Standing on the edge of the morning woods, I hesitated to step into the darkness. I listened for any sound and urged myself to walk into that seemingly black abyss and head to my tree stand. I don’t know if I am the only one who feels this way, but walking into the dark woods in the morning is always a battle of will for me. While I know there is little to nothing to fear in the big woods of Minnesota, something about the dense darkness gets to me. The drive to hunt is greater than the fear, and so into the dark woods I go. Yet, it is never without some sense of trepidation. This is something specifically about the morning, when it feels darker.
Partly for this reason, morning hunts are my favorite. The thrill of walking into the darkness after a night of creatures roaming wild in the woods gets me excited. Knowing that there are undoubtedly eyes watching me as I try to walk silently spurs me onward, often too quickly, seeking the comfort of my tree stand. As I walked down the hill the morning of my first traditional bow kill, I went without my headlamp on, trying to let the faint natural light illuminate whatever was in my path. I wanted to come in undetected, but the frost left on the leaves overnight was hampering my plan. Never step on something if you can step over it. Those wise words from Fred Bear rang through my head every time I felt tempted to step on the possible silence of a log instead of firm ground. Muffling a few footsteps isn’t worth slipping and making more noise.
Shooting as a family is a daily event at the author’s
house. It has been a great way for them all to connect over a shared activity.
I had been pondering my plan for this morning’s hunt for the last two days. The pre-rut was on, and scrape activity on our small six-acre parcel of woods was increasing. Just the day before, I had stalked within 40 yards of a beautiful 8-point buck in broad daylight before he flagged me and jumped out of sight. I had mostly been concentrating on evening hunts, trying to stagger and use my time in the stand sparingly so as not to spook the deer out of our land. Along with the complication of a small property, having five children aged ten and under made finding time to hunt difficult. My life requires a constant balance of homeschooling, homemaking, and hunting.
While we own just over six acres, our land adjoins hundreds of acres of beautiful Midwestern big woods. We have hundreds of oaks, basswood, maple, poplar, paper birch, and beautiful aspens throughout our rolling bluff land. The topography lends itself well to setting up multiple stands because of a steep, impassable ravine in the bottom of the valley and a three-way split between bluffs on the other side of the property. In order to get to the big woods without having to run through open agricultural fields, the deer take our ravine. My stands are set up for ease of access, to favor the prevailing wind (and utilize thermals), and never to have to cross a deer trail to enter them.
I knew hunting my own land was possible, but hunting a small spot was a whole new challenge for me. I went on my first rifle hunt when I was 28. In the five years since I have taken a total of ten deer: eight with a rifle, one with a crossbow, and now one with a longbow. I started hunting on my husband’s family land in rural Wisconsin. They are kind enough to open their hundreds of acres to us and give us access to their stands. After my first year of rifle hunting, I was hooked. I didn’t even think of bowhunting until my third year with a rifle, when I shot a buck from 120 yards and watched him mule-kick and drop within ten yards. I had sighted in my rifle the day before, didn’t know a thing about scent control, and went out and shot a buck in under an hour. As I replayed that hunt in my mind over and over, I realized that my disappointment arose from the fact that I wasn’t a good hunter, just a good shot. I wanted to become a good hunter.
That year, I decided I wanted to put the rifle behind me and go with a different, more personal weapon. After a miserable foray into crossbow hunting, I decided a traditional bow was the only way I wanted to hunt. I started studying whitetail habits, hunting tactics, and found as many hunters as I could who would spare me a bit of advice. While I had a head start in woodsmanship as a survival skill and land navigation instructor for kids, I didn’t know much about hunting deer up close, or archery.
Mid-September of 2019, I decided to go to The Footed Shaft bow shop and see about getting an upgrade from the rarely used Samick Sage recurve my husband had bought me for Christmas in 2015. I asked Terry Banitt, the very knowledgeable now former owner of The Footed Shaft, to find me something that would work, and I walked out with a 42# vintage Bear Grizzly, a beautiful solid brown bow that felt great in my hand and put the arrows right where I wanted them. (To my regret, I later sold that recurve to buy my longbow.)
Even with this beautiful weapon in hand, I still wasn’t ready to hunt. Nock height, brace height, arrow spine…all these terms were completely foreign to me. I decided that before I tried hunting, I was going to learn what there was to learn about traditional archery and learn it well. I watched all of Clay Hayes’ videos, listened to The Stickbow Chronicles, watched The Push Archery’s video on shooting tips, and read and memorized as much as I could about arrow spine and tuning. I ate up every traditional archery book I could find; my evenings were spent immersed in Monty Browning’s adventures in Africa or deep in Fred Bear’s Field Notes. I joined the Wisconsin Traditional Archery Society and Compton Traditional Bowhunters. My focus became repeatable form and learning to estimate distance because I did not want to rely on any modern equipment that could fail me in the field. I spent my time during the COVID-19 lockdown sometimes shooting hundreds of arrows a day and usually no fewer than 60. Thankfully, my kids caught the archery bug during this time and shooting became a daily family event. I often taught the older ones with a toddler on my hip or my back.
My brother captured this photo of me teaching two of my children about fletching arrows. I was explaining how feathers rotate the arrow and why I fletch heli- cal with left wing feathers.
I received a fletching jig for Mother’s Day and started making arrows in every length, spine, and feather configuration I could until I found what flew straight. I started teaching traditional archery to as many people as were interested and put together six custom bow set ups (including fletching and tuning arrows) for my friends who wanted to get into archery. I went to traditional shoots and picked the brains of as many people as possible. Thankfully, I found a wonderful community in traditional archery.
All of that effort, planning, and time landed me in that stand on that day, ready to harvest my first traditional whitetail and feeling confident in my skills to do so. I sat about 12 feet up in a 15-inch-wide poplar tree. The canopy of the woods was high so I was fairly exposed in this stand, but with the thermals and prevailing wind, it was a great morning spot. The morning prior I had watched as a group of seven mature does and fawns walked 50 yards from where I had been sitting in a different spot in the ravine. They had no clue I was there and just walked quietly feeding on the last bits of green forest forage. The brush was too thick and the shot too far for me to consider, so instead I watched where they were coming from and made a note of the time and the wind. If the wind looked the same the next day, I knew I needed to sit in a spot where I could cut them off in a narrower part of the valley. I picked my tree and waited until evening to check the forecast. The prevailing wind looked to be in my favor, and the cool drop in temperature made me think the deer would be on their feet earlier.
I decided to head out to my stand at 6:10 a.m., early enough to beat the deer on their way through and late enough to avoid freezing before they arrived. I stayed up late the night before and prepared breakfast for my five kids (age two-ten) so that my husband, who was just coming off of night shift, would not have to worry about it. When he got home, and with a quick goodbye, I was out the door and into the dark.
I climbed into my stand just as the forest around me started to appear through the gathering light. I heard crashes in the leaves behind me and froze, the constant question of discriminating between a squirrel or a deer in my head. Squirrel—I could get situated. I tied into my tether, nocked my favorite arrow, and sat down with my lower longbow limb resting on top of my boot. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the frosty woods coming to life: blue jays, squirrels, and a faint crunching through the leaves. My heart began pounding in my ears as I tried to focus on the crunching sound as it approached from my left, which, as a right-handed shooter, was my ideal shooting side. The sound intensified and I moved my head as slowly as I could to see where the noise was originating. It was the deer trail I had scouted earlier that week. The loud crunch-crunching and stepping cadence made me thankful for those frosty leaves that had frustrated me only minutes before. The noise seemed to be all around me and then she stepped out, a beautiful mature doe 21 yards to my left, in my best shooting lane.
Melody with her first traditional bow kill. Her ten-year-old daughter took the photo.
Without thinking twice, I drew back, and she caught sight of my movement and bolted forward behind a thick bunch of deadfall. She had separated from the herd she came in with, which had bolted back down the path they came in on. I held my bow still, relaxing my full draw and waiting. I knew that she likely would try to rejoin her group, and if I didn’t move, she might not register me as a threat. I knew she likely could not smell me as the wind was in my face. Then, as quickly as she came in, she turned and tried to walk out. I pulled back more carefully this time and let my arrow fly, without considering that I should have led my target, since she was walking at the time. The arrow hit about six inches farther back than I wanted it to and high on her back. I heard the impact and watched her drop on the spot. My deer was down, pawing with her front legs in an unsuccessful effort to pull herself back up.
A series of blows and stomps from her herd told me they knew there was a threat but hadn’t pegged me yet. For a few minutes, I waited and watched my deer as she lay there unable to move while the other deer continued to blow and stomp at me. Finally, the others turned to run as I decided to get out of my stand and finish my deer as quickly as possible. I knew she could not bolt on me, as I had likely severed her spinal cord with my first arrow. I walked quietly in to about five yards behind her with her quartering away, and pulled back to let another arrow go, aiming for her heart. My arrow buried to the fletching, and her head dropped as she breathed her last.
After my shot left the string, I immediately backed out and headed back to the house. I walked up the steep hill to my house, the excitement of the last few minutes finally catching up with me. I was panting and shaking and could not believe what had just happened! I walked into the house and sat down in our entry way, my bow in my lap. My oldest daughter walked up and excitedly asked, “Did you get anything?” The kids are used to me sitting out in the woods every now and then and every time, upon returning, my answer had been the same…until now.
I smiled as I looked at my favorite little faces and said, “I got one!”
The house erupted in cheers as my five beautiful children congratulated me on my deer and ran to get on boots and jackets (with one choosing just to wrap up in her blanket) to go see the deer. We waited a few more minutes, but I knew my last arrow had done the job and it was safe to approach. With my troop in tow, we went down and inspected the prize: a beautiful mature doe. With some help from a kind and knowledgeable neighbor, we field dressed her and brought her out of the woods on our firewood trail with nothing other than a zero-turn lawn mower. A more interesting parade through the woods I challenge anyone to find: a cub cadet lawn mower with a deer balanced precariously on the front, followed by a camouflaged woman with a big fur hat, and children in pajamas wrapped in blankets. A more dear and sweet procession I have never seen! This little group has my heart and having them celebrate my victory with me on this first traditional harvest is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
The next day we processed the doe at our house and my children were able to understand the importance of using every possible part of the deer. I told them it was the only honorable way to go since she gave her life for this. We saved the hide for tanning, took the legs’ fur for future projects, and ate venison every day that week, along with filling the freezer. It is a satisfying feeling to know that my children will grow up thinking that Mama getting a deer with a longbow is a completely normal event. I wouldn’t want it any other way.