I wasn’t always a bowhunter.
Like many Missourians, I began my gamechasing career armed with a .22, keeping an eye out for small game amongst the treetops and brier patches.
After I honed my shooting skills, my father introduced me to deer hunting when I was 15. A new Marlin lever-action rifle marked the occasion, and my introduction to the art of pursuing the elusive whitetail began. The skills and patience that I learned while small-game hunting paid off, and a mature doe soon filled the freezer. I was hooked. Rifle hunting for whitetail became part of my life.
However, I quickly found the weeklong firearms deer season didn’t provide enough time to pursue my newfound passion.
My First Bows
Although I knew nothing about bowhunting, the opportunity to chase deer for three months became too much to resist. I bought a recurve bow at a garage sale and did my best to aerate a hay bale in the backyard. Since I was self-taught, I wasn’t aware of the dangers of dry-firing a bow (pulling the string back and letting go without an arrow loaded). I spent so much time perfecting my form by dry-firing that the upper limb of the bow snapped, and I soon found myself in the market for a new bow. Lesson learned.
I purchased a compound bow. I knew nothing about draw length or draw weight and set both to the maximum. I matched the heavy bow with 34-inch aluminum arrows tipped with broadheads. The long, heavy broadheads, known for veering off course, mixed with an overextended draw length were not a recipe for success. But I was determined to become a successful bowhunter.
A Goal Set
While I continued to sharpen my bowhunting skills, I also rifle hunted for whitetail each November. I would head into the hardwood forestsof southwest Missouri, lean against the base of a mighty oak, lay the rifle across my lap, and close the deal when it came time.
During my hunts, I noticed many of the deer I took during rifle season were at close ranges — 30, 20, and sometimes even 10 yards. Given this information and my well-established fear of heights, I set a goal — harvest my first deer with a bow without the use of a blind or stand.
Opportunities, Mistakes, and Finally Success
When I started bowhunting, the near misses were numerous, but each encounter was an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. Season after season, unique challenges would present themselves. It seemed like I was jinxed.
Finally, a mere 23 years after I picked up a bow for the first time, the stars aligned and I connected on a small buck at 7 yards. The curse was lifted. I cheered. I gave thanks. I wept.
Facing My Fears
I continued to bowhunt from the ground with success, but decided to face my fear of heights. I ventured into the world of tree stands.
The view from a tree stand was like seeing the woods through someone else’s eyes. The advantages of watching approaching deer, staying out of their sight, and reducing the human scent at their level were exponential. Opportunities for observing whitetail behaviors came more frequently, which increased my ability to predict this often-unpredictable animal, and resulted in greater success.
A Challenge Presents Itself
After several years, I became as confident in my ability to put meat in the freezer with a bow as I was with a gun. When a mature eight-point whitetail showed up on my trail cam photos, I knew I was ready to challenge my skills as a bowhunter in a new way. I decided to focus my entire season on that particular deer. I was in for a lesson in humility.
My tree stand was 50 yards from my back door, so I had no excuses for not putting in the time. Day after day, I waited patiently for the buck to return to the trail where his image was previously captured. Each crack of a limb, crunch of a leaf, or click of a rock produced a heart-racing rush of adrenaline followed by a crash of spirit as a doe, smaller buck, or other animal appeared.
The month of September and countless hours in the stand passed with no sign of the buck. October began the same way and my hopes began to wane.
During the second week of October, I climbed out of the stand after dark and walked the short trail to my house. I stood on the back deck, peering into the darkness and questioning my decision to dedicate my entire season to a single image of a deer.
Then I heard a sound. It was the sound of deer running. It wasn’t the get-out-of-Dodge, high-speed running that I had heard so many times when spooking whitetails. This was the sound of two deer, playing cat and mouse with an occasional grunt from the pursuer. Despite the invisibility of the two deer in the blackness of night, I just knew that the deep, guttural sounds were coming from the object of my pursuit.
My spirits were renewed.
The next morning, I was strapped in my metal perch two hours before daylight. I waited, eyes wide open, for the sun to peek over the hill and illuminate my surroundings. Morning came and went with only the sight of a couple meandering does, but I remained in the stand. I wasn’t leaving until the buck showed or darkness fell again.
Shortly before sunset, I caught a glimpse of movement through the woods. Peering through the binoculars, I saw a doe walking. She stopped and looked behind her. I scanned the woods and spotted another deer, but all I could see were its stiff, muscular legs and blackened tarsal glands. The pair was at 100 yards, and she was leading him away. I could watch them leave or do something about it.
I pulled a grunt call from my pack and blew it out of desperation. The walking stopped. I blew the call again. The walking started again, but this time it was by only one deer, the buck, and he was headed my way. My heart raced, my body shook, and my legs quit working. I couldn’t stand up from my seated position. When he reached the trail beside my stand, I settled the sight pin, squeezed the trigger on the release, heard the clang of the bow’s bottom limb on the top of my tree stand ladder, and watched the arrow fly over the buck’s back.
The Buck Stopped Here
I had two more encounters with the buck that season, but flashbacks to my first encounter and my intense desire to focus on this particular deer only resulted in frazzled nerves and two more clean misses.
As the season drew to a close, Missouri was socked with a brutal ice storm, resulting in downed trees and power loss to thousands of homes, including mine. On the ninth day of repairing damage, removing fallen trees, and temperatures in the teens, I decided I needed a break and one last time in the stand for the year.
The next morning, however, I peeked out from under the covers, felt the frigid air in the house, and talked myself out of it. When I crawled out of bed later that morning, I stood at the back window staring into the frozen woods and watched as the eight-point buck walked out of the brush and stood underneath my stand.
He had won.
The season-long battle was an incredible experience, but I never again focused on one particular deer. I had great respect for that buck, but the intense focus had somehow caused me to lose an appreciation for the many encounters with other deer. I wanted to enjoy every moment.
Bowhunting continues to be a challenging and rewarding method of pursuing one of Missouri’s most popular game animals. Each year, as I enter the woods, I know that many lessons will be learned, experience will be gained, and emotions will be endured. This is my eternal evolution as a bowhunter.
Want to get started in the sport of bowhunting? Here are some things to consider:
Visit your local archery shop. They can fit you with a bow with the correct draw length and weight, which can greatly increase accuracy, success, and enjoyment. Contact an archery club or attend a 3-D shoot. Shooting leagues and 3-D competitions are a great way to gain valuable shooting experience and knowledge from other archers.
Find a friend who bowhunts. Learn from each other and share the ups and downs of bowhunting. Impatience and bowhunting do not mix.
Practice patience by staying in the stand for just five more minutes each time out.
Practice shooting. Practice is invaluable for success, but it should also include “real hunting” practice. Put on the clothes you will be wearing while hunting, shoot out of a blind or tree stand if you plan to hunt that way, and practice shooting while standing and sitting so you are prepared in case buck fever takes over.
When starting out, keep it simple. There are lots of products for bowhunters, but the extras rarely lead to success. A properly fitted bow with matching arrows and broadheads is all you truly need. Other items, such as a grunt call, can be added later.
Ground blinds are a great way to start bowhunting. Blinds offer just the right amount of cover to mask a hunter’s movements and scent. Some deer might be cautious of a blind, but they are also cautious of movement in the open. For those that have trouble sitting still, a blind can increase success.
When hunting out of a tree stand, always wear a safety harness. There are many products that allow a hunter to be tethered from the moment they leave the ground, which greatly reduces the chance of injury.