Prairie State 'Lucky Charm' trophy

Prairie State 'Lucky Charm' trophy

A 12-year-old huntress bagged a buck of a lifetime last season while hunting in Montgomery County. Here's her story. (December 2009)

Haley Knight has a track record in the timber that any deer hunter would envy. Two shots. Two deer. And not just any deer, mind you. At age 13 Knight already has a 181-inch buck of a lifetime hanging on the wall. She shot that 18-point non-typical Montgomery County bruiser just moments into opening day of the 2008 shotgun season.

Haley Knight poses with the 18-point non-typical that she harvested on opening day of the 2008 shotgun season. Her trophy deer nets a fine 181 0/8 Boone and Crockett points.

Photo by B.J. Beaman.

Hunting in a buddy stand with her grandfather, B.J. Beaman of Granite City, Knight spotted the big buck first. She then watched the 18-pointer for five minutes as it walked toward the stand along with a doe.

For some hunters, all that waiting would have been hard to handle. Buck fever might have set in. Nerves might have put the shakes into normally steady hands. Not so for Knight.

"I was just like, 'I can do this, I'm all good,' " Knight recalls.

She was correct.

"First a doe came in and my grandpa shot her. The buck went over, sniffed her and walked back along the same trail and just stood right in front of the deer stand. So I shot it," Knight said. "It ran about 5 yards and fell down. I guess it was a perfect shot."

No wonder the Roxana resident is taking up bowhunting. Gun hunting has obviously not been much of a challenge for the eighth grader, who was 12 when she shot her 18-pointer.

Much of the credit for that goes to her father, Chad Knight. While luck is a factor when any young hunter bags a big deer, preparation is also important. Haley spends plenty of time talking and practicing hunting with her father, whose home in Panama is decorated with mounted deer, fish and other outdoor trophies. For instance, she has approached bow­hunting with the same intensity she showed before her first gun season. All spring and summer, Haley shot a Parker compound bow at 3-D targets in the yard and at an archery range in Highland.

"We got her sighted-in at 30 yards, and she's dead on with three arrows," Knight said. "And she's pulling 50 pounds, so she's really doing pretty good."

Knight took the same approach to his daughter's training before her first hunt in 2007. "I only get Haley every other weekend, so every other weekend, we went out practicing shooting," said Knight, who provided his daughter with a youth model Mossberg 20-gauge shotgun. "She got to where just by using iron sights she could hit the bull's-eye at 100 yards. I couldn't believe it."

Practice like that is invaluable for youngsters. And preparation is vital even though it's easier than ever for kids to hunt.

For years in Illinois, any youngster or newcomer to hunting born on or after Jan. 1, 1980, had to pass a hunter safety certification course to buy a regular hunting license. That changed in 2006 when Illinois created an apprentice hunting license, which allows youngsters ages 10 to 17 to hunt with a parent, grandparent or guardian who has a valid hunting license. Individuals 18 and older can also buy apprentice licenses, which are available through vendors and are valid for only one year.

Some youngsters are taking advantage of that new rule. Many others rely on the tried-and-true method of attending a safety course first. Classes consist of a minimum of 10 hours of instruction on hunter responsibility, wildlife conservation, firearms, field safety, wildlife management, first aid, archery and state regulations. The class culminates in a written examination.

Haley aced the exam because the information was very familiar.

"When I went to that class it was simple. I already knew everything because my dad is a big hunter and taught me all that stuff," Haley said.

The payoff for time in the classroom and on the shooting range came last season. For a variety of reasons, Haley did not practice shooting heading into gun season. Yet, her only shot in 2008 yielded a basic 10-pointer with an inside spread of 20 inches. Her big buck's rack contained eight abnormal sticker points and netted 181 1/8 inches.

Shooting a deer that large was a surprise for Haley and her grandfather. But seeing such a trophy was not completely expected. They were hunting on property belonging to a friend of Beaman's who has several sizable racks hanging on his walls.

"So we kind of knew there were big bucks there, but we never knew there was this huge one," Haley said.

Then, too, Montgomery County remains an under-appreciated sleeper deer-hunting county. You'll never hear the south-central Illinois county mentioned in the same breath as Pike, Adams, Brown, Fulton, Knox or Peoria counties. But as in many Illinois counties, there is ample deer habitat in Montgomery County. Evidently, there are also numerous places for big bucks to develop.

Last year, hunters shot 2,125 deer in Montgomery County. That's in the middle third of the state for overall harvest. Yet the county ranks in the top 15 for whitetails registered in the Big Buck Recognition Program run by the state's Department of Natural Resources.

What's more, in the past two seasons, Montgomery has produced some impressive trophies. In 2007, while hunting on public ground, Litchfield resident Greg Wilson shot a 21-point Montgomery County buck that netted 222 5/8 inches. Wilson's deer grossed 230 inches and was best of show for gun entries at the 2009 Illinois Deer & Turkey Classic.

Haley's buck wasn't in that same class and did not earn honors at the 2009 Deer Classic. But hers was very possibly the highest-scoring buck entered in the Classic by a female or by a hunter under the age of 13.

Plenty of thanks for that goes to Beaman, 61. Typically, Knight has taken his daughter hunting, as he did in 2007 when she shot a button buck in Bond County on opening morning. But Beaman stepped up last November when Knight was unable to take his daughter out.

"She said she wanted to go with grandpa because he kills bigger deer," Beaman said. "I told her, 'Don't go out expecting to kill a monster because you're probably not going to see one. You'll be lucky to see a 6-pointer or an 8-pointer.' "

No matter what size the buck, Beaman promised Haley the f

irst shot.

"He always said that I'm getting the biggest one," Haley said. "And he remembered his word."

As a chilly opening morning dawned, Haley and Beaman were side by side in a buddy tree stand. Though she's not usually an early riser, Haley said that changes in the fall. "I'm always up early when it's deer season."

Moments into the morning, Beaman spotted a buck out of shooting range. While he watched, Haley turned to grab for a thermos of hot chocolate. That's when she saw a big buck walking toward the stand. Haley hoped that the deer would come her way.

Sure enough, over the next five minutes the buck kept moving closer while following a doe. When the doe came into range, Beaman dropped her with one shot, though he briefly pondered taking a shot at the buck instead. "Yeah, I did," Beaman said. "I normally just kill does or small bucks for the meat. I'm not a trophy hunter or anything. But this was the biggest buck I'd ever seen."

Following Beaman's shot, Lady Luck smiled on Haley. Instead of running off into the woods after the shotgun blast, the buck stayed close. The 18-pointer walked over to the fallen doe, sniffed her and then walked back toward Haley. When he got to within 15 yards, she dropped him in his tracks with a shot behind the shoulder.

After fewer than 15 minutes of hunting, she had already taken a buck of her lifetime.

"It was really exciting because it was so big," Haley said. "I was jumping up and down and grandpa said, 'Sit down, you're going to scare it.' "

"Actually, I was worried she was going to knock me out of the stand," Beaman said. "She was jumping around and high-fiving me."

Instead of scaring the deer or knocking her grandfather silly, Haley kept on celebrating. The deer never moved and she wound up with bragging rights over all other seventh-graders in the area.

"All the guys I know said they thought it was awesome," Haley said. "And Grandpa was really proud of me and got pretty excited."

What Haley proves, though, is that with preparation and a little luck, even youngsters can score big during the Illinois deer season.

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