Zachary Schopper has gone through a lot in his young life, including a heart transplant at a very young age because the left side of his heart was underdeveloped.
When he was about 3 years old, he was diagnosed with celiac disease, which meant he would be on a gluten-free diet for the rest of his life.
His medical issues caused Zach to be developmentally and physically delayed. The 11-year-old is only just over four feet tall and weighs about 60 pounds, and has already seen more doctors than a person three times his age. He has to take six medications a day, including anti-rejection drugs.
But this spunky young man also had a dream.
He wanted to go hunting.
At Arizona Hunt of a Lifetime, their mission is to make dreams come true for youngsters like Zach who have serious and/or life-threatening illnesses or diseases.
The way this story came together includes compassion, caring and working together. It started when I received an email from a regular poster on the MonsterMuleys.com who knew that I work with Hunt of a Lifetime.
He told me he had drawn an early 12A West (Kaibab) deer tag, but since he was going to have open heart surgery, he wasn't sure he would be recovered enough to go on the hunt at the end of October.
He asked if I would be the guide on the hunt, and when I told him yes, he agreed to donate the tag to HOAL.
I posted the information about the tag being available on several outdoor websites and was contacted by another Monster Muleys regular who thought that a relative in California might qualify, and thus the process began.
Within days, paperwork had been submitted. Soon afterward, I was advised by HOAL state ambassador Matt Minshall that young Zach did indeed qualify.
The hunt was on.
But there were still a lot of "hoops" to go through before the hunt would start. Zach had to get through a Hunter Education class, and that looked like a big hurdle. But that was quickly handled, and I headed to the Kaibab to set up camp.
I was invited to camp with my good friend Cory Erpelding, who had drawn an early Kaibab tag and would be there with his brother Brian and friend Chris Massahoss.
Once my friends and I had the trailer set up, we put up a couple of trail cameras and a pop-up blind at some isolated waters we knew about.
Last year, I had an 80-year old hunter on this same hunt. While sitting at one of these sites, we looked at 36 bucks in three days. I felt sure that utilizing a tripod, Zach would be able to get a buck.
The next morning before daylight, Zach, his dad, Randall, and I headed to the blind. His cousin John and mother, Rori, also looked around.
By 8 a.m., we had not seen one deer. That was bad news.
An early snow had left water everywhere, and the deer just didn't need any permanent water sources. That meant it was going to be a spot and stalk hunt, which was going to be a real challenge.
That first afternoon, Randall spotted a very nice wide and tall 3 X 2 buck. After a stalk, Zach did get a shot, albeit a long one, for the new hunter.
It was a clean miss.
Before Zach's hunt was over, he and his friends and family looked at about 25 bucks, one flock of turkeys, and a lot of the unique Kaibab squirrels.
Zach didn't know it at the time, but on Saturday afternoon I located three bucks. One of them was the largest buck I've ever seen on an early hunt. There was a wide 2 X 2 and a beautiful ear tip wide 4 X 4 with him.
We couldn't get Zach on that big buck. But it was an experience for sure.
The next afternoon, John located a group of deer close by on a hillside. For about 10 minutes, Zach's dad and even John tried to get the young hunter on a bedded 2 X 2 that was just 96 yards away.
But the young hunter couldn't find the buck in his scope and the herd eventually ran off.
I recorded the entire event on video, so all was not lost.
In the end, Zach didn't get a deer, but I think he will be back to enjoy more of Arizona's great outdoors.
I'll bet there will be some juniors' only javelina tags left for 2014 and I hope Zach applies for an antlerless deer tag next year on the Kaibab.
He is a good kid who's been dealt a tough hand in life, but he has great parents and family, and I would like to spend some more time in the field with all of them.