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October 2023
Story by Jared Vanderkooi
Hunters: Ryan Vanderkooi
State: Idaho
Species: Deer - Mule

For a number of years, my 11-year-old son, Ryan, has been a hunting buddy of mine. He had been with me for several hunts but had never able to shoot. That would change this year. He had been waiting his whole life for the chance to hunt his own animal.

Because of dyslexia, Ryan struggles with reading, and I knew it would be hard for him to take hunter education. We both decided waiting until next year to hunt might be best. We intended to take the year and focus on his shooting and finishing hunter ed. That decision began to not sit well with me, and I decided it was time to take him hunting. Idaho has a passport program where a child can hunt with a mentor for one year, even if they haven’t finished hunter ed. I got his license, and we were off to find a deer. The area we chose to hunt first allows youth to shoot a doe, so I figured we had a much better chance of success knowing my son would be happy with any animal, doe or buck. Unfortunately, that night, all the deer were 100 feet into private land.

The next night, I was driving home from work and my wife called and asked if I was going to take him back out. It wasn’t my plan, but when your wife encourages you to go hunt, you go hunt.

I decided to take him to a different area where I had seen deer during archery season with the hope that we might be able to find them again. He was still allowed to kill a doe in this area. We left with no real expectations other than trying to find a doe.

Once we got to my designated spot and parked the truck, we saw some deer a mile and a half away. Looking at the map, I wasn’t sure whether they were on public or private land. Ryan decided it was worth the hike to find out. Right as we started walking, we bumped a nice 4-point at 60 yards. Unable to get the gun set up in time, the deer ran and crossed the road into another unit. This provided an opportunity to teach a lesson. It would have been very easy to shoot that deer because he had stopped just on the other side of the road 200 yards away. We talked about the laws and what would happen if we made the wrong choice and killed him. It hurts when that happens, but it became a great teaching moment.

Heads down and disheartened, we turned and began walking toward the other deer. It didn’t take long to realize they were on public land. Ryan began to get excited again. Crossing a creek and walking through a maze of willows, the stalk was on.

As we got closer, we saw a little 2-point cross over a rocky ridge. The excitement grew even more knowing there was a buck, but Ryan pointed out there were more deer below the ridge. I asked if he was OK with shooting a doe rather than risking spooking the other deer trying to get to the buck. He agreed. As we glassed, we saw a few more deer below them and behind them was another buck. His head was down in the sagebrush eating, so I had no idea how big he was, just that he had horns. We were currently 350 yards away, and I wasn’t going to let my 11-year-old shoot that far. I dropped my bag, and we crawled to about 270 yards in tall sagebrush. I got the gun set up on a tripod and glassed to see what the buck was doing. Holy cow! This buck was huge. It was a buck-of-a-lifetime, especially for an 11-year- old’s first buck.

Ryan was in a sitting position trying to get the deer in the scope. This turned out to be quite the struggle. He was having a hard time finding him in the scope. I would lean over to get the buck centered and then Ryan would bump the gun or turn it a bit. This happened over and over again. The stress was killing me, seeing this giant standing right there and not wanting to lose him. All kinds of things go through a parent’s head (none of which are legal) when you’re watching your first-time hunter struggling to shoot this caliber of a buck.

Finally, he was able to get the deer centered at 250 yards. I could hear Ryan working on the breathing skills I taught him, trying to calm himself down. I was whispering to him to take his time, stay calm, and focus on his trigger control. Later, I found out all I was doing was distracting him and making him more nervous. Once he felt steady, he fired. Miss. He was shooting my Tikka T3 .300 Win mag with a suppressor, and fortunately, the deer hardly flinched. Once again, it took him a bit to get the deer centered. He fired his second shot. Miss. To add to the stress I was feeling, I had left the rest of the bullets in my bag, which was now 20+ yards away from us, so I knew this was going to be his last chance. This time, the buck turned and walked towards us and then turned broadside. My son took the shot, and I heard the hit. The buck ran about 30 yards and lay down. Grabbing my son in a giant hug and dancing around, we celebrated his success, or so we thought.

After 10 minutes and me going to grab my bag, we started towards the buck. Right then, his head popped up. We froze. The buck darted as fast as he could, running down a draw and out of sight. I was sick. At this point, I wasn’t 100% sure he was hit, even though the buck’s previous behavior led us to believe he was. I glassed to see if he came out but never saw him. We started looking for him, going down the draw by a stream that was covered in willows. Nothing. We couldn’t find any trace of blood or even tracks. My heart sank, and at this point, you begin to go through all the what ifs and emotions that come from a failed hunt.

It was getting dark, and I knew we would have to come back the next morning and look for the deer. As we turned around and were walking up the hill, we heard a bunch of birds going crazy by the willows. I wondered if they were screaming at the deer. Ryan looked through his binoculars in that direction and saw a deer in a little opening in the willows. Excited, he wanted to rush down and shoot it again. I wasn’t sure this was the same deer. It had stepped just far enough into the willows to be out of view. Without a good view, not knowing if this was the same deer and with cows around, I wasn’t going to let my son shoot. That was a hard lesson for him. We discussed how we would just let the deer die and we would come back in the morning to recover it. Ryan was a bit upset by this, mainly because he didn’t want the deer to suffer anymore. I told him it was best. If we bumped him out, we may never find him again. I still wasn’t 100% he was even hit, so we went up to where he lay down to try and find blood. Nothing. By this time, it was dark, so I got out my blood-tracking flashlight to try and verify he was hit. Still nothing. It was a tough walk back to the truck with a lot of second guessing. Neither of us slept well.

We got up early and headed back to the spot where the buck was shot. We started where he lay down, looking for any sign of the deer. We worked our way down into the willows, expecting to see him laying dead. Again disappointment. Nothing. In the opening, there were no signs of the buck. The willows were a maze, and he could be anywhere in them. Our spirits were sinking fast. We saw a fence right next to a creek, and I knew if he was injured, he most likely wouldn’t jump it. We decided to walk the creek. As we came around a corner, there he was dead in the water! A rush of relief, joy, and elation spread over Ryan’s face. At 11, he had killed his first animal, and he was huge. Two hours later, burdened down with a heavy load of horns and meat, walking in a snowstorm, Ryan was still all smiles.

No matter what Ryan goes through for the rest of his life, this experience will always be a cherished memory with his dad.