Last season 16-year-old Cassie Zanolini accomplished a feat that many Pennsylvania hunters dream of but few achieve: In a single license year she tagged all three of the state's prime big game species--deer, bear and turkey. Using a shotgun, bow and rifle, Zanolini may be the first youth hunter--and is likely the youngest girl--ever to complete a vaunted "triple trophy," which holds a special place in Pennsylvania hunting lore. Once an official recognition administered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the triple trophy was discontinued in 1972 after only six years. "It was believed the award placed too much emphasis on those three species," says PGC spokesman Jerry Feaser, "and in some cases was found to have resulted in individuals committing illegal acts in order to qualify." Although the state's wildlife agency long ago distanced itself from the feat, Pennsylvania hunters haven't forgotten it. Nearly 40 years since the state last handed out certificates and patches recognizing the achievement, the triple trophy is still a hot topic in hunting camps and online forums. "It's something everyone talks about, but as a licensed hunter who's been in the Pennsylvania woods for over 30 years and met thousands of hunters, I've never personally known anyone who accomplished it," says Dale Machesic, a former outdoor writer for Calkins-Media who's now publisher of the South Dade News Leader in Florida. "It's the ultimate in bragging rights for a Pennsylvania outdoorsman or woman. It's something very few hunters accomplish, and the fact that it was done by a young lady--at the risk of sounding sexist--I think it's marvelous.".
Cassie Zanolini was a hunting enthusiast long before she shot her first doe at 12 and her first buck (shown here) at 13. “Hunting was always a big part of my life because my dad’s family all hunt,” she says. “Ever since I was little I would go out with my dad and he would let me help put up his tree stand. Every once in a while I’d sit with him while he hunted. I always would say, ‘I can’t wait until I can hunt.'” “When Cassie was very young, I decided I wasn’t going to push hunting on her,” says Greg Zanolini of his daughter. “If she wanted to, I’d do whatever she’d take, give her how much she was willing to absorb. She was just a natural and wanted to do it from the start.” “He always talked about hunting, but he never pushed it on me; it was always, ‘If you want to try it, I’m here to help,'” says Cassie, who also has a younger brother named Buddy. “We always had BB guns and Dad would take us to bow shoots. I think he kind of always knew I’d be the one who wanted to hunt, but he never made me do it.”
At the time, 12 was the minimum hunting age in Pennsylvania. When Cassie was 11, Greg asked if she wanted to hunt the next year. “I said, ‘Yeah I want to hunt! I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life.'” Greg set her up with a crossbow. It was a tough season, but she persevered, finally taking a doe. “That first year I hunted the hardest I’ve ever hunted, and he said it was probably the hardest he’s ever hunted,” Cassie says. “Every day he would ask, ‘Do you want to go hunting today?’ And every day I would say yeah. Ever since, I can’t wait for hunting season to come around. My dad is the one who really got me into it and kept me into it.” Though hunting deer with archery equipment is her real love, she also became proficient with a rifle, taking this button buck in December 2007.
Since her first year afield, Cassie has filled multiple whitetail tags every season. In 2008 she downed this doe…
… and this buck in the same year.
The season before last, Cassie told her dad that she wanted to switch to a compound bow. “I think she thought the crossbow was a little too much like a rifle, a little too easy,” says Greg. “Once she picked up a compound she didn’t want to go back to crossbow.” “We went to a range by our house to practice a lot,” Cassie says. “It took getting used to, but eventually I learned how to shoot a tighter group. I worked hard and got it figured out.” This one-horned buck–her first buck with a compound bow–was her reward.
The same approach that helped her master the bow–“a lot of practice, a lot of repetition” in Cassie’s words–also helped her become proficient with a shotgun and a rifle. “We started with BB guns when we were really young, and then Dad had us practice a lot with a .22 at the range, because it doesn’t kick as much.” And there were frequent visits to a nearby trap-and-skeet club as well. “We don’t shoot as much as we’d like,” Greg Zanolini says, “but she makes the best of it and I think she’s a good shot with everything she uses.”
The license year in Pennsylvania runs July 1 to June 30. As the 2010-’11 season kicked off, the Zanolinis weren’t necessarily thinking triple trophy–at least no more than usual. “I guess I try to do it every year,” Greg chuckles. “I think every real hunter does. But at the same time I’ve never known anyone who pulled it off.” Hunting in October, Cassie had a nice 7-pointer at five paces and missed. “She just blew the shot,” says Greg, who saw the whole thing from his stand in the same tree. “She was crushed, absolutely crushed.” “I cried actually,” says Cassie. “I was really upset. I should have waited and taken a better shot, and it was my mistake and I messed up and I’ll learn from it now.”
She didn’t have to wait long to redeem herself. A half hour later this buck was feeding toward her stand. For 20 minutes Cassie watched the deer mill around until it came within range, then she arrowed it with a 20-yard shot. “Sure, she was disappointed that she missed such an easy shot,” Greg says. “I could see it got her nerves worked up waiting so long. But in the end it didn’t matter to her that it was a smaller buck. It was a buck she made a nice shot on, and she was just thrilled.” “I was happy with the buck that I got,” Cassie confirms, “because just getting a deer is exciting, I don’t care if it’s a buck or doe. No matter what, you’re always excited and your adrenaline is rushing. That’s what I like best about deer hunting.”
The Zanolinis traditionally spend the three-day bear season at their cabin in the Poconos. Every November friends come and bring along their kids and everyone hunts. But with all those years and all those hunters, no one had ever tagged a bear. Until now.
“We had limited time to scout this year, because the season opened on a Saturday, which is usually our scouting day,” Greg Zanolini says. “We hadn’t seen anything that morning, so we decided to hunt an area we hadn’t scouted, but where I’d seen bears before. It was kind of a stab in the dark. I sat Cassie down and went 100 yards away with my son.” Zanolini says bear success rates in his hunting area are very low. “Less than 2 percent of hunters get a bear, and most of those are harvested by groups of hunters in drives; very few are harvested by sitting.” He heard a shot from Cassie’s Browning BLR .308. “I was dumbfounded. I wondered what the heck she was shooting at. I looked over and saw her with her rifle up, and she shot again. I looked to the woods and sure enough there was a bear flopping on the ground.”
“When I saw something black moving behind a tree, I thought it was probably just a bird or something,” Cassie recalls. “I kept watching, and it came out in the open. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a bear!’ I remember thinking to myself that I needed to take my time and make sure to get a good shot, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” “Afterward, I couldn’t stop smiling, and I could tell my dad was really proud of me. I thought, ‘Wow, I beat out all the other guys who’ve been hunting here for years. I was lucky enough to see the bear and a good enough shot to get it.’ Dad said, ‘You’re not lucky, you’ve been hunting hard all these years and you deserve it.’ Everyone was really happy for me.”
“We hadn’t even gotten back home before Dad said, ‘We gotta get you a turkey now. The bear is probably the hardest part, now we gotta get you a turkey.'” Cassie had heard her dad and uncles talk before about the triple trophy, so she was aware of the challenge: She had the fall and spring seasons to bag a turkey and complete the hat trick. “I’ve never even met anyone or heard of anyone who has gotten a triple trophy,” she says. “Dad said he’d never heard of anyone actually doing it either. I knew it was really rare, and I’d have to work really hard, but I wanted to do it so I was willing to work as hard as I had to. I was excited to try, but the pressure was on.”
Statistically, shooting a bear was the toughest part of Cassie’s feat, but the turkey was the biggest hunting challenge. After they came up empty during the fall turkey season, Cassie and Greg turned their attention to the spring hunt–something they had absolutely no experience with. “We aren’t spring turkey hunters at all, but we decided to become spring turkey hunters,” Greg says. “Cassie really did her homework. We talked to as many experienced hunters as we could and really picked their brains. When spring came around, we felt she had a good chance. We knew where the birds were; it was just a matter of are we good enough to call them in.”
In the end, a family friend called in the bird that would complete Cassie’s triple trophy. She took the gobbler with her father’s Mossberg 12 gauge, swapping out at the last minute the 20 gauge she has shot since she was 12 years old. “It was the last weekend I could hunt, and we had to crawl through the woods on our hands and knees to get to the birds, so it was really exciting,” she says. “Four gobblers came running in to the call, and I picked out what looked like the biggest one. I shot and birds were flying everywhere. My dad said his heart sank when he saw that, because he thought I missed. But then we all stood up and there was a bird flopping on the ground. I couldn’t believe I did it. We couldn’t stop smiling. It was an incredible experience.” And so the hunting season that started with a second-chance buck in October ended with a nearly last-chance gobbler in May.
There will be no patches, no certificates, no official record on file at the Pennsylvania Game Commission regarding Cassie Zanolini’s triple trophy. (“We congratulate this young person and wish her many more years of enjoyable and safe hunting seasons,” said PGC spokesman Jerry Feaser. “It is certainly a great accomplishment and one that provides a lot of deep personal satisfaction.”) But you can bet it’s a feat that Pennsylvania hunters will celebrate. Dale Machesic conducted his own research into the triple trophy, talking with PGC officials and longtime hunters across the state. “It’s such a rare thing that no one can verify whether or not she may be the first youth hunter ever to accomplish it,” he says. “Everybody suspects that she is. I think it’s an accomplishment we should salute. Add the fact that we’re talking about a youth hunter–a young lady!–and I just think it makes the future of hunting look very bright.” “I’ve gotten to watch her harvest almost every animal she’s taken, and it’s always the same thing: It’s an indescribable feeling,” says Greg Zanolini. “To me it’s the greatest feeling as a parent, to see your kid accomplish something they’ve been working at, no matter what it is.” He can’t remember a single thing his daughter said while they stood in a rain-soaked field admiring the gobbler that brought Cassie’s triple trophy quest to a happy end. He just remembers smiles all around. “I could see the emotion all over her face,” he says. “She didn’t have to say anything. I knew what she was feeling.”
In a single license year Cassie Zanolini, 16, tagged all three of the state’s prime big game species–deer, bear and turkey.