Sitting 20 feet up in an ancient cottonwood tree is a great place to spend a chilly November afternoon, particularly when you’re in western Nebraska with an empty deer tag burning a hole in your back pocket.


And when the local whitetails aren’t cooperating, such a lofty perch near the North Platte River is also a fine place to do a little thinking, pondering the deeper mysteries of life.


Mysteries like how yours truly was about to go home with an empty Yeti cooler despite several days spent in a virtual paradise for Great Plains wildlife, one filled with white-tailed deer, mule deer, Merriam turkeys, ducks, geese, and pheasants. The habitat was nothing short of spectacular, consisting of rolling hills, prairie grasslands, spring creek bottoms, and acre after acre of thick stuff in and around the fabled North Platte River.


How good is the hunting at Prairie Rock Outfitters (www.prairierockoutfitters.com), a western Nebraska hunting oasis where more than 300,000 acres of huntable land exists near the small farming community of Broadwater? Good enough that nearly everyone in our writer’s camp had found an opportunity to pull the trigger on mature bucks ranging from the mid-130s to the mid-150s.


In the end, our group of seven hunters saw five connect successfully on mature whitetails, one get a final afternoon shot opportunity that sailed high, and me bringing up the rear and coming home empty handed. My unfilled tag wasn’t from a lack of effort, mind you, after four long days of hunting time spent in stands overlooking great countryside that was reminiscent of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge right here in our local backyard.


I did see deer each day, just never the shooter buck I was after. A shooter whitetail, that is, since my ticker received an adrenaline charged jolt one cold November evening when I looked up and saw a huge set of antlers bobbing through a thick stand of timber guarding a small spring creek. As I raised my 30.06 rifle and found big antlers in my scope, I thought to myself “I’m about to shoot a Booner!”


But there was to be no Boone and Crockett Club record book entry bearing my name following my close encounter with a prairie giant during the waning days of the autumn rut. When the big buck finally trotted out from behind the river bottom brush that had screened his approach, my heart sank a bit as I found myself staring at a giant mule deer buck cruising through the wild countryside looking for love and a winsome doe.


Only 12-yards away—provided I could hit the chip shot at bowhunting distance as I toted a scoped rifle—all I could do was grin and count a hunter’s coup, thinking of what my taxidermy bill might have been if the tag in my back pocket had read “mule deer” instead of “whitetail.”


With the November rut rocking last week, the PRO meat pole at the outfitting service owned by Ryan Livingston and Jake Latendresse had seen plenty of late evening work from mule deer hunters in camp, a group that included bass fishing’s GOAT, the legendary Kevin VanDam, and his brother-in-law Russ Campbell.


By the time KVD flew away for a fishing trip to Mexico’s big bass rich Lake El Salto and Campbell headed back home to Kalamazoo, Mich., both gentlemen had punched mule deer tags on amazing bucks that might threaten to make the B&C record book. There were also a few other PRO muleys taken this month that will threaten to make the B&C book, not to mention a couple of other 200-inch record book giants that gave hunters the slip during the recently completed Nebraska rifle season.


While the average size whitetail at Prairie Rock Outfitters checks in around 145 to 150 inches, there are also book deer that stretch the measurer’s tape much higher. That includes Latendresse’s massive 190+ whitetail buck taken last season, a typical he arrowed on camera from a stand overlooking the North Platte and a buck that was recently featured in an issue of Petersen’s Bowhunting magazine (www.bowhuntingmag.com).


Known as “Bo Jackson”—the brute of a whitetail actually rubbed a cedar fence post in two, snapping it in half in game camera video footage that has garnered thousands of online views—the big Cornhusker buck was the kind of whitetail I was looking for. The thought of such high end whitetail potential buoyed my spirits as I held out 11th hour hope that the cathedral like river bottom setting would suddenly spring to life as I watched a fiery prairie sunset unfold with high clouds streaming in from an approaching winter storm.


In the end, there would be no walk-off home run on my part as the late afternoon wind slowly subsided and the cries of Canada geese filled the still river bottom. But in the waning moments of my hunt, as sunlight bled away and my opportunity was lost, I started thinking in earnest about the kind of things that truly matter most, particularly in a week where we ponder our blessings and thank the Creator above.


For starters, there’s simply life itself, something I dare not take for granted given the gathering years of a mid-life existence starting to creep towards the late innings.


Then there’s my North Texas home, suddenly filled as this is written with my lovely wife, my three 20-something kiddos, and my new son-in-law. Add in my mom, my sister and her family, and my wife’s family and the 2019 version of Thanksgiving for our clan will be filled with enough family, food, and football to do serious justice to a Norman Rockwell painting.


Then there’s reflecting upon another year of hunting and fishing pursuits, outings that have provided many memorable moments afield with the family and friends I cherish most, as well as providing material for the career path I have unexpectedly traveled for many years now.


As I weighed all of this, I thought about Latendresse’s Instagram page and his contention that every hunt has a story. As I pondered what that story might be for me last week in western Nebraska, a thought suddenly jolted its way into the quiet afternoon I was spending on stand, providing me with the sudden realization of what the forthcoming week represented.


And that’s the memory that 40-years ago this week, today in fact, my late father Bill and my Uncle Jake sat in a northeastern Oklahoma kitchen sipping coffee and trying to figure out what to do on the day after Thanksgiving. With my mom and sister joining my Aunt Martha and her two daughters in Tulsa for a day of holiday shopping, two energetic young boys—myself and my cousin Shawn—were chomping at the bit to get outside.


Hours later, our clan found itself hiking through the autumn colors, seeking rabbits with the shotguns we clutched on a glorious fall afternoon. By the time we headed for home in the waning sunlight of a cool November day, I was mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and earthy smells of an afternoon spent outdoors. And when my Uncle Jake fried up the cottontails that had intersected with our shotgun pellets—including one rabbit taken with my .410 load—I was hooked on the outdoors forever more.


As I thought about all of this a few days ago high up in a Nebraska cottonwood tree, I found myself choking back tears and whispering a prayer of thanks for the blessings I’ve been given by a Creator full of grace. Especially for a dad who lived such an exemplary life of family love and Christian commitment, a father who also repeatedly exposed me to opportunities in the outdoors world I’ve now spent most of a lifetime writing about.


As I slipped a worn copy of the New Testament out of my hunting pack, the Message version of the Good Book fell open to a familiar passage that I read again from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.


“Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God,” Paul wrote. “Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart.”


As the breeze whispered quietly in that hushed moment—one that a 9th inning buck would have honestly been intruding upon—I found myself treasuring the memory of my dad, our times spent together outdoors, and the legacy of the man whose steps I hope to always follow in.


As my new friend Jake Latendresse says, every hunt has a story. And this particular hunt’s story was the life and legacy of the best man I’ve ever known, even if that memory didn’t come until the sun was quietly setting over the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills.


At the end of a whitetail hunt that I’ll never forget, even if there was an unused deer tag remaining in my back pocket.