By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
Some kids grow up with tales of great hunts and outdoor adventure. They dream of future exploits while gazing at mounted critters on their walls.
But some never have the opportunity to acquire backcountry secrets gathered through generations and handed down as a rite of passage.
It’s tough to start new. Andrew Richardson wanted to create a different legacy for his children. It was a promise he made to himself — that they would have it better than he did.
When his son Tennessee turned 12, they hit the ground running. Turkeys, pheasant, pronghorns and a doe were up first. Last fall, it was time for Tennessee’s first buck.
Andrew and Tennessee applied for Wyoming Hunt Area 117, an spot west of Meeteetse that’s a tough limited quota tag to draw. They got lucky and both received tags. As the season was about to start, they headed for the hills to set up camp for an extended stay. Tennessee was to get the first shot.
For two days he passed on several bucks; some forkers and a couple keepers. Yet, the minute Tennessee saw a familiar rack, he knew in his heart it was “the one.”
The father and son team had spent countless days scouting the terrain during the preseason. They had first spotted Tennessee’s deer in July and patterned it through the seasons.
Spending all those months with his father made this buck special, Tennessee said, despite passing on a larger buck. Andrew worked hard to get them in position for the shot.
“I got him within 110 yards,” Andrew recalled, “and he harvested his first buck at 10,500 feet [elevation].”
Tennessee, named after country and western singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, was beyond thrilled.
“Since he started hunting, it’s all he talks about,” Andrew said.
Together, the father and son team is building a strong bond — sharing their love for the great outdoors. It’s an often-told story in Wyoming, but it’s not where the story ends, thanks to some visitors who showed up at their campsite with a curious offer.
A special hunt
Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner David Rael and his wife, Jennie, stopped by to say howdy before doing some scouting on their own elk hunt in area 62, which overlaps with area 117. Before they knew it, the group was locked in a conversation.
“That’s how I meet most of my friends,” Rael said.
Andrew shared his and Tennessee’s plans to stay in the mountains for eight days, hoping to score a nice buck or two. Rael has long been an advocate of recruiting young hunters and anglers, hoping they’ll carry on the traditions of western outdoorsmen and women. He was inspired by the father and son team’s plan.
Then Rael said something to Tennessee that dropped his jaw: “If you get a 4-pointer, I’ll pay for the mount.”
Tennessee was stunned. But not knowing Rael, Andrew thought it could be a hollow gesture. “We didn’t know him from Adam,” he said.
Then the two teams of hunters went their separate ways. Andrew and Tennessee both harvested beautiful bucks in the coming week and had the time of their lives in the mountains before returning to Cody.
“This was, by far, the most influential hunt I’ve ever been on,” Andrew said. “Not only because we had good tags and both of us got deer, but because we got to spend eight days in the mountains teaching each other new things.”
The learning process has been steep for Andrew, who grew up without a father.
“I didn’t have anybody to show me how to get any of it done,” he said. “For the first 18 years of my life there was just nobody there.”
Most of Andrew’s hunting skills are self-taught. He spends hours doing research and an equal amount of time soul searching. His kids would have a different upbringing.
“We both learned that whole trip, you know, it wasn’t just me teaching him,” Andrew said. “It was me learning from him as well; I don’t know if I’ll ever experience another hunt as special as this one.”
Meanwhile, when the Raels returned home to Cowley they realized they’d forgotten to get a phone number from their new friends. David Rael doesn’t take making new friends or promises lightly, so he started searching.
“There aren’t many kids named Tennessee,” he said, “so we started there.”
Eventually, after “employing a team,” he found Andrew’s contact information and gave him a call. Once finding out Tennessee accomplished his goal, Rael made a new offer: to either pay for the shoulder mount or to buy him a lifetime small game hunting, fishing license and conservation stamp.
Tennessee ultimately picked the shoulder mount, but the $681.50 license was tempting. Rael has helped literally hundreds of other youth obtain lifetime licenses.
In 2017, when the Game and Fish Commission planned to meet in Lovell, he decided to sponsor a “meet and greet” with local department employees.
“It’s important that game wardens aren’t seen as intimidating,” he said. “I thought if we could get people to come, they could meet Game and Fish employees to see for themselves what great people they are.”
Getting people to come to the event was going to be the tough part, he figured. Most commission meetings, unless a controversial subject is on the agenda, are lightly attended. So with the help of area businesses, Rael offered several door prizes of lifetime small game and fishing licenses to kids attending the meeting with their parents.
That first experiment was so successful it became a tradition. Rael raised so much money — as well as pulling money from his own pocket in many cases — that there were more tags available than eligible children at some events. The plan was a hit.
At an open house in Powell in November 2019, dozens of youth licenses were awarded. Ryan and Christy Muecke brought their sons Curtis and Tucker and daughter Charlee to participate in the many activities and learning opportunities at the meet and greet.
Though Charlee was too young to participate in the license giveaway, both of the Mueckes’ sons won licenses. It made a big impact on the entire family, Christy said.
“The kids are getting us out more,” she said. “Ryan didn’t bird hunt at all until this year. Tucker was so excited about using his lifetime license, now they’ve gone quite a bit.”
Christy also thinks the opportunity to meet Game and Fish employees was important in exciting their children about outdoor sports.
“I believe that recruiting kids will carry on our passion… our way of life,” she said.
With Rael’s leadership, the open houses have been incredibly beneficial, said Tara Hodges, Cody Region information and education specialist and a hunter safety instructor.
“Commissioner Rael is an authentic and very welcoming individual — and that translates well into an open house style of communication,” Hodges said, adding, “We value the opportunity to meet with the public and engage in one-on-one conversation. This allows Game and Fish to listen to individuals so that we can work together to invest in the next generation of hunters, anglers, trappers and wildlife enthusiasts.”
‘They are our future’
Still, perhaps nothing quite compares to relationships forged in the field.
While on his hunt, Tennessee had an influential meeting with Meeteetse area Game Warden Jim Olson. Olson checked Tennessee’s license and spent some time interacting with him in the field.
“He absolutely treated my boy with the utmost respect, like a man,” Andrew said. “It means a lot to him to be able to stand in front of somebody and talk to him and shake his hand and get treated like a grown up.”
Although several years from needing to make the decision, the chance encounter with a game warden planted a seed: Tennessee is exploring the idea of becoming a Game and Fish employee. “He made a big impact on me,” Tennessee said of Olson.
As for Rael, he became emotional as he recounted meeting the Richardsons in the mountains outside Meeteetse.
Not only did the relationship between Andrew and Tennessee inspire Rael, but seeing a father and son building a lifetime relationship also exposed some raw nerves from his own youth.
“I never went hunting with my father,” Rael explained. “He had other things in his life more important than his family.”
Growing up without his father’s guidance was hard, but Rael was lucky enough to be introduced to the outdoors by his stepfather when he was a teen. Instead of being bitter, the feelings of regret have driven Rael to do everything he can to help others; hearing Andrew’s story inspired him to help.
An inspector for Black Hills Energy, Andrew also has a daughter, and Bostyn is raring to hunt. “She’s already telling me that she wants to go,” Andrew said. “She wants to shoot an elk with a bow. And she’s 7 years old.”
Bostyn will get her turn, he promised.
Both he and Rael resolved to be better fathers than they had, to never make their children go through what they experienced: the feeling of not being wanted.
“It’s too important,” Rael said, tears in his eyes. “They are our future.”
‘A friend forever’
Rael ends his six-year stint on the Game and Fish Commission Friday after a two-day Zoom meeting. The next commissioner will be selected from applicants from Park County.
Rael’s special brand of leadership will be missed, said Commissioner Patrick Crank, of Cheyenne, but the meet and greet will continue as his legacy.
“We have a group of the most amazing employees on the face of the earth, and they’re the heart and soul of the agency. They work their tails off to manage and support our wildlife, and they’re just good human beings. They’re members of every community across the state,” Crank said. “I think David [Rael]’s allowed people to sit down and talk one on one with those amazing folks and it has helped tremendously.”
He’s also become a great friend, Crank said. “He’s the kind of guy that you could call in the middle of the night and say, ‘I need help, David,’ and he would show up a few hours later and help you. He’s just truly an amazing human being. What a pleasure it was to serve with him.”
In the middle of Crank’s term on the commission, he was involved in a serious automobile accident. He was life-flighted to Denver for treatment. It took several years before he was walking without the aid of a walker or cane.
“After I came back, I was in Casper, and I was still using the walker to get into the building,” Crank recalled. “I looked up, and David was out in front of me kicking all the little stones and pebbles off the sidewalk so I wouldn’t trip.”
Crank will also be ending his term on the commission after the Thursday and Friday meeting. The former Wyoming attorney general from 2002 to 2007 under former Gov. Dave Freudenthal is a shareholder in Crank Legal Group, P.C., a Cheyenne law firm, and plans to continue practicing. Crank also plans to be in Cowley every Fourth of July for the Raels’ celebration ’til I’m pushing up daisies.”
Rael said the two haven’t always had the same opinion, but they’ve never let a debate come between them.
“Pat tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. But under that gruff exterior, he has a bigger heart than his body has a right to carry.”
Though an owner of a thriving construction business, Rael considers his family and friends his greatest blessings.
“I’m not a part-time friend,” he said. “Once I make a friend, I’m a friend forever.”