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Deer with bow, then and now

8/18/2010

Editor's note: To accompany Deer Camp '09, we've asked athletes, prominent figures and outdoorsmen to relate their first deer kill .

We were driving across the golden grassy Maxton Plains, located on Drummond Island in Chippewa County, Mich., which straddled the southern end of the St. Mary's River that joins Lake Superior to Lake Huron.

Ecologically, this is a prairie area that should not be here: a 1,000-plus acre alvar grassland growing on a thin soil layer over limestone bedrock, surrounded by thick forest. In 1956, we had traveled over 300 miles north, including two car ferries to get here. I felt like I was in Africa hunting the Serengeti.

A group of several deer appeared up ahead. My father stopped the car. We got out, strung up our bows and began stalking. The adrenalin was really pumping.

The doe was about 45 yards away, standing broadside, just like the target back home where I had shot hundreds of arrows in practice. The arrow streaked toward her, as if in slow motion, and struck her mid-body about two inches behind the foreleg. As the shaft disappeared in her body a "thunk" could be heard. She bolted off toward the surrounding dark spruce and birch woods, as if nothing had happened.

Intellectually I knew that the arrow had struck her in exactly the right place for a heart-lung shot that should prove fatal, but I was only 13 and this was the first time.

"Good shot," my father said, standing nearby, "but we've got to wait 15 minutes to make sure that she bleeds to death and dies quietly. Better for her, you don't want to chase her in that thicket, and the meat will be better, too. Deer that dies with a lot of adrenalin in her blood tastes more gamy."

It was the longest 15 minutes of my life.

"OK," he finally said.

I hurried to the spot where she had been standing. Her clean, fresh tracks were very visible in the thin, rocky soil. There were spots of bright red blood on the grass almost immediately as I followed the trail.
Fifty yards later, she was quietly lying on her side.

My father reached down and touched the stream of blood coming from where the arrow had entered and smeared it on my cheeks. "Congratulations," he said, with a big smile on his face.

The heart and liver pie we had that night, made from the vitals of the doe, stands in my mind as one of the best meals I have ever eaten.

I have no pictures of that deer as many of the pictures of my youth and my cherished Bear Kodiak bow and cedar arrows burned in house fire in Oregon in the early 1970s. Aside from the memory, all I have from that era are two arrows — 11/32 cedar with three-bladed bodkin points, one with remnants of blood on it. I suspect that's why I kept it — a lucky charm.

Things change. Today there is massive bridge that spans the Straits of Mackinaw. Drummond Island still has a notable deer herd, but today it has golf courses, too. I live in the San Francisco area, where deer are more common than squirrels.

I am also reminded of change as I look at another lucky charm arrow with deer blood on it that I have. It's a Ted Nugent Wackmaster aluminum shaft with his trademark zebra stripe pattern.

I moved to the West Coast in 1972. The Nuge amulet arrow comes from a whitetail hunt in the late 1990s in western Wisconsin.

After 20 years of chasing West Coast blacktails, which sometimes don't seem to be much bigger than a hefty collie, I got invited to hunt in Wisconsin for a TV show. How could you pass that one up?

On the afternoon that arrow got its bloodstains I was perched in a tree stand 20 feet above the ground with a camera guy next to me, who normally shot Minnesota Vikings games. About half an hour before sunset, this eight-pointer steps out of the brush and proceeds to walk straight toward my stand. An eight-point whitetail to this Western coaster who had been seeing blacktails for two decades looked like an elk.

The cameraman did not see the deer coming, and so he was not rolling. This is a TV show, folks, where they expect you to shoot something for the camera, otherwise, no show. Tension is boiling.

At 15 yards, the buck stops as the camera motor kicks in. I draw my Martin compound bow, and am holding right on the kill zone. The great advantage of the compound bow is that you can hold at full draw forever, but the camera guy is whispering that he can't move the camera to get a shot or he will spook the deer. Technology!

After what seems like an eternity, the deer drops his head as if to walk, the cameraman nods, and I release.

The arrow looks as if it is going to be a perfect shot. Suddenly, the buck flinches at the sound of the string vibrating. That makes him drop down 3-4 inches as if to run, and the arrow socks in just below the spine.
The buck turns and crashes off through the brush. I can see the arrow has gone about halfway in. A couple bounds, and all is silent, except for the blue jays.

We recreate the shot for the camera, and then wait, maybe 20 minutes. It's almost dark. We climb down. I slowly move toward where the deer ran. There is blood everywhere. A good sign.

Fifty yards down the blood trail, an eight-point buck explodes from the brush. Many expletives are voiced. We back off to return in the morning.

I did not sleep much that night.

The next morning, we return with the outfitter to pick up the trail. I come to the place where the buck jumped when I was tracking and realize that this was a second buck because the blood trail is not there!

After 150 yards of following the blood trail, we come to a place where the deer had laid down. Lots of blood, but no deer. We search for a trail and surrounding area for well over an hour with several people. Nothing. Nothing worse than losing a deer.

Two days later another hunter about a quarter mile away, finds my deer. Coyotes had chewed on it. It becomes clear that they had jumped the deer before it bled to death, and chased it until it went down.

I know that an eight-point whitetail is not huge compared to today's standards, but it's my biggest buck with a bow. I have the antlers on my wall. Trophies are relative. Memories are the best trophies of all.