Aaron Watts found his trusty Hoyt RX3 back in December, pounded into the mud and covered by debris. The cams, strings, and limbs were broken beyond repair. At the time, the loss of a compound bow was minuscule in the grand scheme, seeing as how his house and the small town where he lived with his wife and daughter had just been leveled by a massive tornado. But like so many in the Dawson Springs, Kentucky area, Aaron and his family pressed on, making do where they could, eventually settling into some version of a new normal.
By late summer the next year, when Aaron got a picture of a big buck on his trail camera, he knew that he needed a bow to hunt with. His brother-in-law, Jordan DeMoss, had just bought a new bow the year before but still had his old Mathews No Cam, and he told Aaron that he was welcome to use it. “When I started seeing those pictures of the buck, I knew I had to get in the woods,” Aaron says. “I borrowed that bow, but only got the chance to shoot it two or three times.”
December 10, 2021: The Night of the Storm
Dawson Springs is a Kentucky town of 2,800 that’s now famous for having been destroyed by a natural disaster. It’s a place where a sitting president was obligated to visit, and where, for a few days, drone footage of wreckage made the national news loop.
Locals remember more than the tragedy, though. Aaron and his wife, Ginny, both grew up in Nortonville, 20 minutes down the road from Dawson. Aaron is a 15-year veteran of the coal mines, and Ginny is a NICU nurse at Baptist Health Hospital. The couple bought a house in Dawson about a year ago, and Aaron says they loved the small town. They lived on Oak Heights, right next to the city park, and they would sometimes ride their golf cart down the road to Fiesta Acapulco which, along with Ms. Becky’s Place and Dairy Queen, is one of the only restaurants in town.
It was there that the Watts’s celebrated their daughter Cavvy’s 5th birthday with family on the afternoon of December 10, 2021. There was severe weather and potential tornadoes in the forecast that day, but it was difficult to stay home during a balmy, 70-degree afternoon in December.
“They had the storm tracking on TV at the restaurant, and we were watching it, but nonchalantly paying attention to it,” Aaron says. “We had her birthday, wrapped up the party, and then I had to get ready to go to work that night.”
Weather updates became more urgent after nightfall, with reports of tornadoes popping up in eastern Arkansas and tracking through northern Tennessee and western Kentucky. Aaron and Ginny’s house—which they were just finishing remodeling—had a basement. To be safe, Aaron helped everyone get settled down there for the night before he left for work. His two nieces and brother-in-law Ryan Long’s family came over to sleep in the basement, and Aaron and Ginny carried extra mattresses downstairs.
Outside, the wind began ripping, and the weather reports were growing more serious, from area tornado watches to warnings and rumors of storms that had already caused damage in other small towns. Aaron usually leaves home for work around 10:00 or 10:15, and he says he almost decided to stay home. But after talking it over with Ginny he decided to leave and get ahead of the storm.
He hadn’t gone far down the highway when the wind really picked up. He texted Ginny, who said they were fine. But as Aaron listened to the weather on the radio, and he had a gut feeling that leaving home was a mistake.
Ginny texted again and said the wind and rain were really picking up. Aaron continued driving and listening to the broadcast. There was a tornado coming, and the town of Mayfield, about an hour west, had been hit hard. Princeton, just east of Dawson, had been hit, too. The tornado was on the ground and coming directly at their town.
Aaron says that the weatherman then broke character with a dire warning. “He said, if you’re in the Dawson Springs or Ilsley area and don’t take cover, there will be fatalities,” Aaron says. He texted Ginny again but got no response. He passed the next exit and turned around to head home. That’s when his phone buzzed again.
“That last text from Ginny… it’s hard to talk about,” he says. “It says, ‘If anything happens to us, I just want you to know you’ve been a great daddy and a good husband.’”
As Aaron raced toward Dawson Springs, his phone rang. It was Ginny. “She said, ‘We’re fine, but the house is gone. Come as soon as you can.’” Then he got another call from his sister. She said the tornado was going right down the parkway and he was headed right for it.
Aaron detoured, taking two side roads, just missing the storm. As he neared town, a state trooper hit his lights to stop Aaron. “He motioned for me to follow him, and I could barely keep up,” Aaron says. “When we came over the parkway, I could see something wrong; it was pitch black. There were big limbs down everywhere. My heart fell to the floorboard. When I got to Oak Heights, it was unimaginable. There were fire trucks and downed power lines everywhere. From that point on that night, everyone was on foot.”
The Aftermath of the Quad State Tornadoes
Aaron says Ginny and Ryan are heroes. “They had four kids to deal with, but they kept it together and got everyone out of the back window in the basement,” he says. “The only thing standing of our house was Cavvy’s room. Our neighbor’s house was separated from the foundation, pushed all the way against a big tree. Our neighbor was 80 years old, and Ginny and Ryan had to climb down and help her out of the basement.”
Aaron says they lost three neighbors who lived behind them. The storm claimed 89 lives, 19 in Dawson Springs alone, and destroyed an estimated 75 percent of that town. The Quad State Tornadoes, as they would later be called, set a record as the deadliest December tornado outbreak in history.
Aaron says that Cavvy hasn’t said much about that night. She knows there was a big storm, and gets upset when they go into Dawson Springs. The family moved back to the outskirts of Nortonville. “We loved Dawson, but we just couldn’t go back there,” Aaron says.
Though there’s been an incredible amount of rebuilding since then on Oak Heights and elsewhere in town, clean-up in the days and months following was tedious and painful. Aaron says he saved most of his guns, but virtually all of his other hunting and fishing gear, including his bow and a bass boat, was destroyed.
“The hunting stuff was the least of my worries,” he says. “We were looking to find valuables and keepsakes. We lost pictures, and my wife lost a cookbook that her granny had given her, and she was very upset about that.”
A piece of taxidermy tossed into a soggy roadside ditch did provide some levity, though. “I’d killed a 12-pointer and had it mounted, and we were missing it,” Aaron says. “We found it in the ditch, but the antlers were gone. These two boys were walking down the road and one of them looked at it and said, ‘Who gets a doe mounted?’ I hollered back and said, ‘It was a buck at one time!’ We found one of the broken antlers nearby, but never found the other one.”
September 10, 2022: Aaron Gets Back in the Woods
Ginny’s father owns some land a few miles from Dawson, and Aaron has hunted there since the couple got together 13 years ago. Though he’s been an outdoorsman all of his life, the small property is where Aaron started bowhunting five years ago.
Aaron had never planted a food plot before, but he decided to try it this year. “My father-in-law tilled me up a spot, and I planted some winter oats,” he says. “It’s just a little micro plot. I have my stand in the woods nearby, and there’s a 60-acre field to the right of where I sit. Almost immediately after that plot came up, the does started tearing it up. After a week, I saw a picture of him.”
The buck appeared early, at 4:00 in the afternoon, and right away, Aaron knew he wanted to hunt the deer. It was a big 8-pointer that was both wide and heavy with a kicker on one brow tine. “The gene pool out there is tall and narrow, and when I saw how wide he was, I thought, ‘My goodness.’”
Aaron made plans for a morning hunt on the second weekend of the season. He saw a few does, but didn’t have much action otherwise. But he’d been watching the field with a cellular camera, and knew the buck was around. “He be there two days and then wouldn’t be there two days,” he says. “It was warm that afternoon, but Ginny encouraged me to go hunt. So I got into some lightweight clothes, grabbed the bow I’d borrowed, and took off. I got into the woods about 2 o’clock.”
Aaron sat for an hour without seeing anything, but he knew the buck had been coming out early. Ginny even texted him, predicting that he’d see the deer that day at 4:21 p.m. “At 3:50, I stood up and got ready, just in case,” Aaron says. Sure enough, a doe jumped a nearby fence and crossed the food plot in front of him. A 6-pointer was right behind her. “I knew the big one had to be close because for the last two and a half weeks, he’d been together with that 6-pointer. Then, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and the rack coming through the trees.”
The buck put his head over the fence and stared in the direction of Aaron’s stand. Then the buck jumped the fence, and Aaron pulled his bow as he did. “I stopped looking at his head and stared straight dead at his shoulder. I found my spot and pin, and let the arrow go.”
The shot was 35 yards and Aaron says the buck acted untouched. He could see his Lumenock in the dirt. “I thought I’d shot underneath him,” he says, “I called Ginny and told her that I’d missed.”
But upon climbing down, Aaron realized he hadn’t missed. His arrow was coated in stomach matter—a sure sign he’d hit the buck, but not where he wanted. He snuck out and called a family friend, Kenzie Taylor. Taylor owns Kentucky K9 Deer Tracking and advised Aaron to wait eight to 10 hours, minimum, before taking up the trail.
Aaron had to go to work later that night, where he had a hard time focusing. “I’d already told myself I’d messed it up, and just kept thinking about the worst-case scenarios,” he says. But finally his shift ended, and Aaron’s dad met with him that next morning to search for the buck. They found the deer in a thicket just 75 yards from the stand. The borrowed bow and new food plot had both worked just fine.
I grew up in Dawson Springs and was one of 29 in the graduating class of 2001. I met my high-school sweetheart, Michelle, there when we were in kindergarten. We’re still married. Though we don’t live there anymore, we’re frequently in Dawson to hunt family land and visit our parents. Hers and mine both live just a few miles outside of town.
Our family was spared injury and damage from the December 10 tornadoes, but we spent days working in Dawson immediately following the storm, doing what we could to help with the cleanup. It’s a process that makes you hate yourself for any complaining you’ve ever done.
I knew my hometown was full of hunters who’d be focused on bigger things than getting in the woods for some time to come—but who might eventually miss some of the expensive hunting gear they’d lost, too. We organized an informal fundraiser and used the Field & Stream platform to put the word out. We raised more than $2,000 through a GoFundMe account, and used that money to purchase gift certificates to Tradewater Guns and Ammo, a small but well-stocked gun shop in downtown Dawson Springs. Owner Rocky Howton—who lost his home in the tornado—donated another gift certificate to the cause.
Many of those monetary donations came from outdoor industry colleagues, including other writers for competing publications. A substantial donation came from Source Outdoor Group, a public relations group that handles accounts like Barnett Crossbows and Millennium Treestands. Others came from complete strangers who read about the storms and were moved to help. There were additional donations of gear from individuals and brands including Burris Optics, Maven Optics, CVA firearms, and LaCrosse Boots. They’ve never asked for a thing in return, but will always have my business.
I spoke with Aaron Watts for the first time—and heard his story of the buck and of December 10—just the other day, when I met with him to give him a new bow and a gift certificate to Tradewater Guns and Ammo. He didn’t get that bow quite in time to kill his buck with it—but he did send me pics of an impressive group that he shot with it the next day, and says he’s looking forward to hunting some does with it later this fall, once it cools off.
If you made a donation, it did matter. Thank you, from my hometown. — Will Brantley