. I stared intently in the direction of the noise. Then, my eyes widened and heart raced with excitement as the elusive prize I had chased for years slowly eased into view. It was a wide-spreading typical giant!
Michael's first trip to Saskatchewan yielded this magnificent 6x5 typical. The wide-spreading giant netted 170 1/8.
Like the majestic king that he was, he held his head high and his chest out proudly as he scanned his territory. When the buck reached the crest of the knoll, he paused, as if suddenly suspicious. Then he turned his gaze in my direction. He nervously eyed the box blind, looking for any signs of danger. I waited. He held his statue-still pose for what seemed like an eternity, and then he abruptly turned his attention toward the does.
I took advantage of the opportunity to carefully move into position to make the shot of a lifetime. The buck cautiously worked his way through a couple of saplings en route to the does. At about 60 yards, he reached an opening, paused broadside, and stopped. I steadied the crosshairs just behind his shoulder, put all my hopes and dreams on this one shot, and squeezed the trigger. At the report of the gun, he recoiled from the impact of the 180-grain bullet. As if being shoved, his massive body began to slowly sway from side to side until finally he fell to the ground. When I reached the spot where he lay, I gave thanks to God for allowing me to take such a worthy animal. I was blessed with a beautiful 11-point typical whitetail, a buck that would later make the record book. With a gross score of 176 3/8 points, he netted 170 1/8. Weighing an impressive 320 pounds, I knew this trophy whitetail would forever be a reminder of the bond Emaleigh and I shared in life and how, at least on that unforgettable day, we finally beat the odds together, for she was with me every step of the way!
2005 -- THE SAGA CONTINUES
In the early part of November 2005, I was scheduled to return for a 5 1/2-day hunt with Martin Dochylo, owner of M.D. Outfitters, and guide David Charles in Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan. Since that unbelievable 2004 hunt in Canada, my daughter's spirit has been with me on every other whitetail hunt. Now, in preparation for my 2005 trip, Emaleigh's room served as a symbolic retreat and storage room just it had the year before. With each visit to her room, I smiled and gently winked to remind her that she and I were headed back for more fun in the snow.
Accompanying me for the second year were two lifelong friends and hunting partners, Brad Carroll and Tony Hayes. I owe them both a huge debt of gratitude for years of shared hunting secrets and an appreciative hunger for the sport. Also along were two more recently made friends, Shane Harwood and John Osterland, whose presence made the experience all the more memorable.
When we touched down at the airport, the weather was unseasonably warm, with temperatures hovering in the mid-20s. But mid-November in this "holy land" of deer country always holds good promise. So on the eve of our weeklong hunt, the ground was covered with 3 inches of snow, the bucks were beginning to show interest in the does, and my anticipation was spiked to a fever pitch.
On the first morning out, I headed to the same familiar spot where I had hunted the previous year -- my "magic" stand. This elevated box blind is nestled among the white poplar trees, with its surrounding terrain pinched between a river and a crop field, creating a natural funnel and travel corridor for deer.
When we reached our destination well before daybreak, the area was cloaked with a heavy fog. I
was truly humbled as I first sat down in the same spot where my hunt had ended the previous year with the taking of a B&C typical. My mind immediately was flooded with memories of what those last few closing moments had meant. After settling in, I softly spoke words of acknowledgment to my good luck charm up above, and the hunt was on.
The action began quickly. I saw my first deer within 10 minutes of arrival, and I continued to enjoy steady deer traffic for most of the day. The time flew by, and although darkness ended the day without a buck, it was a fun and exciting first day.
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2005, the second day of the hunt, I awoke eager for another crack at a big Canadian whitetail. The temperature was a crisp 26 degrees with no wind and only a hint of fog in the air. I returned to the same elevated blind, but unlike the first day, there was literally no early action. By 1 p.m., after having seen only one small deer, I decided to take a short break.
For rejuvenation, I broke out my lunch and quickly consumed its contents while contemplating my afternoon strategy. By 3:30 p.m., it was still very quiet. To shake things up a bit, I attempted a few rattling sequences, but they rendered no results. Disappointed, I decided to finish the last of my drink, stretch my legs one final time, and prepare to wait for the best part of the day -- last shooting light.
TWO TIMES IN TWO YEARS!
At 5 p.m., I sat motionless and anxiously monitored my surroundings. The woods were blanketed with eerie silence. I suddenly noticed movement to my right. Alerted, I strained my eyes and saw a deer slide quietly through the brush. It was a doe leisurely making her way toward me. I automatically fixed my stare behind her, hoping to see a buck on her trail. But it was "no dice" as she seemingly was alone. Disappointed, I exhaled, relaxed back into the chair, propped my Browning .30-06 in front of me, and scanned the trees for further movement.
At 5:15 p.m., as I watched the doe feed about 60 yards off to my right, she lifted her head and looked, curious, behind her toward the trees. My gaze followed the direction of her head. I caught a spot of dark movement against the snow-covered backdrop. I leaned forward to get a closer look. It was a deer, and not just any deer . . . it was a buck!
With stealthy precision, he gradually materialized from the protective cover of the woods. When he finally emerged, he was walking a parallel line to me at about 120 yards. I knew that I needed to get his attention and try to turn him toward me. I quickly grabbed my grunt call, raised it to my lips, and aimed it in his direction. Then I softly forced two quick thrusts of air into the tube. The call emitted a deep, guttural, throaty sound . . . errrp! errrp!
As if interested, the buck stopped in mid-stride, turned his head in my direction, and then walked straight toward the doe.
"All right," I whispered to myself as I raised my rifle to get a better look at him through the scope. "It worked. He's coming this way."
Michael's 2005 non-typical had everything a dream buck could have: great mass, numerous points and a long drop tine. The buck grossed 192 4/8 non-typical and netted 183.
A SECOND TROPHY BUCK
Through the wonderful world of optics and magnification, I immediately saw forked tines and several kickers on the left side of his antlers. My view of the other side was still partially blocked by the patch of trees he was traversing. I impatiently followed him as he moved, gauging mass and estimating spread along the way. Both seemed amply present. Then at around 100 yards he finally cleared the row of trees, giving me a good look at the other side of his rack. My eyes widened and my mouth fell open. I stared in disbelief. He had a gnarly mess of antler on his right side, with a drop tine, to boot!
My heart began to pound so hard that I could hear and feel its rhythmic force in my ears and chest. All at once, everything in my world began to move in slow motion.
I instinctively eased the safety forward. My focus sharpened with intensity at his every step. Finding the first chance for a good shot was now paramount! The tension mounted as he continued to advance. I became numb and detached, hearing nothing around me but the hammering of my pulse. Enchanted, I watched in awe: The closer he got the better he looked. I had never even seen a non-typical in all of my years of hunting, much less a monster like this walking right toward me!
As he drew to within 20 yards of the doe, she cautiously began to ease away and retreat toward the trees. He continued his approach until he stood in the exact opening that she had occupied. When he reached that point, he stopped, quartered toward me at 60 yards, and offered a possible shot.
I moved the crosshairs from his left shoulder, across his chest, and then back to the same shoulder again. My mind raced as I debated about the best option for a clean shot. I quickly calculated the angle of the vitals, settled the crosshairs just behind the left shoulder, and sent the 180-grain bullet on its way.
The shot rang out, interrupting the tranquility of the woods. The buck's left front leg folded inward from the force of the impact. He stumbled, jumped in the air, and went down just out of sight. My mind, heart and breathing raced in unison at what felt like the speed of light. I hurriedly re-bolted another shell just in case a second shot was needed. Luckily it was not. I could hardly believe what had just happened and how quickly it all came about. I had taken two deer of a lifetime in consecutive years from the same stand!
I sat stunned for the second year in a row and once again gave thanks to the Lord above for this tremendous deer and for the experience of my second deer of a lifetime. When I finally made it to the spot where he lay, I knelt beside him and grabbed his antlers. I was overcome with surreal feelings of elation and disbelief. I was in the presence of greatness.
The extraordinary buck was a 23-point non-typical that later netted 183 points. I was now the proud owner of two giant bucks -- an incredible typical and a bizarre non-typical. When my guide, David Charles, arrived, he was so astonished that he could not contain his enthusiasm. David energetically shook my hand and shouted, "Holy smoke, two big bucks from the same stand, two years in a row! I cannot believe it! You are the luckiest guy I know."
Before this second trip, my friends had jokingly told me that there was no way I could ever top my luck from the previous year. Half-heartedly, I reminded them there was always the hope of someday shooting a non-typical or a drop-tine buck. Oddly enough, I had also relayed the same ambition to my wife by telling her of my desire to someday return home with a buck having an unusual rack. Obviously, someon
e upstairs must have been listening, because I ended up with my second "dream buck" of a lifetime -- not only a big non-typical, but one with a drop tine as well!
Now, with two great bucks under my belt, I started hearing the same comments from various people about not needing to hunt whitetails anymore because nothing is left to accomplish. The truth, however, is that I need to hunt now more than ever before, because hunting is in my blood and it's a part of my soul. Chasing big whitetails is what really makes me feel happy and alive. Regardless of past accomplishments, there is never a finish line when you are doing something you love. Anyway, hunters are only as happy as their last hunt.
Whenever I am alone in a deer stand, I can feel Emaleigh's reverberating spirit close to me through my passion for hunting. I feel honored to have taken two monster bucks and I'm grateful to know that she was there with me in spirit to experience the tagging of each one.
Emaleigh, like her mom and me, always had big dreams. But sadly, not all dreams come true, and she never got to go on that whitetail hunt with me that she dreamed about. Nor was I granted the dream that I wanted most in life -- the healing of my precious daughter's body from a ruthless disease. However, I know Emaleigh would agree that we must all continue to dream, because dreams are filled with hope, and hope is what makes life livable.
So always keep the dream alive, because who knows? At any moment, in the flash of an instant, that buck of a lifetime could walk out and turn your dream into a reality.
Emaleigh, my puddin', I'll never forget your feisty spirit, your trusting eyes, or your playful giggles. You are my love and my inspiration and I miss you fiercely. While our unbreakable bond continues, I will do my best to be as brave in life as you were. And as I promised, together, you and I will forever keep those big whitetails on the run!
Love always, Daddy.