Just Like Dad
My Lucky Charm
Like many Pennsylvania hunters, I began hunting at the age of twelve. For the next eighteen years, I hunted hard without much success. The highlight of those eighteen years was a 123 6/8 inch eight-point buck that I shot in the 2003 Pennsylvania Archery Season.
My luck changed in 2004 when my son, Samuel Hunter Kightlinger, was born. Since his birth, I have killed sixteen Pennsylvania bucks in eighteen years and also filled multiple buck tags in Ohio, New York, and Kentucky. At one point, I harvested twelve bucks in consecutive Pennsylvania seasons.
Samuel started hunting with me when he was three and showed interest immediately. When I went into the woods, Samuel was my shadow. He began to ask questions and soak in the information I passed along. Samuel couldn't wait to sit in a treestand with his father. Thanks to the PA Mentor Program, he didn't have to wait long.
Samuel killed his first whitetail deer when he was seven. A mature doe dropped in her tracks after a well-placed shot from his Mossberg 20-gauge slug gun. Less than a month later, he killed a spike with my Remington .243 during the Pennsylvania gun season. I was astonished that he harvested two deer in his first year of hunting.
In 2012, when Samuel was eight, I took him to Ohio for the junior gun season. Two hours into our morning hunt, I spotted a tall-tined eight-point walking toward our stand. Samuel began to shake so badly that the entire treestand was moving. After he calmed down and focused on making a good shot, he slowly pulled the trigger. I heard the 20-gauge slug hit the buck, and I watched as he fell to the ground. For the second year in a row, Samuel harvested a whitetail deer.
At age nine, Samuel decided he wanted to archery hunt. I bought him a youth compound bow, and he practiced daily. Samuel hunted the entire archery season with his compound but had yet to be successful. Not harvesting a deer didn't bother him at all. He enjoyed shooting his bow and hunting with his dad.
The following year, Samuel was successful on our first archery hunt. Samuel and I were in a buddy stand in a pine thicket. I saw a deer walking through the tall weeds with his head down. As the deer closed the distance, I could see it had antlers. Samuel waited patiently for the buck to turn broadside before drawing his bow. I was speechless at how well he controlled his buck fever and made a perfect shot. We watched the six-point crash after running fifty yards.
Samuel's success soon dried up! No matter what we did, he struggled to kill a deer. Three seasons passed without him filling a tag. Those three seasons were tough for him, but it made him more determined to harvest another deer.
The Pennsylvania Streak Begins
In 2017, when Samuel was 13, we hunted in Butler County at my friend's farm on the first day of Pennsylvania's gun season. Samuel passed up three small bucks before noon. When I went to sit with him for the afternoon hunt, I asked why he had passed up three bucks. He told me, "I am waiting for a monster! Look at the deer sign around me. There has to be a monster buck in here." We sat together and waited patiently for any movement. As the sun set, we watched a buck walk up the main trail. Samuel raised his Savage 308 and made a perfect high-shoulder shot. The deer dropped, and we began to celebrate. The ten-point scored 125 4/8 inches.
During the summer of 2018, Samuel practiced shooting his crossbow daily. He was excited for the archery season to start. We were busy with soccer most evenings, so there were few evenings to hunt. Samuel and I were finally able to hunt on Columbus Day. I remember the day was hot, and the temperature was nearly ninety degrees. Around 4:30 pm, Samuel and I headed to our stand overlooking a standing bean field. We sat in the treestand and watched multiple deer feed on the beans. Out of nowhere, an eight-point buck appeared. Samuel carefully aimed his Barnett crossbow and put a bolt through the deer's vitals.
Samuel's 2019 season was over before the middle of October. I made a mock scrape on our property and placed a SpyPoint Cellular camera near it. Every day, the camera would send me countless pictures of bucks hitting the scrape. Samuel and I woke up early Saturday morning and hunted the stand near the mock scrape. At 8:30 am, a seven-point visited the mock scrape. Samuel steadied his crossbow, and I watched the bolt pass through the buck. We watched the deer run twenty-five yards and crash.
Early in 2020, a unique buck showed up on our property. After looking at trail camera photos of the deer, Samuel named him Funky! The name was fitting as the deer had numerous non-typical points. Samuel only wanted to hunt that buck and passed on numerous bucks during the archery season. He sat the entire first day of the Pennsylvania rifle season, hoping to see Funky, but the deer never showed. Samuel decided to sit in my treestand on the second morning of rifle season. The first deer he saw was Funky! I heard one shot from his Savage 308 and knew Funky was down. Samuel had just killed his fourth buck in four seasons.
Busy is the only word to describe the 2021 hunting season. I was coaching Samuel's high school soccer team, and we played until late October. Samuel only got to archery hunt a few times and didn't see any bucks. He only saw antlerless deer during the first three days of the Pennsylvania rifle season, but he was confident in his chances of shooting a buck. One evening, after school, Samuel went up to our property and climbed into his stand. Five minutes after getting set up, two does appeared. Movement behind the does caught Samuel's attention, and he could see antlers. The buck was on Samuel's right side, so he had to shoot left-handed. Taking careful aim, Samuel slowly pulled the trigger. His shot was perfect, and his fifth buck in five seasons was on the ground.
The 2022 hunting season was the first time Samuel had to purchase an adult hunting license. Because of the adult license, he would have to follow the antler restrictions for our WMU. We live in a Wildlife Management Unit that requires a deer to have four points on one side.
Samuel was nervous about the antler restrictions but was more focused on this being his last archery season for a few years. He knew that next year would be tough for him to archery hunt while attending college.
Samuel and I hunted our property on the first day of archery. He saw eight does and two small bucks. The season was off to a great start, and I had numerous eight and nine-point bucks on trail camera. On October 8th, I was fortunate to shoot a beautiful eight-point buck. Samuel and my daughter Abby helped me drag the deer out of the woods. Since my buck tag was filled, Samuel asked if he could sit in my treestand. I told him that he could sit wherever he wanted.
On the evening of October 15th, Samuel headed to my treestand. I decided to hunt a different property in hopes of filling one of my doe tags. Samuel and I exchanged multiple text messages. He informed me that three does were feeding in the clover, and two shooter bucks were sparring just out of his crossbow range. While sitting in my stand, I said a quick prayer that Samuel would have a chance at a shooter.
For forty-five minutes, I waited for another text. Finally, my phone vibrated, and I looked at the message. Samuel's text said, "I need help dragging my buck!" My heart raced as I thanked God for his answered prayers. I packed up my gear and headed home to meet Samuel.
Samuel was waiting for me when I pulled into the driveway. He was confident the deer went down in the overgrown clover field. Abby was already changed and ready to help us track the buck. We all piled into my car and drove to the property.
We walked to my stand, and Samuel showed me where the deer was standing when he shot. The buck had been working a mock scrape I put near my treestand. Abby followed the blood trail from the Thorn Rift 2.2 broadhead. After going fifty yards, I spotted the buck in the tall grass. Abby gave Samuel a huge hug! Samuel then turned and gave me a long embrace. My heart palpitated with excitement as my son squeezed me tight. He whispered, "This is my sixth buck in six years!" I laughed out loud, and he let me go from the hug.
Samuel and Abby dragged the deer back to my car. Once we were home, Samuel and I started skinning his buck. I purposely took my time soaking in every minute with my son. Together, we quartered the deer and put him on ice. As I cleaned up the last items from skinning the buck, Samuel went inside to shower. I stood in the darkness and looked up at the stars in the sky. Tears filled my eyes as I remembered each hunt Samuel and I had experienced. A mix of emotions flooded my soul with joy and sadness. I was delighted that Samuel kept his streak alive, yet saddened at the thought Samuel might not be able to hunt with me next year.
I went into the house and snuck into the bathroom to shower. I didn't want to spoil the mood by being sad. After a refreshing shower, I went to Samuel's room to see what he was doing. He was getting ready for bed, so I went into his room to say goodnight. The blue LED lights in his room made his whitetail deer mounts look alive. As Samuel sat on his bed, he looked at me and said, "Thank you, Dad, for giving me some of the most amazing memories!" I gave him a wink and said, "You're welcome!" I closed the door and headed to my room to lie down.
Laying in the darkness of my room, I prayed and thanked God for all the special moments with my son. The words of my prayer rolled off my lips, and my heavy heart felt light and warm. I finished my prayer of thanks and drifted off to a peaceful sleep. My son was just like his dad!
Published in the June 2023 PA Game News Magazine.