Written By: Dustin Matthews
When I was born in 1984, everything was normal. I was a typical toddler up until the age of two. Then things took a turn. In October of 1986, when my dad was playing with me, I became very sick and was immediately taken to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, I was flown to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, from my local hospital here in Evanston, Wyoming. It was there that the doctors determined I had spinal meningitis and had suffered a stroke in the spinal cord. There was also a point where doctors told my family that I’d never wake up out of a coma and that I’d be brain dead. After spending eight weeks there, I was finally able to come home, but I was only stable enough to come home by helicopter. Life Flight brought me home and even landed in the field right behind our house. After returning home, I was rushed back with lung problems but returned back home a little while later.
Recovery continued at home, and things got better. The stroke to the spinal cord did leave me with very little movement below my chest area. I have enough movement in my right arm to operate an electric wheelchair. Starting school, I went completely through as normally as possible. I operate a computer with a stick in my mouth and completed all of my schooling that way. After high school, I was even able to complete a master’s degree in computers and now teach college classes for my local community college.
Every fall, my family and I would go hunting with my grandpa. I fell in love with hunting. Deep down, I knew there had to be a way that I could go hunting when I was old enough. Throughout my entire life, my family and friends had stressed that I could do anything I wanted; we just had to figure out a way. It might be a little different than a “normal” person does it, but I could still do it. As I was quickly approaching the age of 14, we searched the Internet. We found the SR-77 shooting rest that mounted to the wheelchair. We decided this would be what I needed to hunt for myself so we ordered it, and I anxiously awaited its arrival.
Soon we received the mount and got it all ready. The gun had to be modified by cutting off the stock. It then hooked onto the mount, and a cable was used to pull the trigger. It had a joystick — much like one for a wheelchair — that moves the gun in every direction.
Even today, I can operate it on my own, other than putting the bullet in the gun. In Wyoming, disabled hunters are able to apply for and receive a permit allowing them to shoot from a vehicle. So when we hunt, we load me in the truck, and I’m able to shoot from there. For the last 16 years, I have been very successful with it. I’ve harvested deer, elk, and antelope almost every year. However, I still wanted to get a moose. I was determined to get this opportunity.
Here in Wyoming, moose licenses are very hard to get, much like they are in other states. Wyoming only issues moose licenses through a draw and a preference point system. The preference point system is designed to give you a point each year you apply that you are unsuccessful in the draw. The more points you accumulate, the better odds you have to draw a license the next year. For some unknown reason, I never applied for moose the first three years that I could hunt. Every year I applied, I was hopeful but always got the dreaded unsuccessful result, year after year. This went on for 13 years until the results were posted this year and stated that I had successfully drawn a license for Wyoming moose area 27. This is a pretty good area just south of where I live in Evanston, Wyoming.
The amount of excitement when I first learned I had drawn the tag was indescribable. I immediately started thinking about how I was going to do this. The area posed one problem, and that is that the area has very limited public access, as it is mostly private land with lots leased to outfitters. Do I hire an outfitter, or do I just try to get permission myself to hunt on people’s land? What gives me the very best chance to get a good moose? Being disabled and in a wheelchair, I don’t have a ton of discretionary income, so I decided to just try to get permission for somewhere to hunt. Plus, I like to do as much on my own as I can. There is a greater satisfaction that comes from being independent, in my opinion. After contacting several landowners, the response was overwhelming. Many landowners were very receptive and granted me permission to hunt on their land. I felt like this was the first major hurdle in a successful moose hunt.
Waiting for the hunt seemed to take forever, but the first day finally arrived. During the first few days, I had several people call me and tell me where they had spotted moose. So we headed out to look for one on the first day. Along with me came my mom and dad, my grandpa and grandma, my niece, an uncle, and one of my best friends. We searched everywhere and didn’t see a single moose the first few days. After talking with some other property owners, we decided to try a new area the next day. This area provided me a good spot to sit and watch the river bottom area.
After about 15 minutes, we spotted a cow and two calves just standing in some willows. With the moose being in the rut, we knew a bull couldn’t be too far away. We waited another ten minutes before a bull walked out and headed toward the cow and calves. They were all grazing through the meadow. My grandpa has been a guide and hunter his entire life, so I was relying on his judgment as to whether the moose was big enough to be shot or not. It would be about a 200-yard shot. I had no experience field judging a moose, and every moose looked big to me. After a lot of discussion with my grandpa, we decided to pass on him. He was decent but not quite big enough for this early in the hunt. That night we spent second-guessing, but I still feel like I made the right decision.
I continued hunting for the next few days and never saw anything worth shooting. There was still a lot of time, but I’m not the most patient person, and I wanted to find a moose. It was now a Saturday, and my phone rang with a call from a landowner from whom I had received permission to hunt. He could see a big moose and wanted to know if I wanted to go after it. That was an easy decision, so we headed out. It took us about an hour to arrive by the time we gathered our stuff and drove there. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the moose had left, and we were unable to find him. We spent the next few days hunting him with no luck.
The next Thursday, I again received a call from a landowner who had seen a big bull and told us the general area. We headed there that night and started looking. We drove around and saw nothing, so my dad suggested that we sit and wait. Using a moose call, we started calling, and within a few minutes, a bull came within 50 yards of us. Again, I had to rely on my grandpa to judge it. It was again too small to shoot this early on, and we knew there were bigger bulls out there.
About five minutes after passing on this moose, my grandpa noticed two animals moving through the trees kind of in front of us. We were pretty sure they were moose but couldn’t see them well enough. Mom pulled up the truck, and we could now see them going through an opening about 100 yards away. My uncle immediately started saying, “He’s big!” There was no time to let grandpa judge him. We knew he was a shooter!
Dad got me positioned and put in a bullet. I started aiming but had left my scope zoomed in quite a bit, so it was hard to find him. I didn’t even think to have someone zoom out my scope. There were way too many nerves to think about that. It seemed like it took forever to get aimed and seemed like my gun mount was moving in slow motion! Just as I was getting him in my scope, he stopped broadside to me, giving me a perfect shot. I told everyone I was ready and going to shoot. During all the time hunting before, my grandpa told me on several occasions that if you get a shot, be ready to shoot again immediately. Since my dad loads my bullets, though, it was on him to chamber my next bullet.
I finished aiming right behind his front shoulder and sucked on the straw to pull the trigger. When I shoot, I have a tendency to lean back away from my gun, and that causes me to shoot high. It worried me I’d miss high, so I was really telling myself to not move.
When I shot, the gun hit me in the chin and mouth due to me being too close. It hurt, but I was still looking at the moose. You could tell I had hit him. He was starting to walk away, but I definitely made a good hit. Dad got really excited, as we all were, and he forgot to give me another shell. I was yelling to get me another bullet, and Dad thought we should pull up. He finally gave me another bullet, and I was able to shoot again, dropping him this time. At this point, we were still not sure how big he was; but when we got to him, it started to sink in that I had shot the moose for which I had been waiting.
Mom then called my brother-in-law to come help us get him out, and about an hour later, he showed up with five other people to help. It was a thankful sight to see so many family and friends show up to help. After taking several pictures, it was time to load up and head home. The eight guys there were able to drag him up a ramp, into the truck without quartering him. (It’s a ramp we use to get me in the back of the truck.) We then headed home and hung him up, using equipment my family has. We decided to wait and get the taxidermist the next morning to score him and cape him out. He came the next morning and scored him at a net of 156 4/8ths. Being ecstatic might be an understatement.
Hunting is undoubtedly my passion, but it’s much more than that. This was a hunt of a lifetime, and I couldn’t be more grateful and blessed to have had this opportunity. Spending the time with my family, and especially my grandpa is truly priceless. Having them along with me was a huge blessing in my life that I’ll never forget.
I want to give a shout out to everyone that helped me, especially my family; the landowners; Colt Hamilton, my friend; Tom Bryant, who custom built my rifle, a 6.5×284; and anyone else that I may be forgetting. You all made it possible!
Lastly, everyone needs to know that disability is not limitation. Anyone can do anything they want to do. There is always a way. Never give up, and do the things you love — no matter what your situation is!