Clay Craft: The Raising of a Master Hunter

How old is old enough to start deer hunting? If you ask Clay Craft, he'd say 4, the age he shot his first deer. Since then, the 12-year-old has killed 37 deer and 13 turkeys. While the rest of the hunting world debates youth hunts, age restrictions, and hunters' safety requirements, Clay's dad Bryhn has been grooming his son to be a master outdoorsmen. A few weeks ago at the Heartland Bowhunter Film School I had the opportunity to meet Clay and Bryhn and see a sneak peek of a hunt they filmed last season. While Bryhn ran the camera, Clay killed this 148-inch Missouri bruiser with his bow. This Friday, the hunt premieres on Heartland Bowhunter on the Sportsman Channel. By the time the curtain fell, I was dying to know how this tiny little kid had become such a superhunter. Here's what I found out.
Clay's world seemingly revolves around family, hunting, and the occasional tennis match. And his dedication shows. Clay's episode of HB nearly brought a room full of grown men to tears. When Mike Hunsucker flipped on the lights more than one dude was clearing his throat or scratching his eyes. Clay's reaction when he needles the buck is priceless - something you can't hang words on. If anything, it will remind you all why we chase deer in the first place. It's as honest as hunting TV gets.
Clay has been hunting with Dad since he was 4 years old. "I've always been extremely dedicated to hunting," Bryhn told me. "But around the time Clay turned 3, he wouldn't let me leave the house. Every time I got ready to leave he'd start crying and wanting to come along."
Clay killed his first deer at 4 years old, sitting on Dad's lap. They were in an elevated box blind, the field covered-up with does. Bryhn put the gun out the window and had his finger on the trigger. Clay had been shooting a Daisy Red Rider since he was 2. Dad JB welded a scope to the top of the classic bb, so he was confident Clay knew how to find the target. He'd been plinking soda cans while learning to talk. Clay squeezed his dad's finger and the gun went off.
"One of the problems children have is they can't find the deer in the scope, so we set that bb gun up to teach him just that," Bryhn said. "It's easier now because of video games. They know what happens when they put the crosshairs on something. I knew he could shoot a gun, knew he could aim, knew he could hit what he was aiming for. He said, 'Dad, I can do it. I can hold it steady.' It's been deer hunting ever since." Beyond mechanics, there's the mental toll of shooting a big animal. Clay has always been old for his age in that regard, Bryhn told me. Growing up with a dad that takes hunting so seriously has helped instill the right ethic. It's not something they take lightly. "I've had friends who've wanted to get their kids into hunting, boys 12, 13, 14 years old, I wouldn't send them into the woods with a gun. A lot of things really need to be right to start them young." Clay with the first deer he shot "by himself," age 5.
Some people, even hunters, may raise an eyebrow over a 5-year-old handling a 7mm-08. But the Crafts hail from the Jackson, Mississippi area where hunting, and starting young, is as much a part of the landscape as Big Muddy himself. "We really didn't have any issues with starting at an early age coming from the South," Bryhn told me. "Every child is going to develop to a point where they can do this at a different age. Some kids, they can do it at 4 or 5, others can't do it at 13. It has a lot to do with how they're raised, who their peers are, what their values are. Clay knows gun safety and has since he was 3 years old." Clay with his first buck, age 6.
At 7 Clay killed his first deer with a bow. He had been shooting since he was 5, but it took two years to grow strong enough to draw a bow that would cleanly kill deer.
The first hurdle was accuracy. Dad told him he had to put ten arrows in a four-inch circle at 15 yards. That came quickly, but at 5 years old Clay's tackle didn't have the penetration to kill. By 7 he worked up to a 28-pound draw weight and 17-inch draw length. Even that seemed on the edge for Dad to feel comfortable.
"I hung a doe up that I shot opening day of the Mississippi bow season and used that to determine what range his equipment would be effective at," Bryhn said. "He was using two-blade broadheads." At 15 to 18 yards, if the arrow hit ribs it glanced enough to not puncture the vitals. But at 12 yards the shot hit home. "Even then, at that age, I wouldn't let him shoot bucks. Their chest cavity is thicker, there's more fat content. We limited him to shooting 2.5-year-old does or younger." By age 9 Clay drew enough weight to target bucks. He took a nice one his first year hunting Kansas. At 12 his effective range has stretched out to 20-plus yards, and has given the father-son team more options when setting stands.
Deer isn't the only game the Craft's play. At 5 years old Clay bagged his first gobbler on Mossy Oak's Hunting the Country TV show. "Me and my dad really enjoy it," Clay told me. "In Mississippi we do this thing we call running and gunning. We take the shotguns, and calls out, and walk for miles some days trying to strike up a hot bird."
So far he's taken 13 turkeys, including two with a bow, in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.
But deer hunting remains No. 1. He's taken most of his deer with a Remington Model 7 7mm-08. Clay named the gun Darla, after Babe Ruth's bat. "On that gun, there were a couple things I knew to do," Bryhn said. First a trigger job, he made it especially light, so Clay wouldn't have to jerk at the trigger. Then he had a muzzle break installed and a decelerator pad put on the stock.
Clay never knew a gun kicked until he was 9 years old. One of his friends at school told him. The four years he'd been hunting he was so in the moment, in the excitement of the hunt, he never felt the recoil. "I really just never knew," he said. That year his friend told him about kick was the first time he missed a deer - one of only two times in his short, but deer heavy, career.
As Clay gets older, so do the deer he hunts.
The Crafts started Clay hunting in Mississippi, and have since hunted Missouri, Nebraska and finally Kansas, where they moved a few years ago after Bryhn took a job with Whitetail Properties. The whole family has taken to the Midwest. "If you're after big deer, there's no better place to be," Bryhn told me.
They still go back and hunt the south occasionally. Clay took this buck with a .44 magnum rifle. Mississippi changed its muzzleloader law to allow any breach loading single-shot rifles with exposed hammers that use metallic cartridges.
At the time Clay was 8 years old and the .44 seemed a better option to a more standard in-line, which can pack some punch. "I've heard of guys only using 50 or 60 grains of powder, but this .44 seemed like a better option," Bryhn said.
With a small 8-point, Darla over his shoulder.
A doe he took with the .44 mag.
Hunting over food plots down South, the Crafts started stretching their gun hunting to longer distances. Clay took this doe with Darla at 198 yards. He's stretched it as far as 230 yards. "He knew even as a 4 year old, if he put the crosshairs on the deer and squeezed the trigger and didn't jerk it, it'd go down," his dad said.
But there are precautions to take when a child reaches out with a rifle. All his long shots were in food plots - a controlled scenario where the deer would be feeding and calm. All the shooting houses have padded gun rests. In some cases there's a shooting bench in the blind. With a 244 lb. 8 point.
"We're prepared when the opportunity arises," Bryhn said. "That's probably the biggest difference that's made him so successful. A lot of kids who hunt deer, they go out with their dads and leave with a sense that they spooked deer, or they missed or didn't do a good job. Well, I always put Clay in a position to succeed. Behind all his success is a lot of preparation on his part as well as mine."
Longer range rifle hunting "feels a little bit harder, but I'm getting used to it," Clay told me. He prefers bowhunting and being close, "but when the deer's out there its just as much pressure as if it's 20-something yards in front of you."
"We've setup stands so Clay can hunt," Bryhn said. They bushwhack trails and create pinch-points to force deer within Clay's effective range. But like Hunsucker said in the "Clay Craft" episode of Heartland Bowhunters, it isn't like his dad does all the work then plops his son in front of deer.
When I first met Clay he was walking around with a smartphone showing everyone who'd listen a picture of the potential Kansas state record that turned out to be poached. He flipped through the photos and started to show me his trail cam photos. "He's deer hunting all year long," his dad said. "In the summer he's out there planting food plots and checking cameras. He hangs stands with us and cuts shooting lanes." All the guys on the HB crewed confirmed it: Clay Craft is the real deal. A turkey he got with a bow.
The little prodigy even pulled off a double on toms at the Big J farm in Nebraska. In a shuffle between camps he left his 20 gauge loads behind and had to use his dad's 12 gauge, with 3.5-inch mag shells. "No, I won't notice it," the 10-year-old told his dad. The gun nearly knocked him to the ground, but he was old enough to get up laughing about it.
Clay has a couple tricks for keeping focused when deer are in bow range. His dad taught him G.A.S. and he repeats it to himself to stay clam and clear. Grip. Aim. Squeeze. "It always helps me. Inhale. Exhale. Take big breathes and let it happen." "Those are the three biggest reasons everyone misses," Bryhn said. "Check your grip. Hold the pin for at least three seconds and squeeze, don't punch the trigger. Let it surprise you."
Clay took a Kansas half-rack with a bow at age 10. His dad's job as a Kansas land specialist with Whitetail Properties has enabled the father-son team to hunt some hidden gems throughout the Midwest and South. Getting on television has been something like the cherry on top of the already great time they have hunting together. It started when Bryhn first moved to Kansas, just 20 minutes from HB headquarters in Lee's Summit, MO. He met Mike Hunsucker through a taxidermist and the two became friends. Bryhn had been filming Clay's hunts since he was 5, but it was informal, for family memories and not much more.
One afternoon Mike was at the Craft's place and Bryhn popped in the home movies. Hunsucker knew there was something there. Mike and Shawn Luchtel filmed a turkey hunt with Clay on two occasions. One hunt made it into Clay's HB episode. After that, they asked Bryhn, "Do you think he could produce a good bow kill?" With a tall MO buck, 2010.
Clay had already shot a big six-point with a bow, and the Kansas half rack, but dad wasn't filming those hunts. "I told them we'll kill something, but can't say how it will be, but if you have a place for it, I'll carry the camera and do my best," Bryhn said.
This is the split G2 Kansas buck Clay gun hunted on camera. That hunt will air this fall on Whitetail Properties TV thanks to dad's company connection.

At 12 years old Clay Craft has killed 37 deer and 13 turkeys. He shot his first deer at age 4. Learn how this little kid has already become a superhunter.