June 26, 2023
During a guiding career spanning more than three decades, I have met hundreds of highly dedicated hunters. Many of them have literally traveled the world in pursuit of their passion. These people spend a lot of time — and plenty of loot — on their hobby, but when I think of sheer bowhunting enthusiasm and a pure love of the pursuit of game, one name instantly comes to my mind.
Dave Butler is a retired detective from New Jersey who has been hunting strictly with a bow and arrow for nearly 50 years. He gave up hunting with guns after being shot accidentally a couple of times. The second mishap convinced him that gun hunting was no longer his thing; the story is actually pretty darn funny, and if you ever have the pleasure of sharing a camp with him, I implore you to ask Dave to tell it!
At 84-years young, Dave is still a very accurate archer and keeps himself in excellent physical condition. He is always the first guy up in the morning and the first hunter ready to hit the woods, and his guide better not show up a minute before legal shooting hours end to pick him up. He’s without a doubt a pure hunting fanatic, and I am always amazed by how much he still enjoys every minute of his time afield.
I first met Dave nearly 20 years ago at a fly-in tent camp I was running on the Fond du Lac River in extreme northern Saskatchewan. Dave and hunting buddy Joel Riotto had heard about these remote hunts for fearless, un-hunted black bears via articles by M.R. James in Bowhunter Magazine. It was quickly apparent that Dave was a guy who likes to laugh and who sees the funny side of everything. I would also come to know that, like anyone from New Jersey, he is not hesitant to let you know his opinions about anything and everything. I’m a big fan of folks with little to no filter; it beats the heck out of wondering what they’re thinking!
My hunting methods are noticeably different than what Dave and Joel were used to when they hunted at other bear camps, so I answered a lot of their questions about my methods. I’m used to initial skepticism, because fly-in hunts use a lot less bait than experienced hunters are used to seeing at most bear camps.
Their initial doubts proved to be unfounded; they both shot trophy bears and they also enjoyed catching a lot of walleye and big pike.
Since that first trip, I have guided Dave for spring bears, fall deer, or both nearly every year. But when COVID hit, he was forced to miss two consecutive spring bear seasons. Dave called me one day to tell me he was going to dig a tunnel under the border. “At my age, I can’t afford to miss any more bear seasons — I only have about 27 more left!” Needless to say, Dave was happy when the Canadian border was opened in time for him to make his annual deer hunt with me in the fall of 2021.
Several of my deer clients had let me know they were interested in early season hunts for whitetails still in velvet. I had tried a couple times in the past to pattern farmland deer, but if a farmer rolled in with harvesting equipment, usually the bucks would change their habits and all my time spent scouting and finding good stand locations would be for naught. When clients pay good money for their hunts, I prefer to stack the odds in their favor and not have their hunts messed up by things beyond my control.
Baiting for deer is legal and effective in Saskatchewan. Our archery hunts begin in mid-October, mainly because baiting earlier in the year often encourages bears to take over the baits, and this can be a problem for deer hunters.
A friend told me that he had been having very good luck baiting deer and hunting in September. He claimed the deer show up when the bears don’t, so I decided to experiment and started a couple deer baits in August. Within two days, a dandy buck showed up at one of them and immediately made regular visits.
This guy had just about everything you’d want in a Canadian whitetail; his 6x6 rack was high and wide with plenty of tine length, and even sported matching droppers near the end of the main beams. All in all, I figured it was a buck no bowhunter would ever think of passing up.
Over the next two weeks, the buck made several daylight appearances. I was getting trail-cam photos of his rack from every conceivable angle, and at all hours of the day. By now I had begun referring to the buck as “Fabio,” because he was kind of like a male model posing for the camera.
Archery season started on September 1, and with no deer clients booked until mid-October, I must admit it was mighty tempting to string up my longbow and go shoot Fabio myself. I had faced this dilemma many times over the years, but I’ve always resisted my own primal urge in favor of my clients’ success — but it hasn’t been easy to do at times!
I only got a couple of poor-quality nighttime photos of the buck after he shed his velvet in early September, and then he disappeared completely. Some resident hunters were pursuing elk in the general vicinity of the deer bait, and I wondered if one of them had encountered the buck and put him on the ground, or if maybe some wolves had made a meal of him. The other bucks in the region were still visiting my alfalfa buffet regularly, but there was absolutely no sign of Fabio until I checked the camera on the morning of October 25 — he had reappeared the day before in late afternoon, and he hung around for quite a while, too!
The pictures revealed that he’d broken off one of his brow tines, but he was still a fantastic trophy. I was amazed that I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him for several weeks before he suddenly returned. It was quite the disappearing act he pulled off, so he earned the surname “Houdini.”
Dave was scheduled to arrive later in the day on October 25 and hunt throughout the week. Also in camp were some new clients who also had been patiently waiting through the COVID nonsense to get to Canada.
One of my guides asked me who I wanted to put in that stand the following day. Without hesitation, I told him that Dave Butler would be going there — not because Dave is a long-time friend and client, but rather my firsthand knowledge of Dave’s skills as a bowhunter and the fact he’d never failed to get the job done. Dave has killed a serious number of deer during his 60-plus years of casting arrows, and he has taken many species of big game across North America.
There was a caveat to Dave’s hunting that buck. He’d told me on his first-ever hunt with me that he likely wouldn’t shoot anything — no matter how big it was — until the last day or so, because he liked to get his money’s worth. He has always been true to his word. In fact, I started referring to him as “Sergeant Friday” after he passed up a 160-class buck several times during the week before finally shooting him the last morning of his hunt. He just hates to miss a minute on stand with bow in hand.
I explained to Dave that Fabio had vanished from that area once before, so there would be no passing him up unless he broke off one entire side of his rack. He agreed with me that bucks of that caliber are rare, and then he promised to shoot him if he showed up again.
Dave was in the stand well before daylight and had action for most of the day. The bucks were getting frisky, and lots of fresh rubs and scrapes were evident around his stand.
At one point, a skittish doe showed up watching her backtrail. Dave raised his Prime bow when he saw a huge-bodied buck with a very wide and heavy rack trailing her through some very thick willows. He told me later that when he saw the buck’s gigantic mass, he instantly said to himself, “Screw Houdini, I’m gonna shoot this beast!” Unfortunately, the doe spooked and ran off, and the buck turned and followed her without going near the bait or offering Dave a shot.
Believe it or not, Dave was actually disappointed a little while later when he saw the big droptine buck emerge from a stand of spruce trees about 50 yards away. The bruiser nonchalantly strolled to the bait, seemingly without a care in the world.
Dave studied him for about 10 minutes as the buck fed and walked around while offering multiple shot opportunities at 20 yards or less. Dave was convinced the buck he saw earlier was more impressive, and a mental struggle began as to whether he should shoot the buck or let the deer go.
Then Dave suddenly remembered the trail camera and thought, Uh oh, if Rob checks the camera and finds out I passed this dude up, I’m going to be in some serious doodoo! (Not an exact quote.) He later reported that he’d been watching the buck for so long that he felt zero nerves when he settled his pin and launched a deadly arrow tipped with an old-school Thunderhead. The buck bolted down the same trail he’d walked in on before piling up within 70 yards.
I got the last laugh, though, when I discovered the camera contained a faulty memory card and had taken no pictures of the event. Dave could have passed him up, clammed up, and would have possibly had another chance at the big-beamed buck… More importantly, he would have had at least one more day of hunting!
The author is a long-time friend of this magazine, a great outfitter and guide, a fair shot with a longbow, and one of the funniest humans you’ll ever meet.