There may be areas with more game, but you won't hear any complaints from the 24 bowhunters who took 21 deer and two antelope during a week's hunt in northwestern Nebraska.
I arrowed my first muley buck in Colorado's Book Cliff Mountains way back in 1965, And over the next several decades, I shared annual mule deer adventures with bowhunting buddies across vast Western prairies and remote Rocky Mountains settings from Montana to New Mexico.
In September of 1971, Jack Reinhart and I traveled from southern Indiana to northwestern Nebraska to hook up with Laverne Woock, Roger Rothhaar, Tink Nathan, Kiko Tovar, Toad Smith, Tom Shupienis, Denny Behn and other members of the Professional Bowhunters Society on a combination hunt for deer and pronghorns. The results of the truly memorable week-long adventure were first published in the February/March 1972 issue of Bowhunter Magazine.
My 40-year-old feature, "Pine Ridge Payoff," allows readers to glimpse a simpler, less expensive, but highly effective time in bowhunting history when stickbows still ruled the day and do-it-yourself hunts were as common as turkey feather fletching. Read. Enjoy. Remember. And think just how far we've come in only four short decades.
-- M. R. James, Bowhunter Magazine Founder
A small herd of at least a dozen galloping mule deer began to spill out of the mouth of a dry wash 30 yards away. Half were bucks, forkhorns, and three-pointers. The rest were flop-eared does. All were headed hellbent for the alfalfa field beyond the ridge to my right. They reminded me of a bunch of hungry youngsters answering a last call to supper.
Minutes earlier I had seen a buck and doe on the evening skyline 200 yards away. I was still-hunting through the darkening pines at the time, and I thought sure they'd spotted me. But soon after I froze in place, they began picking their way slowly down the slope. Several others followed. Using available cover, I slipped down the ridge and hurried to intercept them.
The approaching deer took their own sweet time at first, walking downhill single file. But then the orderly procession started to turn into a footrace as the tailenders began to bump and jostle the leaders. From a walk, the oncoming herd broke into a gallop. I crouched waiting, watching the bobbing ears and antlers for a respectable set of horns. I already had a good doe hanging on the camp meat pole and was after a buck or nothing.
Keep waiting. I told myself over and over. If there's a nice buck he'll be bringing up the rear.
Earlier in the week I'd missed a chance at a big-antlered muley when I took a poke at a spike at 35 yards. The young buck saw me and stopped broadside just as I drew for the shot. He neatly ducked my arrow and bounced away followed by the biggest 4x4 I was to see in a week of hunting. I mentally kicked myself. If only I would have waited.
Now, with a thundering band of muleys kicking up the dust just in front of me, I wasn't about to make the same mistake. This time I'd wait and be sure.
As it turned out, I needn't have bothered. After the main body of the herd passed, only a doe and forkhorn straggled by. Halfheartedly, I swung on the bouncing forky and loosed an arrow. The shaft flew low, rattling away up the wash. The deer disappeared over the ridge, and I began the long walk back to the road. There was still tomorrow.
This was late September of 1971. At the time we were on a week-long deer and antelope hunt just north of Harrison, Nebraska. The occasion was the once-a-year hunt and parley the Professional Bowhunters Society sponsors for its members.
Jack Reinhart and I had made the trip west from Indiana to join up with other bowbenders determined to take advantage of the excellent hunting found in the area. In all, 19 PBS members from nine states made the 1971 get-together and 18 were participating in the hunt. Another six non-members were in our camp as guests.
We arrived the day after the season opened to find five deer already adorning the camp meat pole. It didn't take us long to set up our tent, stow our gear, and break out our bows for some serious hunting.
Generally, we were told, mornings and evenings were spent still-hunting or on stands in or around feeding areas. Organized daytime drives kept things interesting and, of course, there was always antelope to chase after if you became bored with deer hunting.
Hunters here are allowed two deer and two antelope (any age and sex) and the cost for each nonresident license is $30. Residents pay $10. Permits may be ordered from the Game & Parks Commission, P.O. Box 30370, Station A., Lincoln, NE 68503.
Most of the bowhunters were concentrating on deer. Both whitetails and muleys are found scattered throughout the pine ridges and brushy creek bottoms, so locating good hunting was not difficult. A few of us (all incurable optimists) had purchased antelope as well as deer tags. Most of us could have saved our money because only two pronghorns were taken. Colorado bowhunter Dennis Behn anchored a young buck with one arrow at 97 yards, and Francis "Kiko" Tovar of Iowa scored with a "slightly longer" shot reported to be in the low three figures.
I missed my only chance when a fair buck spooked by Jack trotted within 50 yards of where I crouched behind a clump of sage. As I rose up for the shot, the antelope quickly broke into that characteristic ground-eating gait. My arrow was low and behind the bobbing white rump.
Roger Rothhaar of Ohio made the best stalk of the hunt. He crawled on his belly through snow to within 35 yards of a bedded buck pronghorn that would have made Pope and Young with inches to spare. The buck and a medium-sized band of does were occupied watching Jack take telephoto pictures of them and didn't know they were being flanked. At last the buck stood up and took a few steps in Jack's direction. Roger thought he'd been spotted and raised to shoot. The sharp-eyed buck caught the motion, swapped ends, and headed for the open range. Roger's arrow was inches high and, needless to say, he didn't get a second chance.
Jack himself got a lot of kidding for missing an "easy" shot at the biggest antelope we saw in a week of hunting. His arrow fell just short
of the trophy buck standing broadside on the skyline near Montrose Church. Several sober-faced witnesses later spread the word that Jack had blown a 30-yard shot. In truth, the antelope was at least four times that distance -- and Jack's arrow didn't miss by much, either!
Really, the ideal way to hunt antelope in this open, rolling terrain is to play the ol' waiting game near where the herds come to water. This means hiding behind natural cover (rocks, haystacks, etc.) and waiting for the antelope to come to you. And don't pass up rigging an elevated stand on one of the numerous windmill platforms if the antelope are using a particular watering area. Ranchers generally know if pronghorns are using their stock tanks and most can be of great assistance to bowhunters in planning an ambush.
We were at somewhat of a disadvantage because of an unusual abundance of water during the 1971 season. Area ranchers we talked to reported it had been a wet year and the antelope herds had their choice of numerous watering spots. This meant we had to make a decision whether to sit near water for hours each day in the hopes pronghorns would come in, or drive the back roads and work together as teams in stalking maneuvers. We chose the latter method despite the fact Lady Luck would have to be with us if we were to get anything but long shots at running game.
Deer hunting was much more productive.
The second evening of the hunt found me perched atop a broken-off snag 15 feet above a spot where five runs converged. Jack and I had booted eight or more feeding muleys from an adjoining field as we moved in to take up stands along the tangled creekbed. I'd been waiting for an hour or so before I saw three does feeding in the alfalfa 75 yards away.
The wind was blowing from me into the field and I had about written them off when something spooked them and they trotted my way. At 40 yards they caught my scent and stopped, eyeballing the area. As I watched, two moved ahead quickly and entered the creek 35 yards below me while the other deer danced nervously about. Three times it started toward me only to stop and test the wind. At last it trotted forward, changed directions, and disappeared into the timber at my back.
I waited. A mist-laden wind began to whip through my leafy stand. Darkness would fall early. A turkey gobbler moved past on one of the runs to my right. We'd seen dozens of the wild birds while driving deer. Unfortunately, the season was closed.
Suddenly I spotted a big doe picking her way down the hill beyond the spot where the turkey has passed. Thirty yards. Twenty. Fifteen. My arrow smacked through the animal's left shoulder, knocking her sprawling sideways into a big cottonwood. She regained her feet and crashed away, but I knew she wouldn't go far. My 60-pound Black Widow had driven the broadhead into her lungs. I found her piled up just past Jack's stand. One of my tags was filled, and I had the rest of the week to concentrate on arrowing a buck.
That night the light rain changed to snow and a heavy blanket of the white stuff shrouded Pine Ridge when we left the tents and campers for the day's hunt. Later the snow changed back to rain and we all got thoroughly soaked€¦but that's a part of the game. The deer made us forget all about being cold and wet.
Everybody was seeing deer and getting shots. Each day another tag or two got punched and new how-it-was-done stories were told over a hot supper. No big bucks were being taken; in fact, few were seen. Bowhunters like Jack, Roger Rothhaar, Kelly Peterson of Wisconsin, and John Elmer, Maryland -- who had announced they'd take "horns or nothing" -- found the shots few and far between. Eating-size does and forkhorns comprised the majority of the kills.
After I saw the herd of muleys mentioned at the beginning of this article, I felt confident that I could fill my second tag with a buck. Early the next afternoon I was prowling the ridgetop where I'd seen the buck and doe the evening before. Hunting slowly into the wind, I found two well-used runs passing on either side of a big pine I could climb with little effort. After 15 minutes of clearing bothersome twigs, I had an open shot at either trail. I tied a thread to a limb beside me so I could note the wind direction at a glance, then settled down to wait on a branch 30 feet above the ground.
It was a picturebook setting. To my left pines thrust themselves out of the rocky soil upwards to the base of a sheer cliff which towered several hundred feet above me. Across a forested canyon the jagged backbone of Pine Ridge turned northward near the Wyoming border. To my right a finger of pines fell away into the valley, and at my back cattle grazed along the last pine-dotted ridge which overlooked the fields where the deer went to feed. If only the deer would cooperate€¦
One hour passed. Two. At last the sun dipped behind Pine Ridge. The wind was still in my face. If the deer were coming, it would be soon.
Then a doe stepped quietly into the open 35 years away on the hillside to my left. A second deer, a forkhorn, followed her. Slowly I raised my Widow as the two muleys nosed at the sparse vegetation. The buck stood head down, quartering slightly away from me. It wasn't the shot I'd planned on taking, since I had to lean far forward and cant my bow slightly in order to come to full draw. To say I felt awkward would be an understatement.
The buck took a step uphill just as I released, and the Razorhead-tipped .410 Supreme flew inches low. Both deer bounced away. I put another arrow on the string and waited. Within minutes they were back, sniffing at my fiberglass arrow and casting suspicious glances in my direction. Thoroughly camouflaged from head to toe, I knew they couldn't see me if I didn't move. Jumpy now, the buck and doe pranced nervously and finally trotted back in the direction they'd originally come. I had the sinking feeling I'd just had my chance and muffed it.
But only moments after they'd disappeared, three does came out of the pines and passed directly beneath my tree. I watched them browse down the hillside out of sight. When I turned my eyes back, I could see several more deer standing in a small, shadowy opening 60 yards away. No horns were apparent at first but when the deer started my way I could see a nice forkhorn bringing up the rear.
Darkness was only 15 to 20 minutes away. I thought about waiting for another buck but dismissed the idea. If the forky followed the run, I'd have a good 15-yard shot. It might be my last chance since we were leaving for Indiana the following afternoon.
The deer were all walking quickly now. I could count seven does in the lead, all heads moving, all ears cupped as they scanned the ridge for danger. But each passed beneath my tree without looking up. The forkhorn was yards behind them, coming straight toward me. As he neared the opening I'd cleared for just this occasion, the buck turned broadside and followed the trail be
neath me. My arrow caught him in the spine and dropped him kicking in his tracks.
It was dark by the time I'd gutted the buck, dragged him 100 yards or so down the ridge, and tied him as high as I could manage in a low-limbed pine. The road was still a long way away, and I knew it would be easier to finish the chore with an extra hand in the morning. Jack, I learned later, had not gotten a shot. He'd try again the following day while I was retrieving my forky.
Laverne Woock and I completed the task in short order bright and early Friday. Laverne,
the PBS president, had hit a buck just at dark, too. He already had a forkhorn hanging in camp and thought he had a good hit on the second buck. Rather than push it in the dark, he'd left the blood trail until morning. As it turned out, he did find his deer soon after helping me get my buck back to camp...
The bucks didn't cooperate with Jack that morning so at midday we began to break camp with his tags unfilled. By the time we left, 21 deer had been taken by the 24 PBS members and their guests. All but one were muleys. Bill Fowlkes of Maryland tagged the only whitetail.
Other successful PBS deer hunters included Tink Nathan of Virginia; Iowa bowmen "Kiko" Tovar, Otis "Toad" Smith, and Francis "Gene" Winter; Dennis Behn of Colorado; Howard Clark of Pennsylvania; Tom Shupienis of Ohio; and Ernie Whitmore of Indiana.
Bowhunters who might want to give the Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska a try could choose a worse spot. Although we hunted mainly on private land after obtaining permission, there is public hunting to be found in the Gilbert Baker area and, of course, on the Ogallala National Grasslands. Elevations vary from about 5,300 feet in the ridges down to 3,300 feet in the grassland areas. Camping is available in Monroe Canyon or motel accommodations may be found in Harrison. The fickle weather can vary from hot to cold, from rain to snow€¦so come prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
Details about licenses were mentioned earlier. Also, meat processing is available in Harrison at a cost of about $10 per animal. For the fisherman, residents suggest Hat Creek, White River, Soldier Creek, Niobrara River, Dead Horse Creek, and Sow Belly Canyon. And rockhounds will have a field day taking time from hunting to visit nearby Agate, known for its fossil remains and prehistoric animals.
All in all, for good bowhunting in one of the less publicized areas of the country, string-pullers would do well to remember this hot spot the next time they're looking for new territory. Now that I know my way around, I'm already looking forward to my next visit.