As the story unfolded that mid-December morning, the day a crazed gunman murdered teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, professional walleye angler Tommy Skarlis felt punched in the gut. Though his two boys, Jake aged eight and Nick aged six, were safe at their elementary school in Iowa, Tommy felt this tragedy rock his own world. Empathy runs deep with grief for those involved. Instantly his heart ached as he processed the news: That could have been my school, could have been my kids. Skarlis, a passionate outdoorsman and gregarious champion in the sportfishing world, called ahead to the school: “My wife and I are picking up the boys.”
“We had to get our kids home with us,” Tommy said as he looked back on the desperation felt that morning, his heart still tender from the havoc caused by a deranged, mentally unstable young man. “I needed the boys, and I didn’t know what they were hearing or what they were feeling, but I figured they might need us, too.”
Jake, packing up his backpack at school, saw his dad approaching down the hall.
“You’re taking me hunting, aren’t you, Dad?” Jake smiled as his dad met him by his locker. Tommy smiled back. He knew that was exactly what they needed to do. The winter day was mild, and father and son had been practicing and preparing for deer season. Not just months of preparations, either. At the young age of eight—already years of practice.
Iowa has a youth hunting tag valid for every season. Not a party-hunting tag, it resides with the youngster so they can be afield and prepared for each season’s opportunities. Tommy had Jake practice, with close supervision, on a .22 rifle. He practiced shouldering and looking through the scope. Young Jake was methodical, had a great trigger pull, and was an excellent marksman. He was ready.
For a hunt, though, Jake would need a little more stopping power. Tommy bought a youth-edition muzzleloader, the type with a changeable stock to refit as your kid grows. Instead of three pellets of powder, they would use just one, reducing the kick by two-thirds.
The previous season Jake had harvested a doe. All winter the photo hung on the bulletin board at the sport shop. Everyone in the rural Iowa town was excited for a seven-year-old’s first deer.
This year Jake had decided he wanted a buck, bloodlust flowing even at eight. Spike or trophy–any buck would do, according to Jake. The father-son pair had been out a few times previously. No shot for Jake within their designated range of 100 yards.
Through trail cam photos, Tommy had identified a young eight-point buck that he named Nate. It was short for Donate. Tommy hoped Jake would be able to add his contribution to the family’s larder. After settling into the blind, chatting quietly—talking about the news and plenty of other things, too—some does showed up, but a good 400 yards away. They watched and waited for Nate. The does left.
“Can I pray?” Jake asked. You can imagine Tommy’s response.
“Sure, buddy, you can pray about anything.”
“I’m gonna pray for a nice buck.”
“Okay. Doesn’t mean you’re going to get it though. A lot of times we pray for things that we want but we don’t get them.”
During this time Tommy discovered something. If he didn’t quiz his son, if he let the quiet build up a little bit, his boy would often break the silence with something important: getting bullied at school, feelings about the shootings in the news. Time in the blind gave the two a chance to talk.
A half-hour later, Nate came in upwind. Within 100 yards and not alone, Nate showed up with a cousin that Tommy had never seen on any trail cam before—a bigger, older cousin with a distinctive atypical rack.
During their chats, in between the stuff-of-life conversation, Tommy had gone over what they would do if they saw a nice buck. They talked about what if he came in from this side—from that side. What if…what if…what will we do? Over and over.
So when the two bucks appeared, young Jake was ready. With maturity that comes from a father patiently teaching and instructing, he brought the gun up and shouldered.
“I got it in my sights, Daddy,” Jake whispered. But the two bucks were too close together.
“You could hit both, Son. Wait until they separate,” Tommy advised, calmly. Then the big one stepped out. “Are you on him?” Tommy asked.
“I’m right on him,” Jake answered.
They talked through a few steps and then Tommy said, “whenever you’re ready,” and he removed his hands from the gun. It would all be up to Jake.
“Perfect shot, dude. You got him—knocked him over right in his tracks,” Tommy exclaimed.
“I got him, Daddy. I got him!” Jake exclaimed as he drank in the moment. “This is the best day of my life,” the young man continued, eyes locked on his father’s.
Later the whole family participated in field dressing that deer. Michelle brought younger brother Nick out and they all helped.
Now, in January, as the young hunter turns nine, they will serve venison hot dogs and venison jerky to the friends attending Jake’s birthday party. Nate’s cousin contributed to the family’s meat for the winter all right. A young man celebrates turning nine and savors his day to remember—back when he was eight and harvested a beautiful buck.
And now there is a new picture on the sport shop bulletin board, because everyone in rural Iowa is excited for an eight-year-old’s first buck.
K.J. Houtman is author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for 8-12 year olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.
First image courtesy Tommy Skarlis, second image courtesy Wild 4 Outdoors