When a father and his 16-year-old son pick a campsite for a bull moose hunt, you’d assume Dad drew the tag and Son was along to help, maybe interested in burning the giant old pine stump in the middle of camp, just because it looked like fun.
But when Richard Nicolas and his son, Jason, pulled into Jackson County last year it was Jason’s trip. He drew a bull moose tag at age 15 and this hunt would be the ultimate test of communication and teamwork between him and his dad — one made more challenging because Jason was born with a progressive hearing loss that has kept declining as he has grown. Now he hears very little on his own.
“When I checked to see if he pulled a tag, I almost fell over,” said Richard. “It was like, ‘hey, we’ve got to get serious about this.’ ”
In camp, Jason was just a teenager on his first moose hunt — eyeballing the giant pine stump, saying he was gonna burn it if he got his moose. He was full of a hunter’s anticipation as he and Richard watched a small bull amble through camp before opening day.
What brought Jason and Richard to that point was years of technology, countless visits to Children’s Hospital, and the ability to work through the frustrations that come with learning to adapt to what life has dealt. Jason has worn hearing aids since age 5. They helped, but his parents noticed that pursuing sports in school, like baseball and basketball, wasn’t easy.
“He would get lost in noisy environments,” Richard said. He and his wife have been vigilant with ear muffs for 16 years, shielding Jason’s ears from loud noises — riding ATVs, shooting guns, loud music — which would accelerate his hearing loss. The next step for Jason is cochlear implants if the decline continues.
Richard excitedly talks about Children’s Hospital and the technological advancements that allowed Jason to get a prescription for new hearing aids this year, ones that finally let him hunt without ear muffs. The new hearing aids amplify what Jason needs to hear, but when they detect a certain noise level, will shut off and function as sound barriers instead, to protect his hearing.
Growing up in a family that has hunted for years, Jason began hunting at age 12, first grouse and then big game. “It was a very challenging process,” Richard said. “Trying to learn how to do that, trying to teach him with ear muffs on.”
The two adapted by talking about situations before getting to the field. Jason can read lips a little and only knows limited sign language, so communicating while hunting was a challenge.
“We came close lots of times,” Richard said. “But it was just… getting over those hurdles.” They used a method of “a lot of hand signals and a lot of frustration. When you’re hunting big game, movement is not so good, you know.”
Things changed when Jason was about 14 and harvested an 8-point whitetail in Kansas. It was more than a harvest, “we finally became coherent between the two of us,” Richard explained.
The road quickly led to Jackson County, where Jason would harvest a 42-inch bull in the same unit where Richard harvested his bull moose in 2008.
The season opened with bulls fighting in a nearby field. Jason could hear the commotion, but the opportunity for a stalk never presented itself. On the second day, Jason had to make a choice. There was a large bull within eyesight, a 100-yard shot. Or there was a larger bull he and Richard had watched walk around a corner. Though they had never stalked a moose before, Jason decided to go after the larger one. Fifty yards away, they watched as it turned its body the wrong way for a shot and slipped away through the willows.
Hunting other areas proved fruitless, so at the end of the day Jason and Richard returned to that meadow. They cow called and immediately a bull rushed toward them. At 150 yards, he turned broadside. Richard checked his watch, there were three minutes of shooting light left. Jason didn’t waste any of it, lined up, and fired his Browning .30-06.
“It just stood there,” Richard said. “We were so excited that we couldn’t get a second shot off.” The bull finally fell and Richard looked at his watch again. Shooting light was over. They would return the next day to pack out.
By 5 p.m. they were back in camp and Jason’s old dead stump of a pine was burning. “For a father-son trip, there’s no way you could ask for anything more,” he said.
On Aug. 7, Jason will turn 17. He’ll likely finish out his summer on the golf course, his favorite hobby. But when fall comes around, he and Richard will take to the field again to stalk deer with a leftover license near their home in Elizabeth.
“Success is motivating,” Richard said. “You can see it, he’s kinda really latched onto hunting as one of his favorite things.”
Their options are open now because Jason’s moose hunt marked a turning point — a point where technology has helped him adapt in the field, where Dad may give him his own side of the drainage to hunt, and look to him to pack out his share of meat. It’s the point where next time maybe father and son will pick a campsite with a big stump in it on purpose, and they can rest assured around the campfire that it has all started coming together.