December 21, 2023
Back in 1984, I was at Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. My Drill Instructor (DI) was Gunnery Sergeant Scruggs. He was a short-statured man, and one of the ugliest and meanest human beings I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting.
Within no time, I found myself on the obstacle course. As I was finishing up with a 20-foot rope climb, my body was physically spent, and about halfway up the rope I stopped to rest. Evidently, DI Scruggs was not pleased with my “timeout” on the rope, and he promptly swung over and planted his boot square in the middle of my chest, causing me to fall. While flat on the ground, all I wanted to do was punch DI Scruggs. But my attitude quickly changed when two other DIs came over to “encourage” me to finish the final rope climb. Although humbled, I learned that no matter what, you always have something left in the tank.
Fast-forward 40 years. I was putting together a sizable, homemade American chestnut kitchen table. While picking up the table to move it from one side of my shop to the other, I fell and heard both my shoulders pop. Instantly, I knew something wasn’t right, so I made an appointment with an orthopedist, who then immediately ordered an MRI.
The results indicated that I had torn my rotator cuff and labrum on both sides. The doctor suggested surgery on both shoulders to relieve pain and improve how they function. Since this was January, my first question was, “How will this surgery impact my spring turkey season and, more importantly, my fall deer season?”
The doctor explained it could take up to eight weeks for the tendon to heal to the bone. He further explained, “Although the MRI is a pretty good indicator for surgery, you never know how bad it is until you’re inside.”
My left shoulder was worse than my right, so surgery on the former was scheduled for March. My goal was for my left “wing” to be healed by spring turkey season, then have the other shoulder operated on and healed by bow season.
COVID restrictions delayed my surgery until April. The good news was my left shoulder quickly healed, and my right shoulder was operated on in July. Although the doctor decided to work on the bad shoulder first, once inside my right shoulder, it became apparent the tear was much worse than the MRI had indicated. The upcoming deer season wasn’t looking good, but I was hoping to still salvage some time in the woods during the rut.
In between the surgeries, I got some exciting news: I drew a coveted Iowa deer tag. But after waiting four long years to draw this tag, I realized my shoulder may not be functional to hunt. Since this was a use-or-lose tag, I contacted the Iowa DNR with my medical records and received a $2 crossbow tag. Once I had the tag in hand, the stress of not knowing if I would hunt was finally lifted off my chest. The problem was, I’m not a crossbow hunter, so I vowed to do everything I could to hunt with my Hoyt. After many painful physical therapy sessions and daily workouts, I still couldn’t draw my bow. Like many readers, bowhunting is who I am, and this was the first time in my life it was being taken away from me.
My doctor knew what I was up against and suggested a six-day pack of steroids. At this point, I was willing to do anything, and after the second day of steroids, I was able to draw my bow without significant pain. Although I had to reduce my draw weight down to 55 pounds, my new attitude was that of a rookie hunter waiting for the first day of the bow season. Better yet, we would film this hunt for an upcoming episode of Bowhunter TV.
The long-awaited Iowa rut hunt started off with five days of afternoon temperatures in the low 70s. But, because I had waited so long for this tag, my decision to spend two weeks in Iowa was starting to pay off with some colder temperatures moving in. And sure enough, various mature bucks started to show up.
Finally, on Day Eight, one of the target bucks, called “Crabclaw,” was standing broadside, no more than 20 yards from our treestands. As I watched the green-colored Lumenok fly over his back, I was crushed as the 150-class 4x4 slowly walked away. While reviewing the footage, my cameraman showed me the arrow was true, but the buck significantly jumped the string.
As I was debating about doing something irresponsible, another 4½-year-old buck came in directly below our stands and started to mark an existing scrape. At less than 10 yards, my arrow nailed his shoulder, with only a few inches of penetration. The buck then ran off into the brush and stopped at 40 yards. Luckily for me there was a small hole in the brush to shoot a second arrow. Although I just missed at 20 yards and shot poorly at 10 yards, my 40-yard shot was true, and I watched the buck crash. The buck scored exactly 125 inches, and I was more than proud of him after everything I’d been through that year.
Little did I know, the worst was yet to come!
The following spring, I headed out to Kansas to turkey hunt with good friend, Dirk Dietrich, from Texas. Our plan was to hunt in the morning, then assemble and reposition some deer stands in the afternoon. As Dirk was strapping in a new ladder stand, I started to take down another stand about 20 yards away. After climbing up and removing the 30-foot lifeline, the stand suddenly gave way. Instantly, I clutched onto the now completely bent-over stand and felt myself falling. My 18-foot fall was interrupted halfway down as I bounced off another tree that had fallen the previous year.
Within no time, Dirk was by my side asking, “C.J., are you okay? Can you move?”
My answer was clear and distinct, “Yes, I’m fine. I’m not dizzy or anything, but can you help me up?”
As Dirk helped move me out of the brush, he grabbed my right arm. Evidently, the sound that came out of me was not human! It sure didn’t take a doctor to diagnose my condition — my left arm was broken.
I have no excuse; just massive amounts of embarrassment. In fact, wearing a safety harness is like a religious ritual for me. If you don’t believe me, just ask my daughters, or anyone I hunt with. The problem was I didn’t have a harness while turkey hunting, and never really gave it a thought because I’ve taken down so many treestands. Sound familiar?
After Dirk took me to the hospital for X-rays, the doctor showed us that I had broken the top, or ball, portion of my humerus (arm). In fact, it was in eight pieces. Because this injury would require multiple visits to a surgeon, I decided to fly home with a broken left arm. And once again, because of COVID, my emergency surgery was delayed until June — four weeks after the accident!
Thankfully, the painkillers helped somewhat, but once again I had to learn to sleep on my back. Multiple times during the night I’d wake up in severe pain. I’m not a doctor or an alcoholic, but my remedy was drinking a small amount of bourbon before going to bed, which helped me sleep through most of the night.
After the surgery, the surgeon explained how my recovery may hinder the upcoming deer season. This bad news was made worse when I drew a Kansas deer tag!
Although I thought the previous rotator cuff and labrum surgeries were tough, breaking your arm is 10-times worse. My favorite friend was the ice machine, which helped reduce the swelling and pain. The only positive from the injury was that I could now use my right arm for certain necessary activities. Soon enough I was visiting a physical therapist twice a week. In an attempt to heal faster, I doubled-up on my exercises. Although the pain was severe at times, I was going to hunt the Kansas rut!
I started drawing back rubber exercise bands to increase strength and muscular endurance. I then tried to do a push-up, and I thought my arm was going to break (again). There’s no way to describe the pain I was dealing with, without experiencing it yourself. Eventually, I worked up to a kid’s bow, and then a 35-pound recurve.
Obviously, I knew I needed to reduce the 70-pound limbs on my bow, so the folks at Hoyt sent me limbs in the 50- to 60-pound range. By October, I could draw back my daughter’s 54-pound bow, but the problem was the draw curve on my bow was just too much. The harder I tried, the more pain I experienced. Worse yet, sometimes the pain would last for days. Clearly, I was not ready to hunt.
With less than a week before my November Kansas rut hunt, I still couldn’t draw my bow. The many years of wear and tear were starting to catch up to me. Instead of giving up and taking a crossbow to Kansas, I went back to the doctor and received a cortisone shot to help with the pain in drawing.
The following day was like Christmas morning, as I was able to draw my bow. The only problem now was the unorthodox way in which I was drawing my bow. Completely opposite from someone who is over-bowed, I had to start by pointing the arrow toward the ground, and then drawing on the way up. Although I had an unconventional draw, and excessive movement, I would be hunting in Kansas with my beloved 52-pound Hoyt.
The first day’s hunt had me right back at the location of my accident. For some reason, I had to prove to myself that fear of falling again would not prevent me from hunting from a treestand. Within no time, a small buck showed up and I went into a “practice” draw scenario. The buck busted me drawing my bow, and I quickly realized I would have to draw long before a deer showed up, or try to draw on the opposite side of the tree.
The following day, a doe and two fawns headed my way. Although it was the rut, I had to prove to myself all my hard work in physical therapy was going to pay off. This time, I drew way early and waited about a minute until the adult doe was within range. At 20 yards, I smoked the doe and watched her fall. As most experienced bowhunters know, it’s not the poundage, but the shot location. My double-lung hit elevated my confidence big time!
A few days later, my cameraman and I decided to hunt from a ground blind. Another doe showed up within 15 yards, and once again problems developed. I was demoralized to find I couldn’t draw from a sitting position. Although I was still regularly stretching and doing my exercises, the cold weather and heavy clothes made drawing very cumbersome. Once again, my confidence sank.
The weather forecast called for snow the following day, so we decided to hunt out of the second floor of a barn located near the lodge. We woke up to a picturesque landscape covered by three inches of snow. With the moon reflecting its light off the snow, we entered the barn and went upstairs. Although barely visible through the side window of the barn, we saw a decent buck trailing a doe with two fawns in the winter wheatfield, no more than 50 yards away.
As the sun appeared in the eastern sky, another doe showed up directly below our window at 15 yards. Since I’d already purchased another antlerless tag, I killed her with another double-lung shot. For whatever reason, seeing red in the snow is something all hunters like, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some more backstraps.
With two does down, I started to think about the shooter buck we’d seen at first light. And just like magic, the same group of deer slowly moved back into the barn area. By this time, my cameraman and I had the shooting sequence down. Because of the limited floor space by the window, I’d get up and move my chair off to the side. Then, I’d turn sideways to draw my bow and quietly move two steps forward so my cameraman could film over my shoulder. But a major problem suddenly developed — I couldn’t get my bow back.
With the buck now standing broadside at 20 yards, once again I tried to draw. It’s amazing the power of adrenaline, and although the pain was real, I finally came to full draw. At this point, the thousands of perfectly placed arrows took over, and I watched the 5x6 typical buck drop no more than 40 yards from the barn. The blood trail in the snow was now even brighter, as both deer took the same trail across the winter wheatfield. We found both deer lying dead, no more than 20 yards apart. There’s no better feeling than success, and the triumph of reaching my goal was now complete.
Do you think I learned anything about safety harnesses? You bet. For the past two years, I’ve experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Just like DI Scruggs taught me so many years ago, bowhunting teaches you to accept and conquer your challenges until victory is assured. I learned what it takes to never give up mentally or physically, nor surrender. And after all these years, do I still want to kick my DI’s butt? Of course not . . . oh, who am I kidding, you bet I do. . . Oorah!
The author is this magazine’s “Hunting Whitetails” columnist.
On these hunts, I used a Hoyt Carbon Defiant bow, Easton FMJ arrows, T.R.U. Ball Max Pro 4-finger release, 100-grain Rage Hypodermic broadheads, Spot Hogg sight, Trophy Taker arrow rest, TightSpot quiver, and clothing from Browning.
Unlike years ago, you must apply for an out-of-state license to hunt deer in Kansas. Some bowhunters may have to wait two years before acquiring a coveted tag.