St. Charles, Mo.—Missouri is a great place to hunt deer. In fact, it's a place that makes it possible to harvest a trophy 15-point buck only four months after taking up one of hunting's most challenging methods.
When Paul Gragg set out to bag a buck with an atlatl, his buddies gave him a hard time. "I heard all the jokes," said Gragg of Defiance. "My friends were all laughing and teasing me about it."
Gragg, age 49, is no stranger to hunting. He grew up on a farm where he was chasing deer with a bow and arrow by the age of 16. During his adulthood, pursuing trophy bucks has become his passion. Using various methods including muzzleloader and archery, Gragg has managed to bag some big bucks at places like Peck Ranch, Eagle Bluffs and Howell Island Conservation Areas. "I've been fortunate enough to have good places to go and a lot of time doing it," he said. "I think my top five bucks have an average score of 183 altogether."
This time though he wanted a new challenge, which is why he took up the atlatl a mere four months before. The atlatl predates the bow and arrow. It is used to throw a 4-to-6-foot long, spear-like projectile known as a dart. The atlatl is a wooden shaft approximately a foot-and-a-half long with a socket or knock at the rear to engage the dart.
The dart is placed along the shaft with its back end resting in the socket or knock. The hunter grips the atlatl near its front end and performs a forward throw using the upper arm and wrist. The flipping motion of the atlatl creates angular momentum that propels the dart with greater speed and power than can be achieved with the arm alone. Darts thrown from the weapon can achieve velocities of nearly 100 miles per hour. The method is legal throughout all portions of Missouri's deer season, from Sept. 15 through Jan. 25
It takes some time to learn though. "When I first started doing it, I thought there was no way this was going to work," admitted Gragg. "But after I practiced it for a little bit I was getting fairly good at it. Once you get the feel for it you can throw them pretty well. You can feel that sweet spot in your motion as soon as you let it go. You know right away whether you had a good throw or not. It's a lot like throwing a baseball."
With atlatl in hand and a practiced arm, Gragg headed to a friend's property in St. Charles County the afternoon of Oct. 24 on his quest for a buck. Being the experienced hunter, Gragg had already scouted the area which he intended to hunt.
Gragg had pinpointed a steep hillside that he'd seen deer use as a bedding area. He observed that the deer would come down from the hill, cross a creek and go into a field. "I set up directly where they cross out of the bedding area and there's about a 4-foot ledge there that the deer would jump onto," Gragg recalled. He noted that the bucks would always stage there before they went out into the field.
Gragg knew positioning his tree stand on the ledge would give him a good opportunity. He was also aware that that atlatl presents a special challenge—limited range. An avid bow hunter, Gragg was accustomed to keeping his shots within 30 yards. "But with an atlatl, I didn't want him over 15 yards," he said.
"So that particular day, I saw him coming down off the ridge and when he crossed the creek and jumped up to the ledge, he actually stopped right below my tree stand," Gragg recounted. However, he'd never practiced throwing the atlatl straight down before, so he waited patiently for the buck to move. Finally the buck walked out 8 yards or so from the tree. "But I know if you can see their eyeball whatsoever, even from behind, they can see you. They've probably got 270-degree vision," Gragg said. He feared the buck would be gone before he could complete the throwing motion.
His plan was to wait for the buck to walk behind a tree, and just as the animal's head was obscured by it, it would give Gragg the chance he needed to make his move with the atlatl. Frustratingly, the buck just milled around a bit. Finally, the animal dropped his head down just enough for Gragg to spring to action. "It looked like he was going to lick his side, but that's when I had the chance to pull back and throw it," said Gragg. The dart hit home right at the animal's shoulder from a distance of 8-10 yards, penetrating 11 inches. The deer stumbled a short distance away and then went down.
As the initial excitement dissipated, Gragg realized he had bagged another fine trophy. The 15-point buck he saw lying on the ground would go on to attain an unofficial Boone & Crockett score of 169 gross and net of 151.
"My goal was not to harvest the trophy that I did, but I just wanted to get a buck under my belt with the atlatl," said Gragg. "I was in complete shock right off the bat."
Gragg said he will have his atlatl buck mounted and find a special place for it on his living room wall, but he's not about to stop seeking the next hunting challenge.
Are his friends still teasing him? "No, they've backed off that a little bit," he said.
For more on deer hunting, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation's webpage at http://huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/hunting-trapping.