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Panhandle Passages: Toughing it out for a Mule Deer

Garrett and his dad, Dave, pose with the buck.
Garrett Williamson and his dad, Dave, pose with the buck that he shot in Sheridan County.

After working two days at a check station for firearm deer season last week, I talked to numerous hunters who had a tough time getting a deer this year. I’d wager a bet that none of those hunters faced a greater obstacle than an outdoorsman I got to meet earlier in the week, however.

Garrett Williamson, 21, of Trempeleau, Wis., made the trip to western Nebraska to add something to his trophy collection that can’t be found on his normal hunting grounds. Since being introduced to hunting at age 12, he’s shot numerous whitetails, turkeys, a black bear, and even a pronghorn in Wyoming. Despite his success, he has long wanted to hunt an animal that isn’t on the list of Wisconsin big game opportunities – the mule deer.

What makes Williamson’s hunting more challenging than most is that he does it while battling Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a malady that has robbed strength from his arms and legs. His dad, Dave, has encouraged the young hunter every step of the way. Dave, an avid hunter, has equipped Garrett’s wheelchair with shooting supports, providing his son with independence when it comes to taking a shot from one of their blinds. Despite the set-up, the hunting isn’t easy. Even pulling the trigger can be a taxing experience for Garrett, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 5.

Garrett and his dad were joined on the Nebraska hunt by Dave’s brother Steve Williamson of Omaha, who deserves credit for getting the hunt off the ground last winter. When learning that Garrett wanted to get a mule deer, Uncle Steve, who works at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, contacted Jo Momsen and Greg Wagner at the Omaha Game and Parks office nearby. Momsen put Steve in contact with Todd Nordeen, Nebraska’s northwest district wildlife manager. Before long, Steve received an email from Bob Bentley, a Sheridan County landowner who has more than 4,000 acres of the best deer hunting property in the Pine Ridge. His passion is to help improve deer herds.

Bentley, who recently retired from the citrus business and splits his time between Nebraska and Florida, said his family has been especially fortunate so he was thankful for the chance to do something for “someone who has had a little tougher time.” He gave the Williamsons lodging at his beautiful cabin in the pines, meals, and even had a local contractor construct a wheelchair accessible shooting house just for the hunt. Outside the door is a wooden sign engraved with the words “Garrett’s Hunting Shack.” Bentley’s longtime friend and fellow Floridian John Clarke joined the group to cook and help guide the hunter. The Williamsons said Bentley was more gracious than they ever could have imagined.

And the effort was a success. The hunting party arrived at the cabin Sunday and by mid-day Monday Garrett had bagged a big mule deer buck on land owned by Roger Donley, one of Bentley’s partners. Despite a great struggle to get things lined up, Garrett’s aim was true and it took only one shot at just over 100 yards. High fives, hugs and a few tears of joy ensued.

I enjoyed getting to know Garrett and was inspired by his courage. He’s a great guy and a fine hunter.

Keep in mind, I’m a print journalist first, but I hope you enjoy this short video I pieced together with footage, photos and interviews from the hunt. I believe it was a great experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be there.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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