"I would just look at them and dream," Dillan said. "I always wanted a deer like one of those on my wall."
Dillan got just that in a big way in mid-October during the opening weekend of the modern firearm season for deer in South Carolina's Upstate.
A 10-year-old fifth-grader who lives in Easley, Dillan first became smitten with "buck fever" during the 2005 season when he accompanied Cole during several weekend hunts. They saw only two deer during the season, and Dillan missed the only shot he took, but that experience only served to whet his appetite for the hunt.
"I think he really got hooked last year," Cole said. "He'd been looking forward to going hunting again since last January 1. We'd been planning this year's hunt for a long time."
When opening day finally rolled around this past October, Dillan once again was ready - not to mention well armed. He had worked diligently throughout the summer, mowing neighborhood lawns and doing chores around the house to save up enough money to purchase his own rifle. By summer's end, Dillan had amassed $550 - the amount necessary to buy the Winchester .270 that he'd had his sights on for months.
"I thought about that rifle a lot, and I did it all myself," Dillan said. "I didn't buy nothing else with that money - except bullets."
It didn't take long for Dillan's investment to pay off. And he only needed one bullet.
On Oct. 14, Dillan found himself perched in a tree stand with his uncle at a parcel of private club-leased property in Newberry County. Cole's club manages the 3,500 acres intently for quality bucks, complete with minimum-antler requirements - particularly at an 800-acre tract of the property designated only for bow hunting.
"We let kids who are 15 and under hunt in there, if they're accompanied by a member in the stand - particularly if the kid has never killed a deer before," Cole said. "Their first deer can be a buck of any size."
The two hunters had gone to the property the day before and saw 16 deer, including a four-point buck that Dillan decided to pass up.
"He had set a goal for himself," Cole said. "He was wanting a six-point (buck) or better. He told me he was going to wait, that he was going to hold out until he saw one at least that big."
They hunted Saturday for five hours in the morning, then took a break for lunch. They returned to their tree stand at around 4:30 that afternoon, but as darkness approached and a shifting wind threatened to give away their position adjacent to a three-acre food plot, Cole was convinced his young nephew would be forced to wait for another weekend to bag his first deer.
Again, they had seen plenty of deer over the course of the day - 14 to be exact - but no buck better than a spike.
At one point, Dillan expressed an interest in taking the spike, but Cole convinced him otherwise, reminding him of the six-point goal he'd set for himself.
"I was going to hold him to what he said he wanted," Cole said.
The patience paid off.
"It was starting to get dark, and if we had been hunting in the woods, the hunt would've been over at 7:15," Cole said. "But there was still some pretty good light on the food plot."
The wind that had been hitting them in the face and blowing into the thick pines behind them suddenly shifted, blowing their scent out into the plot in front of them.
"I told myself 'this hunt's probably over now,' " Cole said.
Just then, he heard the sound of a deer running, followed by the grunting of a buck. A doe ran out into the plot, clearly visible in the twilight.
"I told him to get ready because I knew there was probably a buck chasing the doe," Cole said.
He was right. Cole took Dillan's rifle off safety, and within seconds a big buck had emerged from the woods. The buck stopped in its tracks and looked directly toward the hunters.
"I think the buck heard me whisper for Dillan to get ready," Cole said. "He stopped to look at us for a few seconds. The doe was stopped, too, and looking at us. I think she probably heard me, too.
"But then the doe took a couple of steps forward, and when she did the buck turned back toward her."
With the buck distracted, Dillan quickly got his gun into position and squeezed the trigger on a 75-yard shot. The buck stumbled, then disappeared into a nearby thicket.
"We didn't hear the buck crash, so I asked Dillan how he felt about his shot," Cole said. "He said, 'Uncle Tony, I was dead steady when I pulled the trigger.' "
Indeed he was.
"I was kind of nervous, but I wasn't wiggling everywhere," Dillan said. "I was happy, but I thought it was going to be just a little five-pointer."
After waiting about 10 minutes, they climbed down out of the tree stand. Cole had trouble locating a blood trail, so he sent Dillan back to the stand to guide him. With Cole holding a flashlight to signal his position in the plot, Dillan guided him to where he thought the buck had been standing.
Cole eventually found the trail, then followed it fairly quickly to the buck, which was about 50 yards away. Then the real fun began.
"Dillan came up and saw the deer and just went crazy," Cole said. "We started high-fiving and screaming and yelling and hugging in the middle of the woods."
The object of their affection certainly qualified as worthy of yelling and hugging.
"It surprised me how big it was," Cole said.
The buck, which weighed 195 pounds, was a main frame nine-point with three smaller sticker points. The rack had a 16 3/4-inch inside spread and has been green-scored at 136 1/8 Boone and Crockett points, which if it holds up following the mandatory drying period would qualify the buck for inclusion in South Carolina's all-time record book. Typical racks must score a minimum of 125 B&C points to gain record-book status.
Dillan quickly phoned his mother, who had an emotional reaction.
"When I told mom, she started crying like crazy," Dillan said. "I wasn't crying; I was just jumping up and down."
Cole immediately called another club member and told him to gather some more members to help them drag the buck out. When they returned to the camp's skinning shed, a large group of hunters had gathered to see the buck.
"There must've been 40 grown hunters there at the check-in board to see the deer, and all of their tongues were hanging - they were speechless," said Cole, who bow hunts exclusively. "The way I look at it is it was a Godsend. I've been hunting for 37 years and have never gotten anything that big. You could put all of mine together and they wouldn't be that big."
Dillan has emerged a proud hunter, and rightly so. Needless to say, Dillan wore the biggest smile at West End Elementary School for weeks.
"I've told all of my friends about it," Dillan said. "And I showed a picture of the buck to my principal and all of my teachers and they couldn't believe it, either."
Dillan admits that sometimes he has a hard time believing his good fortune as well. The trophy buck that he'd spent so much time dreaming about for the past few years will soon be hanging on his own wall rather than Cole's.
"My uncle's going to have it mounted for me, and it'll be hanging on my wall by the beginning of next year I hope," Dillan said. "I'm really excited because I really want it to be up there.
"This is like a dream deer. My uncle's proud of me for getting this deer. A lot of people have been deer hunting for years and never gotten one like this. He told me to be thankful that I'm one of those people who got to kill a big deer. I may never kill something close to this again."
At least not anytime soon. In keeping with the trophy management philosophy at the Newberry club, does may be Dillan's primary focus for the remainder of this season.
"Yeah, now he knows we're going to concentrate on shooting some does," said Cole, laughing.
Which is just fine by Dillan.
"I'll be able to kill a doe this year," Dillan said. "We'll probably be going on some more weekend hunts, but I probably won't be able to kill me another buck. But that's OK - this one will last me a lifetime."
In the meantime, Dillan seems to be adapting quickly to his new status as a buck hunter extraordinaire.
When Dillan answered a phone call from Cole a few days after the hunt, Cole asked to speak to "the buckmaster."
Without hesitation, Dillan replied, "Speaking ..."