This Ain't Sherwood Forest

When you really think about it, spending "our money" for a new bow makes perfect sense.

This 160-class Pope and Young Kansas mule deer, which I arrowed in my second season of bowhunting, just a few days shy of my 71st birthday, is my first bow kill ever.

What would make an otherwise fairly rational, 70-year-old man willingly lay aside his cherished rifles to take up bowhunting? The short answer to that question involves a typical whitetail deer rack that adorns the east wall of our living room. The rack scores a whisker shy of 170 Boone & Crockett points, and for several years I've wanted a typical mule deer rack of similar size to balance the room. For various reasons I wasn't able to make it happen. Then we moved to a country home in northwest Kansas and started seeing mule deer. Lots of mule deer. Big mule deer.

Few things excite me more than seeing big deer, and these deer had me in a lather. But seeing deer doesn't necessarily equate to shooting them, and I soon learned that rifle permits for mule deer are not easily obtained in Kansas.

On the other hand, bow permits for residents are unlimited. Once that bit of information had soaked in, I began visiting archery shops, ordering archery catalogs, and bending the ear of every bowhunter I could find. After checking the price tags on several recommended bows, which resulted in a severe case of sticker shock, I started looking for ways to justify spending a sizeable chunk of what my wife rightfully thinks of as "our money."

With a little research, I discovered many good reasons for anyone, young or old, to take up bowhunting. Most of these reasons appear in the hunting regulations. As in Kansas, many states sell unlimited archery permits, whereas rifle permits may be severely limited in number and hard to draw. Most archery seasons run much longer than gun seasons, and they generally open earlier, when the weather is less menacing to brass monkeys and old fogies like me. In addition, archery bag limits may be more liberal than gun bag limits.

Perhaps best of all, the nature of archery promotes a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, and it generates the thrill of getting really close to the animals you're hunting. If you find yourself within bow range of a big game animal and don't experience tense muscles, wide eyes, and a pounding heart, you should do your hunting with video games.

With more than adequate justification, at least in my mind, in July 2007 I bought a new compound bow and the required accessories, and when archery deer season rolled around two months later, I was chomping at the bit. However, I soon realized that being eager to hunt doesn't mean the same thing as being ready to hunt.

In the bleak moments following a really lousy shot at a nice buck, which fortunately caused no injuries to man or beast, I remembered a line from one of my favorite movies.

At the climax of the film Quigley Down Under, the hero confronts the villain and says, "This ain't Dodge City, and you ain't Bill Hickok." But in the dark and tangled thicket of my thought processes, the small, whining voice of self-doubt whispered, "This ain't Sherwood Forest, and you ain't Robin Hood."

With that discomforting thought in mind, I replaced broadheads with fieldpoints and crept back to the practice range. A distinct advantage we retired folks have is time -- lots of it -- to practice. My normal routine is now 30 minutes to an hour, at least four days a week. I shoot standing, kneeling, and sitting at 20, 30, and 40 yards.

Although my first archery deer season produced no meat or antlers, it taught me some valuable lessons. First, shooting a bow requires physical skills not easily acquired by 70-year-old muscles with a normal range of infirmities. Second, and more valuable, consistent and correct practice with properly tuned equipment will trump most physical infirmities. Eventually it will also make you a better shot. I was fortunate to find a dealer/hunter willing to help me with both equipment and technique.

The 2008 Kansas archery deer season opened September 22, but the weather didn't cool down enough for decent hunting until late in October. Then, during 13 days of scouting and hunting between October 21 and November 18, I saw 45 whitetails and 59 mule deer.

It looks like easy country, but tall grass, deep draws, rock outcrops, and shading trees make careful glassing essential and sometimes very difficult.

November 19, 2008, found me once again in full regalia, binoculars hanging from my neck, a rangefinder making an uncomfortable bulge in the cargo pocket of my camouflage pants, and a mechanical release dangling from my right wrist. My bow bounced gently on the rear seat of the pickup as I parked at the edge of a recently harvested milo field.

It was the middle of a warm day, and I hoped to find a buck bedded in a patch of shade where I could sneak within bow range. A few days earlier, just after first light, I had seen a big muley buck with his harem of does and some lesser bucks as they left the milo field and disappeared into a large, isolated pasture cut by deep, rock-rimmed draws. After walking across a quarter mile of brittle, noisy milo stalks, I slipped through the pasture fence and sat with my back against a convenient post to glass the rolling terrain.

The country looks easy, nothing like the boot-eating malpais of the Arizona rim country; the stabbing, stinging, biting land of the desert mule deer; or the steep, oxygen-starved alpine country of Colorado. It is a country of lush grasses, prickly pear and yucca, limestone outcrops, and stunted trees contorted by cold, drought, and hot summer winds.

But it's not as easy as it looks. Even the relatively gentle contours of the Kansas prairie are pocked with hidden niches where animals find comfort and security. Thorough glassing with good binoculars or a spotting scope is essential.

When 20 minutes of glassing failed to produce, I slipped into the head of a big draw and began side-hilling its sinuous course to the northwest. A gentle breeze fanned my face and swayed the long, slender stems of prairie grasses.

Rounding a sharp bend in the draw, I discovered that the country opened up and that I had been glassing only a small part of the total area. I also saw a whitetail doe and fawn that took two seconds to decide I was an undesirable element and bounded away to the east.

About 30 minutes later and a quarter-mile farther north, the sides of the draw st

eepened, dropping off to a series of rock ledges and a shaded, sandy bottom with a few stunted hackberry trees. Several mule deer does and fawns loafed in the cool shade, and I caught a glimpse of a larger deer's broad rump as it disappeared behind a rock shelf. As I considered my next move, the does and fawns followed the single big deer out of my sight.

Lacking a better plan, I climbed to higher ground to observe a few short sections of the draw as it meandered north and west. Roughly a half-mile away, I could see a small pond where another draw joined the draw I was following. A small buck was drinking from the pond, and a larger buck that appeared to have heavy, deep-forked antlers herded several does and fawns around a point of land. If they followed the east draw back to the south -- and if I could get into the draw ahead of them -- an ambush might be possible.

That scenario presented at least one too many if's, which began a comedy of errors that, seemingly, must end in tragedy. First, as I scrambled back down to cross the draw, I came face to face with a muley doe and twin fawns that bounced away to the north, which I figured would spook every other deer in the area. Worried but still hopeful, I struggled up the far side and started across the ridge separating the two draws, where I spooked a whitetail doe and fawn. Fortunately, they ran to the south.

Working my way east and south to make sure I was still ahead of the buck, I finally reached the other draw. A large juniper tree on the west slope shaded a ledge of limestone about 10 yards above the bottom of the draw, and 25 or 30 yards from the opposite side.

It seemed like the perfect spot to bushwhack a deer until I crawled out on the ledge and looked down -- straight into the startled eyes of a forkhorn muley. Naturally, he bolted right down the bottom of the draw toward the buck I was hunting.

I felt sure that would blow the hunt but decided to give it a few more minutes just to be sure. Time passed with no sign of the big buck, and my hope faded with it.

Finally, with the bitter taste of failure in my mouth, I stood and turned to begin the long trek back to the truck. There, in the tall grass no more than 50 yards away, stood six mule deer does and fawns, two small bucks, and one of the most beautiful 4x4s I've ever seen.

Eight pairs of eyes locked on me with unwavering intensity, but the big buck was devoting all of his attention to one of the does.

In retrospect, what saved the day was my being slightly below the deer and partially concealed by grass and other vegetation. They could see only my head and upper torso. I had removed my camouflage facemask, but my bow with a nocked arrow and the quiver with three arrows were between my face and the deer, and the wind remained favorable.

In other words, what saved the day was pure luck.

As slowly as possible, I lowered myself to my hands and knees, trying to look like a rock, a clump of yucca, a coyote -- anything but what I was. For a while, it worked. One curious, sleek-bodied doe, and then a second, took several stiff-legged steps toward me.

The big buck followed. With my face almost on the ground, I could smell the sweet scent of dry grass and the rich, musky odor of damp soil. The deer took a few more steps.

Looking through the grass, I estimated the range at just over 40 yards. The buck was broadside as I eased into a kneeling position.

Coming to full draw, I got my right foot under me, thankful I could pull the 50 pounds of draw weight with no body contortion. The 40-yard pin settled on the center of the buck's chest, in line with the back of the near foreleg.

I don't remember releasing the arrow, but I do remember seeing the buck jump, mule kick, run 30 yards, and drop.

Standing over the downed buck, I experienced the same feelings of gratitude and subdued elation I've felt for every deer and elk I've ever taken. He wasn't the biggest buck I saw during the season, but he gave me tense muscles, wide eyes, and a pounding heart. And his rack, which green-scored 1617⁄8 inches, balances perfectly with the whitetail rack on our living room wall.

The author and his wife live in Penokee, Kansas. This story of his first bow-killed animal is also his first story to appear in the pages of Bowhunter.

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