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The Great Escape

By Mike Handley

Lee Stanek
Lee Stanek thought a freak coughing fit would take him out of the hunt. He needn’t have worried.

Driving 1,200 miles through five states isn’t so bad when the destination is a long-anticipated hunt during the peak of the rut. The return trip, however, can be grueling.

You can’t click the muddy heels of your camo boots together and wake up back home in Pennsylvania.

But take it from Lee and Bryon Stanek of Hastings, Pa.: The pain and boredom are considerably less when there are a couple of antlered souvenirs and more than 400 pounds of venison in the back of your rental truck.

It wasn’t the first time. The 2005 trip was the Staneks’ third to hunt with Tim Puhalla in Pawnee County, Neb.

Lee booked the initial hunt with Tim’s Wild Things Outfitting immediately after reading a story in this magazine. While he and Bryon were in the same tree, the 12-year-old arrowed his first deer. The next season, it was Lee’s buck that got a free ride back to Pennsylvania.

Last fall, both father and son stuck record-book bucks — very different 11-pointers — a couple of days apart. Their smiles could’ve been seen under a new moon.

Bryon, a ninth-grader at the same high school where his father teaches English, was the first to draw blood — two days into the weeklong hunt.

Bryon and Lee Stanek
Bryon and Lee Stanek discuss their bucks’ BTR scoresheets on the final night of their weeklong bowhunt in Nebraska.

Tuesday, Nov. 8, was a milestone even without Bryon’s having shot a deer. That was the first time that the kid had hunted more than 100 yards away from his dad. There would be no radio contact between the two. He was literally on his own.

After twice declining the invitation to hunt that stand, which was several miles away from where Lee would be hunting, Bryon ultimately acquiesced. It was easier convincing him to try fried “beef tenders” at the little tavern in Filley, Neb., when he was a lad of 12.

Todd Albers, the man who owns much of the land Tim Puhalla hunts, drove Bryon to the creek bottom stand around 2 p.m. that day. They’d spent much of the midmorning searching for a buck another hunter shot.

The platform was about 15 feet high in a narrow section of woods flanking a deep-sided creek. To his right was a large picked cornfield. A pasture lay to the left. Altogether, the place was a zoo of activity — myriad bushytails and whitetails.

The first deer Bryon saw was a big buck, feeding out in the corn stubble. The teen tried grunting, but the deer paid no attention.

Not long afterward, a forkhorn walked down the creek, scaled the bank and entered the same cornfield, where it began harassing some does.

That’s when Tim tried to check in with Bryon via two-way radio, usually a welcomed break for the 15-year-old. He and his dad do it often whenever they’re hunting together. But this time, the kid couldn’t talk. He whispered that he was okay, and that he’d see Tim at dark.

Bryon Stanek
Bryon Stanek poses with the unusual 11-pointer that made the mistake of walking into range of the kid’s well-practiced bow.

The third buck he saw was chasing a doe down the creek about 5 p.m. As soon as it scaled the bank a mere 10 yards from Bryon’s tree, an arrow stole its breath. The wide-eyed hunter watched the deer dash about 10 more yards before toppling back down the embankment. When it hit the creek bed, it never rose again.

Bryon’s eyes might’ve never left the fallen buck, except that two or three more bucks chased does within and outside of the hardwood funnel.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “That has to be my best-ever day in the woods. All those bucks ... and every one of them was grunting.”

Now Bryon has a second tattered photo of a dead deer in his wallet (to show friends at school) and a second mount for his bedroom - not bad for a student who keeps a full schedule. He’s also involved in football, basketball, baseball and running track. And on top of all that, he has to bring home all As and Bs to be able to accompany his dad on the yearly excursion.

He practices shooting his bow every day as well.

Bryon’s deer wore an unusual rack. At first glance, most people looking for a book-class deer would’ve allowed it to walk. Yet there are more than enough inches of antler to secure its place in the BTR as an Irregular.

It’s a mainframe 3x4 with two irregular points on each side — making it an 11-pointer. Its most outstanding features are 25-plus-inch main beams and 5-inch bases, which account for half the deer’s BTR score of 119 5/8.

Lee’s date with destiny came two days later.

Thursday was the coldest day of the week. Lee, who was eager to see new ground, struck out for a stand he’d never hunted. It was already breaking day when he scaled the tree-steps and settled onto the platform about 12 feet high.

“That sounds low, but deer in Nebraska don’t look up,” he grins.

Soon after he’d pulled up his bow, Lee heard the sounds of deer afoot.

He saw a monstrous buck at 40 yards, its tall white rack gleaming in the half-light. He twice managed to stop it by grunting, but the deer was far more interested in cruising the bedding area for does than investigating another buck.

About 8:30, Lee had a coughing attack. It wasn’t a cough that simply escapes after a valiant red-faced effort at stifling it. It was a full-fledged, can’t-stop attack.

“It was awful. I had my head in my jacket and then in my backpack, trying my best to muffle it,” Lee said. “I really thought my hunt was over at that point.”

Ten minutes later, however, Lee’s red-rimmed, watery eyes locked onto a trio of does entering the nearby cedars. And from within the evergreen thicket, he heard the granddaddy of all grunts.

“It’s so quiet there,” he adds. “Sounds really go a long way.”

Almost immediately, the does filed out of the cedars - followed by a gorgeous buck. At least one of the does saw Lee draw his bow, but the buck a mere 8 yards away was clueless until an arrow smacked it. Afterward, it crashed back into the thicket.

Lee knew he’d connected with the best buck he’d ever seen on the hoof — far bigger than the dozen or so he’d arrowed up to that point. And he was reasonably certain that it had died within a stone’s throw. He sat down to catch his breath.

“If there hadn’t been a seat and a safety belt, I’d have fallen out of the tree,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe at first, and my legs were shaking.

Subscribe Today!“My wife, Holly, sometimes watches hunting videos with me,” he continued.

“She’s always making fun of the way guys act whenever they shoot a deer ... the way they can barely talk ... Well, now she knows it’s genuine. I had a hard time getting the words out when I called to tell her about it.”

His buck was a mainframe 5x5 — typical except for a nearly 7-inch irregular point on the left side that throws it into the BTR’s semi-irregular category. It tallied 122 6/8 inches without the benefit of a 16 6/8-inch inside spread.

Lee has hunted half a dozen states in addition to Pennsylvania. With his wife’s blessing, he tries to take at least one trip a year.

“She knows how much I love it,” he said. “She also knows this is my escape from stress. In addition, it’s a great way to spend time with my son.”

Their taxidermist agrees wholeheartedly!

-- Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine

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