The same fatherly advice the author shared with his own son many years before proves to be just as fruitful today.
The smile reveals Cody VanWinkle's pride at taking his first Hoosierland whitetail.
A gangly doe stepped from the tree shadows, hopped the dry creek below our stand, and paused to sniff at a moldering stump I'd splashed with persimmon scent earlier in the October afternoon. Beside me, Cody clutched his bow and watched the broadside whitetail standing 18 short yards away. Although he wasn't trembling, the teenager's raspy breathing betrayed his heart-thumping excitement. And I'll confess that my own pulse clicked up a beat or two.
"Just wait," I whispered. "No need to rush."
Although not certain, I thought I could hear other deer walking in the dry leaves beneath the oaks towering above the creekbed. With another 15 to 20 minutes of legal shooting light left, we had time on our side.
Seconds later a large doe materialized like gray smoke and drifted across the creek to join the first deer. I leaned closer. "Get ready," I hissed. "Wait 'til everything's perfect. Take it slow, and you'll get the shot you want."
Fifteen-year-old Cody VanWinkle is my kind of kid: quiet, polite, hard-working, and promising as a hunter who takes his practice sessions and other preparations seriously.
Despite living a dozen or so miles apart, we're neighbors of sorts. His grandfather's family owns the Perry County, Indiana, farm directly across the road from my own rural retreat. Cody often spends time at the family farm, especially during summer vacation and hunting season.
Plenty of shooting practice gave Cody the confidence to make a good shot under any field conditions. He saved money from a summer job to buy his new PSE bow, carbon arrows, and broadheads.
He'd helped me with some painting and staining. In turn, I'd offered him advice on where to hang his treestands and erect ground blinds along well-used deer trails. When Cody's businessman father was called out of town in late September during the Hoosier State's special two-day youth hunt, I accompanied Cody afield on the VanWinkle farm.
We spotted several deer but none close enough for a good shot.
For Cody, sighting deer had rarely been a problem, but over the past couple of seasons he'd had trouble getting deer within easy bow range. His busy schedule of studies and sports at Heritage Hills High School doesn't allow a lot of free time. Although he'd tagged his first gobbler with a shotgun the previous spring, Cody had yet to fill a deer tag.
He was determined to change that in 2008.
Earlier in the year my old Hoosier hunting buddy, archery guru Don Castrup, had helped me set up the eager teenager with a new hunting bow and matched arrows. Cody had saved money from a part-time job at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, to pay for his updated tackle, and he promised to practice faithfully until he could group his arrows in the target's kill area.
I explain to Cody how a freshly pawed scrape and its overhanging limb reveal the presence of a rutting buck in the area.
After helping him fine-tune his shooting form, I offered Cody my proven "Beginning Hunter Formula" for bowhunting success.
- Draw your bow at least once a day, whether you release an arrow or not. It helps build strength and familiarize you with your tackle. Learn to relax when shooting by pulling with your back and squeezing the release or relaxing your fingers. Keep your eyes on the exact spot you want to hit; resist the urge to drop your bow arm to watch the arrow in flight.
- Keep initial practice shots under 20 yards; you can expand your effective range later. Always be safe. Keep shooting sessions brief while honing your accuracy. Don't practice when you're tired -- overdoing it leads to sloppy shooting habits. Learn to make your first arrow count.
- Be patient. Learn to shoot from a variety of positions -- standing, sitting, leaning, kneeling, twisting your upper body -- to prepare for any shot a deer may offer. You'll soon understand that deer have little appreciation for perfect shooting form.
- As opening day approaches, wear your camo hunting clothes during practice sessions, and practice with the broadheads you'll use for hunting. Shoot from elevated stands as well as ground level. Practice in wet and cold weather. And continue to practice during the hunting season. If possible, use a 3-D deer target for your practice sessions.
- Spend ample time scouting hunting areas, but avoid pressuring or educating the deer. Steer clear of their bedding areas. Use binoculars to glass field edges and feeding areas from long distances where you won't disturb the animals' daily routine.
- Finally, always carry at least one practice arrow tipped with a Judo point or blunt, and take a shot after the morning hunt or before taking an evening stand. Pick out a leaf or stick or clump of dirt and concentrate on making the practice shot count. It helps build your confidence and prepare you for the moment of truth when a deer comes within range.
My son Dave, the only other serious bowhunter in our family, followed this same fatherly advice when I helped him launch his own bowhunting career back in the mid-1970s.
Although at times he grew frustrated and impatient with Ol' Dad, I insisted that he follow the gospel I was preaching. My sermon came directly from the Archery Book of James.
The result? Dave's first three hunting arrows released at live game accounted for a Wisconsin whitetail, a Colorado muley, and a Colorado black bear. I was with him on all three unforgettable bowhunts. I also remember later saying something like, "Bowhunting's not this easy, really. You'll miss shots and be humbled, just like everyone who bowhunts. But when you finally blow a shot or go into a shooting slump, remember the basics. Look back and chances are you'll find the solution to whatever problem may arise."
By chance, while I was coaching and encouraging Cody, Dave called from Montana one September evening to report he'd just arrowed yet another bull at his favorite elk hunting hideaway south of Bozeman. I was tempted to hit Cody with a smug see-what-can
-happen-if-you-listen-to-an-old-bowhunter sermon. But I resisted, and the urge soon passed. Some lessons are best learned from firsthand experience.
Cody quickly learned to pick out fresh rubs. He now has his sights set on tagging his first buck during the 2009 Indiana bow season.
At last, October 1 arrived, and Cody started the season full of confident optimism. He dutifully called or e-mailed me reports of his deer sightings -- including one big 10-pointer that had passed by just out of range. But as the weeks slipped away, it became apparent that Cody was still having problems getting close to deer, even on his family farm with no shortage of whitetails. At the same time, while hunting on my side of the country road dividing the two properties, I was seeing deer and passing up close shots almost every time on stand.
Finally, after hearing Cody's repeated tales of "almost" and "not quite," I called and spoke to his parents, Ken and Sara, offering to partner up and do what I could to put Cody within good bow range of a deer. They gave their blessing, and I hung a second stand in a handy tree where a half-dozen deer trails converged near a dry creek in the wooded hills behind our farmhouse. On our second hunt together there, we found ourselves watching the two does standing below our stand tree.
The big doe was now quartering toward us, the first smaller deer still standing perfectly broadside. "Wait 'til she turns," I whispered. "Then draw and aim."
As if on cue, the larger doe turned broadside to sniff the stump.
"Not yet," I cautioned. "Wait until her leg goes forward."
She finally turned and took a step forward, quartering slightly away.
"Perfect. Pick a spot and make the shot."
Whether it was from excitement or chill-stiffened muscles, Cody struggled a bit to reach full draw. But I noticed that when he leaned forward and locked in, his bow arm was rock steady. And there was no mistaking the solid sound of his arrow hitting home. The big doe leaped straight up and nearly landed on her nose beside the scent stump.
Then both deer bounded away across the creek and into the darkening woods. Other snowy tails flashed amid the shadows, and briefly the timbered hillside was alive with running deer. The last glimpse I had of Cody's doe was when she hooked back to the left.
Then, in a matter of seconds, the woods fell eerily silent.
"It was a good hit," Cody said, trembling.
And so it was. The 130-pound doe didn't cover 45 yards before going down. And when the flashlight beam eventually played across her white belly, Cody sprinted past me to kneel beside his deer and stroke her sleek neck. The wide smile told me his once-in-a-lifetime moment had been well worth the wait.
Author's Notes: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued an encouraging report noting that 1.7 million youngsters between the ages of 6 and 15 hunted in 2005. That total represented a growth of nearly 4 percent in that particular age category since 2001 -- and was 10.9 percent of our nation's 12.5 million hunters. Even better, by 2006 that percentage of young hunters stood at 11.3 percent.
That's a very positive sign for a sport in which the average age of participants is already middle-aged and getting grayer with each passing season. Adults wanting to preserve the hunting tradition should seriously consider mentoring any youngster -- relative or acquaintance -- who shows an interest in hunting with gun or bow. Believe me when I say it's a great investment that can pay big dividends to all participants.