A combination of 19th Century environment and 21st Century game management adds up to historic whitetail hunting.
"WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, the population here was 1,600," Greg Hill said as he, cameraman David Drew, and I ate dinner at the Red Barn Restaurant. "Now the population is 1,200."
Located 60 miles south of Wichita, Caldwell, Kansas, sits on the Old Chisholm Trail just north of the Oklahoma border. The shrinking population symbolizes the character of the region -- totally 19th Century. Prices at the Red Barn solidify the image. The nightly special cost $6.25 for a full meal. As a fairly frugal person, I was impressed.
"You people are still living in the 19th Century," I said. "Anywhere else a meal like this would cost three times as much."
"Well, don't tell the locals that!" Greg responded with a smile. "I like it just the way it is."
And why wouldn't he? Life on the Old Chisholm Trail is good, not only for frugal diners but also for bowhunters looking for big whitetails. I first met Greg at the Pope and Young Convention in Denver a few months earlier and immediately liked his easy manner, ready smile -- and tales of big whitetails. For many years Greg taught school, but he has always been a bowhunting and whitetail fanatic, and he now outfits whitetail hunters and bird hunters full time. He purposely has kept his outfit small to give hunters personal attention. He takes only three to four hunters per week, and he personally guides them. Hunters stay at his house, where they eat breakfast and lunch, and then they eat dinner at the Red Barn. Liking the sound of all this, I booked a hunt for mid-November. David would videotape the hunt for Bowhunter TV.
DAVID AND I ARRIVED in Caldwell on November 15, and the next morning Greg took us for a drive to give us a feel for the territory. Typical of the Midwest, about two-thirds of the land comprises fields of corn, soybeans, and milo; the other third CRP, wooded creek bottoms, and Osage cover rows. We saw several deer out in the fields, including a decent eight-pointer chasing a doe. The rut seemed to be cranking.
Unlike many Kansas outfitters, Greg does not use bait. He figures the land provides plenty of natural baits, and he places stands to take advantage of these. He also has many stands strategically set in timber funnels and on creek crossings. He encourages his hunters to employ calling and decoys.
I was amazed to think that the tree holding my stand was growing right here when Jesse Chisholm carved out his trail in 1864. Greg Hill admires a rub that confirms the presence of a big buck near my stand site. Rattling was only one of several tools I used to stir some 21st Century hunting success.
THE FIRST AFTERNOON we went to stands Greg had placed on a river crossing. The sky was overcast, the temperature was 40 degrees, and the wind was blowing 20 to 30 miles an hour from the north. Between wind gusts I rattled antlers, but by dark at 5:30, we saw only a doe and fawn in the distance.
Early November 17, we returned to the river stand. The wind was still howling, and we saw no deer, so at 11 a.m., Greg picked us up and took us to a timber strip bordering a cut cornfield, an ideal evening scenario. Two does and two small bucks were already feeding in the field, a good sign. We placed a decoy on the edge of the field, 20 yards east of the stands. West of the stands, a bank dropped off into a riverbottom, where timber between the field and the river formed a natural travel corridor for deer.
About 4:30, a mature eight-pointer with long tines came from the north along the edge of the river, just out of bow range. Apparently on a mission to get from Point A to Point B, he paid no attention to my calling. A short time later, another mature buck did the same thing. While disappointed at their lack of response to my calling, I was encouraged at seeing two shooter bucks.
The morning of Wednesday, November 18, we left about 5 a.m. for a property west of town where a lady bowhunter had shot a buck in the 160 P&Y class the year before. The stands here overlooked a creek crossing at the edge of a winter wheat field, and it looked so good we sat there from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and those 11 long hours gave me plenty of time to reflect on the area.
In 1864, Jesse Chisholm had mapped out his trail to transport goods to his trading post in Wichita. Then in 1867, Joseph McCoy, a cattle buyer from Illinois, began trailing longhorn cattle from Texas along the Chisholm Trail, and he extended the trail north from Wichita to Abilene, Kansas, where he'd built cattle yards on a newly completed rail line. That operation lasted from 1867-70. Later, the town of Caldwell itself became a center for the longhorn cattle trade.
While I could envision herds of longhorns streaming northward over these very prairies some 150 years ago, I would not have seen many, if any, whitetail deer if I'd been sitting in this treestand back then. Advancing civilization and settlement during the 19th Century pretty much wiped out the prairie whitetails and other big game.
I placed my Carry-Lite EZ-Buck decoy 20 yards upwind of my stand and de-scented it with Scent Killer. To make it look vulnerable, I removed one antler. These steps turned theory into reality!
By 1900, whitetails were nonexistent in Kansas and neighboring states, and only transplanting and the abolition of all hunting could bring them back. Not until 1965 did Kansas hold its first modern deer season, and the deer herds -- and hunting -- have only gotten better since then. Thanks to modern game management, Kansas has blossomed into one of the premier trophy whitetail destinations.
While the results were not born out that long day for us -- a couple of does and fawns came under our stands -- we confirmed the potential as we walked out to meet Greg that night and saw two very large bucks out in an open field, silhouetted against the sunset.
WITH AN EAST WIND BLOWING Thursday morning, Greg put us in stands at the intersection of a winter wheat field, a timbered creek bottom, a weed field, and a willow patch. With the convergence of four vegetation types, plus an obvious creek crossing below our stands, it looked like an ideal situation, and deer act
ivity proved that to be the case. Throughout the day deer passed by, and by the end of the day, several does and five separate bucks had come within bow range. A couple of the bucks came to my rattling, and two of them, including a decent eight-pointer, came right under our stands. While I decided none of these were big enough to shoot, I was thrilled with an activity-filled day.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 20 was our last scheduled day. With the wind now blowing from the north, we returned to the river crossing we'd hunted our first day. Trying to out-shout the wind, I rattled long, hard, and frequently. One small buck passed by out in the CRP, and then another came straight toward us, obviously attracted by the rattling -- and bedded 30 yards from our stands, where he stayed for two hours. I continued to clatter the antlers, and finally he rose from his bed and skulked off, looking over his shoulder, probably wondering why those two bucks in a tree didn't quit fighting.
At 10:30, Greg picked us up to return to the picked cornfield where we'd seen the two mature bucks a couple of days before. This time we put the decoy in the timber between us and the river, hoping to pull any bucks traveling that corridor within range of our stands. Throughout the afternoon, two separate does and a young eight-point buck slinked around the decoy, sniffing and posturing. At dark, as we prepared to climb down, we could hear turkeys thundering up into a nearby roost tree. When we met Greg after dark, he told us he'd seen a big buck out in the cornfield, right by his truck. That officially ended our hunt.
Or did it? Perhaps more than anything else, I hate giving up, and I find it especially painful when I know big bucks are kicking my tail. I take that personally. So that night I had to ask.
A number of bucks came to investigate my grunt call.
"Hey, Greg, any chance I could hunt another day or two?" I said.
"Well, my next hunters don't come in until Monday," he said. "So you could hunt Saturday and Sunday."
Done. Immediately I changed my plane flight home to Monday morning. That was the good news. The bad news was that David had a prior commitment and could not stay to shoot camera, meaning we would not get a kill for TV -- if there were a kill.
ON HIS WEST PROPERTY, Greg had a ladder stand in a big oak tree. He'd been seeing a couple of quality bucks out there, so that seemed like the place to start.
Arriving at the stand an hour before daylight, I assessed the situation with my flashlight. The oak tree grew in a creek bottom at the foot of a bank. The stand sat about 20 feet above the ground, putting it at eye level with the top of the bank.
In the dark, I could only guess where to place my decoy, but with a light breeze drifting from west to east, I put the decoy 20 yards west of the stand, and facing the stand. In theory, if a buck spotted the decoy, he would circle downwind to smell it and to face it head on, placing him broadside and very close to my stand. In theory, the plan seemed perfect.
By daylight I was sitting in the stand, full-body safety harness attached, and ready to hunt. Looking around at the huge old oak holding my stand, I realized that this tree no doubt was growing here at the time Jesse Chisholm was carving out his trail through this area. Perhaps he hauled goods past this very tree. Or perhaps Joseph McCoy drove longhorn cattle up this very creek bottom.
Not long after sunrise, a small buck came by, followed by a doe and fawn. Then, about 11 a.m., a deer crossed 80 yards east of the stand. I couldn't tell how big he was, but I did catch a flash of antlers through the trees. Hoping to get a closer look, I blew my grunt call a couple of times. Apparently oblivious to the sound, he continued south, away from me.
Frantic to get his attention, I blew my grunt call as loud as possible. Blaatt!
On the Old Chisholm Trail, manpower is the order of the day. Greg Hill is obviously doing the heavy work as I supervise.
Instantly the buck stopped and turned to look downhill, and when he saw the decoy, his hair stood on end and he began stalking down toward the decoy. Within seconds, he stood 20 yards from my stand. But he was quartering toward me. I waited.
Unable to smell the decoy, he started circling downwind -- straight toward my stand. Then, 10 yards from the base of my tree, he turned to face the decoy head on, putting him broadside to me. I love it when theory becomes reality!
When the arrow struck home, the buck sprinted south, around the hill and out of my sight, but I knew he would not go far.
Climbing down, I walked out to the road and called Greg, and he arrived shortly with his deer carrier, a two-wheeled cart powered by€¦ man. Talk about retrograde. On the Old Chisholm Trail, they don't even use ATVs. We had to haul this beast out by hand. As we grunted and strained to wheel the buck up a steep bank, I thought, This is different -- totally 19th Century!
That night, Greg, his brother, another hunter, and I went to the Red Barn for dinner. By way of celebration, I insisted on buying dinner for all of us. Of course, this was no huge act of generosity, because I already new this restaurant was still dwelling in the 19th Century. And even though I'm frugal -- okay, some people call it cheap -- the total price tag of $22.37 for those four dinners didn't hurt at all.
Yes, life on the Old Chisholm Trail remains very good, totally 19th Century. The only thing that has changed is the quality of the deer herd. Later that night, as I wrapped my hands around the heavy, polished antlers of my buck, I felt very thankful that deer hunting on the Old Chisholm Trail is totally 21st Century.