by Bowen Slade
Open any hunting magazine or turn on any hunting television show now days and you are bombarded by product endorsements and antler score references that seem to be masking the true reason that a lot of hunters trek afield each season pursuing the whitetail deer.
I have all but given up rifle hunting over the past five or six seasons, finding a purer reward in chasing game with stick and string. There’s just something about the challenge of getting inside a deer’s comfort zone that has mesmerized me since my first bow hunt over a decade ago. But an experience that I had this season really hammered home what it means to be a bow hunter and brought me back to the basics.
This would be my third season hunting the Midwest, and I was fired up about making the long drive from my home state of Alabama during those magical first ten days of November.
Over the previous two years, my brother and I have had increasing success in bow hunting the public lands of northeast Missouri. These properties see an incredible amount of pressure during the firearm season, but are virtually untouched during the archery season that falls during the pre-rut. The 2011 season had all the makings of a banner year with a timely crop harvest and an early rutting moon sure to produce some bang up bow hunting the first week of November. However, arriving at the hotel the day before Halloween, we were greeted with warm and windy weather that would prove to be challenging in producing an oppor- tunity at a mature buck.
On Halloween day, my brother and I headed off to a property that we had never hunted before, some 45 minutes from the hotel. Early season scouting had shown us that this 120 acre parcel was extremely hard to access and thus received little hunting pressure, which experience had taught us is the recipe for success on public land. With a large cornfield bordering the west side of the property and a small winding river bordering the east, this long thin property was a mix of flood timber and hard- woods that was devoid of any under- growth and an absolute beauty to hunt.
After pouring over the aerial photo, we decided that we would have to access the thick, northern-most part of the property by wading up the river with our climbers and camera gear in tow. After an exhausting hour and a half walk, we reached the tree and wasted no time in climbing up and settling in. Knowing that the pre-rut activity was starting, I let out a few sequences of bleats and grunts to no avail. A few hours into our afternoon, three tom turkeys marched by on their way to feed in the cornfield. An hour later, I heard my brother whis- per that we had deer approaching our setup from the thick cover. I watched as four does made their way by just out of bow range, casually strolling towards the cut corn field. As I looked up at my brother, I whispered “this spot may pay off”.
Having never been one for trophy hunting, I had told my brother that the first big doe or mature buck to slip by within range was going to get an arrow. Unfortunately, these does had gone around the brush pile leading them just out of my comfort- able bow range. Not long after the does had disappeared out into the field, my brother tapped my shoulder and whispered “shooter buck!” I stood up and readied my bow, desperately trying to locate the buck that he had spotted. Angling towards us at 70 yards, the buck looked like he would take the same trail as the does, putting him just out of range. I quickly grabbed my call and gave him two muffled grunts and watched as the buck paused, looking for the intruder. Once he committed around the left side of the brush pile, I got my first good look at the buck who sported a perfectly symmetrical 10 point frame with a nice heavy body underneath. As he closed the distance, I decided that if he gave me a clean shot I would take it. When the buck got to 30 yards, I drew back my bow and prepared for the shot. The buck, having placed the grunts with pinpoint accuracy, turned and began to head directly towards the base of our tree offering me no shot. At 15 yards, the buck stopped to rake a small sapling and turned broadside just for an instant. I settled the pin and released the arrow, instantly knowing that I had made a perfect shot. The buck wheeled and bolted back over the brush pile, not knowing what had just happened. He ran another twenty yards and began to wobble, going down within sight on camera. Just like that, I had arrowed my best buck to date on public land with my brother capturing the whole hunt on film to relive with friends and family for years to come. Celebration followed, as we recounted how the hunt unfolded and how lucky we were that the buck decided to turn and give me a shot. After climbing down and recover- ing him, I realized that he was a great 3 1⁄2 year old buck with unique squiggly tines and a massive 200 plus pound body. I tagged my buck and turned to my brother and said “now all we have to do is get him out”. Neither of us had even considered how we would get this deer back to the truck. And there, standing in the dark Missouri woods after a successful bow hunt, we were about to get back to the basics.
We quickly marked the buck, packed up our camera gear and headed back down the river, reaching the truck at a quarter after 8 o’clock. I had seen a farmhouse on the west side of the prop- erty and knew that we would need the permission of the farmer to drive our truck through his cornfield to load the buck up. This is where we encountered the first hurdle of the night. I knocked on the door, but no one answered. So we pulled back out onto the gravel road and flagged down a passing truck. The driver informed us that no one lived in that farm house and that the land was owned by a man that lived out of town. With the easiest option gone, we began brainstorming our options to recover my deer. We knew that drag- ging the buck a mile and a half to the road would be an all but impossible task, so we decided to keep knocking on doors until we found someone that might own land adjacent to the public ground. After several strange looks and no answers, we decide to try one last house on the hill that a neighbor told us was owned by an Amish gentleman. As we pulled up to the rustic house with no lights on, I didn’t know what to expect. What we found completely restored my belief in the good nature of people and especially in bow hunters.
Before we even got out of the truck, a man stepped out of the front door with a lantern in his hand. The dim light revealed a full scruffy beard and a tall round brimmed hat. We introduced ourselves to Amos Burkshire and explained our dilemma to which he candidly responded “I have been there before!” To our surprise, not only did Amos agree to allow us to drive through his property to recover the deer, he even offered to come help us drag him out. He seemed excited just to be part of the recovery. Even by accessing the public ground from his pasture, we still had to cross the river and drag the buck almost 500 yards through thick blow-down and briars. While walking in, we talked with Amos and discovered that he had hunted this property his entire life and was a devoted traditional bow hunter. And although he never mentioned it, I am sure that he had taken his fair share of nice bucks throughout the years. Upon reaching the buck, Amos shared in our excitement and appreciation of such a nice trophy asking us details about how the hunt had unfolded. We field dressed the buck, hog tied him to a long pole and began the daunting task of carrying him out. Tripping over logs and straining our shoulders and back, we finally got across the river and back to the truck.
Still to this day, I have never had a fellow hunter offer up his time and energy as generously as Amos did that night. With nothing in it for him, he willingly subjected himself to an exhausting three hour ordeal. And he did all of this for complete strangers! Amos’s humble approach and genuine enjoyment of not only the sport of bow hunting but in the success of my hunt was a turning point in my hunting career. It strengthened my belief in the selfless nature of people and confirmed in my mind that something has been lost in translation with the modern “sport” we call hunting. Amos didn’t care what the deer would score or how many points it had and would certainly never endorse gimmicky products that have nothing to do with harvesting a deer. He just enjoyed the simple plea- sure of being in the woods and sharing in the fellowship of hunting whitetail deer with stick and string. And it was there, at the tailgate of my truck shak- ing our now bloodied hands with our new found friend Amos, that my broth- er and I truly got back to the basics of bow hunting.