Like most of you reading this, I grew up in a traditional bowhunting household. As a kid, my dad would hang deer in the tree to cool as my friends and I would gather around to investigate. Every broken arrow of his would be long enough for me to reuse, and then eventually break again on rabbit and squirrel hunts. Our Christmas trees towered over neatly wrapped gifts filled with camo clothing, and so on. Now as an adult, my kids have grown up the same way. Today though; it seems that we live in a world of instant gratification, satisfaction and expectations. We all have choices to make, and we traditional bowhunters are a stubborn bunch.
My son Jake was going to be just old enough to hunt big game when antelope season started. I’m not sure which one of us was more excited. He earned his hunter education certificate in the spring of that year and tagged along on a turkey hunt. After the season, he went to school with stories of close calls and “what if’s” while his friends showed him pictures of beautiful birds taken with shotguns. At the local archery range during the summer, we would politely wait for compound shooters to shoot their round of arrows before we would walk up half their distance to shoot ours. Jake never wavered in his choice of hunting style, but he did ask questions about the other methods frequently. We all have choices to make, sometimes stubborn ones.
Jake’s youth antelope doe tag came in the mail and reality set in. He had already taken many small game animals to his credit, but this wasn’t another rabbit for the crock pot. This wasn’t another squirrel or dove mocking him on the edge of shooting distance. This was a big game animal, and he was shooting enough poundage to make a clean kill. I had an important job to do as a mentor, hunting partner and a dad. In the back yard we shot a lot and talked about the importance of picking a small spot on a large target. I made a life-sized plywood antelope target with the vitals removed so he was aware when his arrow was not true. Our black lab was a great visual aid as we discussed how a moving animal changes shot selection. I explained to him that our season had already started since the hunting is secondary to the preparation, because we choose to hunt the way we do. Jake helped scout before the season and set up blinds. Instead of driving the two-track road, we walked in at the landowner’s request. Jake understood why we respected these wishes and we picked up any windblown trash along the way as well. He shot as much as he could before and after school or late after football practice if his homework allowed. He put in his time, and he was ready.
Opening morning of a long Labor Day weekend, Jake was up and dressed half way through a bowl of cereal before I even wiped the sleep from my eyes. After a short drive, we walked in and got set up for the day’s action well before sunrise. Coyotes sang in the distance as the sun lit up the prairie, and we watched antelope do what antelope do. The day was uneventful until right before dark when a lead doe educated my son on the importance of wind direction. “Rabbits and squirrels can’t smell buddy, but antelope sure can,” I joked. “Tomorrow…” I said, “just remain patient and be ready, it can all change in a minute.” However, from an action standpoint the hunting was tough. We had close encounters, but nothing that would commit long enough for Jake to be comfortable with a shot. Day 2 came and went, followed by day 3 with more of the same. I was worried about his attention level after three long 15-hour days in a hot blind, but his optimistic enthusiasm throughout the course of the hunt made me proud.
Although the action outside the blind was quiet, inside of it was not. My son reminded me of the little things I have taken for granted over the years. Jake asked questions about the birds and their frequent bathing routine or why antelope fawns move around restlessly while adult does stay bedded. We would talk about school, sports and hunting. We worked on crosswords, sudokus and I’m embarrassed to say my 12-year-old may have beat me at a game or two of chess. Walking out one evening we had a run in with a prairie rattler, and the drive home was filled with questions about snakes and snake bite consequences.
The following week work and school required our attention, but I watched the weather daily. A forecasted southwest wind on a hot day had my attention and a plan was made to get Jake out of school early. I decided to take my youngest son Tyson with us too. I thought a quick evening hunt would be doable with a 7-year-old in the blind as well. (Of course, he needed to bring his bow too, I was told.) In the blind it was amusingly frustrating to keep their giggling quiet during a juvenile game of “Hangman”, but laughter turned to hushed whispers as an antelope doe appeared over the rise in front of us. A small group was coming in to water and we made quick work of rearranging the blind. I could tell by the body language of the lead doe that she was committed, and this was going to happen quickly. I motioned to Tyson to stay quiet as I reminded Jake to pick a spot.
The doe hesitated briefly at thirty yards as the rest of the group caught up. The whole world stood still as she scanned our brushed in blind for danger while Jake had the bow up and ready. Content with her surroundings, the doe continued forward in front of us broadside. She was on a steady walk as Jake drew his bow and came to anchor. He followed her at full draw across his first window opening and through the next. She never stopped for him. When she slowed down to lower her head and drink, two fawns from back of the group ran in and drank right beside her! “Oh no,” Jake said in a whisper. He slowly let down. I was impressed by his control in the moment and I gave him the “just wait” eyes. A small buck made his way toward them as they slurped and slurped. Time seemed to stand still until the lead doe lifted her head and backed away from the tank. She turned broadside facing the opposite way at eighteen yards and stopped. Before I could motion Jake to take his shot, the arrow was buried to the fletching behind her shoulder! She tore past the rest of the group down the hill as I bear hugged Jake! The doe made a long, half circle through the sagebrush before coming to rest not too far away. We hugged with tears in our eyes as Tyson laughed hysterically from all the excitement! It didn’t seem real. I called my dad, but I couldn’t get out many words. He did it!
The sun was setting when we made our way to where she laid. I let Jake walk up to her first and run his hand through her coarse hair. I had him thank her for her life and I explained the importance of respecting the animal because she provided meat for our family and memories for a lifetime. We took pictures and I shook his hand with admiration. I took my time showing them proper field care as the sun left the horizon on one of the best days of my hunting career. After loading the antelope and our gear on a game cart, the walk out was emotional as I took in the moment. I was proud as a mentor and a hunting partner… but mostly as a dad because my son gets it.
There were no record books or scores to add up. There weren’t any “pro staffers” or endorsement deals. In a world of instant gratification, satisfaction and expectation; my son was successful with homemade arrows and a 60-year-old Bear recurve on his first big game hunt. Like most of us, he did it the hard way when he didn’t have to. We all have choices to make, and we traditional bowhunters are a stubborn bunch. I’m proud of that.