By: Kim Wheeler
I grew up in a family of sportsmen. Both of my brothers hunt, and they are passionate about it. My father loved to hunt and fish, but he passed away when I was 12 years old. I know that if he had lived longer, he would have taken me hunting when I was a teenager. My first experience with a gun was shooting his 12-gauge shotgun at Carlos Avery Wildlife Area when I was about 10. My step-father enjoyed fishing, but he was not an avid hunter. When he went to deer camp with my older brother, he stayed back at camp and cooked for the others. That’s okay though because we fished a lot together when I was younger.
Both of my brothers live in South Dakota now, and I used to go pheasant hunting with them when I lived there, and I loved that experience. But all the men in my life since then have not been hunters, until my current boyfriend, John, came along and encouraged me to give it a shot. How could I not want to hunt when I live so close to Crex Meadows and see the excitement it brings to my neighbors and friends each year as hunting season comes around?
The fall of 2015 was my fifth season hunting at Crex Meadows with John. My first year out I had no idea what to expect. John had all the gear: camouflage and blaze orange clothing, shotguns and rifles, back tag holders, backpacks and fanny packs, buck knives, binoculars, you name it, he has it (in multiples of 10, or so it seems!). He was able to set me up with minimal extra purchases required by me. I already had blaze orange having lived in the area for a few years. I borrowed an old left handed bow from a friend (that was too big for me in all reality) and a Marlin 35 Remington rifle that fit me well from John’s brother, and I was all set.
John has never been a fan of hunting from a stand, so we “still” hunted from the beginning, slowly moving through the woods, stopping often to sit for a while on a log or leaning against a tree, trying to blend in with the oaks and pines. It was a great way to start hunting deer – kind of like learning to drive with a car that had a manual transmission. You get the full experience without any short-cuts. Both John and I were unsuccessful our first four years out together, but we put in quite a lot of time, seeing only a few deer, but mostly just enjoying the stillness of the woods. Once an opossum walked nearly to my feet before he noticed me. Another time a red squirrel ran across my lap, and many nuthatches and chickadees have come very close. I learned how cold it can get when you are sitting still for a long time in the woods in November. I bought a nice compound bow for myself in 2012, and borrowed a couple different rifles from friends. I was not discouraged by not bagging a deer my first four seasons, and in 2015 I felt more prepared than ever before.
I spent a lot of time earlier that fall exploring a property that the Friends of Crex had purchased along Phantom Trail. I found a lot of deer trails, and I decided to try bow hunting in October on this land. On our first day out, I found a nice spot on a downed oak tree that had fallen into the crotch of another live tree, and I started there. While I was standing on the tree, about four feet up in the air, I heard and then saw two fawns trotting right toward me along what was probably their usual trail. They walked right by me within about 15 feet, but I did not shoot – didn’t even raise my bow, because even though I had an antlerless tag, I didn’t want to take a fawn, especially on my first day out for the season. I watched them head north behind me and then heard a shotgun shot from Phantom Lake, which spooked them and they turned back and walked right back past me and across to the oak island to my south. No other deer were seen by me that day, but John spent some time watching a distant adult browse on acorns where he was hunting.
A few mornings later I went to another area just to the west of my first spot on the same land. I sat for a couple hours before I had to quit, and then walked back down the trail toward my car. As I was passing the spot that I had hunted a few days before, I noticed big doe ears in the shadows of the woods. She was too far away for a shot, but as I watched her, I saw the shape of another body and then another. There were three deer within shooting distance of my previous “stand”, and I had missed an opportunity to harvest one. But it was still October, and I had plenty of time yet to hunt.
The first weekend of November was the next time I had available to go hunting with John. I decided to work my way back to the area where I had seen the three deer. John decided to hunt somewhere to the northeast of me on an oaky hillside. I sat in another downed tree for about an hour or so, but it was a cold morning, and my coffee was cold before I could finish it. I decided to get up and move around a bit, working my way a little further east, but still within view of the land bridge to the island to the south. I finally sat on a downed tree with a vertical root ball, with my feet on the ground and the roots blocking the wind to my back. It was a nice comfortable place to sit.
I started thinking about how nice it would be for John to get a deer since he had not gotten one since we began hunting together. A few minutes later, a buck walked toward me from behind the slough grass on the island to my south. I had been holding my bow in anticipation of a deer walking in front of me, but I soon saw that he was going to walk to my right only about 15 yards away. I connected my trigger release to the string of the bow and slowly lifted the bow straight up and then brought it down slowly to my right, maneuvering between the white pine branches from a very small sapling near my knee without moving them or spooking the deer. He continued walking slowly along his path. I pulled the string back and locked his shoulder in my site and let the arrow fly. I heard a solid thump as the arrow hit its target. The buck jumped and started running, and I stood up and watched it slow, stumble, get up and walk a few more yards. I thought it went down but was unsure. I walked over to the place where I hit it and headed west along its trail. Not far along I found the first spot of blood, and the blood trail got thicker as I moved along. My heart was racing, and I was tempted to continue on the blood trail, but I remembered that you were not supposed to immediately follow when archery hunting. A wounded deer left alone will most often lie down to rest and just fade away. I left the blood trail and went to find John, who was not far away, between me and the truck. I told him I shot a buck, and we decided to go the truck to warm up and wait awhile.
Our dogs (a German Shepherd named Greta and a little Corgi - Rat Terrier mix named Annie), were patiently waiting in the truck. They love to go along with us even though they don’t get to go out into the woods with us when we are actively deer hunting. We put our bows away and leashed up the dogs and brought them back to the blood trail so they could experience finding the deer with us. I had no idea how well I had hit the deer, although I was certain I had made a killing shot near the neck or chest. The blood trail was easy to follow, and we had not gone 100 yards before we saw the buck lying dead on the ground. John made me gut it out, which is really gross but has to be done. Even though it was my first kill, I had already gutted another deer a couple weeks earlier when I was given a 2 1/2 year old buck from the local conservation warden that had to be put down after a vehicle collision. I looked up a YouTube video for that one, so the second time around things were a lot cleaner overall.
We had encountered my friend Paul and his 12-year-old grandson Jordan along Phantom Trail getting ready to do some squirrel hunting while we had taken the break at the truck, and they came by to check out my kill. Paul said I had made a clean double-lung shot. The arrow had broken in two and half of it was lost, so Jordan and I followed the blood trail back to its origin to attempt to find it (to no avail). It was fun to watch Jordan discover and follow the blood trail. That made the entire experience all the more special for me, because I love sharing learning moments with kids.
I am proud of my first deer harvest. It was with a bow, and a nice yearling buck with a respectable 7 points. It was not a huge deer, but had plenty of nice tender meat for the freezer. I felt like I had done my homework, had not taken any shortcuts, and the fact that I was hunting from the ground without any aid from bait or a food plot is something to be proud of. Even neater to me is that it was on land acquired for Crex Meadows using the Friends of Crex Land Acquisition Fund, which was a project that I had worked hard on when I was employee as the Friends of Crex Coordinator. It was a very fun experience. I also got a doe during the gun deer season that year with that borrowed Marlin 35 Remington out on the island just to the south of where I got my buck, but that is another great story for another time!