By Travis Hogan
Kansas' No. 1 Typical By Blackpowder
Daton Hess of Clay Center, Kan., shows his state-record Typical (blackpowder) from 2004. The buck is also No. 7 in the world in its category.
Contrary to what you might think (this being Kansas), the Sept. 11 opener of the Sunflower State's 2004 (early) muzzleloader season doesn't draw a big crowd. Even those who brave the heat do it more for the sake of relaxation and scouting than with thoughts of actually shooting a deer.
Daton Hess of Clay Center, Kan., never expected to blow any smoke that day. He'd just returned from his 16-year-old daughter Kim's victorious cross-country meet in nearby Wamego. The radio announcer had said that it was 93 degrees outside.
It was hot.
Most of the fall crops were still standing tall in the fields, and leaves still clung to the trees, providing an abundance of cover for deer.
It was already 5:30 when Daton decided to spend the last of the daylight hours inside his homemade tree house. The blind is a 4x8 plywood platform about 12 feet off the ground, in the crotch of a tree - with camo walls concealing the swivel office chair he'd hoisted into it. The setup overlooks the Republican River, which borders Daton's 43 acres on three sides.
"I usually don't go hunting by myself, since I'm disabled with severe chronic back pain," he said. "This was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I really didn't think I would need any help with a deer that evening ... I just had a feeling that I should go hunting, even though it was getting late."
Daton reached the tree blind about 6:00. Looking toward the east for a while, the hunter stood up to stretch and laid his muzzleloader on the far side of the blind.
When he sat back down on his swivel seat, a splashing sound caused Daton to look eastward, and he could not believe what he saw: the buck of all bucks, trotting toward him. He quickly reached for his .50-caliber T/C Black Diamond.
"I had just enough time to swing and find an opening in the leaves as the monster continued to trot up the river. Just as the opening in the tree appeared, the buck stopped about 98 yards distant, turned sideways and looked back. This allowed time for me to swing and shoot," Daton said. "Without a chance to aim, and with a hope and a prayer, I squeezed the trigger.
"I didn't think I hit it because everything happened so quickly," Daton continued. "From the time I grabbed my gun, picked out the small opening and shot, five seconds couldn't have elapsed."
He waited awhile before going to see whether he'd hit or missed the buck. He walked up to the spot where the deer had been standing, found a fair amount of blood and slowly followed the trail. After covering only 50 feet or so, Daton jumped the buck, which took off at a dead run.
Although he'd reloaded his smokepole, the deer's escape was too fast for Daton to squeeze off a shot.
"I immediately turned around and got out of there," Daton said. "I didn't want to push it anymore."
Returning to his vehicle about 7:30, Daton drove to town to get some help. He called a friend, Mark Spellman. At 9 p.m., the two men, along with Mark's son, Cody, went back out to look for the deer. They searched the area by flashlights for four long hours, only to go home at 1 a.m. empty-handed and heads down. They decided to resume the search at dawn.
"I didn't get an ounce of sleep that night," chuckled Daton. "I really thought that after the night of searching and coming up with nothing, I might not find it."
Upon reaching the field the next morning, Daton headed for the last drop of blood they'd found, while Mark went to investigate a strange-looking log in the river.
Not long after the two split up, Mark yelled at Daton: "You'd better get over here ... NOW!"
Daton's buck was in the foot-deep river, visible from even 150 yards. Daton ran up to the deer as quickly as possible to look at what had caused him so much anxiety.
"I was one excited fellow," he said. "I think my adrenaline was pumping more when I found it than when I shot!
"I used to work as a foreman on a construction crew until my back and my doctor told me I couldn't," the 44-year-old added. "But I still find time to hunt.
"As excited as I was, I probably could have carried the deer out over my head at that point. But I knew my back would've complained - if not then, surely the next day!"
After a photograph session, the guys tied a rope around the thick antlers and then floated the buck about a half-mile downriver so they could lift it out with a front-end loader. The river, rarely more than 30 feet across, was so shallow from the lack of rain that there was never a chance that the buck would sink.
"It was the best 30-minute hunt I ever had," Daton smiled, "even with the four hours spent searching and the sleepless night. The Lord sure knows how to give you the desires of your heart!"
Hunter: Charles D. Hess
Official Score: 178 6/8""
Composite Score: 199"
Photos Courtesy of Daton Hess
-- Reprinted from the December 2006 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine