Lizzy Pritchett scans a field for antelope from an Action Trackchair, provided by Nevada Outdoorsmen in Wheelchairs. ©Crystal Gibson

Volunteer group brings hunters with disabilities on the trip of a lifetime.

STORY BY ERIC CACHINERO
PHOTOS BY CRYSTAL GIBSON

There’s a primal phenomenon amongst big-game hunters known as buck fever. The ailment is incurable and affects the 12-year old spring chicken and most hardened and experienced big-game hunter equally. Buck fever refers to, upon lining up the sights on a big-game animal, the largely unavoidable tendency to shake uncontrollably, due to the body’s release of a high dose of adrenaline. The notorious buck fever has thwarted countless shoe-in shots, leading to tall-tales and campfire stories of “the one that got away” that will exist in perpetuity.

Hunting can be difficult; then factor in logistics, travel, practice, preparation, cost of gear, scouting, and buck fever. Not to mention animals are incredibly well adapted to the environment and have been outsmarting predators for all of history. All of this compounded can be intimidating to hunters, but especially those with disabilities who rely upon a wheelchair for mobility.

The prospect doesn’t have to be intimidating, however, thanks to a group of Nevada volunteers who make it their mission to bring accessible hunting to people in wheelchairs. Each year, Nevada Outdoorsmen in Wheelchairs (NOW) brings an all-inclusive hunting experience to a handful of lucky applicants. The group provides the hunt of a lifetime in Nevada, and couples the experience with adventure, education, and a whole lot of surprises.

Caleb Roach dials in his custom hunting setup. ©Crystal Gibson

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

In 2008, NOW 1st Vice President, cofounder, and former Nevada Wildlife Commissioner Chad Bliss began working with different Nevada landowners and organizations to make the idea of accessible hunting a reality. Though the effort began largely unorganized, its success was immediately clear. A generous donation from Nevada conservation group Nevada Bighorns Unlimited got the first hunt started. Since the first antelope hunt, NOW has expanded operations, offering many hunting opportunities of all shapes and sizes to people of all shapes and sizes.

“If you don’t believe in a higher power, you will after this hunt,” says NOW President Matt Murray. “It changes people’s lives.”

Matt, who has served as NOW president since 2013, has good reason to feel so passionate about his efforts. Since he came on board in 2011, he has attended the NOW hunts each year, and seen the excitement on hunters faces when they harvest their animals. He, along with his dedicated team of volunteers, wants the hunters to simply show up ready to have some fun. Matt and his team take care of everything else.

To be considered for a hunt, each individual must fill out an application form and meet a certain set of requirements (see sidebar on page 62), before their name is entered into a random draw. NOW covers 100 percent of the costs incurred in making the hunt happen. The organization has flown in hunters from across the country, paying for transportation costs, meals, hotels, and any other expenses. The Nevada Gold Mine Ranches in Dunphy acts as the headquarters for such a hunt, and has been there since the beginning. The historic ranch was founded as the TS Ranch in 1870 by Irish immigrant William Dunphy, and is now owned by Nevada Gold Mines (a partnership of Barrick and Newmont mining). Nevada Gold Mines raises livestock and grows crops on the property, and generously allows NOW to use the ranch house as its base of operations for the antelope hunts.

In addition to the Nevada Gold Mine Ranches, NOW hosts hunts at several other locations, including the Dean Ranch, Harper Ranch, and Cold Creek Ranch in Crescent Valley, and a ranch in Diamond Valley near Eureka.

Hunters Clint Robinson (bottom left) and Mike DeYoung (bottom right) are joined by family, friends, and Nevada Outdoorsmen in Wheelchairs volunteers. ©Crystal Gibson

THE HUNT

Each year since 2008, NOW has accommodated around three to four antelope hunters at Nevada Gold Mine Ranches (formerly TS Ranch). Despite the challenges and social-distancing requirements presented by COVID-19, the hunt still happened in 2020, and will happen again in 2021 following similar precautions.

It is at Nevada Gold Mines Ranches where the magic begins. Every aspect of the ranch house has been made Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, including wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and showers.

In 2020, one lucky person to receive an invitation to the ranch was avid hunter and sportsmen Mike DeYoung. Several decades ago, Mike suffered a neck injury due to a snowboarding accident that placed him in a wheelchair. Despite the added challenge, Mike continued hunting, and when he heard of NOW several years ago, he started applying for the antelope hunts.

“It’s tough for people in wheelchairs to get out there and hunt,” Mike says. “Unless you have a lot of money, there are not very many opportunities. It means so much for the disabled community to have these hunts.”

Mike made the trip with his wife and daughter, and as NOW promises, every penny was taken care of. Gold Dust West donates all of the food for the entire week, and has since some of the earliest hunts. He was joined by junior hunter Wesley Barton who was there for his first ever big-game hunt. After introductions were made and hunters met with the staff and volunteers of NOW, they all settled in for the days ahead.

Mike DeYoung (left), Wesley Barton (middle), and Clint Robinson (right) are taught about firearms by Jeff Williams (far right) at the Williams Family Museum near Elko. ©Crystal Gibson

On day two of his visit, after a hearty breakfast at the ranch, Mike got to experience a special perk that NOW offers its hunters—a visit to the Williams Family Museum near Elko. Each year, owner Jeff Williams invites NOW hunters to check out his private gun collection, which features more than 1,100 antique and modern firearms. In addition to the firearms collection, the museum aims to tell the story of American history, offering a look at historical clothing, artifacts, and an eclectic collection of other knickknacks. After touring the collection and enjoying a meal provided by the Williams family, Mike got a cool opportunity.

Mike DeYoung shoots a .50-caliber Barrett. ©Crystal Gibson

“We got to shoot the .50-caliber Barrett at 800 yards,” he says. “That was pretty incredible.”

The .50-caliber Barrett is a variant of the rifle used by U.S. Special Forces.

After touring the museum and shooting guns, everyone arrived back at the ranch for dinnertime, followed by an impromptu “Christmas in August,” provided, of course, by NOW.

“They surprised us with a bunch of gifts,” Mike says. “Hats, cups, camo clothing, and other hunting equipment.”

Mike DeYoung ©Crystal Gibson

The following day, the hunt was on. Mike arose bright and early, and rode with several NOW staff and volunteers to hunt nearby alfalfa fields. As luck would have it, he and the crew came upon a sizable herd of antelope. After Mike found a suitable buck he made his shot count.

It’s a sacred moment when a hunter approaches his downed harvest, and Matt and his crew understand that importance.

“We always want the hunters to be the first ones to place their hands on that animal,” Matt says. “I’ve even carried people before to make sure that happens. It’s an indescribable moment.”

Hunters and volunteers skin an antelope buck. ©Crystal Gibson

After harvesting his antelope, Mike and the crew returned to the ranch, and as luck would have it, Wesley was also pulling in with his antelope buck. Two successful hunts completed on opening morning. After the animals were skinned, Mike was treated to a bass fishing session, soaking in his experience.

NOW’s mission doesn’t stop once the hunt is over, either. Volunteers Mark and Ginger Torrance, along with their son Michael, further the organization’s giving spirit by handling all butchering and meat processing.

And just like that, another successful hunt is in the books, and it becomes time once again for NOW to start planning next year’s hunt.

“The amount of effort and time that goes into the hunt way before it even starts is what impressed me most,” Mike adds. “It’s a year-round effort.”

ENDLESS OPPORTUNITIES

The year-round effort isn’t just for antelope hunts, either. NOW has invited hunters in wheelchairs on pheasant, mule deer, and even turkey hunts. Impressively, in 2020, NOW brought outdoorsmen Clint Robinson on the hunt of a lifetime.

The hunts that NOW offer are all made possible by the generous donations of landowner tags. In Nevada, if a private landowner suffers crop damage due to antelope, mule deer, or elk, he or she may apply for a landowner tags for compensation, which can then be sold or donated. Last year, Ellison Ranches donated a bull elk tag to NOW—an incredibly generous donation considering Nevada sportsmen sometimes apply for bull elk tags 10-15 years before they are successful.

Of course, the expertise of NOW and its volunteers paid off once again and Clint had a successful hunt, and took home a respectable bull. Even more impressively, Clint’s bull tag wasn’t even the first one that NOW has secured. Hunter Chris Chapman also took a nice bull in 2019, proving even further that the organization will do everything it can to foster a fun, successful opportunity for its hunters.

Matt explains that each and every hunt is different, and mobility is sometimes a challenge. However, NOW has a solution. The group owns three Action Trackchairs, which are available if hunters need.

“The chairs opened a whole new world for us,” Matt adds. “Having that chair and the ability to stalk an animal was a game changer.”

To call these wheelchairs tanks is no overstatement. Each electrical wheelchair is outfitted with rubberized tank tracks, giving the chairs off-road capabilities and allowing NOW’s hunters to traverse terrains that would be otherwise impassible in a normal wheelchair. Furthermore, NOW has outfitted several of the chairs with “gun racks” to hold the hunter’s rifle in place, making it more suitable to maneuver and aim. In 2018, the group even rigged a custom system that allowed hunter Lizzy Pritchett to operate her crossbow trigger with her mouth by biting down. Needless to say, Lizzy was successful on her mule deer hunt.

Tony Sosby and Lizzy Pritchett ©Crystal Gibson

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES

Matt and his team are doing really incredible things for really incredible people. It’s a full-time job planning the NOW hunts each year, and they manage to get it done on top of their regular full-time jobs. At the core of NOW’s success is, of course, the countless hours of hard work put forth by its volunteers, and the incredible donations of its partners and donors.

In the end, Matt believes the rewards are priceless: seeing the joy in a young hunter’s eyes when he approaches his buck; instilling confidence in a young hunter’s mind when she makes an impressive shot; and feeling the gracious approval in an old hunter’s heart when they take a trophy Nevada bull, despite the added challenges of a wheelchair.

It truly makes a difference in people’s lives.

And it’s not just one hunt that stands out, either. When asked what his most memorable hunt with NOW was, Matt sums it up perfectly.

“Oh yeah, I have a hunt that stands out to me,” he says. “Let’s see, there was the hunt in 2011, then the hunt in 2012, then the hunt in 2013, then the hunt in 2014…”

Matt, along with all of the volunteers at NOW and anyone who has made a donation to the organization, has a good reason to be proud. They offer people in wheelchairs the chance of a lifetime. And with NOW’s expert hunters leading the way, not even the notorious buck fever can thwart their mission.

Chris Chapman ©Crystal Gibson
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