I don't think I'm capable of telling a short version of any story and this one might be longer than any of them so I apologize in advance, but to me, this one is well worth the drawn out, overly dramatic, writing that follows.
This story starts 7 years ago when I went on my first archery elk hunt with good friends CJ Novak and Jay Canada. We had grand plans of hunting OTC (over the counter) units in Colorado from bivy camps and packing out multiple bulls. Oh the lessons we learned. I could write a whole new piece of the misadventures of that hunt as well as the next four times I tried for elk in Colorado. Some mistakes include carrying 70 lbs of gear and 14 days worth of food for a 5 day hunt, hunting during the biggest floods Denver had seen in recent memory, trying to bushwhack our own trails to "shortcut" our way to elk, pulling my hamstring playing softball 2 days before leaving on a hunt, waking up in a tent surrounded by domestic sheep, sleeping in a truck as the rain pounded us relentlessly for days, or even totaling out a truck in a nearly tragic accident on the Colorado interstate. Despite all of those hardships there were close calls with the elk and even a couple of near opportunities, but it wasn't "elk hunting" as I had dreamed of. My trips weren't like what I'd seen on TV or read about in magazines, I wanted to experience the bulls screaming those spine-tingling, close-range, in-your-face bugles. I wanted to experience the adrenaline of watching an angry monarch of a herd bull furiously bust through the trees ready to confront his intruder. As much as I loved the scenery of Colorado I needed to find greener pastures.
Somewhere along the way I was reading a story in a magazine about a man who was also a part time guide in New Mexico. In his story he had multiple encounters with trophy class bulls. He continued to pass up these bulls in hopes of bigger, and eventually he reached his goal. I was reading through his profile and read that he was from New Mexico so I pulled up a map of his unit and started researching. I realized that drawing anywhere in NM was a long shot as they have a lottery system, which means put your name in the hat and hope you draw 1 of 6% of the tags distributed to non-residents. It was worth a shot. I started researching various forums on the internet to see if there was any info about this area and where I might be able to hunt should I draw a tag. I sent a few messages out to a few people asking if they'd care to talk about my plans and help me out. As expected very few responded, elk hunters don't like to give up their secrets. But 1 did. His name was Chewy Swatzell. Chewy and I talked a little about elk and eventually found ourselves chatting regularly and quickly started up a genuine friendship. It might sound odd to say but via the internet I had found a bowhunting brother with a passion for the outdoors and elk mountains that is unmatched by anyone I've ever met. I decided I wouldn't elk hunt an OTC unit again unless it was with Chewy or at least someone that could teach me about elk hunting. Over the course of the next 5 years I would religiously apply for New Mexico and each year be disappointed with the draw results coming up empty. Chewy would tell his stories and share with me updates of his adventures. At some point we had decided that no matter what happened in the 2017 draw I was going to come down and actually meet Chewy face-to-face and spend a week in his elk camp, meet his family, and take in a real elk hunt even if I was along just to experience it.
New Mexico posts its draw results in late April annually, this year it was the 26th. I remember being at work giving my normal 110% effort when I got a text from Chewy. He said that the draw results were up online. It was about a week early so I hadn't been expecting to check. Chewy couldn't hold back his secret anymore, he had drawn an either sex tag for the first time in 3 years so no matter what I was headed to NM! I frantically tried to learn how to use the internet at work as that's not something I would normally do seeing how I'm dedicated to my job, to see if I could find my results. When I finally got into my results page I saw a green highlight with my unit code. I stared in shock as I assumed that meant I drew. I kept clicking refresh to make sure it didn't change. After close to refreshes I was finally convinced these results were real. I had drawn a New Mexico archery elk tag! I could barely believe my eyes. Come September 1, both Chewy and I would be hunting elk in New Mexico!
The next few months both drug along, and blew by. I had made plans to fly down and have Chewy pick me up at the airport and we'd be hunting the opener. The plans went off without a hitch and we were finally in elk camp and finally in our beds by 1 am on Sept 1, just enough time to settle in and catch 4 quick, restless hours of sleep.
Day one started with about 40-45 degrees temperatures and a quick drive to Chewy's honeyhole. On the drive in we would find 4 cows and a spike bull in front of our headlights on ground we would later come back to. We also found a 330 class bull with a cow on private land. It was an encouraging sight. As the sun was just starting to rise on day 1 Chewy and I were headed up the mountain. It was a surreal feeling to think I was here and finally doing this. I was boots down in the mountains of New Mexico hunting elk. About a mile and a half into the hike I was more of a tourist than a hunter as I was taking pictures of every tree and rock in the forest when a magical noise snapped me into reality. 1 1/2 hours into my first hunt I had heard my first bull elk bugle of the trip. Suddenly we were in hunt mode. Chewy and I checked the wind and made a quick plan to close the distance. This bull would bugle 4 more times in the next 30 minutes allowing us to close to about 100-150 yards before he beat us to his bedding area. But we had found an ideal spot to come back to the next morning. With the action around us silent and the sun quickly warming up to what would be an 85-90 degree day we headed down the mountain and back to camp.
Camp was unlike I'd seen before. It's an annual tradition that Chewy's entire family spend the long Labor Day holiday weekend in their campers taking in mother nature and the outdoors. When I say entire family I mean mom, dad, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, son, and 6 nieces and nephews and friend Ronnie. Locals would stop in and share stories of their hunts while catching up on what we had accomplished. There's something special about listening to the old boys tell the storeis they've been telling for decades. I could listen to it all day. Stories of close encounters with mountain lions, bears, big bull elk, and the follies that happen in 50 years in the mountains. Chewy's wife Michelle, and daughter August, were at home as his daughter still gets healthy from being born premature. Home is a short drive away and Chewy is able to get back there a few times during the hunting week or as needed. Each morning we'd wake up early to a quick pot of coffee and head out to the mountains. We'd return about lunch time to a warm home-cooked meal and everyone would gather around to share stories and relive the morning's action. The food was incredible. We had several authentic Mexican meals including fresh roasted green chili peppers. It took a little time for my soft mid-western stomach to adapt to the spicy cuisine but it was well worth it. I usually took a quick, or long, nap to recharge before making plans for the evening. Then we'd head out and return after dark to another meal. When Tuesday morning rolled around and the extended family was back to work we had to fend for ourselves, but we were able to fire up the fire pit and grill while relaxing with a cold beer. Then we would call it a night and sleep in a comfortable camper with all the amenities of home. This really was living. I've never seen a better description of the word "family" than this experience. Everyone truly enjoyed each others' company and relished the time together. It's a true testament to the type of man Chewy is and who he was raised by.
On evening 1 Chewy took us to a spot he liked that overlooked a meadow. We were hoping to catch the elk on their way down the mountain from bed to their feeding area. I found a great funnel that had been used significantly given all the tracks and sign. We sat until close to dark but never saw anything. Finally just after dark as we had reached the truck we heard a bugle higher up the mountain. We had come to theorize that the elk were coming back to bed very early in the mornings and weren't coming down to feed until after dark. The full moon's rise and set allowed the elk to be out at night and skip the evening push to feed. We decided to wake up extra early on day 2 and be back in the honeyhole looking for the bull from earlier that morning by day break.
Morning 2 started slower than we had hoped as we were beat from the previous days lack of sleep. Still we were on our way up the mountain in the dark and a good 30 minutes ahead of the day before. We were finally set up at the top of the mountain just before 7:30 a.m. We set up in a clearing and Chewy went through a calling sequence. Again the wind was perfect. On a side note the wind was always very consistent where we hunted. We never had swirling winds to deal with, for whatever reason we could set a course to play the wind and never had to fight it. It made for very advantageous conditions. Chewy called 50-75 yards away very aggressively. After about 10-15 minutes, me, the novice elk hunter, had lost hope this was going to pay off. I figured Chewy was calling just to call. Then I heard a bugle, then another, then another. Chewy was on to something. I tried to flank his position by slowly still hunting with the wind in my favor in case the bull, that clearly was responding to his sweet, seductive call cows tried to get downwind. Before I could get into position I heard another bull chime in and finally some cows start calling. Chewy had gotten himself into the middle of two bulls and a group of cows. Then chaos broke loose. I heard elk breaking through the trees and snapping branches as they scurried off. I worked my way up to Chewy and would learn he had 4 cows and a spike on top of him. He could see the herd bull at 50 yards but couldn't get a shot through the thick brush. Chewy had taken the time to get video of the cows walking past him, one at a mere 3 yards. It was too much for him to pass up so he decided to draw on the biggest cow. She startled and dashed off but stopped at a mere 20 yards and Chewy made a textbook shot. We would take up the blood trail after a short wait. It was unbelievable to learn how tough this cow and elk in general are. We went about 200 yards on a good blood trail when we found Chewy's arrow. Once the arrow came out of her chest cavity the flood gates opened. The blood trail, pumping out both sides of her chest, was like a red carpet. Still she went another 100 yards before we found her in a scrub oak thicket. These truly are tough animals. Chewy had made a picture perfect shot and she still went 300 yards. We celebrated the success with high fives, and went to work on breaking her down via the gutless method. About 90 minutes later we had her ready for transport. We loaded up the hind quarters weighing about 65 lbs each and headed down the mountain 2 miles. At the trail head Chewy's whole family had gotten the text of our success and was there for backup. We unloaded the packs and after a quick break headed back up 2 miles for a second load. Once loaded up with another 35 lbs back down we went another 2 miles. 6 miles, 4 hours, and 175 ish pounds of meat later we were back at camp sipping on cold beers and prepping the tenderloins for the firetpit. How does it get any better than this? We would go to town to celebrate with Chewy's wife and enjoy a warm shower and sit out the night hunt. Then it was off to bed for day 3.
Sunday morning September 3rd we were parked at the top of the drainage leading down to the meadow that we visited on evening one. We were hoping to locate the bull that had bugled at us 2 days before. 200 yards from the truck, with a perfect wind in our face, we heard his bugle. He was coming up the hill from the meadow just as we had hoped. We moved forward quickly to try to cut him off and hopefully pull him in with more cow calls. The bull bugled to let us know we were closer, and at that moment I was about to learn that everything I had hoped for in an elk hunt were about to come true. The next hour was the most intense, and satisfying experience in my 18 years of bowhunting. My herd bull would bugle his raspy, deep, growly bugle no less that 20 times over what would become a mile long chase. Not only that but 3 other challenger bulls would scream at us from various locations. As we continued to try to close the gap on this bull it became apparent that he was trying to move his herd of cows away from the competitors. We would move forward 200 yards and bugle only to realize he was pushing his herd further south and not really gaining any ground. I was ahead of Chewy at this point and tried to use hand gestures to suggest I was going to try to circle in front of this bull. You can only imagine what that must've looked like. It reminded me of that scene in Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner is trying to explain where he saw the buffalo herd to the Sioux natives, and the young warrior says "his mind is gone", my sign language was that bad. At any rate as I cautiously charged forward I knew I was inside of 100 yards of the herd bull. His bugles were louder, deeper, and more animated each time he ripped one off. Eventually I would see a few of his cows feeding contently. I realized I wasn't going to be able to just walk up to him and find a clearing to shoot. There would be too many eyes and the terrain was open enough that I would get busted. So I decided to drop down the ridge to the east and try to circle the herd in hopes of setting up an ambush. I hustled across the terrain and the bull bugled just enough to tell me this might work. Finally I got to a clearing I knew I could set up in and let him bugle once more. I had done it, I was ahead of him and I was ready. I just needed to find a good ambush spot. As I carefully snuck forward and picked out a strategic spot to make this happen my eyes picked up a satellite 6 point bull feeding towards me. His path was going to cross mine at a mere 30 yards if all went as planned. It was a no-brainer for me to switch gears and shoot this bull.
18 years of bowhunting has given me a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I have learned a few things about myself and this sport in that time. One lesson is I simply love to fill tags and my freezer. I love a big set of antlers don't get me wrong, but for me, at times, that obsession has taken me to a dark place where I put way too much emphasis on the score of the rack, or convincing myself that only the biggest animal I see is worthy of the chase. Too many times have I gone home empty handed, and unfilled by the journey that I was on. Each trip to the woods, should be valued and treated as what it is, a special moment between the soul of the bowhunter and the woods he craves. This trip was 5 years in the making, parlayed with never having tagged an elk, or held his antlers, or filled my freezer with the absolute best meat a man can eat, it was easy for me to decide that all I wanted was to shoot an elk, and my chance lie in front of me.
I'll never know how big the herd bull was as I never saw him. I was focused in on the satellite 6 headed my way, this would be my chance. As I went into predator mode I remember thinking I needed to slide south another 20 yards to get out from behind this small wall of scrub oak brush that was congesting my view. I made it 15 yards when I looked up and nearly had my heart broken. The bull was staring straight at me less than 50 yards away. We had an epic standoff before he took a couple of steps closer. I knew if I drew my bow this bull would spook and I had nothing more than a straight on shot. So I waited and figured he'd do 1 of 2 things, either blow back into the herd and ruin everything or simply circle back a bit then head south across the clearing, at which point I had a broadside shot on him. Sure enough the bull had enough and whirled back west. He slowly trotted through the timber then cut south as I had hoped. I had time to side step the scrub oak another 5 steps and was wide open for my shot. I waited for him to enter the clearing and as he did I let out a soft cow call. He stopped. I ranged and dialed my HHA single pin slider sight. The shot was a long one. I'm not going to tell you how far, I think that changes this into an ethics debate I don't want to have. I know what the consequences of a long shot are. I know all that can wrong. I also know that I practice at long ranges and am confident in my ability. So without hesitation I drew the 72 lbs of my Hoyt Spyder 34 and anchored. The bull stepped forward 2 steps before my cow call stopped him slightly quartering away a second time. I steadied my pin and squeezed off the shot. I remember after the shot thinking how calm and collected I was through all of this. Unlike some deer hunts that went awry I was so focused on this I never got rattled, I was steady and confident, and I felt great about the shot. I couldn't see the arrow fly the entire way but I could hear the unmistakable impact of 415 grains of Easton Axis and Muzzy trocar hit my bull. He lunged forward and nose dived right into a log. He quickly regained his footing and dropped down a 25 foot rocky drop off before quickly coming up the other side. I could barely see him through the trees as he covered 60 yards in mere seconds. I strained to watch and listen as my heart beat took off at the realization that I hit that bull. Then I heard the violent crashing of 650 pounds of elk stumbling through timber, and I saw his leg fly up into the air. It had happened. My first bull elk with a bow had just found his final resting place. I couldn't believe it. At that moment I fell apart. I couldn't stand up and had to drop to my knees as my body shook in tremors of emotion and adrenaline. I had wanted this so badly, for so long, and it had just happened. I somehow was able to make a phone call to my biggest supporter, (you know who you are) and struggled to talk, or breathe, I just kept ramblilng saying "I got him and I did it". I was a complete wreck.
When my hands stopped trembling long enough I texted Chewy my location and he worked his way towards me. A good 15 minutes had passed before he showed up with friend Ronnie and Chewy's 8 year old, rodeo loving son Brayden ready to hear all about my story. We eased forward to the rocky drop off and saw the bull's rack lying motionless. We dropped into the bottom following the faint blood trial. At the bottom we found my arrow broken off and just like with Chewy's cow as soon as the arrow left the chest cavity it was as if someone turned on a faucet and the blood trail was unimaginable. At the top of the other side of the rock ledge we stepped forward a few yards and the antler we saw across the valley materialized into a full blown trophy. There he was, lying peacefully and perfect, a bull I had waited 7 years for. Before me laid a trophy I had worked so hard for, not just on previous hunts, but a bull I had worked for with scrouging for part time jobs, odd work to pay for the tag, hours in the gym, years on the range, days and months of dreaming, planning, scouting, researching and just hoping to see. The adrenaline hit again and a wave of emotion hit me like a ton of bricks. There must've been something in the air that day, I don't know if it was smoke blowing in from the wildfires, or if allergy season had just kicked up, but I got a weird little lump in my throat and my eyes began to water. I had to turn away from Chewy, and the bull to compose myself for a minute. I'm not ashamed to say this bull, this moment, had been more than I had ever hoped it would be. I had just lived out a dream and I don't know how you can put a value on that.
As we went to work on breaking down my trophy, Brayden reminded me that the night before our hunt I had asked him if he would join us the next day, he answered yes, and I told him he was going to be my good luck charm. I'm pretty glad he was there. Luckily my bull expired less than 100 yards from a side trail and we were able to struggle through a much shorter and easier pack out. We prepared a piece of roast for supper by wrapping it in foil, digging a pit, burying it and cooking it over hot coals for 8 hours. No matter how you slice it elk meat is impossible to beat.
The next 2 days were spent helping Chewy's brother Mike try to fill his mule deer tag without luck. We explored a lot of country and saw some awesome looking elk spots I would loved to have hunted. This land was so great. On Wednesday we were helping another friend find an elk when we found what looked like 2 satellite bulls in the distance crossing an open meadow just after day break. We jumped out and hustled (or my version of hustle) up a hill and let out a single cow call. One of the bulls ripped a bugle back at us. We rushed to move forward and cut the distance but there was no need. This bull was trotting in straight to the call. We dropped to the ground and set up for the encounter. The bull covered 400 yards in seconds. When he got to 100 yards we realized this wasn't just any satellite, but a 300" satellite 6 point! The bull stopped and belted out an ear shattering bugle. This frustrated subordinate bull must've been kicked out of the herd by what was clearly a more dominant bull and he was trying to pick up a straggler cow. Another amazing thing about elk is their ability to pinpoint a call from great distances. This bull stared straight into Chewy's direction and tried to circle us to catch our wind. He passed by Chewy's friend at 67 yards giving the hunter a perfect broadside shot. But the shot was high. That was it, I had checked everything off my list. I got to see a big bull get called in, I got to stalk a herd and it's bugling leader, I got to pack out a heavy load of elk across grueling terrain, I got to share camp with a good friend and great people, and I got to hold my very first set of bull elk antlers! Oh and I was going home with just under 200 pounds of fresh elk meat! This was the single greatest trip of my life.
When I started telling my stories for this blog I decided to use the name The Budget Bowhunter because I wanted to share stories and adventures that anyone can do. New Mexico was truly a special place for me but it's not the only place one can go to have a great hunt. This was special for me. That may not make it special for you. Whatever it is you are after is out there! Sometimes it takes time, patience, and a plan to make those dream trips happen, but what I know for sure is until you take steps to put plans into action they will never be more than dreams. I say dream big, but start making those dreams a reality.
The long off-season is quickly winding down and we are officially inside of a month until the popular Nebraska archery deer season kicks off. For many of you the season may start even sooner as you prepare and eventually head out on pronghorn hunts. Or if you are like me you will be missing the deer opener to chase bugling bull elk in the rugged and humbling Rocky Mountains. Whatever you are after I'm willing to bet you have optimism in your heart and dreams of filled tags in your head. In fact I'd argue bowhunters are the most optimistic and wishful of all folks with a hobby. The success rate for bowhunters nationally, across all species, is ridiculously low, yet here we are, with a new season upon us, and I personally couldn't be more excited. In this post I want to share with you a season of "failures" and how despite those trials and tribulations I turn to a new season with the same, if not more, passion to bowhunt.
I have an unlimited amount of bowhunting dreams, but an extremely limited budget. Still, that doesn't stop me from game planning, and dreaming of the hunts I want to go on. Each year I try to make at least one of those dreams come true. This year I was lucky enough to draw a couple of tags that allowed some of those dream trips to come true. Along with that I was fortunate enough to spend 5 days at turkey camp with Mike Marstellar and his sister Jody of The Whitetail Fix TV show. Yet, I left every single one of those tags unfilled. A bad shot, poor weather, complete lack of luck, and countless other factors played into an endless amount of frustrating hunts. Let me rewind.
The 2016 deer season came with the same anticipation as all others. I'd once again be sharing a deer camp with friends CJ Novak and Jay Canada. I had a few good shooters on camera, the food plots were growing great, and the rut was fast approaching. As usual I made a late phone call to the landowner to set up final plans for vacation. That's when the bomb was dropped. I was asked not to hunt a particular farm as he wanted a friend that was recently injured in a farming accident to have easy access to stands I had previously hung. A different farm was offered up and I gladly accepted the offer, however I had spend not just the past few months prepping stands for the season but 5+ years learning this farm and I had 3 deer over 140" on camera I wanted to hunt. But rules are rules, and we begrudingly tried to make the best of it. We blindly went to the new farm and quickly hung a few sets. Finally on November 8th I had my chance. The 70 degree weather had slowed the rut to a crawl but on this day a lone 11 point that I guessed to be in the 150-155" range was headed my way. I expected him to step on a trail at 28 yards and set my slider sight accordingly. He didn't cooperate and stepped off the trail at 34 yards. I told myself I had to take this shot or he might get away. I also told myself to aim high since he was at 34 but my pin was at 28. I squeezed off the shot, but forgot to aim high. My arrow zipped right under him. Appalled at my idiotic mistake I barely had time to wallow in self pity because the deer just spun around and looked at the glowing nock buried in the dirt. As he stared I quickly nocked another arrow and reset my sight. The buck turned and took a few steps putting him at 40 yards and stopped to look back again. I set my pin to 40 but only had a steep quartering away shot. I hesitated to take the shot but was confident I could make it. I squeezed off another arrow and this time watched my arrow sail perfectly into his cavity just where I had aimed. The buck hunched up and slowly walked away. I could see the arrow had buried half way into his body and the high/low angle was dead middle of his body, but the arrow looked like it was in the middle of his stomach on the left to right angle. I contacted CJ and Jay and we decided to let him go overnight. We talked at length about the shot. I contacted several trusted archers who all felt the same, this deer was likely liver shot, and 1 lung and should expire given time. The next morning we went after him. The blood trail was faint, and disappeared within 100 yards. The buck crossed through a cedar thicket and CRP field making tracking even harder. We searched for 6 hours and never found him. I went back the next day and looked 4 more hours. I went back in December and looked again just for a cavity and never found him. This would've been the biggest whitetail I had ever taken, but he wasn't to be found. I don't know why. I spend a lot of hours on the range, and feel I am a solid shot, but given the chance at a broadside 34 yard shot I messed up. To make it worse I made a marginal (at best) shot on my follow up attempt. I spent a lot of the off-season torturing myself about that shot, decision, and event. That has been a tough pill to swallow. In those moments of self doubt and reflection I realize I can do one of two things, either quit this sport altogether or KEEP GRINDING and get better. I choose to KEEP GRINDING.
Spring Turkey season 2017 was set up for an incredible year. I had Mike and Jody Marstellar in camp and permission to several farms that historically held 100+ turkeys combined. About 7-10 days before season the weather looked great. But as is the usual case Mother Nature got a bad attitude. She changed her mind as the opener and following 4 of 5 days were as bad as a turkey hunter could ever ask for. It was cold, rainy, and windy, the most horrific trifecta a turkey hunter could ask for. For 5 days we KEPT GRINDING despite a complete lack of birds on any of the farms. My contact couldn't believe the turkeys that picked his fields clean all winter long were gone. Birds wouldn't gobble even off the roost and when we did find turkeys they were non-responsive and call shy. But we KEPT GRINDING. Then on day 3 the sun came out and the winds died. About 4 pm as I watched intently north of me I kept thinking to myself I didn't really love my set up. To my west was a big alfalfa field. While there was no way the birds would come from this direction I was concerned that the sun was brightly shining on that side of the blind. To keep myself concealed I had the west window completely closed, but that's where my decoys were set. I thought I could hear drumming to my southwest and my fears were confirmed when I peeked out the window. The flock of 15-18 hens and 1 lone strutter had snuck up on me silently from behind. The hens were hammering my new Flextone hen decoy and the tom strutted back and forth inside of 15 yards for over a minute. I had no way to pull the window down without spooking at least 1 of those hens, many of which were within 5 yards of me. I flipped on the camera Mike had let me use for my first filming effort. The camera was 3 feet to my north and in perfect position to film the birds, but I couldn't shoot as I was behind the closed window. I got in position and waited for the birds to get bored and walk north of me. It was taking forever so I decided to help them out by carelessly kicking over my quiver that was leaning up behind me, what an idiot. The hens got nervous and started to wander off in a hurry. This prompted the still strutting Merriam tom to quick step through my lone shooting lane. Despite being drawn and ready I was going for head shots and the angle at which he passed me at a mere 16 yards offered no head shot. The flock and opportunity was gone. Neither the weather nor the turkeys cooperated again on any of my next few outings. I had several more trips and either public land had been overrun, the birds wouldn't cooperate, or bad luck just prevented me from closing in on another bird that season for me or my two kids. Another species, another season, 3 more empty tags. This would've been a good time to give up. But I choose to KEEP GRINDING.
In March I was notified that I had drawn a Nebraska archery Paddlefish tag. I'd never shot a paddlefish and desperately wanted to shoot one. So my defacto guide Lane Anderson of Martinsburg offered to help me fill that tag. We headed up to Yankton, SD as rookies to give it a try. I learned very quickly this was going to be a real challenge. First off the weather forecasters and Mother Nature had a miscommunication. The weathermen said there'd be no wind, but as soon as we were on the water by 6 a.m. guess what, there was wind. I learned quickly the paddlefish weren't going to sit still for long. They surface and roll and are gone in a split second. There isn't nearly enough time to find one, draw, aim, and shoot. Watching other bowfishermen I realized my best chance was to be at full draw and hope one pops up close for a quick shot. 4 hours later my shoulders were shot. Even my Greek God like physique (not even close to true) was unable to stay at full draw consistently for 4 hours. That was quite possibly the most humbling bowhunt I'd ever been on. This would've been an ideal time to quit bowhunting. But I choose to KEEP GRINDING.
Why do we do it? Why do we as bowhunters who have a combined nation wide success rate below 25% continue to do things the hard way? Why do we dream so passionately that this year is going to be different? Why do we stand up after each failure, shake it off, and get right back after it? I believe it's because that's what bowhunters do. We KEEP GRINDING.
I mentioned earlier I'd be chasing elk in the Rocky Mountains come September. I was lucky enough, after 5 years of applying, to draw a New Mexico elk tag. This is a bucket list hunt for me. Why? Elk are one of the hardest animals to kill with a bow, and statistically one of the least successful adventures a bowhunter can attempt. Why put myself through that? The only way I can answer is because I'm a bowhunter and a GRINDER and this is what we do. We spend the off-season working out, shooting, planting food plots when it's 100 degrees, running cameras, calling friends to talk about the upcoming season, we make plans, and we chase our dreams. And I love every second of it. I choose to try to learn from my mistakes, I choose to try to get better, I choose to keep dreaming. I choose to KEEP GRINDING because I'm a bowhunter.
I don't usually play the Powerball Lottery until the jackpot is at least $300 million as I don't think I could make ends meet otherwise. The jackpot has finally reached a "living wage" for me and it's time to play. As I a write this I stare at the Powerball ticket in my hands and my mind wanders as to what I'll do when I win the $400+ million jackpot. The answer is simple, hunt everything, everywhere, all the time. If Plan A doesn't go well and I don't win the Powerball I still have to figure out a way to enjoy those hunts. The hunts I romanticize about in my head are the same ones I often see on TV. Some of those dreams are huge elk across the west, African safaris, Alaskan Yukon Moose, and Bighorn Sheep, you know basically what Mike Lutt does. In the meantime I keep hunting on a budget and chasing whitetails, or local critters to get my fix.
In my quest to figure out how to make these dreams happen I watch outdoor TV and think, man that would be the life, hunt all over the country for a living and have it filmed for TV. How great would that be? See new places, meet new folks, hunt great farms and always have big animals around you. What a life, can it really be that easy? If so sign me up!
The NBA blogs are hopefully, a source of information, entertainment, mixed with advice, and knowledge to help the readers find whatever it is they are looking for. Recently I met an individual named Mike looking to spring turkey hunt in Nebraska as his research suggested our state has one of the earliest, and longest archery seasons for turkeys, with quality hunting, and reasonably priced tags. Mike had found the NBA blogs and used that as a way to contact me and learn about our state's turkey season. So we struck up a conversation and decided to hunt together and as I found out my guest this spring films for a TV show. I figured what a resource for giving us all a look into the life of a TV hunter. Here is our conversation:
Let me introduce you to Mike Marsteller, co-host of the popular Sportsman’s Channel TV show “Whitetail Fix” and in Mike's own words here is his story:
**I was raised in the small town of Russellville Indiana, about an hour west of Indianapolis. I started bow hunting when I was a freshman in high school and killed my first deer, a basket rack eight point, the following year and I was hooked! Due to my love of hunting and the outdoors I pursued a degree in Conservation Law Enforcement with the idea that I would become a Conservation Officer. I applied a couple times and came very close once, but in the end I took jobs with a couple different Sheriff and Police departments and I have been employed by the Speedway Police Department for the past 20 years. Speedway is a small town within the City of Indianapolis and is home of the “Indianapolis Motor Speedway”, the largest capacity sports venue in the world, known for the world famous Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. I always say that God’s plan is better than our plan and ending up with a police department as opposed to becoming a Conservation Officer is proof of that. I know several local Conservation officers and they have a tough time taking time off during the deer and turkey seasons, which just wouldn’t work for me. I’m 48 years old, I’m single and I have a 23 year old daughter from a previous marriage. Madison’s degree in AgriBusiness from Purdue University has taken her to Philadelphia where she works for Dow AgroSciences in their Urban Pest Control sales division. She has been to 27 different states in the past 9 months! As you can tell we are very proud of her!!
How did you get started in outdoor TV? In 2004 a show aired on the Outdoor Channel that was produced by Drury Outdoors called “Dream Season”. The show featured amateur hunting teams competing against one another. Jesse Fulwider, a hunting buddy of mine, and I got hooked on the show. At that point we had done a little filming with a low end camera that one of us had. Usually one of us filming the other after one was tagged out, we were far from committed to it at that point. In 2005 with thoughts of Dream Season running through our heads we up graded our camera and got serious about it. We filmed every hunt until two days before gun season, when like an idiot I suggested we not film in hopes that one of us would kill before the orange army invaded. And of course that morning I killed a giant 9 point that grossed 157"! That was a bitter pill to swallow and the last time we ever considered not filming. In the four years that followed, God blessed us in taking 12 bucks all over 130" and a couple in the 160’s. During that time Drury Outdoors introduced a new show “Bow Madness” which featured “I Shot it with my PSE”, a segment of each show of viewer provided hunts. Jesse and I were each selected several times as that part of the show. This got us some much needed notoriety with Drury Outdoors. The Archery Trade Association show is in Indianapolis about every other year. It was there that Jesse and I got our chance to meet Mark and Terry Drury and probably more importantly, Terry’s son Matt Drury the brand manager of Drury Outdoors. By that time Dream Season had moved away from the use of amateur teams, but Matt kept telling us that they were kicking around doing it again. In 2010 they announced “Dream Season Working Man” another amateur team show of everyday guys holding down full time jobs while hunting a much as humanly possible. And by the grace of God, Jesse and I were selected as one of the six teams as the “cops from Indiana”! They divided us three teams against three, but the biggest prize at stake was in the end one team would be selected to join Drury Outdoors full time on their pro staff. No other team had killed anywhere close to the number of bucks that Jesse and I had, so we were the team to beat. Remember “Gods plan is better than ours”…….we didn’t kill a single deer, we even tried to shoot some does in the late season and couldn’t even pull that off! As you can imagine we were not picked up by Drury Outdoors which ultimately turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. We developed great friendships with the other teams on the show and decided the 10 of us should give a show of our own a shot. Through the grace of God and a lot of hard work, “Whitetail Fix” was born and just finished airing its fourth season on the Sportsman Channel.
What are some of the trips you take each year and what might be some unique trips you get to do this year? This past season I hunted Kansas and Missouri, the two bucks I killed will air in July on Season 5 of the show. I drew an Iowa tag for the first time in Season 4 and killed a giant 170" with Steel Creek Outfitters. My brother lives in Alaska and for Season 3 we hunted caribou in the Brooks Range and we killed 4 great bulls. I also hunted Illinois for Season one of the show, but did not have any luck filling my tag. 2017 is going to be a busy one! I will be hunting turkeys with you for the first time in Nebraska the last week in March, a Missouri turkey hunt the third week in April and a Michigan turkey hunt sometime in May. For sure a Missouri whitetail hunt the first week in November and I am in the process of working out another Kansas hunt for the following week. Its going to be busy, but its going to be fun!!
Are you paid for hunting, or are you more of a normal guy that uses vacation, and squeezes hunts into weekends while working a normal job? I think you started this interview by saying you would love to hunt for a living, and so would we! Everyone on the show has a full time job, so yes we are just like the rest of you, hunting evenings and weekends and trying to stretch our vacation days to hunt as much as possible. I actually own a Property Preservation business besides my Police job, so it gets pretty complicated at times. Part of the reason our show has been so successful is that we are not big name hunting celebrities that often get paid to hunt. We are Cops, Farmers, Teachers, Construction Workers, Taxidermists and Probation Officers. We are hard working family men who love to hunt, the kind of guys that viewers can relate to.
What would you say are the best and worst parts of hunting on TV? The best part is having someone with you to celebrate your success with and having the footage that will forever be a reminder of the things that mean the most to us. The worst part is when you know you have made the perfect shot and all you want to do is get down and get your hands on him, but you can’t because you have to film all kinds of post shot footage. We heard my 2015 Kansas deer I shot crash but it was still an hour and a half before I got my hands on him. Other drawbacks are; packing in all the extra equipment, setting it up for each hunt, twice the amount of scent and being twice as easy to get picked off. It all stacks the deck against you.
Tell me a little about how sponsors work without getting them in trouble. Is all of your gear furnished, or do you still have to buy things yourself? Do you have to sell products as part of the endorsement? We have some of the best sponsors in the industry who provide us with just about everything we need. We in turn use their products on the show where viewers can see our success with them. I’m sure everyone has seen shows that use a “hard sell” approach when it comes to sponsor products. We decided from day one Whitetail Fix would not be a show like that and our sponsors actually prefer it that way. As far as having to sell any sponsor products, we do not. However I am quick to suggest the products we use when someone is asking my opinion on something.
What hunts/journeys do you have planned for the near future? My brother and I have been accumulating points on elk, mule deer and antelope in Colorado and Wyoming. We have 9 points on each of them so we will be drawing some premium units over the next few years. I also want to get back to Alaska to hunt a moose. My brother killed a 52 inch bull two years ago.
What advice do you have for people that either want to film hunts for their own memories, or those that might actually want to do what you do? Do it!! I remember the early years, when the season came to an end Jesse and I would edit out all our encounters and kills, if there even were any. We would burn DVD’s and give them out to our hunting buddies who looked forward to them every year. There are so many cool things to see when you spend time in the outdoors. You're going to do it anyway, why not take a video camera with you? And now with YouTube, Facebook and Online Hunting Shows, you have a lot of ways to share your hunts. Success and quality filmed hunts and proving you can do it on a regular basis will get you noticed. Keeping after it, being in the right spot at the right time and throw in a little of God’s grace and you could find yourself on TV.
Can you tell us about the “best” and “worst” hunts you’ve been on? What made them that way? I have been on a lot of great hunts, but if I had to pick just one it would be our caribou hunt in Alaska. Flying into the middle of nowhere over the beautiful Brooks Range, landing on a lake that very few people ever see and spending a week with your Brother chasing giant bulls; it doesn’t get much better than that. The worst hunt was a Colorado elk hunt on public ground. We paid some cowboys to pack our camp in to a spot that was great the previous year only to find out the elk were nowhere to be found. A tricked out spike camp is great when it’s in the right spot, but due to its immobility you are helpless when the animals aren’t there.
How many hours of footage do you film compared to do the 30 minute show that makes TV? We all keep a hunt log which helps us organize our hunts so we can later find the ones that contain important footage of encounters and kills. This past season just my hunt log was 122 hunts. All the footage from those hunts are transferred to an external hard drive and then sent to Watermarc Productions who professionally produces the episodes for us. I sent them 320 GB of footage from those 122 hunts. Each season is made up of 13 episodes that are all 30 minutes long. Without the commercials it’s really just 22 minutes. Typically my hunts will make up one full episode and then here and there on a few others. So….122 hunts, 320 GB of footage for less than 40 minutes of final edited footage. It’s a lot of effort for the size of the end result, but the end result is all worth it all!!
What about bloopers, any funny stories happen on your trips? We were on an antelope hunt in Wyoming and my sister was filming me at camp talking about grilling some of the meat and trying it for the first time. At that same time we noticed a cat with its head stuck in a soup can. So I snuck up on it and she filmed me grab the can and pull the cats head out. I then walked back to the camera and announce that I not only saved the cat’s life, but I was STILL chewing on the same piece of antelope meat! We have so many bloopers each year that half of the final episode for the season is always a huge blooper reel.
How difficult is it carrying equipment around, keeping it functional, is it more of a burden at times? Luckily the cameras and the camera arms we use keep getting smaller and lighter. I felt like a pack mule in the early days. I tend to replace or upgrade my main camera about every two or three years and I have luckily had no issues with any of them. They are expensive so we all keep them insured. Besides the main camera and camera arm, we also set up two small second angle cameras and a bow mounted camera. It typically takes about 15 minutes to set all the cameras, shoot a hunt intro and a few other things that need shot on every hunt. So is it burdensome, YES!……is it worth it, YES!!
Do you have deadlines, or pressure to get a shot on film? Or to shoot only “big” animals?
I’m sure you have heard the line “the camera saved it’s life” and unfortunately that happens from time to time. Trying to get a deer in a spot that is clear for the hunter and the camera can sometimes be impossible. As far as deadlines the only ones we really have are the end of the season. We all feel the pressure of the need to kill one for the show and as the season moves along the pressure just gets worse. But in the end its hunting and sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Typically at least one of us has a tough year. We all try to shoot mature deer which is more important to us then score. Everyone wants to shoot a giant Boone and Crockett buck, but you are much more apt to see the type of deer the average hunter kills on Whitetail Fix.
A special thanks to Mike Marsteller for his time and willingness to share. I'll be back in April with an update to our story and to share our hunt with the readers. Don't forget to check out Whitetail Fix this fall on the Sportman's Channel and catch some of Mike's exciting hunts. Also a thanks to the NBA and my fellow blog writers for their time and willingness to share their insight. Sharing information of all kinds makes us all better bowhunters.
The National Wild Turkey Federation recognizes 3 subspecies of wild turkeys living in Nebraska; the Eastern, the Merriam's, and a hybrid of the two. To me it's debatable whether or not Nebraska has the Rio Grande turkey living in the southwest or south central part of the state because various maps show their distribution range stops at the Nebraska/Kansas border. Although I don't personally think turkeys know how to read a map or have the ability to decide whether or not to cross that border I'll accept we don't have them to hunt. My idea may not be original but I decided my mission for 2016 was to bowhunt all 3 species of birds recognized in this state. In this update I want to rewind to this past spring to share with you the highs, lows, and lessons learned from the 2016 turkey season and my quest for what I call The Nebraska Slam.
The spring turkey season started on a chilly Friday morning in late March. I made a quick trip with my coworker Elijah Aden of Lincoln to hunt some local public land. A late invite to hunt with my cousin in Butler County changed our decision. We abandoned previous scouting trips and went in blind to a spot that I knew had potential. My cousin AJ has access to a large farm where he historically saw lots of turkeys during deer season. So we were off, well before dark, setting up in spots that looked like turkeys might want to be. As the morning darkness slowly started to give way to light I had a bad feeling we should've scouted this ground as it was dead calm and quiet. Usually the morning woods light up with the sounds of gobbling toms roosted nearby this time of year, but there was nothing, complete silence. I did a quick recon mission to the top of the highest hill to listen and eventually found the gobblers. They were about a half mile away on the neighbor's farm. Great. One bird would sound off saving this trip though. There was a lone tom, gobbling nearby so we hustled into position and set up way late as it was already closing in on legal shooting light. I figured the bird would be down soon so we snuck as close as we could and set up in a grassy bottom that looked like an ideal strutting zone. I set up a Primo's B-Moblie decoy that I wanted to experiment with. This model allows you to add a fan from real turkey feathers tom make it more lifelike and has a drawstring that allows you to "pop" the tom decoy up or down to imitate a bird going in and out of full strut. I made a few hen calls to let him know we were around then went silent waiting for him to make a move. The bird flew down on the high side of the creek bank directly behind me in the picture shown above. From there he couldn't see my decoy set and quickly worked in from 100 yards to just 30. I couldn't see him from my vantage point but AJ could and was eager for me to shoot. Finally the bird made the last descent into the opening and was a mere 20 yards away but he circled behind a dead tree. When he hit the opening I popped up the fan on the B-Mobile and I think it startled him. This looked like a 2 year old bird, that was of average size and he didn't appear to want to fight my decoy. I got nervous that he might be walking away so I decided to shoot him right there at 20 yards. I saw the green lighted nock-turnal blow right through the middle of the bird and watched him do a backflip. It seems to me that if a bird does that dreaded backflip you're in trouble. You either want that bird to pile up right in view or flop his wings in a useless effort to fly away to signify a lethally hit bird. This tom quickly ran off then stopped. He was out of range and in thick cover so a follow up shot wasn't possible. After he went out of sight we decided to go after him to try to catch him in the open or at least spot where he was going to lie down. But we never saw him. We searched various fingers and brush piles but never found the bird after a few hours and 4 guys looking. Losing a wounded animal is the worst feeling a bowhunter can have.
As a side not this farm eventually filled up with birds from various other farms as the season went on. As is often the case birds move frequently throughout the season and this is farm that I'm excited to get back on next year.
With one opportunity in the tank I relayed my story to fellow bowhunter and local legend Tyler "The Golden Boy" Fountain of Lincoln. I've written about Tyler and his hunting prowess before. He's known as the Golden Boy because everything he touches turns to gold. He once caught a master angler walleye in 2 foot of water. He has a 200" whitetail, a 340" Nebraska bull elk (and countless other mounts to prove his meddle) and his first bird of 2016 had a triple beard. Tyler graciously invited me to sit with him on the afternoon of the opener and I gladly accepted. In return I graciously let Tyler carry the blind, chairs, and decoy set up as he insisted. I've been told never to argue with your guide so I let him do all the work. You're welcome. So we set up with Tyler's favorite spread, an Avian X jake and multiple hens. Like clockwork about 30 minutes into our sit here came the birds. Tyler likes to call his early season birds "The Mega Flock" as 80 ish birds live close to his home. They didn't disappoint. A mob of hens and toms worked past us feeding through a pasture. Like clockwork a very, very big tom broke away from the flock to check out our set. The bird was working from left to right at an angle and was going to be in our laps so I drew and waited as he closed the distance. I had a small view through the corner of the blind and almost as soon as the tom came into view I touched off the trigger. I really need to work on my patience. I shot way too quickly. I needed to let that bird keep working. My mistake and quick shooting resulted in my second missed opportunity of opening day. I had actually hit the blind and the bird walked away with a couple of tail feathers missing. The rest of the birds refused to cooperate and just hung out 50 yards away. The mega flock eventually worked out of range and the day was done. Tyler invited me and my kids out a couple more times and we even had a couple of close calls. I passed on a bearded hen and time just ran out to keep going. Tyler assured me the big tom with missing tail feathers survived the season and hopefully we meet again. 0-2 was not a good start.
At this point I had been trying to capitalize on hybrid birds that are the bulk of the population in my area. My first trip of the year was to try some public land in Pawnee county again with coworker Elijah Aden. Elijah and his brother Brodie were new to bowhunting and had spent the off season learning the ropes and soaking up any information they could. Elijah knew I liked to bowhunt and began asking me for advice and because of that mistake I quickly dubbed him my "intern". The plan for this trip was to camp out over the weekend and hit up a handful of public land spots littered about the area. Elijah drove down Friday night to set up camp and I was driving up early Saturday with my kids trying to get them their first birds. Elijah had found a few birds that evening and went to one spot while I blindly went to another. Of course we were running late and again had to set up as daylight was creeping up. The wind was howling much stronger than forecasted but we did hear a couple birds off the roost. However I made the mistake of trying to set up too close and no sooner did I pop up the blind but we found the bird just above us and he blew out before the hunt even began. My kids and I would spend several hours setting up and relocating, trying to get out of the bone chilling wind and find birds. After a few hours my daughter finally told me the cheap boots I had bought for season were bothering her feet. I had her take the boots off and discovered she had blisters EVERYWHERE. Good job dad. There wasn't much of a chance of being able to keep hunting like that, so we packed up and headed home and as stated above eventually sweet talked Tyler into taking us out close to home. Meanwhile Elijah had hunkered down in a small field and sat all day. The long sit, practice, and patience all paid off. That afternoon a small group of birds came out of the thick timber to feed in the field and Elijah made a perfect 15 yard shot. His first archery kill and first turkey was a bearded hen piled up nearby. The intern had scored!
The highlight of each spring season is my annual trip to Bassett. I am very lucky to have made friends with a family with a huge ranch a stone's throw away from the Niobrara River. They have a primitive cabin with a wood burning stove for guests that has mountain man written all over it. While the ranch doesn't boast a huge turkey population the scenery and adventure itself make this annual trip a must. I went with long time friend CJ Novak of Brainard and my son Ethan. Having some prior knowledge of the farm I suggested CJ try an area close to the cabin and Ethan and I would make a mile long trek to another part of the farm. I made mistakes 5 and 6 of the season on this trip. Mistake 5 was not realizing how cold 30 degrees and 25 mph winds were in early April. Ethan and I were freezing cold before we even set up. To make it worse the spot I thought we should try forced us to set our blind up facing the wind. We tried it for a good 30 minutes, which flew by as we watched countless deer work by, including a small buck still sporting antlers. I had remembered a small clearing along the creek down in an oak covered bottom that would keep us out of the wind, and potentially serve as a nice pinch point for traveling birds, along with having acorns for them to feed on. We dropped down to this location and repeated my opening morning set up. Ethan was to be the trigger man, and I had decided to let him try using a mechanical broadhead. I'm a long time fan of muzzy's and love their new Trocar head, but was disappointed in losing my opening morning bird. So I was open to the idea of trying a bigger cut on contact mechanical head. Mistake 6 happened when I wasn't smart enough to pull down the mesh on my ground blind. I had never had a flight issue shooting through the mesh with my fixed blade heads, so it never dawned on me that this might not be a good idea for a mechanical. About 11 am after 5 long and cold hours of sitting, Ethan and I had long since given up on whispering and were having a general conversation when suddenly he went into freak out mode. He had spotted 2 jakes coming off the hillside right for our set up. Ethan has bowhunted off and on since he was about 13. He has missed 2 deer and was a shaky shooter at best until this year when I upgraded his equipment. He had been shooting lights out all summer, his form was flawless, and I had great confidence that this would be his year. If only I could just get out of the way. The jakes quickly worked in behind my B mobile tom and stood perfectly still allowing Ethan to draw, take aim, and calmly pick out his target. At the shot I thought he smoked the bird as feathers flew everywhere. Ethan said he didn't hear me when I told him to aim just above the top of the leg for the body. He had shot for the head on this bird. Had I removed the screen, he would've absolutely hammered that bird. But upon inspection you could clearly see a jagged, ugly tear in the mesh. No doubt the head opened before it had a chance to take off. The jakes hung up in some timber and offered no follow up shot. I had blown it for Ethan. 0-3.
We met CJ back at camp for lunch and he relayed a story of success from his morning. His set up was nearly identical to Tyler's He uses the same Avian X jake decoy but also adds an Avian X feeding hen, and a breeding hen. CJ said shortly after daybreak he dropped to a bottom to get out of the wind as well. A couple of jakes came in with some hens. Not far behind the jakes was a tom. The 9" bird had come in silent but couldn't stand the jakes hanging out with his hen decoys. The bird gave CJ a 10 yard shot and he hammered it with a big mechanical head. The bird ran a short distance and out of sight. CJ gave a short tracking job but the bird popped up and ran a little further. So he let it go for a bit. After lunch we went to find the bird. Ethan stumbled upon it not 50 yards from where CJ had left it, but the bird got up and ran again. We all decided to let it go and try to find it in the morning. Ethan and I set up that evening but had no action. We again met CJ after dark for supper and he had been tagged out since 6 pm. He was in the exact same set when a lone tom came in to 8 yards. CJ made good on a head shot and the bird dropped in it's tracks. We had a long discussion about the color of this bird's fan. It was a very white colored fan and I told him we're counting this bird as the Merriam portion of the slam. I'm not sure CJ entirely agrees but in my mind he had his Merriam. The next morning Ethan and I sat in CJ's blind close to camp. Ethan slept most of the time and we hung it up pretty early as we wanted to find CJ's bird and had a 4 hour drive ahead. We met CJ and went to look for his first bird from the day before and we found it very quickly not 50 more yards from where it had been spooked the day before. This bird's fan was much darker than the first and we agreed he was a hybrid. CJ had completed the first two legs of the Nebraska Slam in one trip!
Another side note this trip always produces a lot of deer sightings and is where I missed my 170" mule deer I spoke of in my "Deer Camp 2015" update. We were able to find a matching set of whitetail antlers, a mule deer shed, and a small whitetail skull in just two days. What a bonus.
My last planned trip of the year was to some ground in Eastern Nebraska near the Missouri River with CJ again, and buddy Jay Canada. We had permission to four different farms in the area and this trip was going to double as scouting some new deer farms along with shed hunting and tidying up some existing deer sets. We arrived on Friday night and scouted birds on all four farms. We were set up for an exciting weekend. At 430 a.m. I got a phone call about a family emergency and made the tough decision to leave camp. I never got to hunt. CJ and Jay were understanding and made the best of it. They hunted together on opposite sides of an abandoned farm yard where they roosted a couple of nice toms the night before. Shortly into the hunt the two nice toms came to CJ's sweet calling sequence and convincing decoy set and he head shot another bird inside of 10 yards. The not so dynamic duo would spend the better part of the day working on getting Jay a bird but it just wasn't in the cards despite multiple bird sightings. Don't feel too sorry for Jay, the guy spent half the spring catching big Northern Pike in Canada so he's not deprived. The real shocker came when CJ sent me pictures of his bird. The dark coloring clearly indicated he had shot an Eastern bird! I couldn't believe it, I had hunted this area for years and the birds I had all shot were hybrids. I had never seen an Eastern. CJ had completed a well deserved Nebraska Slam!
Whether or not there is such a thing as the Nebraska Slam, or if the bird I'm calling a Merriam is a true Merriam is subject for a long debate. In the end that's besides the point and I'm not going to DNA test the birds to win that debate. This season was about learning lessons and of course having a good time with friends and family. I'm 100% convinced that shooting a turkey in the head is the way to go. If you miss the bird, he's no worse for wear. If you hit it, he's down. Even well placed big mechanical heads can struggle to find the small vital zone of a turkey at times. I'm convinced the Avian X jake decoy is among the best on the market. I was happy with the B Moblie and will keep using it considering the value of the price tag. I'm convinced patience and composure are two essential skills a bowhunter must master. I'm proud of the strides I saw Ethan and Emmalee made in their shooting skills and the effort each of my kids gave. It was cool to see my intern Elijah score on his first archery animal and prove the effort was worth it. It was another season in which I got to take some cool trips and hunt with good friends like Elijah, Tyler, CJ and Jay. Most importantly I got to have some more adventures in the woods with my kids. It's been a long off season listening to CJ retell his stories of turkey slaying greatness and I need a trip to get redemption. Luckily the November rut is right around the corner and I'll be updating another trip to Deer Camp!
It is often said that behind every great man there's a great woman. Since joining the Nebraska Bowhunter's Association roughly a decade ago I've had the great privilege of meeting some really influential and all around great guys that happen to be avid bowhunters. In that same time I've come to learn how truly lucky those of us who love this sport are to be surrounded, encouraged, and supported by some truly amazing women. With Mother's Day approaching I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to some of the special women in my life that have not only made bowhunting for me possible but have been incredibly supportive of my endeavors.
Hunting has long been a part of my upbringing. I remember fondly the traditions, and bonding that accompanied opening day of pheasant season, or rifle deer season. I remember my dad loading up my brothers and I into his old red Dodge truck, and with sleepy eyes heading out to freeze nearly to death as we impatiently waited for sun to rise in hopes of finding deer that rarely ever showed. Or walking for pheasants briskly through CRP grass on a chilly morning only to rush home to catch a Nebraska football game. I remember picking nightcrawlers out of the muddy lawns of my grandparents or neighbors to stockpile bait for the much-too-short summer fishing season. I remember Friday night sleepovers with the Roberts brothers that were really secret missions to wake up early so we could be fishing the Plum Creek by day break. I can't remember if we ever caught anything, or if we even woke up to go. I can't remember many of the deer dad shot (there weren't many in those days) or even pheasants we shot at. But I do remember that every time we came home from a night of catching nightcrawlers and were soaked to the bone the same ritual took place. My friends, and brothers and I would all enter the little doorway of our house and proceed to strip out of every piece of clothing we had on. Boys, as I've learned by raising one, have a special way in which they undress. Boys, it seems, are only capable of getting a piece of clothing off by completely turning the garment inside out and dropping it right on the floor immediately in front of them. Boys can be outright geniuses when it comes to turning a ditch full of water into a swimming pool, or building the Taj Mahal of bike ramps out of cinder blocks and old scrap lumber. However, if you asked a boy to take laundry off without turning every sleeve or sock inside-out they'd look at you as if you just asked them to recite the Emancipation Proclamation. If just isn't humanly possible. Never once do I remember my mother making a big stink out of this routine. Never once do I recall her chastising us for tracking mud across the house, and never once do I recall getting an earful about dropping our fishing gear on the front lawn to move on to our next adventure. Believe me I spent plenty of time in time-out for not living up to the standards that a model big brother should, mom wasn't a pushover. But mom supported every outdoor activity we had. She would cook up deer meat and rarely enjoy a warm meal herself as we were digging into seconds. Mom even had a knack for turning bullheads we caught into an edible (kind of) meal. Thank you mom, and thank you to mom's everywhere for cleaning up our messes and holding down the fort while we boys were off playing.
I have two sisters that were often asked to be a extra bodies on a team when we had pick-up sports games in our yard. They'd lovingly oblige to get tackled or shoved to the ground just to spend time with their brothers and the boys. Bryanne and Marissa were even up for the nightcrawler hunts and secret fishing trips we plotted. They are pretty good sisters, even when annoying their bigger brothers or having secretly had crushes on our friends. Somewhere along the way the outdoor bug must've caught on. Bryanne isn't really a hunter, but like mothers and wives of generations past she gladly turns the deer meat her husband Kory brings home into an outright terrific meal. She loves to camp and has just bought her second family camper. Marissa, has fully embraced the outdoor lifestyle as well. In the pictures above you can see she shot her first ever deer a couple of years back with her son there to witness the perfect heart shot I've smugly heard about roughly 500 times now. She also takes her kids fishing and camping regularly and patiently handles the duties of untangling snags, untwisting lines, rebaiting hooks, and all around crowd control that often accompanies youth fishing misadventures. Marissa has moved to Colorado and is constantly sending me links of places I could take her hunting. I'll take her up on that some day. These two special ladies are passing on the outdoor lifestyle to their next generation and their kids couldn't have better role models to learn from. Thank you to my sisters, and to sisters everywhere for being a much needed extra on a basketball team, for getting your hands dirty to make sure we had bait, and for raising your kids to enjoy the outdoors.
I was a late bloomer when I got into bowhunting. I was 21 before I took up the hobby. I had always hunted but bowhunting never really fit into the plan as successes of high school sports typically took our teams well into the playoffs and right past archery deer season. As is common with bowhunters the sport quickly becomes addicting and time consuming. Before long many of my weekends become early wake up calls for trips to the woods. Then I started planning trips that often take me out of state, or away from home for longer stretches of time. I see funny T-shirts, or quotes about wives become widows during hunting season. While humorous and true, it has to be acknowledged that hunting season can be a very selfish time for the bowhunter. It takes a very special lady to keep the operation running smoothly (as if I had really anything to do with it ever running smoothly before). But the true testament, to me, of what makes the matriarch of the castle so special, is not only the tolerance of the bowhunting lifestyle but the support of it. Bowhunting can be difficult at times. The bowhunting game has tried my patience more than once, and I've come back from trips with empty tags, or gone entire seasons without following a blood trail. At these times I can get down in the dumps. In those times I've never been more grateful for the support my wife Laura had given me. The kids are getting fed, the clothes are getting washed, and the lawn is getting mowed all while I'm off chasing my dreams. More than once I had turned Laura's kitchen into a mini meat locker, and more than once I got a stern "talking to" about how that will never happen again. I would eventually forget those discussions and do it all over because she knew what it means to me to be able to bowhunt, and to provide a meal for my family. I used to ask her to go with me to experience what I love so much but the early mornings, cool weather, and lack of beaches didn't seem to fit her agenda. However that has never once stopped her from giving me solid advice like "oh suck it up and go hunting". I can't begin to tell you what that support means. Having an ally like that in my corner makes it all possible. A special thanks to wives like Jamie, Amanda, Kelli, Shannon, Tami and all the wives of my hunting buddies for letting me steal your husbands to go on another one of my hair-brained schemes. Thank you Laura, and thank you to the wives everywhere for the support that make this lifestyle possible.
I may be a little biased but the most special of all ladies in the history of mankind is my daughter Emmalee. She never had a chance. Since day one I had it made up in my mind that she was going to be a hunter. Luckily Emmalee is a lot like her dad (luckily she got her mother's looks) and likes a good adventure. She's a trooper and keeps trying. Emmalee has been on several turkey hunts with me and is still passionate about "getting a big tom with a big beard" but her guide/mentor/dad doesn't seem to ever get her in the right spot. I have however made her cross a muddy creek that caused her to lose a boot and eventually her balance, causing her to fall over into the same creek. I have walked her down a trail where she dropped her phone (mandatory for our blind sits) and upon bending over to pick it up put her head directly into a sticky bush. I have bought her cheap boots that gave her massive blisters resulting in a piggy-back ride back to the truck. Despite it all she gladly goes and hopefully keeps going. Emmalee is a huge helper in my mini meat locker when we're grinding burger, smoking jerky, or cooking a meal. We have some pretty entertaining conversations in the blind and I'm a better person for it. Emmalee has taught me how to do trendy dance moves like "The Whip and Nae Nae" (don't ask to see it in action) and I've learned nearly every verse of every Adele song out there. Even though I can't hit the high notes that Adele can, it's clearly entertaining to Emmalee to hear me try. Thank you Emmalee and thank you to the daughter's everywhere that allow bowhunting dads like me feel like I'm doing this parenting thing right.
There is absolutely nothing better in this world than sharing a blind with my daughter Emmalee and my son Ethan when they get to giggling about something. I hope those days never end. Those days are only possible because of the special women in my life who have supported my passion for bowhunting. There doesn't seem like a strong enough way to show my appreciation to all the ladies who make this possible, but I'll try anyway. Thank you!
Turkey season is finally upon us. The first legitimate big game season of the 2016 archery year means yours truly will be putting together a few trips away from home to try to accomplish my goal of completing what I've dubbed "The Nebraska Slam". The first leg of the Nebraska Slam revolves around shooting all 3 sub-species of turkeys that reside in Nebraska including a true white Merriam's, a hybrid resembling a Rio Grande in color, and the darker fanned Eastern. The rest of the slam involves the pronghorn, the mule deer, the whitetail, and the elk. For this goal to happen I'll have to travel to various places across the state that have the populations necessary to hunt each animal. Leaving the comforts of home almost certainly means I'll be traveling with "Murphy" whose law dictates that if something can go wrong it will. Having just a little knowledge and the right tools to overcome accidents may save your trip from disaster. In this update I'll give you a few bits of advice on what I carry and have learned that may prove useful on your next outing.
As I wrote in a previous post my first elk hunt in 2010 had an incident that could've ruined a hunt for my partner CJ Novak had we as a group not had a little foresight. CJ went to draw back his bow just to check it was functioning properly and his D loop broke causing him to dry fire his bow, which unraveled in his hands. Fortunately we had packed a small repair kit with the right tools to get his bow back together. We also had brought along a spare D loop for just this situation. We also had packed up a small piece of paper with instructions on how to tie the D loop so we could actually carry out the task. D loops can be a little intimidating but they aren't overly difficult. Above is a step by step photo timeline of how to tie one, and here are some instructions:
1) Start by marking the horizontal center nocking point on your bowstring with a sharpie. Black works great on strings of color, while silver is perfect for black strings. You can find the center by aligning your arrow with the middle of the hole in your riser that holds your arrow rest in place. While there are small tools that allow you to clamp your bow into place or allow you to level your arrow, you may not have that luxury in the field and you are just going to do your best to "eyeball" how level and straight you are.
2) Your D loop should be a piece of material, just over 4 1/2" long. You can get the material from any pro shop, or simply ask them to cut and burn a spare for you. I would bet they give it to you at no cost, but should you get charged, it'll be minimal. Burn the ends with a lighter to form a nice little ball, then blow the flame out and smash the ball against the metal head of the lighter. The flattened heads seem to hold better against pressure than heads shaped like a ball.
3) Form the loop into an oblong horseshoe and set it up on the backside of the bowstring, then run the open end with the balls through the closed end and pull one ball tight against the string. Your loop should still look like a long piece of cord tied to the string.
4) Next you simply lay the loop over the top of the string. After that you'll wrap the loop under the bowstring and tuck the loop back inside itself and poke the ball back through the top of the string.
5) Pull the loop tighter and again wrap the ball end of the loop over itself and wrap it under the backside of the bowstring. At this point you should have a small hole to tuck the ball of the loop into. Pull the knot tight and you're set. You want the ball ends of the loop to face opposite directions when finished to apply equal pressure on your string as you pull. This also keeps the loop tighter.
6) The loop will look very small but that's okay because the loop material will stretch as you pull it tight. This is why I like a pliable material versus a hard material when tying loops, the pliable material is just much easier to work with. Before cinching the loop tight, make sure you are still centered and your nock fits in between the knot points of the loop. Once that is all in order, use a pair of nocking pliers to pull the loop tight. Nocking pliers are a cheap investment as well but should you not have them, just make sure your loop is tight, then draw back a few times to tighten the loop up.
Trips can be rough on equipment. Between bouncing around on rough roads or trails, travel itself, bows being dropped, or even thrown in defense of savage rattlesnakes hell bent on destroying the world ( I really really really don't like snakes and may even be slightly afraid of them) your bow can take quite a beating. A quick eye test though can help you make sure everything is lined up where it is supposed to be. I like to take a sharpie prior to season and mark the left and right as well as up and down locations of my rest and sights. Those marks can serve as a quick visual inspection to let me know nothing has moved. Another trick is to set your bow up according to the picture above. Set the bow on your foot, I use my left as that's the same as my non-dominant eye. Close your non-dominant eye and try to align your vision so that your bowstring runs down the middle of the arrow as it sits on the rest. Now at the same time peak up to the top limb of your bow and try to notice where the end of your arrow sits in alignment with the limb bolt of your top limb. In the photo above (you may have to zoom in) you can see the arrow is running just a hair to the right of the center line which would likely throw me off. A simple, small, left adjustment to your rest should bring that in line. Ideally you would be able to paper tune your bow again and feel comfortable in your adjustments, but that is not likely a luxury in the middle of nowhere. Take a target with you or shoot at a make shift target in the field and use your tools to at least allow you to hit where you are aiming. While your bow may not be perfectly tuned you are at least hitting your mark which is the goal anyway. Once you get back home you can take the bow to the shop for the proper tuning, I'm just trying to keep you as lethal as those dreaded snakes while in the field.
None of the advice above will work if you don't have the tools at your disposal to make the fixes you need to. I always carry a small pouch with first aid essentials and basic tools. This can sit in your vehicle, backpack, or bow case for quick access. Here is a list of the basics I carry in each:
1) My first aid kit includes a lighter for starting fires, basic bandages and gauze, super glue for bigger cuts, sunscreen, anti-itch creams for stings, or weeds, neopsporin, alcohol wipes, moleskin for blisters, and iodine tablets for water. This doesn't include maps, cell phone batteries, emergency contacts, and various other essentials that should be pre-planned as a part of any trip.
2) My gear kit includes, a zip tie for who knows what, allen wrenches, a mini screwdriver, a Swiss army knife, a D loop, a couple of levels and rest tools, a spare range-finder battery, a variety of screws and a strip of felt for silencing. This also doesn't include the gear used for cleaning animals, or all other items in camp for the trip.
We wait all year for the chance to get out and chase the game we love and sneak away on new adventures. Nothing is worse than mishaps in the field ruining those outings. Hopefully these tips can keep you afield and salvage your trip. Here's to a successful turkey season and the first step towards your 2016 goals.
It’s that crazy time of year again. No not turkey season, there will be lots of posts about that soon enough, I’m talking about that whacky time of year come to be known as Political Silly Season. Oh the joy of blogging about politics. Politics has a way of really infuriating opposing views so, to avoid turning this into an ugly debate I’ll just write about something that I feel is important to my intended audience of fellow hunters and that is our rights as citizens of this state to hunt.
Nebraska is a rather conservative state and with that tends to come a certain lifestyle. Hunting has long been an activity related to the red states and as a matter of fact in 2012 Nebraskans voted to make hunting a constitutional right in this state. In Nebraska we may not often see opposition to that way of life and I tend to question if we take our hunting rights for granted? Many states around us face a constant battle to protect legally approved ways of hunting various species, seasons, or methods. Ongoing pressure by anti-hunting agendas like PETA and The Humane Society of the U.S. has eliminated bear hunting with dogs in states like West Virginia and much of the west. The state of Michigan, which is one of the heaviest deer hunting states in America, has a 110 year old ban on dove hunting despite the state’s DNR’s own website stating: “The mourning doves is one of the most abundant and widely distributed bird species in the United States. The current continent-wide population estimate is over 400 million in the fall migration”. A public vote in 2006 to overturn the ban failed almost 2:1, this in a state that sees nearly 600,000 deer hunters, who the US Fish and Wildlife service estimates generate $2.3 billion dollars to Michigan’s economy. One of the reasons given for the ban, by the opposition, is that doves are not a sustainable food source.
That facts surrounding the Michigan dove ban should be rather alarming because many of the arguments that we as hunters use to justify hunting to our non-hunting friends lost badly in a state where deer hunting is a widely accepted and practiced way of life. I had a discussion with a non-hunting coworker not too long ago about our individual beliefs for and against hunting. I’m for all forms of legal hunting and I think it’s important to point out the terms “legal” and “all” in that statement. While many bowhunters tend to think our way is the best way, and you can argue that all day, (I’m not much of a rifle hunter) it’s undeniable the value that rifle hunting has both financially and as a conservation tool. I’m also not what I’d consider a “sport hunter” or “trophy hunter” but I fully support those that are. This is the point of contention by my co-worker. She was ok with hunting for food but not for sport. I think it’s because she didn’t have an understanding as to how conservation and sport hunting work on species that aren’t traditionally considered tasty query. While many non-hunters may be okay with deer, elk, turkey, or even moose hunting as a way of gathering food for a family they tend to want to draw the line on hunting just for antlers or heads to display on a wall. I would argue that protecting our hunting rights and heritage means defending all forms of hunting. “Food hunting” was not enough to allow dove hunting in Michigan and it can be as simple as that one little angle that the anti-hunters use to get their foot in the door to shut down not just dove hunting but all forms of hunting.
The idea that “sport hunting” is a bad thing has never been more played up than in the notorious case of a Minnesota dentist who shot and killed a lion in a game preserve in Zimbabwe. The “Cecil the Lion” story can be found anywhere on the internet so if you’re not familiar, look it up. The basics are that a wealthy man paid an outfitter $50,000 to hunt and kill a male African lion. The story takes a turn when at one point the dentist, either knowingly or unknowingly, entered a preserve where a tourist-favorite male lion nicknamed Cecil was hunted and killed. Although the ethics of the hunt may be questionable the hunt was legal, and it generated a substantial amount of money for the local economy and government and did no known, immediate harm to the health of the pride. The masses took to the internet with great fury and in a matter of time had raised petitions of outrage that would ultimately lead to death threats for the hunter, the closure of his business due to his overwhelming unpopularity, and actions to close down the practice of trophy hunting of lions in Zimbabwe. Wow! Talk about power. Less than a year later, the Zimbabwe government is now considering “culling” (a nice way of saying killing) nearly 200 lions from the same preserve as they are overeating their prey and some lions are dying of starvation because the ecosystem is unsustainable without hunting. Instead of hunters paying nearly $50,000 to trophy hunt the very same animals, the government is considering hiring sharp shooters to come in and kill the overpopulated lions, what an incredibly horrible idea. 200 lions at $50,000 each is a lot of lost money that is now subsidized by taxpayers or simply unavailable to fund conservation programs. Where is PETA, The HSUS, or the outraged internet mob to help with this problem now? Conservation efforts that have lasted, and thrived for decades, whose funds help defend the same animals from poaching, has been thwarted and defunded. The irony in all of this is the victim is actually the lion, along with all the other animals that support the lion’s ecosystem. You see the boycott and up-rise doesn’t affect just popular 1 lion, it affects thousands of animals of different species within any given ecosystem. That’s the essence of conservation and it should be run by experts such as biologists and scientists who understand the role hunters play, not the internet or anti-hunting agendas.
Trophy hunting tends to be associated with animals like the lion, or bears, or other animals atop the food chain that don’t have natural predators of their own, and the hunter’s role is to be that predator. Trophy hunts tend to center around animals portrayed in your kids’ favorite cartoons, Disney movies, or make great stuffed animals, or even pets. No lions and bears aren’t pets but their domesticated relatives are, and to me this is another one of the reasons there is out such outrage about hunting them for sport. People seem to think it’s their little pet Fluffy getting killed in the wild and they really have no idea about the facts, mother-nature, or the role hunters play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem for not just their perceived cute and cuddly pet’s relatives to thrive in, but all of nature’s creatures. That’s where offices like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and our own Nebraska Game and Parks Commission come in to play. These agencies strive to balance the ecosystem with healthy population levels of all species. Their number one way for balancing these herds is the same way in which they generate the funds to operate, through hunting.
All of this ties together as I consider the actions of Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers and his constant attempts to end mountain lion hunting in Nebraska. He has continually tried to take the season away by many efforts. He doesn’t want them hunted with dogs, sound familiar West Virginia bear hunters? Sound familiar bear hunters across the west? He doesn’t want the game and park commission to have the right to control the decision to set regulations regarding their hunting seasons. Sound familiar Zimbabwe? His backers know they are not a viable food source and exploit that, sound familiar Michigan? With the right emotional plea (which he repeatedly plays) it may not be difficult to convince non-hunters that mountain lions aren’t one of nature’s most efficient killers, but portrayed as a family pet being needlessly killed by cruel and evil hunters. This same tactic has worked on the federal level in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana where wolf populations have been allowed to go unchecked due to hunting being illegal for far too long. Although legal now the detrimental effects on deer, elk, and moose herds is long overdue. All three of those states are hunting states too. Nebraska is a hunting state, with a constitutional right to hunt, and we support hunting as evidenced by an email I received from state Senator Deb Fischer. Her statistics state 289,000 Nebraska hunters spend $780 million dollars annually. Impressive but that didn’t seem to matter in Michigan who has three times as many hunters who spend nearly three times more. Michigan hunters were only protecting a dove, with a population of nearly 400 million! We’re fighting for rights to hunt an animal whose image be likened to that of as a house cat with a population estimated at less than 100. This could go badly if the decision to manage the hunt is taken out of the hands of the experts. The Nebraska Game and Parks testified in hearings on the mountain lion debate that the first season license sales generated $60,000. That money is being used to fund more studies on the lions to help determine when it does and does not make sense to hunt them. That is an intelligent way of managing their populations. Leave the decisions to the experts, not politicians.
I’m proud to be a part of the NBA, an organization that has been on the forefront of fighting for our rights as bowhunters in this state even when the agenda may not be specifically bowhunting. The NBA has been fighting long before I joined and has won many times with efforts including implementing a bowhunter education program, extending seasons allowing for more bowhunting only days, and getting to bowhunt during rifle season. This is another one of those examples. The fight to protect our constitutional right to hunt, which includes mountain lions, is an important one. This is not a time to give up any ground on this issue. As you can see above any time a state, or country has lost that ground it has had disastrous results for the sportsman. Chances are you are surrounded by like-minded people who are also hunters so these discussions often go the same way. But if you look at it, we had 289,000 hunters in a state of nearly 1.6 million. We’re still greatly outnumbered by people that don’t hunt, or are anti-hunters. Those aren’t great odds so we can’t let uninformed voters make decisions about hunting for us. I encourage each of you to make it a priority to become active in some way like becoming more active in the NBA to keep up on what is going on around us. I signed up for newsletters from sources like the United State Sportsman’s Alliance which is a watchdog group that fights anti-hunting legislation. One of the best possible ways to be involved is to reach out to your Senator and let them know your thoughts and feelings about hunting and our rights in Nebraska to hunt. At the time of this writing my Senator Patty Pansing-Brooks stated she would be voting for LB 475 and against AM 2489. LB 475 would allow the Game and Parks the authority to raise fees on permits for outdoor recreation for the first time in 7 years. While no one wants to pay more for the outdoors, the Game and Parks estimates the fees are projected to raise $5 million in new revenue. That’s sportsman funding conservation at its finest. As expected Senator Chambers tried to filibuster to add amendment 2489 to the bill to take away the authority by the NGPC to allow mountain lion hunting. A recent vote of 42-2 to cease the debate ended this round of Chamber’s filibuster. This is a victory for Nebraska’s Sportsmen, but it is not the end.
The 2015 season is in the books. With warmer temperatures and longer days now here spring fever is in the air. With spring brings the anticipation of what can be in 2016. Spring turkey season is less than a month away and as fellow NBA blogger Harlan Welch writes in his latest update, turkey season can be a great time to get the next generation of archers out to experience the outdoors. Another way to capitalize on the splendor of mother nature is to shed hunt. I'm going to give you a few tips and share some advice from a very good shed hunter about how to make the most of a day looking for whitetail deer sheds.
I'm a firm believer in the old saying, if you can't beat them, join them. I'd like to tell you I've mastered the art of finding deer sheds but that'd be a stretch. So I have turned to seeking out the advice of those who are much more proficient and successful at it than me. When I moved to Lincoln 5 years ago I was introduced to a fellow bowhunter who may be even more passionate about the outdoors than I am. Tyler "The Golden Boy" Fountain as I call him has lived and hunted in Lancaster county his entire life hunting many of the same spots for most of those years. I've not met many people that consistently kill or catch as much as he does. Not only does he repeatedly tag or limit out on whatever prey is in his sights Tyler lays claim to an incredibly impressive man cave filled with large mounts including a 200" whitetail, a 330" Nebraska bull elk, a hand full of antelope, another dozen or so deer, and most recently a collection of legos and nail polish that his young daughter has decided belongs in the trophy den. At first I was amazed at Tyler's success, but then it became expected, hence the nickname I gave him of "The Golden Boy", literally everything he touches turns to gold. That was never more apparent than just a few years ago when he tagged out with 300" of whitetail in about a 20 second span as not one trophy buck but two great bucks found their way under his stand and both felt the wrath of his arrows. Tyler also regularly will send me pictures of the success he has shed hunting and that's why I asked him to share some of his tips and tactics.
Tyler's favorite place to find sheds is along fencelines as they are a natural travel route for deer. He especially likes to follow fencelines that act as a funnel between a bedding and feeding area. This is logical as it's the tactic you might use when trying to hunt a deer in the fall, and that really is the simplicity of shed hunting. The thought is to look for the bucks where they want to be. Tyler likes to scour bedding areas, fence or creek crossings (the bounding and jarring of landing can often cause an antler to come loose and fall), major trails, and thickets where antlers can get knocked off. This is the easy part, identifying target areas to look, the hard part is actually locating a shed antler. Sheds camoflauge very well into a leaf or weed covered forest floor, and that's where some of Tyler's tricks come into use. Tyler says he likes cloudy days over bright sun shine filled days as you don't have to squint nearly as much and that's his #1 piece of advice, keep your eyes fresh. Tyler's process is to break down your area into a grid and work the area back and forth. He likes to take constant breaks to allow for fresh eyes. Tyler stresses stopping to take breaks which allows you to stay focused and fresh. Because deer don't all drop their sheds at the same time hitting a farm more than once is beneficial as you might find something you overlooked before. Also keeping your line of sight inside of 15 feet is ideal. Personally I've had some of my better luck in grassy waterways that serve as a travel area for feeding deer. These can be difficult areas to spot sheds in because the grass is often tall and conceals sheds. More often than not you may step on a shed so pay attention to what you feel under your feet. This is something Tyler agrees with as he found his biggest shed, an 84" 5 point, by stepping on it. A final piece of advice given to me by Mike Lutt was to focus your efforts on south facing slopes as deer will bed on the backside of those slopes to stay out of the cold north winds of winter. While fields obviously will have sheds in them as deer drop while feeding, it can be the proverbial needle in a haystack looking for them as the fields are so big and open and deer can drop them anywhere. Still, if you are up to the task, sheds can be found this way.
An added benefit of shed hunting is learning the ground you hunt. If you are picking up a new piece of property and you want to scout it prior to deer season, the woods of March will look very much the same as they will in November. The weeds are matted down, the rubs and scrapes are visible, and trails are very evident. So take that time to get out and search the woods as a way to learn where deer want to be and what hidden honey holes can be found. It'll have you one step closer to planning out your fall stand locations.
Of course, getting your kids out now is always a great idea and when a kid finds a shed it makes their day. Tyler says that getting your kids out is good too if for no other reason to wear them out for nap time. Now that's smart thinking. Keeping a kid's interest level is bolstered when they have success, so it never hurts to "help" them find a shed even if it means it ends up right in the path they are walking on. Come to think of it I'm not so sure Tyler didn't use that trick on me on one of our outings!
Saturday November 7th, dawn breaks to a clear sky and temperatures just below 30 degrees. A fresh frost litters the tops of our first attempt at a clover blend food plot. I'm on my favorite farm strapped into a walnut tree 20 feet up sitting this spot for the first time this year. I've got a freezer to fill, tags to burn, and an itchy trigger finger. Welcome to Deer Camp 2015!
To the bowhunter that loves to chase rutting whitetails the description above may be more exciting than anything the author of "50 Shades of Gray" has to throw at us. If you're like me you get pretty pumped up about the idea of the November rut waking up big bucks that seem to have fallen off the face of the earth since summer. You imagine that once-in-a-lifetime monster cruising through your favorite honey hole, stopping right in your shooting lane and watching your arrow hit the sweet spot. If you're like me you love the idea of showing the buck to your buddies, retelling the same stories a million times, and giving each other a hard time about anything and everything under the sun.
The game of hunting will never get old to me. I giggle uncontrollably, out loud like I'm on laughing gas and I still shake like I have hypothermia every time I release an arrow. I smile proudly after the realization that all the hours of hard work just paid off. That feeling is healthy medicine for the soul as is laughing and sharing those quality moments with quality people. That's what I call Deer Camp.
In my mind it'd be a crime to have all that joy and jubilation if you didn't have a few good buddies to share it with. Deer camp is about growing "No-Shave-November beards", breaking out your favorite recipes, packing entirely too much food for the short trip, and meeting up with your boys for a a few days to reconnect with mother nature. Deer camp is about flipping the other guys crap for overcooking, or under cooking anything. It's about making fun of a guy that thinks a fanny pack is an incredibly convenient way to carry just the right amount of gear to a stand (guilty). It's about paying up a pricey bottle of bourbon to last years' winner of whatever bet made sense at the time. Deer camp reminds me of a sleepover you had with your adolescent buddies when you all tried to stay up as late as possible and mess with whoever fell asleep first. Deer camp is like those carefree college years when time didn't matter and all you had to worry about were the difficulties of juggling your budget well enough to pay for rent and still go out at least 3 nights a week. Deer camp is the ultimate getaway for a guy like me, who blinked and suddenly has gray hair and a high school senior.
2015 Deer camp stared a little differently. After a couple of unfruitful seasons CJ Novak, Jay Canada and I decided we needed to push ourselves a little harder. We wanted to try our first attempts at using food plots. We wanted to learn our ground better, we wanted to hang new sets for all possible winds. We were committed to figuring out how to kill more deer. So it began with a well conceived plan in the groggy wee hours of the morning at the annual Nebraska Bowhunter's Association Convention in March. Like all good ideas fueled by testosterone and a good time we laid out the strategy. That strategy starting taking shape in late June. We drove 3 hours to deer camp, started clearing weeds with a weed eater and rakes, and sprayed weeds for our food plots. In late July we'd be back for another banzai weekend trip to clear the dead grass, plant the Whitetail Institute clover plot and hang some stands. In late August we returned to check cameras and our progress. It appeared the plots had been growing as we had a few lush areas of green clover, turnips, and rye sprouting up. The cameras were full of pictures and it was time to figure out which bucks to target. Funny thing happened along the way, the bucks forgot to show up. In 2014 I ended up with 15 different Pope and Young caliber bucks on my camera and arrowed exactly zero of them. What would that mean for 2015? Were there no bucks to hunt on ground that annually produces? Of course not, it just meant we had to trust our hard work, and hunt.
The week of Deer Camp reminds me a little of Homecoming week in high school. This week seems to have a little more buzz in the air. The 3 of us lose a little bit of focus on the work we are getting paid to do and spend a little more time emailing, texting, and calling each other to talk over the same set of plans we've had since 2010, when I reconnected with my high school buddy CJ and he introduced me to Jay. Each day is a new topic of conversation that is eerily similar to the day before. You'd think after a combined 50+ years of hunting experience there wouldn't be a need for a checklist and daily conversations about what everyone is bringing and not bringing but it's inevitable. Basically it's a way for buds to come up with an excuse to talk to each other. That's alright, it's Deer camp.
Finally it's here, we pull up to camp and greet each other with name calling and crude jokes about tardiness like manly men like to do. There's no hugging in this camp just the occasional fist bump if someone really did a good job. We all find our bunks and unpack our gear to figure out what we all forgot. I really need to start writing things down, how do you forget hashbrowns and sausage for breakfast? A few years ago we might've stayed up a hair longer but CJ thinks he has to be up at 4 when shooting like is at 640 so it's off to bed, no one really sleeps with that much snoring and anticipation but that's Deer Camp.
Morning 1 daylight breaks. I sit in the set up I mentioned above pondering what to do if a decent buck comes in the very first thing? I'm hoping for a monster so I don't have to make that decision. It's a taxing decision because in 2013 I spent 10 minutes watching a 160+" mule deer close from about 250 yards to just 30. I watched him stand perfectly still as he let me come to full draw & I continued watching him stand perfectly still as I released my arrow. I watched him trot about 15 yards and turn around and look back at me as he tried to figure out what projectile just whizzed over his back. I watched him trot off after his doe, unharmed, and none the wiser. It's a taxing decision because in 2014 I found a big buck standing by the side of the road as an early October cold front swept through Lancaster county. I was lucky enough to secure permission to his 40 acre fortress and set up a stand. I saw that same buck standing by the same road on Nov 4 as I drove to work. On Nov 6 I was in my treestand as the 150" stud trotted by bird-dogging a doe. Again, I missed. 320" of antler walked away unscathed in a two year stretch. As a bowhunter and mildly competitive man I was down on my luck. But I was back in the saddle, hunting my favorite farm with a fresh mindset. At 7:00 a.m. I tickled some rattling antlers together and waited. I had picked up my trail camera on the way in and had 5 pictures of the buck in the slideshow, a real nice 5x5, I was praying would show up. At 7:10 a.m. I caught movement. It was a buck, I could see tall G2's and got ready. He stepped out onto the food plot and looked for the fight. It was the moment I feared, he was a deer that wasn't going to go on my wall or break records, but he was a deer that had me pumped up and shaking to the core. It took me just a second to snap to reality and tell myself; "You're here because you love this stuff. You're here because you want some meat. You're here because it's Deer Camp. Shoot that deer, enjoy every second of it, and don't look back". At that the arrow was off and my deer was in trouble.
As is always the case I texted my buddies to let them know what happened, and as I figured it was high fives all the way around. These two guys are quick to offer a helping hand. They're quick to offer to crawl down from their own sets to come help drag a deer out. They're quick to let you know it's ok you missed two huge bucks in the previous two years and they're quick to rub it in that you missed two big bucks in two years. That's Deer Camp. I'm lucky to have good friends that know how to get it done in the woods and share those times with. I look forward to future camps with other friends as well like Tyler Fountain of Lincoln, Chewy Swatzell of New Mexico, and Jay Novak of Lincoln. The list of good buddies that make all life's adventures a blast isn't exclusive to just hunting either so here's a shout out to my buddies in "The Big 5", my 617 Pearl Street and other Wayne State crew, as well as my alumni golf and basketball buddies.
Saturday evening Jay would finish an all day sit and as last light would approach he would make a 30 yard shot on a great 140's class, 5 1/2 year old 9 point. He was his normal cocky self about it, and for good reason, the man already had a 156" spot and stalk mulie and 72" antelope on the ground for 2015. On Monday I took a doe at 20 yards and on Tuesday CJ would fill his buck tag on a very unique 3 1/2 year old buck that was still carrying velvet. Wednesday morning Jay filled a doe tag of his own. 3 guys, 3 bows, 5 deer, 5 days. What a hunt.
2015 was clearly our most successful Deer Camp together. But I never want that to be the reason this was our BEST Deer Camp. Every camp has to be our BEST. It has only taken me 20 years to figure out that I'll never play another high school football game. Or to figure out that my college days are over, although I've offered to come stay in the dorms with my son to show him ropes. He's now a senior and I miss the days when I used to tuck him in at night as a little boy. My 12 year old daughter is far too big to sit on my lap and rock in the chair on lazy Saturday mornings too. Time doesn't slow down for anything. But it sure allows us to make up excuses as to why we don't get together with important people in our lives. I remember being at the Nebraska Bowhunter's Association convention and listening to Fred Eichler speak. Someone asked him what his favorite hunt was and with a straight face he said "all of them." I want that to be the way I view the world. I want every day I wake up to be the best day. I want every hunt to be my best. I want every Deer Camp to be my best.
Whether your "Deer Camp" is in a treestand, or in church on Sunday morning, or on a Harley cruising through the Black Hills, or on a tee box on a warm summer morning, whatever you do think of it as your best Deer Camp. Grab your buddies, grab a beer, jump on a boat, go to a ballgame, play catch with your kids, do whatever it is in life that makes you smile and live in that moment. Don't wait to have the time of your life with good people, live everyday like it's Deer Camp.
When I last left you I was headed to Colorado for my fourth archery elk hunt. The plan was simple, leave Friday, hike in to base camp and be ready to hunt by Saturday afternoon, kill a couple of elk and head home with time to spare. Only one thing could stand in the way of me, a couple of success photos, and a grilled to perfection slice of elk loin, that one thing was myself.
I'm a bit of a weekend warrior trying to hold on to this image I've built up of myself. I like to pretend that once upon a time, in my "glory days" I was a 5 star, multi-sport athlete. I have a few videos from high school, and even a spot on the record book walls that might make that case debatable. In an effort to keep that dream alive I joined a Rec. league slow-pitch softball team with my fellow coworkers. We play on Thursday nights in the "E" league, which means as non-competitive as it gets. Since I was so highly recruited (I was told there was a vacant spot on the roster for a catcher and the league was free so it was a no-brainer) I felt compelled to join. This was our third game of the year and with an undefeated record on the line we took on a team that at first glance appeared to be slightly younger and more athletic than us. It was eventually confirmed that this team was in fact the 2010 class A state baseball champions. It didn't take long for the game to get away from us, but playing with the heart of a champion we found ourselves only down 7 runs in the bottom of the 7th and final inning so naturally an epic comeback (we had only scored 4 runs to this point mind you) was within reach. With 1 out and no one on I knew what I needed to do. This team needed a spark! So with my sub .300 batting average (sub .200 may be more realistic but there are no official stats) I decided that it was my time to rally the team. I had been dropping harmless bloopers just over the infielder's heads all day (twice) so I figured if I swung just a little harder I could surely turn a 125 foot blooper into a 275 foot homerun with ease. I dug in and swung at the first pitch, as is my custom, and knuckled a dribbler to the former all-state shortstop. As I got halfway to first base it donned on me that I wasn't out yet, which was a miracle in itself. I decided at this point that if I "turned on the jets" I could leg this thing out and the rally would ensue. Now I'm sure there has to be video of this whole event out there somewhere to confirm my version of the story, but at the moment that I accelerated, to the untrained, naked eye it may not be visible but it happened, and as it happened I realized I had made a colossal mistake. I felt my left hamstring start on fire, so I pulled up so as not to hurt it further and in doing so somehow nearly obliterated my right hamstring (or so it felt). The most impressive feat about this day was the string of curse words I put together. To add insult to injury, I was out. Game over.
In no shape to walk, little alone climb up a mountain, we delayed the trip by a day. This allowed me almost 2 fulls days to rest. We arrived at the trailhead on Sunday and made a slow climb up the mountain. The slow and steady approach worked and within a few hours we made it to our lake front base camp in the pictures above. After we set up camp and made plans to slowly make our way to our first glassing destination a couple of elk hunters had walked up to our lake to trout fish. They told us they had hunted for 8 days at elevation below us and hadn't so much as heard a single elk. We didn't like to hear that but we went about our plans. When we made it to our first planned destination we soon realized that what we had looked at on google earth was not what we were looking at in real life. We weren't going to be able to glass the area as we had thought. We went back to camp just after dark to make a Plan for day 2.
The first night of sleep was the worst. I had made a mistake in buying a new, lighter temperature rated sleeping bag and never tested it. I had to wear all my clothes and still shivered all night. I woke up every 30 minutes praying for daylight to come to warm me up. As we started out in the pre-dawn darkness guided only by our headlights it started to rain. The side of the mountain we were working along was very steep, now it was wet, and I had a bad hamstring. We couldn't make it very far very fast and it was agonizing to try. I felt so dumb for getting hurt 1 day before the trip, now I felt even worse for slowing my partner down and potentially ruining his hunt. We made the decision to drop down to a familiar meadow that had previously been loaded with sign. We found a couple of fresh trails and moved in. Much to our dismay when we arrived at the meadow and started to look around it became painfully clear that there was not nearly as much elk sign as there had been in 2013. We spent the day surveying the area and working our way around to various waterholes, calling sporadically, listening intently, and trying similar tactics that had paid off in the past, but we had no luck. Day 2 ended with zero action.
Day 3 I woke up in a lot of pain. My hamstring was extremely sore and tender. I again slept poorly and my spirits were down. I just physically didn't feel like my leg was going to allow me to put in the work I was going to need to put in on this hunt. The sign just wasn't where we hoped it would be and to get where we might need to would require effort I wasn't sure my leg would allow. We ventured deeper into the elk woods trying to cover some new territory. Sign started to show up and we had spurts of optimism. We stumbled onto a bedded mulie buck but stalking anything through piles of dense forest and deadfall is a very challenging game. Late in the day I had tried to cross a log when I felt like I had nearly ripped my leg off. I re-aggravated my hamstring and was down for the count. I worked my way back to camp and moped around as another storm blew in off the mountains dropping more rain on us. I convinced my partner that I wasn't going to be able to make it.
We woke up on day 4 and packed out and hunted the trail back to the truck. We had decided that we could salvage a vacation by trying to make it back to western Nebraska to hunt pronghorn antelope on the big tracts of public land in the National Grasslands. That trip turned out to be much more fruitful in action and animal sightings. We even worked our way in close to a small buck but the stalk ended empty-handed. We did learn the lay of a new piece of land and even found a spot that worked to deer hunt.
It took me a while to write this post. I'm no stranger to the painful feeling of an unpunched tag during an archery endeavor, and that is a fact one has to face when pursuing animals with bow and arrow. The national average on archery elk is somewhere around 10%, those are tough odds to overcome. Add a foolish injury to the mix, and giving up early makes it nearly impossible to succeed. I came home from this trip with my tail between my legs. I have relayed this story to many good friends who have only been supportive and encouraging and that type of reinforcement is what will get me back into the woods. I recently found out that my 12 year daughter's very good friend Makenna has to have surgery to remove tumors from her neck and behind her eye. Suddenly I don't feel so bad. I realize that my failed trip means nothing in the grand scheme of things. But it only means something if I learn from it, grow from it and become better from it. I promise I will.
The month of October is typically a slow time for me in the deer woods, but November fires up my annual trip to "deer camp". This year I'm trying my very first food plot. Be sure to check in later this month as I share the progress of the plot and update you on how my deer hunt unfolds.
The Budget Bowhunter