In the fall of 1993, I was introduced to a rare and passionate outdoors-man. We came to know each other through a highly desirable hunting property which I was attempting to get permission to archery hunt. He had the sole rights and I was told by the property owner that I would only be permitted if his existing hunter agreed to work with me. As directed I met with this fellow expecting the worst as 99% of the people with a hunting property like this would never offer to share it. I could not have been more wrong. Little did I know how much this man would impact my life over the next 20 years.
My nickname became Coondog and I called him Crayfish. We soon got to know each others friends, hunted together in several circles and on many occasions enjoyed the taking of the elusive whitetails of Chester County Pennsylvania. Crayfish didn't speak much but when he did we all listened. He was always in the woods, setting stands, hunting or just studying the deer movements. It became clear to me immediately that this man knew his stuff.
The first thing I noticed about crayfish was that he was never selfish. He was always giving up his best stands to a new archer or a less fortunate hunter that was snake bitten and hadn't put any meat in his freezer that year. If a youth was on the scene crayfish would go to hell and back to "get that boy on his first deer". Humble to say the least in every way, Crayfish taught us by his actions. As the years passed I learned much from this man, not only about the art of hunting but about life and the importance of respect, discipline and giving back. A great friend and mentor-ship had developed as I looked up to this man through personal hard times for direction and he never failed me.
In the summer of 2012 Crayfish dropped the C bomb on us. He had been stricken with lymphomic cancer and announced that he would not be able to hunt that year due to the surgery and subsequent treatment that would be required if he were to have a chance of survival. With courage and dignity he went through living hell in an attempt to beat this vicious killer. Multiple surgeries removing 25 lymph glands, his saliva glands and a portion of his jaw and neck rendered him unrecognizable. Over the next 9 months he lost 40 pounds while enduring massive doses of chemo through an intravenous drip. Crayfish hung in there through multiple surgeries to reconstruct his face while being fed through a feeding tube. Every ounce of energy and a relentless will to survive was needed to get over the mountain that he faced.
His friends rallied to give him hope. Hunters and outdoors-man from many miles around reached out to Crayfish with words of encouragement and prayers. Several friends met and put a plan together which might give him additional hope to pull through. Crayfish had made a statement that he would love to see an Elk before he left this world. With that in mind a trip was arranged for him to go on a combination Elk/Whitetail Deer hunt in September of 2013.
A generous Outfitter by the name of Keith Miller with Montana whitetails agreed to contribute a one-week hunt on the well-known Shields River valley area near Livingston Montana. Multiple friends contributed to obtain his licenses and air fair. Crayfish was a man that always paid his own way and never asked anything from anyone. It wasn't easy to convince him but his friends insisted that this was a gift that he should graciously accept and that he should strive to get back on his feet physically so he could experience his dream Hunt.
Crayfish Rose to this challenge and fought to overcome the odds while several other cancer patients taking the same treatment with him chose to give up and die. By mid August Crayfish had his feeding tube removed and the final treatments completed. With new teeth, facial reconstruction surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation behind him he picked up his bow for the first time in a year. Unable to draw his bow he started working out with light dumbbells and pushed through his exhausted state to begin rebuilding his atrophied muscles. By the end of the month he could pull the bow back at its minimum weight of the 45 pound setting. He could only shoot two arrows per day to practice and became accurate out to 25 yards.
Up until this point nobody really knew if he could actually make the trip to Montana. It was only two weeks away and he was still not able to eat solid food. Living on six cans of ensure per day to get his nourishment. It was great to get that phone call and hear his voice say "I'm going to do it, I'm coming out to Montana!". And so it was. K-1, CoonDog and Crayfish flew out from Philadelphia to see the Big Sky of Southwestern Montana and hopefully get Crayfish in front of a Rocky Mountain Elk.
September 26, 2013. We awoke to some chili weather, our guide, Steve Miller had spotted a large herd of Elk in the Shields river bottom which had been hanging there for several days. He forged a plan to get Crayfish as close as possible. Typically spot and stalk would be the best course of action but in Crayfish's case that couldn't happen. His strength and endurance were very limited. A creative stand would need to be set and the Elk would have to be called in. Knowing the movement of this herd Steve placed Crayfish in a gnarly tree stand just downwind from the Elk at the bend of a creek with an open pasture and timberline coming together as a bottleneck.
As the late afternoon sun began to fade over the snow capped mountains to the West, Elk started to materialize from the cool shadows of the river bottom. Seeing the elk at a distance, Crayfish reached for his Hoochie Mama Elk call that he had purchased the day prior. With one calf bleat the Elk reacted. First three small calf's came running to the base of his tree. Shortly after the cows followed and a cacophony of chatter began between them as they searched for what they thought was a lost calf. Crayfish was frozen stiff in the tree as Elk surrounded his stand and the satellite bulls came rushing in to explore the sounds of the calls. As Crayfish says, "suddenly I was covered up with Elk!". Moments of resilience followed and Crayfish fought the urge to look around for the herd bull to keep from being picked up by the countless eyes around him. Then, Crayfish heard a sound that he will never forget. The herd bull had come in from behind him and was standing 10 yards away letting out an ear piercing scream. Slowly turning his head with eyes squinted, Crayfish saw the monster bull for the first time. Swinging his massive horns, steam blowing from his nostrils as he let out another blasting bugle asserting his dominance over the satellite bulls below Crayfish's stand.
We asked Crayfish what was going through his mind at that point and he said this, "I'm gonna kill that bull"!!! Knowing that his time was limited and that he would soon be scented as the elk were now on all sides around him, Crayfish made his move. Unfortunately, the cold air and heavy clothing prohibited him from making the full draw of his bow. Getting the string halfway back was all he could muster. Again faced with an unsuspected challenge Crayfish thought on his feet and didn't surrender.
The bull seeing the movement looked up and realized what was happening but by that time, Crayfish had turned his body, and pointed the bow straight up in the air to get more leverage. Putting every ounce of energy and a guttural grunt into this last ditch effort gave him just enough to get the bow back on the big bull. Upon turning to pick his spot on the bull's chest, the scene had changed. The bull had quartered away and was making his move to haul tail out of there. Crayfish wasn't about to let that happen, and with precision accuracy let that arrow fly to find it's home behind the last rib of that massive chest cavity.
Crayfish made it clear upon picking him up after that hunt that his light draw weight combined with the angle down and placement of the arrow on a quartering away bull should do the trick, but allowing a few hours before tracking was probably wise, we agreed. Rarely in life does anything bring tears to a mans eyes as this did at the moment we saw this animal laying just 80 yards from where Crayfish took that terminal shot. Words can never describe that moment. The 370 inch bull was incredible but the man who fought for his life to rise back up after that serious blow to achieve such a feat was priceless!
The Crayfish beat cancer, overcame all the odds and is still giving back on a daily basis to help further the gift of the outdoors to any and all that care to embrace it.