It’s Never Too Late
January 25, 2016
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It’s Never Too Late

Jody Whatley and her buck.   Hunting is a sport as old as time, and holds a strange power over us that keeps most of us coming back every year for a chance at that big buck. Most people start hunting with their fathers, maybe even their grandfathers, and the tradition gets passed down again and again through the generations. But is it possible to become part of this group without growing up as a hunter? Jody Whatley of Eastland County, Texas, believes it’s possible. Jody never got the opportunity to hunt while she was growing up. She knew plenty of hunters, yet was unable to participate in the hunt. Jody got married to Tommy Whatley, an avid hunter, in 1969. Tommy would be her key to the hunting world. After getting married, Jody and Tommy created a loving family and while Jody was home raising the kids, Tommy never let a single deer season go by. Although Jody would have loved to go with him on just one hunt, she had a responsibility to take care of her family. Her dream began to slip away and be forgotten. Years passed and Jody and Tommy’s children grew up and started lives of their own. They would join Tommy on his yearly trips to the Gardner Ranch, owned by Rod Kaylan and myself, a third generation ranch in Eastland County, Texas, and still do to this day. Jody stayed at home for many years while Tommy and her children hunted and bagged their prize bucks. Jody’s dream underwent a change when she attended the Texas Big Game awards in Abilene, Texas, as a guest of one of her fellow hunters, who had taken a deer with a 17-inch spread and a Boone and Crockett score of 133. Jody wanted desperately to attend the Texas Big Game Awards not as a guest, but as a successful hunter. She found her key when she learned those who killed their first deer could attend and be honored at the awards. Jody had never taken a deer in her life, so in 2011, Jody decided it was time for her to become a hunter. As the 2011 deer season came about, Jody asked Tommy if she could accompany him on his yearly opening weekend hunt and also asked if he would teach her to hunt. Tommy promptly agreed. Deer hunting was not all Jody had imagined it to be. Like most of us, she had no idea how elusive and ghost-like the white-tailed deer can be. Eastland County employs a conservation program to grow bigger and better bucks. The plan has a strict limit on the kind of buck that can be taken. Only bucks with a single spike on one side of their racks, or bucks with an inside antler width of 13 inches or greater may be taken. Her first year Jody saw doe upon doe, and when a buck did finally reveal himself, it was nothing more than a young spike. A young spike had no place in Jody’s dream. She passed him up in the hope of getting a shot at that monster buck. The monster was not a figment of her imagination either. Multiple trail cameras picked up her target tantalizingly close, yet out of reach. The 2011 deer season would end in great disappointment for Jody. Tommy attempted to console her with the words we all have heard: “That’s just hunting.” This brought no relief and Jody’s dream had one more year to grow. The 2012 deer season rolled around and Jody returned to the Gardner Ranch, determined to claim her prize. The trail cameras teased her with photos of the same monster buck and dawn couldn’t come early enough. Finally the morning came, the morning that lowered the boundaries between Jody and her prize. The minutes grew into hours and Jody’s persistence and determination were in vain as several bucks walked by, but not even one was a shooter. Finally, a cull buck stepped into view. He wasn’t the monster Jody had dreamt of, but her trigger finger was itching and she decided to take the shot. Jody squeezed the trigger, and as the smoke cleared, the deer was nowhere to be seen. She realized she had missed. Even a cull buck can inspire shot-crippling buck fever. Jody dragged herself back to deer camp to watch the other hunters skin their quarries. The monster buck of Jody’s dreams disappeared from the trail camera reports one day. Another hunter had taken him first. The 2012 season would end in yet another disappointment for Jody. The 2013 deer season rolled around and Jody refused to give up. She practiced her aim and on opening morning, Jody sat in her blind well before the sun’s rays even began to think about peeking over the horizon. Jody had chosen a new target from the files of the trail camera. The morning wore on and soon Jody’s enthusiasm was all but gone. Jody and Tommy reluctantly closed up the blind to head back to the cabin for lunch. After a pep talk from the other hunters, Jody was fired up again by the time the afternoon hunt came around. Yet again, the odds did not seem to be in Jody’s favor. As the sun grew closer and closer to the horizon, Jody began to get ready to close up the blind. She turned to close a window when she heard the two words every hunter lives to hear: “Get ready.” Jody zeroed in on her target and the buck fever returned stronger than ever. “Is he big enough?” she whispered. “You bet! Get on him!” Tommy replied. The deer was a monster indeed, eight-points and an inside spread of 17 ¾ inches, more than she could ever hope for. Jody leveled her weapon at the buck, remembering everything she knew about shooting. As she slid the safety off she inhaled and knew this was her moment. She squeezed the trigger and the air exploded as the bullet flew straight and true. The buck spun around, but his fate was sealed. Twenty-five yards later he took his last step and went down. Jody looked at Tommy and exclaimed, “I’m going to the Texas Big Game Awards!”

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