Thirty years ago, a hunter wrote a letter to Jim Zumbo, then-editor of Outdoor Life magazine. “It’s great you guys write about all your wonderful hunts all over the world,” Zumbo recalled the original letter saying, “but what about some of us who can’t hunt like that anymore?”
Zumbo and friends Gary and Jane Stearns saw that as a challenge. Together with Bill Brown, they founded Helluva Hunt in 1984, offering hunting opportunities to ill, injured, and otherwise physically or visually impaired sportsmen and women. Wyoming’s antelope herds have since provided the big game adventure the original Outdoor Life magazine reader longed for.
It all starts—and ends—in the open-armed town of Douglas.
“Nice buck,” Jane Stearns congratulated Ben Frezza of Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Gary Stearns worked the parallel double-scope during the hunt, and Savage Arms’ retired CEO Ron Coburn drove. Ben, who is almost completely blind, shot a nice “goat”—the local term for a buck. Gary and Jane sized his harvest’s horns and filled out its information sheet during the lunch break. “The bottom section of the form is for your lies,” Jane told Ben with a smile. “Fill it out and we’ll have you share it tomorrow night at the banquet.”
Ben’s kill was just another success for his group of 13 hunters from across the United States.
At the banquet, the hunters completed their tall tales. One by one, they traversed in wheelchairs or walked with caregivers to the front of Douglas’ American Legion post. Their stories provided a bookend to a great event, celebrating camaraderie where introductions occurred just 72 hours prior. “At 250 yards out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the big goat, and told my guide ‘Stop, there he is,’” wrote Ben, standing with his white cane at his side. Ben’s friend Kurt Taboga read for him; everyone chuckled at his self-effacing wit.
The vision out of Ben’s left eye is completely blurry, like “looking through thick wax paper,” he said. His right eye offers a narrow pencil-sized window to the world, with no peripheral vision. Kurt attended with Ben, the two men’s fathers and grandfathers hunted in the same Italian hunt club in Potter County, Pennsylvania for decades. Now, with Ben donning Papa Elio’s old (and lucky) blaze orange cap, the two shared a dream come true. A dream that almost slipped through Ben’s fingers as his vision deteriorated.
The keys to success for all the hunters were generous land access, knowledgeable and patient hunting guides, and adaptive equipment. It has been that way for more than 400 hunters over the last 30 years—420, to be precise. The organization covers 100 percent of onsite expenses, even game processing, licensing, food, and lodging.
It takes a village, and the village is mostly the folks and businesses of Douglas, Wyoming. “We couldn’t do it without the generous landowners who give us access for the hunts,” said Gary Stearns, “and all the volunteers and businesses providing donations. The list goes on and on.” They raised almost $14,000 the night before at a live auction.
Some of the volunteers return each year. Tony Amodio and Joey Tidei from Chicago, Illinois have been coming for 21 years; Kurt Schlotthauer of Rochester, Minnesota was a hunter himself 10 years ago. Even a big shot in the industry like Coburn returns because it feels so right to.
They return for the newest group of hunters—like 12-year-old Roy Thorson of Wausau, Wisconsin, whose outdoor pursuits have been made all the more challenging by muscular dystrophy. Thorson’s colorful lie detailed a 368-yard grazing round that required him to finish off his quarry with a 150-yard bank shot off an oil pipeline. Laughter filled the room at the end of his tale.
Wyoming issues special permits to allow Helluva Hunt’s differently-abled sportsmen and women to shoot from a vehicle. Roy was in the back of a pickup truck, and he used special equipment from Be Adaptive to control his rifle with a puff-and-blow mouth trigger. “The crazy part is, only a part of my story was a lie,” said Roy with a contagious smile later. “Pretty much.”
The lies capped a perfect evening, as folks exchanged promises to stay in touch. For every one of them, it was a Helluva Hunt—and so are the lies that bind them.
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.