I’ve always had a bowhunting bucket list, but it has changed and varied greatly the past half-century. When I started shooting bows in the late 1960s with my best friend, Jim Braden, our bucket list was to one day hunt and kill rabbits near home in southwestern Iowa. I don’t recall exactly when we bought our Ben Pearson 709 Hunter bows and some Port Orford cedar arrows (was there any other kind?), but I do know they came by mail order from Herter's in Waseca, Minn. Soon after, we started bowhunting rabbits along the railroad tracks near home.
After some success, we added carp to our list. These big, plentiful fish swam in the Nishnabotna River, which flowed past the west side of town. About a year later, we put deer atop our list, bought our licenses and, with help from our fathers, started bowhunting deer along the river bottoms and small woodlots in the farmlands around Red Oak. For years, my bucket list was simple: Get a shot at a white-tailed deer.
Looking back, it’s clear I had no idea how unprepared we were to chase that dream. The only place where we ran into hunters was the Izaak Walton Club in the next town. And we knew no one in Red Oak who shot archery, let alone bowhunted deer. Why would they? In biological terms, deer were not “common” in our area. Although our hunting, fishing and farming friends had all seen deer, no one saw them often. Then again, deer weren’t officially “rare,” either. We each shot one the year we hunted with shotguns. We just didn’t like the experience. Success came not so much from our hunting prowess, but from being in the right spot when two deer ran up and sacrificed themselves.
We weren’t well-equipped bowhunters, either. Red Oak had no hunting stores and, besides, that was the era before compound bows, string silencers, portable tree stands, and camo hunting clothing. We did have a few broadheads, however, as well as one or two types of cover scents. We also had HD Flipper rests (which we thought were cool), camo sleeves to slip over our shiny bow limbs, and hard-rubber Kwikee Kwivers that clasped onto our bow limbs. Sometime in the first year or two we even splurged on some Easton aluminum arrows with 5-inch fletching and fixed-blade broadheads.
We were lucky to have dads who took us to and from our hunting spots, where we spent long, uncomfortable hours perched atop tree branches or wedged into crotches of old cottonwoods. We had learned from reading that deer don’t look up, but we learned from suffering that few trees are designed for standing, much less sitting, for long hours. Fewer yet make it easy to draw and shoot a bow while balancing with just your feet. Still, we were young, so we endured hours of numb feet and cramped legs while waiting for deer.
We sat often without seeing anything, so we’d get excited if we saw even a distant deer. On a couple of occasions we had deer come close enough to trigger bouts of “buck fever.” We occasionally got frustrated and walked around looking for deer, but typically we’d find only deer sign or flashes of a fleeing white tail. Still, we saw enough to keep dreaming. I still hold vivid memories of big bucks from those days. In one case, a large buck across the river repeatedly chased a slightly smaller – yet still large — buck into the water. Another day, a buck surprised me at 20 yards while I was on the ground and "indisposed," my bow beyond reach.
Despite ourselves, in Fall 1968 my buddy and I bow-killed our first deer. I took an ill-advised shot at a doe that morning from directly above. It jumped at my miss, but didn’t run hard, and then continued along the river. Once the big doe was out of sight, we scrambled down from our trees, trotted back to our car, drove nearly a mile downstream, parked the car and hoofed it over to a small bank bordering the river. A few minutes later, here she came. We agreed to shoot when she stopped atop the bank but, having drawn early and suffering severely from buck fever, I released my arrow as she started up the embankment. My arrow was a pass through and a few minutes later we were standing over our trophy.
Despite that success, my bucket list didn’t change the next many years, except that I wanted to improve my skills and take deer regularly. My bowhunting dreams still didn’t reach beyond spending more time in the woods near home or at college, Iowa State University. Later, when hunting in Ohio during graduate school, I learned far more guys than my buddy and I were bowhunting. I also learned I didn’t like the deer woods as much when lots of other hunters were around. Next, after becoming a research biologist in southeastern New York, I learned deer were plentiful but much smaller than those I hunted in Iowa. As I worked and began raising our family, my bucket list shrank. I simply desired free time to go bowhunting.
Then came the 1990s. The impact of old injuries grew so bad that I had to give up all outdoor activities. My bowhunting bucket list vanished for a few years amid failed knee surgeries. All I could do was hope to return one day to the deer woods with my bow. Luckily, soon after starting with the Archery Trade Association, we found a specialist who gave me my knees back. As 2000 ended, I again found my bucket list and put something atop it once more: deer. Any deer. I felt like I had set the clock back 40 years when I got a second chance to get into bowhunting.
The first bowhunt of my “new life” was with longtime friend Tom Indrebo of Bluff Country Outfitters in Alma, Wis.. Tom is the most knowledgeable deer guy I know, and an even nicer human being. He welcomed me to his farm with Steve Largent, a Hall of Fame football player; Dwight Schuh, then editor of Bowhunter magazine; and J. Dart, a Colorado businessman and founder of the Dart archery-target system. On a cold, snowy morning in November 2000, I shot a young 6-point buck as it wandered under my tree stand. I felt a rush of feelings I hadn’t known for decades. I couldn’t help but remember how I had felt just months earlier after being handed a pamphlet titled, “Therapy for Life Style Adjustment.” (Who writes something like that and puts a happy guy on the front, anyway?) I had come full circle. During that week I hiked all over the wooded slopes of Tom’s land in Buffalo County, climbed up and down trees, and generally experienced every part of a basic bowhunt with friends, including a memorable kill. That’s what bucket lists are all about.
For the next 13-plus years my bucket list was simply to enjoy bowhunting. Thankfully, I’ve been able to bowhunt several times near my old hometown with my friend Patrick Durkin, and we’ve done well. We’ve killed some nice bucks and big does. I’ve also bowhunted Tom Indrebo’s place many times and, each year since 2010 I’ve had the pleasure of bowhunting there with our entire ATA staff. I’ve also bowhunted at a Texas ranch, near my home in Virginia, inside a fenced facility in Michigan, and for elk in Colorado with my son, Ben. Over all these years, I filled my bucket list with fun hunts that rekindled old memories while adding many new, enjoyable experiences.
Just when I thought I had nothing new for my bucket list, I added an entry I had never before considered: bowhunting South Africa. I’m intrigued by this opportunity. I’ve never had trophy dreams. In fact, I have only one deer on my office wall, and it’s from a 2011 bowhunt near my Iowa hometown. That buck reminds me of all the great bowhunting experiences from my youth. But now my bucket list is to relish bowhunting in a different part of the world; to enjoy the culture and environs of Wintershoek Safaris and all they have to offer; and to learn all about the people who live and work in an area that will make my experience unique and special. My trip will take place in July, and I’ll soon begin blogging about this once-in-a-lifetime experience.