Whitetail Hunting photo

Even the most experienced bowhunter can blow the shot when she’s got a record-worthy buck in her sights—especially after passing on something smaller. But 23-year-old Erica Gates of Pickensville, Alabama, handled this trophy buck—her very first bow kill—like a pro. The mainframe 12-pointer green-scored 156 inches after deductions. That’s well above the 125-inch minimum required to enter the Pope & Young record book.

Gates told AL.com that she’s been deer hunting since she was 12 years old and archery hunting for just a few seasons. She’d been frustrated with her lack of success, so far, and had considered hanging up her bow. “My boyfriend, brother, and dad all kept encouraging me to stick with it,” said Gates, who also hunts ducks, turkey, doves, and squirrels.

So, on November 15, Gates climbed into a stand on 400 acres of land that’s been in her family for generations. In the first few hours, she saw a few does and a small 8-point buck that she elected not to shoot, so it would have a chance to mature. When activity slowed and the cold weather started chilling her to the bone, a small doe walked toward her. “It got right underneath my stand and I had my phone out taking pictures and texting them to my boyfriend,” said Gates, who was unaware that the 180-pound buck was not far behind. “When I sat back down and looked over to the left, there he was. I thought ‘Oh my good gracious. That’s a monster buck.'”

She tried to ignore the buck’s size and just prepare for a shot. Feeding on acorns, the deer eventually stepped behind a tree and Gates used the opportunity to draw, but somehow obscured her sight pin in the process. “Before the season came in, I practiced shooting my bow with and without using the peep,” she said. “I knew that I’d never seen this buck before and we didn’t have it on any of our game cameras. I figured if I didn’t shoot now, I’d probably never see it again this close. I was confident I could make a good shot.”

Moments later, when the buck appeared again 12 yards away, she let an arrow fly. She heard the arrow hit and watched the deer run away, but started questioning her shot. After regrouping with her boyfriend and siblings, who were hunting elsewhere on the property, they began tracking. “At first, we only found one little blood drop. I thought, ‘Oh, no. This is not good.’ But then we started finding more and more every few yards. Then we started seeing bubbles in it, so I knew I’d got a lung,” she said. They found the deer 40 minutes later, 250 yards from where Gates shot it.

“That was the best moment of my life so far. The adrenaline was still flowing and it was such an emotional moment that I have to say that I started crying,” Gates said. “My dad was super excited. It is definitely a buck of a lifetime, for sure.”