Youthful skill prevails for three young Kentuckians who bagged their deer of a lifetime at an early age. Here are their amazing stories!
By Bill Cooper
Hunting, especially deer hunting, is a much-anticipated event each fall for many families across the Commonwealth. Unlike 40 to 50 years ago when deer were scarce and hunting them was a relatively new sport, families now look forward to the annual event as a traditional social function that involves nearly all members of the household, young and old.
A good example is the Boyd Esterley family from near Scottsville in Allen County. Boyd began deer hunting as a youngster and over the last few years has helped both of his sons, Phillip, 16, and Jonathon, 13, learn how to shoot and hunt, too.
During this period of time, Boyd's daughter, Natasha, watched the learning process with great interest, content at the time to be an onlooker. However, after turning 10 early in 2002, she announced her desire to try deer hunting along with her brothers that following fall.
Both Boyd and his wife, Leanna, encouraged their daughter's interest and in late summer she attended a mandatory hunter education course given by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). After completing the course, Boyd began teaching Natasha how to shoot; his goal was having her prepared for the KDFWR's special youth firearms season, set for the third weekend in October.
"I knew Natasha would need to do a great deal of practice shooting," Boyd noted. "And because of her age, I was a little concerned that the noise and recoil of even a light caliber deer rifle might be a little discouraging. I finally decided to use a .22-caliber rifle that has the same action and was equipped with a similar scope as the gun she would later use when hunting."
Most of Natasha's tutoring and practice shooting took place in the yard outside her home. Boyd would move the targets and increase the shooting distances as she became more and more proficient with the rifle.
This awesome buck, taken during the special youth firearms season by Natasha Esterley, grossed 179 4/8 before netting 168 0/8. Photo courtesy of Natasha Esterley
"The last couple of weeks prior to the two-day youth hunt, she practiced shooting almost every day after school," Leanna said. "Natasha is quite headstrong and when she decides to do something, she is determined to see it through. But, naturally, there was also some sibling rivalry involved; she wanted to prove to her brothers that she could do what they had done."
Early on opening morning of the youth hunt, Boyd drove Natasha to a tract of land that he and a friend, Robert Myers, lease in Warren County. They would hunt from a ground blind positioned at the edge of a large field, covered in high weeds and grass and surrounded by woods. In spite of being excited about the hunt, Natasha told her dad that she didn't want to shoot just any buck, she wanted to wait for one that was at least as big as those her brothers had taken.
"Robert had spotted a pretty nice 10-pointer in the field where we were going to hunt and was hoping to get a shot at the buck during the November gun season," Boyd said "When I told him that was where I was taking Natasha, he commented that with his luck, she'd probably shoot the deer he had seen."
Two small bucks were all that appeared that morning and, true to her word, Natasha passed up both. Shortly before noon, they headed home for a quick lunch.
Leanna decided to join Boyd and her daughter for the afternoon hunt, and by 3 p.m., they were all situated in the blind. The October weather was hardly ideal, with dark overcast skies, a light drizzle falling and patches of ground fog hanging over the field.
During the first couple of hours a doe and another small buck appeared, but Natasha was not interested in taking a shot. Boyd quietly mentioned that shooting was her option, but reminded her there was no guarantee that a larger buck would appear.
"The fog and rain made visibility terrible," Leanna said. "At times, the fog would roll in and we couldn't see anything at all for several minutes. I had brought along a video camera and if a deer appeared, I would watch it through the telephoto lens. At one point, I spotted a distant deer through the fog and as I continued watching, I managed to get a glimpse or two of antlers. I pointed the deer out to Boyd and he picked up Natasha's rifle and looked at it through the scope."
"The buck was about 125 yards away and, to be honest, looking through the fog, about all I could determine was that the deer appeared to have a decent rack. I couldn't count points or see much more than that," Boyd related. "I handed the rifle back to Natasha and told her it was the best buck we'd seen."
The youngster looked through the scope, and then glanced at her dad.
"Should I shoot?" she asked.
Boyd nodded, "Shoot the deer, 'Tasha."
At the shot, the most important happening was that the buck dropped in its tracks. Additionally, however, Natasha had a look of total shock, more so, at that particular moment, because of the report and recoil of the 6mm rifle, rather than having shot the deer. However, that initial surprise was short-lived and, by all accounts, rather mild, compared to the shock that awaited the trio across the foggy field.
Words seem inadequate to describe the scene as the Esterleys walked to within sight of the biggest whitetail they had ever seen. Suffice it to say, their feelings ran the emotional gamut, from laughter to tears, and it was a moment none of them will ever forget.
"It was totally unbelievable," Leanna said. "We had no clue the buck was that big because we could barely see it through the fog. There are still times when the whole experience seems like a dream."
By every measure, Natasha's great buck is an exceptional whitetail. A field-dressed weight of 218 pounds pushes the deer's live weight to near the 280-pound mark. And, the buck's huge antlers are, proportionally, just as impressive as the deer's size.
However, it is the rack's outstanding tine length that gives the giant deer a truly remarkable appearance. Consider, for example, that both brow tines (G-1s) tape 10 inches, followed by paired foot-long G-2s and G-3s that measure 10 6/8 and 11 inches. Even the G-4 tines tape 8 2/8 and 7 5/8 inches.
Strictly from an official scoring standpoint, the rack's relatively short main beams of 22 6/8 and 20 2/8 inches are its only weakness.
The shortest of these may have been injured during the latter stages of the antler growing cycle. Even so, the buck grosses a whopping total of 179 4/8. After asymmetry deductions, plus one abnormal point, the final typical Boone and Crockett (B&C) score is 168 0/8, which qualifies the deer for B&C's Awards record book. Within Warren County, it is the second-biggest typical whitetail ever recorded.
As can be imagined, after Natasha took her huge buck, the Easterly home was a beehive of activity, with friends and relatives stopping by to see the big deer and to offer congratulations. When Boyd called Robert to tell him the story, his opening remark was, "Robert, I've got some good news. Natasha didn't kill the buck you saw on the property.
"He was just as amazed as the rest of us," Boyd noted. "The really surprising thing is that no one had previously ever sighted a deer in the size class of the buck Natasha shot. It was certainly an unbelievable experience, but that's what makes deer hunting exciting."
THE MORGAN LANHAM BUCK Sometimes the catalyst that sparks a youngster's interest in hunting comes from outside the family. Fellow church member, Don Kemp, provided the spark for Morgan Lanham.
"I suppose Morgan knew that I liked to hunt because I talked about it a good bit with other church members," Kemp explained. "At any rate, he approached me one day and asked if I would take him hunting. I was more than happy to oblige, and that fall, when he was only 10, he took his first deer."
Their hunting camaraderie continued each succeeding hunting season afterward, with Morgan taking a deer every year. Last season, when Morgan was 14, Kemp arranged for them to hunt on a nearby Shelby County farm.
"Prior to the season, Morgan and I rebuilt an old wooden platform stand on the property," Kemp said. "The stand was elevated about 12 feet above the ground and big enough to accommodate both of us."
Warm weather and severe thunderstorms on opening weekend postponed the hunters' initial plans; however, by the following afternoon the weather had cleared and they climbed into position on the platform. Shortly after getting situated, a young doe passed in front of the stand.
"The doe kept walking down the hill and away from our location, but we both continued to watch her," Kemp said. "However, when I glanced back in the other direction, I saw a much bigger doe appear at the crest of the hill, about 70 yards away."
The doe, which seemed to be in no hurry, slowly moved in the hunters' direction, eventually stopping at the edge of an open food strip. As Kemp and Morgan looked on, a huge set of antlers suddenly materialized directly behind the doe.
"The buck finally stopped about 50 yards away, facing us," Kemp related. "I knew that wasn't exactly the best angle for a shot, but I didn't want to risk waiting and have something happen that might cost Morgan the chance at such a big deer. I whispered for him to shoot the white spot at the base of the buck's neck."
Almost at the same moment, the buck abruptly turned its head to the side, momentarily covering up the target area. Kemp could tell from Morgan's accelerated breathing that the young hunter was excited. Nevertheless, he patiently waited for his opportunity.
Seconds seemed to pass like minutes, but finally the buck swung its head back to the front. Almost instantly, Morgan's finger twitched on the trigger and the rifle's muzzle blast shattered the afternoon stillness. For a moment, the buck stood motionless, then staggered slightly and collapsed.
It was impossible to tell whose smile was bigger as both man and boy let out yells as they high-fived on the platform. Morgan then quickly climbed to the ground and hurried over to examine the buck's massive antlers.
"We had no idea a buck of that size was in the area," Kemp said. "But one of the great things about deer hunting is that it is always unpredictable. Considering the buck's size and Morgan's age, he really kept his cool having to wait for the right shot. I'm really proud of him."
Although the buck has not been officially measured after the required 60-day drying period, Joe Bland, an official B&C measurer, taped the rack shortly after it was taken and calculated a "green" score of 161 2/8 B&C. Should the final official score remain above 160, the buck will qualify for B&C's Awards record book.
A sample of the rack's impressive measurements includes main beams of 26 7/8 and 25 6/8 inches, an antler spread of 25 inches outside, 21 2/8 inches inside and brow tines that exceed 7 inches.
THE PATRICK HARDESTY BUCK Whitetail hunting with a bow and arrow is a bit more challenging; however, it is a sport that many young hunters across the state find appealing. For example, Patrick Hardesty of Lebanon Junction grew up in a family-oriented hunting environment and began practicing with a bow at an early age.
During the 2001 season, while only 13, Patrick was hunting with his dad on a private tract of land in Jefferson County. After climbing into position for an afternoon hunt, Patrick decided his location was not quite right. Despite the relatively short amount of hunting time remaining, he relocated his stand to another tree.
Not long after getting settled in his stand, the hunter spotted two small bucks and one larger buck with massive beams, but rather short tines. Minutes later, a doe trotted into view with another very impressive big-antlered buck hot on her trail.
Quickly moving into shooting position, the young bowhunter watched the deer gradually approach his position. At 30 yards, the buck presented an open shot opportunity and Patrick's arrow found its mark.
The buck's basic 10-point rack included 23-inch beams and, from an appearance standpoint, exhibits great height due to tremendous tine length. In addition to 6 1/2- and 7-inch brow tines, the matching G-2s and G-3s all taped over 10 inches. The inside spread measurement was 16 1/8 inches.
After grossing 159 4/8, significant deductions, primarily from two abnormal points, reduced the final typical Pope and Young (P&Y) score to 144 2/8. Actually, Patrick's buck could have been entered with P&Y in the typical category or as a non-typical at 166 4/8.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish