It is past the time of shadows. In the still half-light, a white-tailed doe warily nibbles her way along the wooded ridge. Nearby, a hunter, who had been leaning into the fissured trunk of a thick oak, raises and draws his bow. He pauses, releases the string.
Stung and startled, the doe crashes away. After several bounds, she buckles, falls to the ground, makes a brief commotion among the leaves and dies.
That hunt might have taken place last fall, or it could have occurred more than 30,000 years ago. Archery deer hunting, a popular sport today, extends back into prehistory, to the time of caves and stone tools.
Missouri's regulated deer season began 50 years ago, in 1946. Not long before that time, deer were about as uncommon as ostriches in the state. Thanks in large part to market hunting and illegal hunting, it was estimated that only about 2,500 deer lived in Missouri during the 1930s, most of them in a few Ozark counties.
Deer numbers began to rebound after deer seasons were closed to protect the remaining deer and the Conservation Department began an ambitious deer and deer habitat restoration program. Even with these efforts and a change in public attitudes toward illegal harvest, deer probably numbered less than 25,000 when the archery season began. Today we have upwards of 750,000 deer.
That first season, only one county - Crawford - was open to archery deer hunting for bucks only. The season lasted a mere three days, and 73 archers participated. Among them were at least five women.
That first archery season was a big event. The Steelville Boosters Club hosted a barbecue for all the archers on Saturday evening of the hunt. And the bowhunters put on an archery demonstration at the local ball diamond.
Because archery hunting was so new, the Conservation Department didn't know what to expect from the sport. To be prepared for any eventuality, they sent almost as many agents to Crawford County as there were bowhunters.
"There just weren't enough deer around," says Earl Hoyt Jr., who was at the first hunt and later would establish Hoyt Archery Co. "Out of all the hunters, only one archer saw a deer and that was Jack Compton, who was famous among us archery rabbit hunters for his sharp eyes."
Taney County was next to open, in 1948, with a 9-day season, but none of the 62 hunters who purchased archery permits were successful. The January 1949 Conservationist reported on a group of about 50 hunters at the Mincy Public Hunting Area in deer-heavy Taney County. "The archers saw deer, shot at bucks, but brought nothing into the bag," the article stated.
"Most of the group, men and women alike, camped out despite a heavy, wet snow that fell all one day. And they walked 10-12 miles daily over thickly forested hills. But they liked it."
In 1950, 64 bowhunters bought a $5 archery deer permit, but none of those hunters were able to harvest a deer. In fact, it would be six years from the opening of the modern archery deer season before anyone would legally bag a deer with a bow and arrow.
In 1952, the rules allowed bowhunters to shoot either sex deer, and archery hunting was allowed in five counties. Jack Compton of Ferguson was hunting the Cletis McLanahan farm in Ste. Genevieve County and managed to shoot a forkhorn on Oct. 20.
Compton is credited with the first legal archery kill in modern times.
At least two hunters claimed to have killed a deer with a bow before Compton, but these claims have been discredited.
"Everyone in archery at the time knew Compton's was the first legal archery deer," Hoyt says. "There was no question."
Paul Jeffries, who was a conservation agent in the county, as well as an avid archer, says he told Compton to show off the first archery killed deer by driving "around the courthouse square until the flies followed him." Compton's mounted buck is now displayed on the wall at the St. Louis Bowhunters archery range in St. Charles.
Another archer, Clyde Dunford, harvested the second archery killed deer later that year. He also hunted the McLanahan farm.
Bowhunting was catching on, and the numbers began creeping up. By 1954, 44 counties were open to archery deer hunting and over 1,000 permits were sold. Archers harvested 22 deer.
Back then, getting a deer with a bow and arrow was rare enough to rate headlines.
W. Robert Bell, now of Mountain Home, Ark., sent us a clipping from the Oct. 31, 1953, Saline County Daily Democrat with the headline, "Slater Resident Kills Doe With Bow and Arrow."
After describing Bell shooting the doe at 50 yards with a lemonwood bow, the story said that his was the fourth deer killed in Missouri during the 17-days then allowed for archery hunting.
Since then, the numbers of archery deer hunters have skyrocketed. In 1980, nearly 50,000 bowhunters took to the woods. Last year, the Conservation Department sold almost 100,000 archery deer permits.
As bowhunting grew, the technology of the sport evolved. Clever inventions and gewgaws made bowhunting seem almost high-tech, but the basic units of archery deer hunting - a stick and a string - remain the same, and bowhunting continues to be a quiet, elemental undertaking.
The simplicity of bowhunting is what attracts many people to the sport. They could shoot deer at longer ranges with a gun and, statistically, bring home more venison per day of hunting, but they prefer the limits that the bow and arrow impose.
What limits? Well, for one, no matter how powerful your bow, you still have to get almost unnaturally close to a deer to use it. Most deer shot with a bow are within 20 yards of the hunter. And in order for you to get a good shot, the deer, a bundle of acute senses, can't be aware of your presence.
This requirement brings primitive hunting techniques into play. To keep deer from seeing, smelling or hearing them, archery deer hunters often daub paint on their faces, don camouflage clothes, cover their human scent with animal urine and other natural odors and sit still as sphinxes for hours on end.
Those hours quickly translate into days. According to a recent archer survey conducted by the Conservation Department, the average deer bowhunter goes hunting about 20 times during the 3 1/2 month season.
Check station statistics tell us that less than 20 percent of archers are successful in any one season, which means that, on average, it takes more than 100 hunting trips (five years x 20 average hunting trips a year) to bag a deer.
Some skilled or lucky hunters beat that average, but that means that a lot of others take longer. Michael Kennedy of St. John wrote that he has bowhunted for 22 years and is grateful for "having the opportunity to be in the woods in the fall and just hoping for a sighting of the beauty of the beasts."
Kennedy was happy to report that he finally filled his first archery deer tag the first day of the season last fall. "Patience does pay off!" he writes.
Juan Lamanna of Platte City tells us, "I was hooked on bowhunting. It didn't matter that it was my seventh season trying - and failing - to get a deer."
In his eighth year of hunting, he bagged his first deer - a 10-point buck - with a bow.
That was in 1994. Two years later Lamanna still remembers the date, the time, what he was thinking about before the deer came, how the deer looked as it approached, how his heart pounded before he shot, seeing the arrow in the deer, finding the downed deer in the field and running back to his home screaming news of his success to his wife and children.
Because of the demands of getting close to the deer, bowhunting requires planning, scouting and enough woods-craft to find deer travel routes and bedding areas. Then the hunter has to plan an ambush that takes into account wind direction and provides cover while providing a clear shot.
"Deer are the Einsteins of the animal kingdom," William Burgess of Richland says. "Matching wits with them is 95 percent of the challenge." Burgess is a year-round bowhunter. He scouts deer locations and looks for shed antlers during the off-season so that he can target individual deer during the actual season.
Despite all the planning and preparation that goes into archery deer hunting, the deer often manage to arrive when hunters least expect them.
Norman Kamler of Troy started hunting in his 50s and figured he needed camouflage clothing and odor-reducing sprays and soaps to get a deer. But it was only after he'd taken off his face mask and camouflage and was sitting on a log in his white T-shirt enjoying a hard salami sandwich and a soda that a deer approached him.
"I laid down my sandwich and picked up my bow," Kamler says. "Between her putting her head up and down, I drew back and shot my first deer at 20 yards. I thought the throbbing of my heart would never stop."
Many people find bowhunting to be the most exciting, fulfilling activity in their lives, and they encourage their children to take up the sport.
Gary Martin of Dixon says he had planned for his son Gabe's hunting from the moment he saw the nurse with his son in the hospital. "I knew when I saw her coming my way, that I had a hunting partner," he writes.
Martin says Gabe began shooting a bow at the age of 5, and when he was 11 he could accurately shoot a 35-pound-pull bow. Martin said he knew "if a deer gave him a decent shot at 20 yards or under that it would be in big trouble."
They hunted about 40 yards apart and the father watched his son competently pull back the bow and make a killing shot on a forkhorn buck. "This hunting trip turned out to be the most memorable trip I have ever experienced," Martin says.
Jerry Kennedy of Arnold said he has shared bowstands with both his 11 year-old son Jeremiah, and his 9-year-old daughter Emily. "It is wonderful," he writes, "to see their faces when we sneak up on a deer in the wild or have a wild turkey cross our path by accident or see any of the other special creatures in the outdoors."
Although Emily prefers to shoot deer only with a camera, Jeremiah was hunting in a treestand only 10 yards away when his Dad harvested his first whitetail in nearly two decades of hunting. Kennedy says he is grateful he could share this experience with his son.
This archery season, our 50th in the state, will no doubt provide more challenges, create more wholesome experiences, embed more lifetime memories, bond together more parents and children, husbands, wives and friends and put more venison on dinner tables for people to enjoy.
It's a great birthday for bowhunting, and though people are not likely to celebrate it with lots of splash and fanfare, this mid-century mark is a good time to reflect on how bowhunting has become one of the state's grand traditions, providing innumerable feasts for both soul and body. triangle
Regulations help sport grow
Rules, regulations, seasons and bag limits are usually restrictive, but in the case of bowhunting for deer, regulations have been liberalized through the years to allow more people more opportunity to enjoy the sport.
The very first bowhunting seasons were only a few days long, but now archers can hunt in steamy weather or snow, thanks to a season that lasts for three and a half months - from Oct. 1 through Jan. 15.
Although at first only open to bucks, deer of any sex now may be taken, and the limit is two deer. In management areas 58 and 59, representing St. Louis and Kansas City, respectively, archers can purchase up to five Urban Archery Deer Permits.
Originally limited to hunting in certain "deer rich" areas, archers now hunt for deer in every county of the state. In fact, urban deer hunting has become extremely popular among city hunters and allows the Conservation Department to help manage deer in areas where harvest options are limited.
New Bow Compounds Hunters
Hunter numbers grew tremendously following the introduction of the compound bow. Patented by Missourian Wilbur Allen in 1966, the compound bow changed the look of archery, turning the bow into a block and tackle affair, with pulleys at either end.
Although ungainly in looks, the "wheel bow" made it easier for archers to pull and hold strong hunting weights and to deliver arrows accurately into a target.
No longer was the skill of shooting a bow the most difficult to master component of bowhunting. Thanks to the bow's mechanical advantages over a simple stick and string, archers could quickly become proficient enough to become capable and responsible bowhunters.
Within a few years the compound bow took over the archery market, almost completely displacing recurves and longbows.
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