Widow takes late husband’s advice, climbs rungs for chance at photogenic whitetail.
Unlike the dinosaurs in the “Jurassic Park” movies, unlike the great white shark in “Jaws,” and unlike the brawls between TV’s professional wrestlers (with apologies to believers), the buck whose photograph appeared on Shawn and Nikki Bechtel’s trail camera in 2011 was very real.
Husband and wife — it was she who taught him how to hunt — were instantly smitten with the deer they named Bullwinkle. Shawn had more time than his wife, and he had a slight advantage because he bowhunted from treestands. Nikki, afraid of heights, always hunted from ground blinds.
Nikki’s time afield was mostly during weekends, since her drive home from work didn’t allow any time for late-afternoon sits.
Regardless of how much time the two of them spent waiting, separately or together, Bullwinkle never once appeared while the sun was overhead. Not in 2011; not in 2012.
Shawn would not get to hunt in 2013, and Nikki lost her enthusiasm for it.
“My husband died in January of a serious and ongoing heart condition, and I nearly gave up hunting after that,” she said.
Nevertheless, she left their trail cameras in the field, and she continued to monitor them — more out of habit than interest.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. “I knew my husband wanted me to get a crack at that buck. He even urged me to use his ladder stand when he got to the point he could no longer go into the woods.
“At the time, though, I didn’t seem to have the time or the inclination to be out there alone,” Nikki added.
Seven months later, in August, Bullwinkle’s distinctive mug began reappearing on camera. Nikki says she collected maybe 50 photos of the deer from all angles.
“It was like he was taunting me,” she said.
“After looking at the pictures many times, I noticed a white, gauzy apparition in a few of the shots. It did not appear in all of the photos, but in enough to cause me to wonder.
“I believe in spirits,” she says matter-of-factly. “I believe my husband’s spirit was trying to tell me I needed to get my life back on track.
“Several years earlier, Shawn urged me to pursue my dream of becoming a taxidermist. With his encouragement, I started Woods to Wall Taxidermy,” she continued. “When Shawn’s heart problem became very serious, I wanted to quit the taxidermy business and even my job just to be with him, but he made me promise to keep going and to make my dream come true.
“I can’t forget what happened on the day of his funeral. I received a call from a hunter who wanted to know if I would do his deer mount. I was right on the verge of saying no when something inside me said Do it, girl! And I did. I accepted his deer,” Nikki said.
“If the spirit moves you, and you believe in spirits, you go where you are told to go,” she added.
After ogling all the photographs of Bullwinkle near her ground blind, and remembering how much Shawn had wanted her to try his ladder to be above the deer’s line of scent, Nikki began considering the very thing that terrified her most. She wound up buying a two-person ladder stand.
“Granted, it was only 16 feet tall, but it certainly was a start,” she said. “I had a few of our friends help me put it in place, and even climbed up one time while the guys were there to help get me back down if I panicked.
“I really never thought I would have the nerve to get up there when I was alone,” she continued.
The steady stream of photographs stopped on Oct. 19. Nikki hadn’t hunted yet, despite friends Timmy and Danny urging her to get out there.
“I awoke one Sunday morning with no thoughts of going hunting, even though I knew my friends would all be out there. As the day progressed, however, something kept after me to get myself out of the house and into the woods,” she said.
“It was early afternoon when I finally made the decision to gear up and go. I went directly to my favorite spot. I wasn’t going to climb the ladder; I was going to sit in the nearby ground blind.
“But I hesitated and remembered what Shawn had said, ‘If you want a crack at this buck, you are going to have to get up above him!’ And so I climbed, shaking, into the stand and strapped myself in,” she continued.
“So many thoughts were running through my head at the time. I had not told anyone I was going hunting, not even my parents, so if something happened, no one would have a clue to look for me. I was becoming quite nervous sitting there, since it was a whole new experience for me.
“In order to calm my nerves, I took out my cell phone and began playing Bejeweled. It seemed to relax me, and I wasn’t quite so conscious of the elevation,” she added.
Close to 4:15, Nikki heard a ruckus in the deep ravine behind her. It didn’t sound like deer or squirrels; just noise. And then it grew distant and stopped altogether.
“Maybe 20 or 30 minutes later, I glanced around and saw a huge buck underneath me,” she said. “I remembered everyone telling me, ‘Once you see the big rack, don’t stare. Look for the target, for an opening, and plan your shot.’
“I immediately grabbed my crossbow and started looking for an opening as the buck was moving away at a right-to-left angle.
“It was 38 to 40 yards away from me when it finally stepped into a clear lane and I took the quartering shot,” she continued. “It jumped big time, and then took off running. I wasn’t sure whether I hit it or not, but I kept telling myself it was a good shot.”
Turns out, she’d judged the distance correctly.
“I sat there for quite a while before I got down, too excited to worry about the height. I immediately began texting my friends to get help,” she said. “I had never shot a deer before, nor had I ever tracked one. And it was a sure bet I wouldn’t be able to drag it out on my own.
“No one was responding to my texts, so I was starting to get uncomfortable. I’m screaming in my head, Come on, SOMEONE, ANYONE, text me back. I need help!”
The noise Nikki heard in the ravine earlier was Timmy dragging out a deer he’d shot. He was too busy to check his texts.
“While I waited, I began looking for and found the arrow, which was covered in blood,” she said.
Finally, her phone buzzed with a reply from Timmy. It was a great relief to know he and Danny were coming to lend a hand.
Eventually her friends arrived in the woods and the search began in earnest. Danny found the buck about 160 yards from where she shot it. He looked at Nikki afterward and stated quite bluntly, “You shot him. It’s him alright. It’s him!”
“What do you mean, it’s him?” she asked.
“You shot him. It’s Bullwinkle, and you just shot him,” he replied.
“I started screaming and ran over and kissed Danny, and then I ran over and kissed Timmy. I looked at both and then told them that Shawn brought him to me. My angel was right there beside me in that stand.
“Then I ran over and jumped on my deer. It was a very, very emotional moment for me as tears came to my eyes.
“I called home after that. I had to tell my dad I had taken Bullwinkle. I don’t think he believed me until my excitement boiled over, and then he was as excited as I was.”
Hunter: Nikki Gasbarre-Bechtel
BTR Score: 217 6/8”
– Photo Courtesy Nikki Gasbarre-Bechtel
This article was published in the October 2014 edition of Rack Magazine. Subscribe today to have Rack Magazine delivered to your home. Read Recent RACK Articles:
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