Some families share a bond that runs deeper than blood.
It happened on occasion. Usually while on deployment overseas.
“I’d get a little more homesick especially around hunting season,” Stephen Holley says. “Opening Weekend is a big deal with most hunters but in my house growing up, it was a really big deal.”
Holley, SIXSITE Founder, designer and former U.S. Navy SEAL officer, started hunting with his father shortly after he was old enough to walk, “and probably, go to the bathroom by myself.” He spent those early years in the woods watching, listening and learning from his dad. “Those woods. That’s where I always felt most comfortable.”
Holley’s first solo hunt happened at age nine. “Ended up harvesting my first deer that year and I was hooked.” Several years later, as a 14-year-old, he borrowed an old bow from a good friend who encouraged Holley to practice with it in the backyard. “I immediately knew this was something I was going to love doing,” he says. To be a successful bowhunter, you have to be close, quiet and accurate—three skills that would serve him well later in the SEAL Teams.
From that point, Holley spent his high school years with a bow in his hand. While he harvested some nice deer, he knew even then that hunting was about more than filling tags. “It was just being out there learning, having fun, and bonding with family and friends. It still is.”
Yet nothing beat time in the woods with Dad.
“We spent a lot of time hunting and fishing,” Holley remembers. “Hunting with my father was my favorite thing to do growing up. Then I went to college for four years. Didn’t get to hunt as much. Then I was in the Navy for six, almost seven years, with four different deployments. Didn’t get to hunt really at all.” But when Holley finished his military service, his father intended to change that.
“My dad planned a backcountry bow hunt for me, and he was going to tag along,” Holley says with a smile. “It was intended to be a celebration of me getting out of the Navy and us being able to spend time together again outdoors.”
The two commemorated the occasion in typical Holley fashion. They set out to hunt elk in the 2.3 million acres comprising the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho; the largest contiguous federally managed wilderness in the lower 48 states.
“We hunted very hard,” Holley remembers, as if his legs still burn from the trip. “I think it was the sixth day of a seven- or eight-day hunt. On one of those last days, the guide and I glassed some elk in an area that was extremely difficult to access. We hoped they would move somewhere that gave us a better chance at a clean shot, but they didn’t cooperate.”
The following morning in camp, the guide asked Holley a simple question. “You sure you want to go up that mountain where those elk are?” The answer was as quick as it was decisive. “Yes.” So they waited until the wind was right. The thermal shifted, and they maneuvered up the mountain as quickly as possible. After two hours of intense scrambling, they reached their spot.
“The guide let out one cow call, and there they were.”
Bull elks. Bugling in every direction.
The group immediately found themselves staring down two bulls racing towards them. “If you have spent any time hunting elk in September during the rut, you know they can come in very quickly and pretty angry,” Holley says. “My adrenaline at the moment immediately shot through the roof.”
Seven difficult days of hunting and one two-hour scramble up a mountain right into a herd of rutting elk can have that effect.
“I was excited,” Holley recalls. “After such a hard hunt, I finally had a bull elk in bow range for the first time in my life. I just should have ranged him one more time but couldn’t due to the location of my rangefinder. It was attached down on my belt,” he says with a mixture of frustration and disappointment.
“I ended up putting the arrow right underneath him.”
Months of talking, planning and discussing the hunt of a lifetime came down to a missed shot at 40 yards.
“I was just devastated,” Holley admits. “To put that arrow right underneath him was absolutely devastating. Anyone who’s missed a shot knows. It wasn’t a big bull but, for me, it was the first bull elk I’ve had in bow range. It might as well have been a 350 bull. It wasn’t anywhere near that but I sure felt like it. I had a lot of sleepless nights after that hunt.”
That experience on an Idaho mountaintop would be the catalyst for his SIXSITE line of products. Just like his time spent on the Teams altering his gear for a particular mission, Holley incorporated a tactical D-Ring onto his hunting jacket for better access to his rangefinder.
Those sleepless nights also led to more trips into the backcountry with friends and family. “Some years we didn’t fill our tags. Other years we did. In fact, just last year Dad and I filled a tag hunting elk on public land in New Mexico. But whether we have success or not, it seems like we learn something new every season we go out,” Holley says.
Holley’s love of wilderness, of testing himself against both the elements and odds, is being passed down to the next generation. Family land in central Texas is where Holley grew up hunting and fishing. It's where, as he puts it, “I was able to run wild and do all the things you do as a kid in the woods.” As a parent of four young boys and one girl, Holley now shows them the paths he walked and the woods he ran through when he was their age. “It’s not only important to raise them outdoors, but it’s also a whole lot of fun doing it.”
Just like those early mornings and late afternoons he spent with his father, Holley recounts the joy of hunting with his nine-year-old. “He’s harvested a number of deer with me sitting right next to him. And as a father, nothing tops sitting there next to your kids watching them be successful. From a hunting standpoint, they also learn people didn’t always run down to the grocery store to buy meat, fruits and vegetables.”
His son is learning the work doesn’t stop once the trigger is pulled or arrow is released. “I show him how to clean that deer and how to care for that meat. I also let him dictate how we process the game when we get home. Whether it’s sausage or hamburger or steaks, I want the family to be a part of the entire process, because I want my kids to respect the wild game we’re so lucky to harvest.”
In a modern and rapidly changing world, Holley feels it’s imperative to keep his kids connected to the past as well as the experiences and memories a great hunt can provide.
“Throughout history, hunting has been the bedrock of our survival as a species,” Holley explains. “Being able to provide for yourself, your family, even your village or town was vital. I’m proud of that lineage and having the opportunity to pass it all on to my children. The experience of hunting may end with a great meal, but it starts with the camaraderie and fellowship you get that’s one of a kind.”
“You can’t get it anywhere else.”