At any given time of year, you’re likely to find Hayden Bailey outside, whether he’s catching catfish and snapping turtles, shooting squirrels, deer hunting, or pursuing one of his greatest passions: shed hunting. The Chillicothe, Illinois, resident loves to spend every minute outside, especially with his wife, Abby, and their small children. In fact, Bailey has always been an outdoorsy guy, tagging along with his dad to look for sheds and arrowheads when he was just a kid.
But his passion for the outdoors was nearly stolen from him. In October 2013, he was in a serious car accident. He spent 47 days in the hospital—18 of them in a medically induced coma. He had broken his neck and doctors amputated both his legs above the knee. He was lucky just to be alive.
For most people, this life-altering event would have ruined their lives. They’d have quit their hobbies and perhaps struggled with depression. But if you spend just one minute talking to Bailey, you’ll quickly learn he’s not like most people. The zest for life and the determination to succeed gushes out of him.
“When they said you’re missing both your legs now, I figured it would hold me back for a while,” Bailey said matter-of-factly. “It really didn’t matter to me how it was going to happen (getting back into the outdoors). That was always going to be part of my life.”
Bailey quickly got back out after his accident, only missing one deer season because he was in the hospital most of the fall. As a bilateral above-knee amputee, he has two sets of prosthetic legs: his “long legs” and his “short legs.” He wears his “long legs” for his job as a pipe fitter and for everyday life. These high-tech prosthetics have hydraulic cylinders and a microprocessor computer, which allow him to walk around in a very normal fashion.
“It’s like walking on stilts that have hinges on the bottom,” Bailey said. “I put these legs on at 5 in the morning, and I live a totally normal day.”
Bailey’s “short legs,” or “stubbies,” have their place, too. The stubbies simply bolt to the bottom of the socket on Bailey’s legs. They are simpler to use, weigh less, and give Bailey better leverage. These are what he wears for deer hunting. He drives his ATV most of the way to his ladder stand, but walks the last quarter-mile.
With a little ingenuity, Bailey made himself some pretty specialized deer hunting footwear. He cut chunks out of an old mud tire with a chainsaw and made rubber shoes that attach to his stubbies. He notched out gaps in the middle of the stubbies that align with the rungs on his ladder stand. In winter, he puts screws in the rubber, and he’s got ice cleats. The only disadvantage of the stubbies is Bailey only stands 4’4” with them. He’s 5’8” with his long legs.
Bailey gets giddy when you start talking about shed antlers.
“Something about a whitetail shed is just the coolest freaking thing in the world to me,” he said. “It’s a diamond in the rough; a needle in a haystack. I really get a kick out of sheds.”
He’s had some memorable shed hunts over the years. He fondly recalls a time when, as a boy, he and his father scooped up more than two dozen antlers from a single field in just a couple hours. He found two matched sets of Boone & Crockett-class bucks in the same year once (which, of course, were displayed at the head table at his wedding reception). And he and Abby once witnessed an 8-pointer shed an antler—on May 1!
“Me and my wife were driving down this dirt road,” Bailey recalled. “There were three deer in the field, running toward the road and one was this big, heavy 8. He hopped the ditch, hit the road with his hooves, and an antler popped off! I can see it in slow motion. It fell off his head and rolled off his back haunches.”
It was probably the easiest shed either of them will ever find, and they consider it a shared antler.
For the first few years after his accident, Bailey did most of his shed hunting from an ATV or truck. Eventually, he decided to try walking for sheds. “I realized, hey, I can kind of walk around,” Bailey said. “It was a liberating moment. There’s trip hazards—ice and mud. It’s more challenging, and it may wear me out more than a normal person, but I was like, ‘hey, I can do this like a normal person.’”
The first antler he found on foot after his accident wasn’t necessarily big, but his achievement in finding it was enormous.
“It was a few years after my accident,” Bailey recalled. “Life was pretty much back to normal. I was talking to a friend who had recently moved out of state. He graciously filled me in on his public land hotspots. Until then, I had very little experience with public land and always kept my activities to private. Well, you can’t use an ATV on public lands in Illinois, so it became a new challenge to try to walk some ground.”
Bailey had tried walking when looking for sheds previously, but with no success.
“It did make it easier to get into tight, brushy bedding areas, but I couldn’t see very far and travel was very slow. So I did some research on Google Earth and onX Hunt and I got sent a couple hours away from home for work, and decided to stop at a public spot on the way home that day.” he said. “It was my first time walking for sheds in my full-length prosthetics. The ground was frozen and vegetation had been dead and laid down by snow, so walking was not super limited. I was probably 45 minutes from my work van and came to a spot where several deer trails intersected in the snow. I looked up, and there was a tine. I double-checked it with binoculars, and it was definitely an antler. I seriously could have cried. It was a very nice 3-point (it should have been a 4 but the brow was snapped off). I barely looked for the other side, to be honest. I was so thrilled, I basically picked it up and went straight back to the van to drive home. That day I was hooked. I had proved to myself I could do it and be successful. It was a liberating accomplishment that truly set the pace for many shed seasons to come.”
Bailey has largely taken his new life, well, in stride.
“I’m lucky and blessed that I was born with the attitude that I’ve got,” he said. “You’ve just got to try. You just have to have a positive attitude because you don’t know what you’re capable of.”
He uses that attitude to help others cope with the changes in their own lives. He’s a patient advocate for Dream Team Prosthetics at Bilateral Life Camp in Duncan, Oklahoma. His positive attitude helps new amputees cope with their situation and learn to take back their lives.
“Amputees come from all over the world,” Bailey said. “We talk to other people and say these are the steps you take; these are the commitments you make.”
Dream Team Prosthetics made a huge difference in his own quality of life. “They helped me get to where I am, and they really know what they are doing for a bilateral, or anyone, really,” Bailey said. “My incredibly active outdoorsman lifestyle could not have continued without them.”
Back home, Bailey is always good for a word of encouragement. He dubbed himself the “Legless Shed Hunter” and regularly posts to shed hunting Facebook pages. In his videos, he often encourages other shed hunters to hang in there, put on the miles, and the sheds will come.
When I spoke to him, he hadn't found many sheds for the season, but that didn't matter.
“One of my goals was to walk more than I had before and see things I hadn’t seen,” he said. “I was at 38 or 39 miles when I found my big 5. I’m at 46 miles right now. I’m going to go walk around a bean field just to make it an even 50.” (He has since reached the 50-mile mark for the season).
Bailey has always been a deer and shed hunter, but now as a double amputee, he’s had more success looking for antlers than killing deer.
“When the woods start growing up and greening up, it makes it a lot harder for me,” he said. “In shed season, there are no vines. The grass is matted down. It’s more of a level playing field for me.” In fact, having prosthetic legs actually has some advantages. He can walk right through briars without feeling a thing!
Bailey learned a lot about his passion for the outdoors from his father. And he still enjoys shed hunting with his dad, who is now retired.
“Between him and me, we’re both a little slower, but we get out there!” Bailey said.
These days, Bailey gets outside whenever he can, but life has recently gotten much busier with four children at home, including twin girls born in January. No matter what he does, whether it’s hunting, fishing, or just staying in with his family, Bailey has a big heart, a real love for his family, and a contagious positive attitude. And he doesn’t regret the accident that radically changed his life at age 21.
“I was still basically finding myself,” Bailey said of his life at the time of the accident. “I think it has helped shape me into who I am today. Two years ago, I came to the realization that if I could go back in time and not take that curve, would I? And I honestly still think I would have. My personality has always been the same. I’m just doing the same thing I’ve always done.”