Usually, Kyle Koshiol can’t stop thinking about deer hunting.
Once the season closes and winter sets in, the 23-year-old will research new ground and work to secure permission. On the properties where he already has access, he’ll scout for fresh sign and new places to hang stands. He runs trail cameras, too, always kicking off the new year by checking which bucks survived the gauntlet of Wisconsin gun season.
As the 2019-2020 season wound down, the season ahead already looked promising. The buck Kyle and his youngest brother, Kegan, had been hunting for two years was back on camera, and it seemed like the brothers would get a chance to hunt him for a third year during the fall of 2020. Who knew what the already-mature buck would look like then.
But this winter, Kyle suddenly found he wasn’t looking forward to deer season anymore.
Bond of Brothers
Hunting can get complicated when you’re a pharmacy student like Kyle, who usually travels from his classes at the University of Minnesota in Duluth to his home in Dresser, Wisconsin, on the weekends during deer season. Over the years, he and his brother worked out a division of labor: Kyle would run point on strategy while Kegan, a high-school freshman, would hang stands and check cameras.
In 2017 they got permission on a farm in Polk County, and in 2018, Kegan pulled pictures of a good buck that lived there. He named the deer “Leaner,” after its slanted G2s. That bow season, they got an even better look when the deer appeared at dusk during one of their first sits. He never came closer than 60 yards. The following night he reappeared—again hanging up at 60 yards, and never working closer.
The third day fell on the Saturday of the youth season, and Kegan brought his rifle. Kyle thought the buck would be perfect for his little brother, who was 13 at the time. But Leaner never stepped out, and the Koshiols didn’t see the deer again until he showed up on camera in January.
During the entire 2019-2020 season, Leaner only appeared on camera. He behaved much the same as he had the previous year, vanishing in early October. So in early 2020, Kyle was relieved to get pictures that proved the deer had survived. He and Kegan started to get excited about the fall of 2020. Especially because when winter did set in, it promised to be fairly mild.
Then, one Friday in February, Kegan woke early to catch a ride with McKinley Erickson, a junior who also wrestled for St. Croix Falls High School. The friends were headed to lift weights with the rest of the team before class started, and the weekend kicked in. On the short drive to school, their car hit a patch of black ice, skidded off the icy pavement, and flipped, crashing into the trees and killing both boys.
A Tough Year
Kegan Koshiol was a jokester. And if you read his obituary, you’ll learn that “flirting with the ladies was a specialty” of his. Or that he looked forward to napping “on warm fall days in the deer stand, which was the only time the stand was quiet.” He loved talking Packers football with his middle brother, Kevin, and waking up at 4 a.m. to bear hunt.
“He was definitely goofy, and he got under our skin quite a bit,” Kyle says fondly. “When it came to hunting though, he was serious and he was locked in. Granted, any 15-year-old kid that’s as squirrely as him, they’re going to have a tough time sitting still for that long.”
But Kegan had always managed it, and the two brothers would power through all-day sits together—always for the first two days of rifle season, and during peak rut.
“He’s like me,” Kyle says. “He just loved being out there, more than anything.”
The Koshiol family’s grief colored everything. For Kyle, that included deer season.
“I didn’t have a lot of motivation at the beginning of summer,” he says, which is when he and Kegan would normally be ramping up their trail camera efforts. “It just wasn’t the same.”
But family and friends persuaded Kyle to resume his preseason routine, encouraging him to get back in the woods and hang a few cameras. Eventually, his interest in hunting returned. And so did Leaner.
Even in early summer, Kyle could tell the buck would be extra special come fall. Not only were Leaner’s antlers blowing up—he added at least 30 inches between 2019 and 2020—but he might be huntable, too. The deer was appearing more and more frequently on the property as the year wore on.
“The older they get, they kind of close in on their home range,” Kyle says. “And that’s what he did.”
As the season approached, though, it became harder to get pictures of the buck. The day before the archery opener, he showed up on camera—during daylight. Opening day on Saturday, Sept. 12, was slow, however, and the rainy afternoon sit was mostly a bust. On Tuesday, a bad wind kept Kyle out of his blind, so he watched the field from a nearby road. Leaner walked in front of the fake hay bale at 30 yards.
The wind switched the next night, allowing Kyle to slip back into his spot. Several bucks appeared in the alfalfa field, but the deer he was hoping to see didn’t. They were only a few days into the season and the pressure was already building. Leaner never stuck around once October hit.
On Thursday, Sept. 17, a cold front moved in; Kyle also had class until 4 p.m. As soon as the online lecture ended, he drove 15 minutes back to the alfalfa field. This time his girlfriend, Makayla Parks, joined him. By 5 p.m. they were settled on the north edge of the field.
Half a dozen bucks trickled out of the treeline that evening, pushing each other around and looking back toward the southern field edge. Kyle had pictures of Leaner near there from the previous two days. So if the buck was going to show, he thought, that’s where it’d happen. Prepared as Kyle was for that scenario, it didn’t stop him from shaking when Leaner finally stepped out. There was a half hour left of shooting light and the buck was a hundred yards away, but Kyle couldn’t help it.
“Makayla looked at me like, Are you okay?”
The older buck joined the younger ones, half-heartedly pushing a few of them around and feeding in the alfalfa for fifteen minutes.
“He never seemed to be a dominant deer,” Kyle says. “He always stood toward the back, and he never had broken tines in the past—we have sheds of his.”
Most of the younger bucks faded back into the timber, leaving Leaner and two other bucks staging in the alfalfa. They fed toward the hay-bale blind and a cut cornfield beyond, with Leaner bringing up the rear.
When one of the other deer got downwind of the hunters, he bolted. Leaner didn’t seem troubled by this, though, and worked into range. At 44 yards, he was quartering hard toward the blind. Kyle considered the shot, but didn’t draw. There were at least 10 minutes of light left and another 50 yards before the buck would catch their wind.
The buck was browsing, perfectly broadside, at 32 yards when Kyle drew from his knees, bumping the window. The noise worked just as well as a grunt: Leaner froze in his tracks, snapping his head up and staring right into the blind. Kyle released the arrow.
“I know people say deer do a death run, and that’s kind of what he did. Makayla and I looked at each other when he took off, like Oh my gosh. He was breaking 6-inch trees. But granted, a 300-pound deer is going to make some noise when he’s running through the woods.”
Kyle used his phone’s flashlight to check the brush. They didn’t find the arrow in the tall grass, or much blood, and backed out.
“I was excited, of course, that I’d got an arrow in him,” Kyle says, noting that Makayla had been more excited than he felt. “But I wasn’t confident a hundred percent in the shot. It’s not over yet. I’ve been down this road before, where you spend a sleepless night and go to look in the morning. You find minimal blood and it’s really frustrating. So I didn’t want to get myself too worked up.”
After reviewing the footage Makayla had recorded, Kyle’s friends and family all agreed it was a high lung shot. The hit looked lethal, but everyone agreed it would be wise to wait until the next day to pick up the trail. The weather was cool enough to let the deer sit overnight.
“Once I watched the video, I got more and more confident,” Kyle says. “But still, there’s always that thought in the back of my head.”
The Next Morning
Kyle managed only two hours of sleep, then endured a morning class until 10 a.m. As soon as it ended, he met up with Makayla and a handful of buddies back at the blind. The search party started at the point of impact, and they immediately noticed something Kyle and Makayla’s flashlight beams had missed the previous night. Thirty yards from the start of the trail, the buck had brushed against a tree, smearing it with blood.
Inside the woods, though, the trail was hard to follow with so little foliage on the ground. The trackers could only find blood on the sparse weeds sprouting in the bare earth. A few more trees did show blood, though, and the last trunk the deer had rubbed against had splashes around its base. This time, the drops had bubbles in them.
The team had been in the woods 15, maybe 20, minutes now. Kyle was getting anxious and some of the searchers were getting impatient, ranging ahead as they looked for the deer instead of sign.
“I’m getting nervous,” Kyle told one of his buddies, who was holding the camera. “I don’t like the way things are playing out here.”
No sooner had he said it than something caught Kyle’s eye. A ray of sunshine was filtering through the canopy, illuminating an antler on the forest floor. His first thought was that it was a shed; his second, that it couldn’t be. Then he started running.
Leaner was piled up at the base of a tree, its trunk painted with blood. Makayla and another searcher had both walked right by the deer and hadn’t seen it. But the light had shown Kyle exactly where to look, even from 50 yards away. Some people would call it coincidence, or maybe sheer luck. But Kyle knew better.
Crouching by the deer, Kyle put a hand over his face, relieved and overwhelmed all at once as the full weight of the year his family had endured washed over him. Then his friends reached him, their congratulations breaking the quiet. Kyle’s hunting mentor, Michael Ward, scooped him into a huge hug.
“Someone special is looking down on me,” Kyle told him, as they stood beside Leaner. “I know that much.”
Not only did the Koshiol buck tape out at a green-gross score of 197½ inches, but the deer dressed out at 279 pounds. The nickname Kegan had chosen was especially fitting this season, since one of the buck’s G2s bent back at a 90-degree angle. By everyone’s best guess, Leaner was at least six and a half years old.
Other local hunters confirmed what Kyle suspected: This buck is one of the largest deer—both in antler size and body weight—killed in the area in a long time. The biggest archery bucks on record with the Pope and Young Club for Polk County are a 171 4/8-inch typical, taken by Thomas Coach in 2006, and a 185 3/8-inch nontypical, tagged by Vince Kovernick in 2011.
Kyle is curious how the official scoring in mid-November will play out, but he’s not worked up about it.
“That deer was for Kegan, more than anybody,” Kyle says. “And that moment of walking up on it was something I’ll never forget.”