Left to right: Eugene Reeber, Leo Lange, and Nelson Grumley.
Back in the days of lumberjacks and logging camps they told the story of the “winter of the blue snow” when meat was scarce. During that time of starvation and bitter cold the legendary Paul Bunyan stepped up and proved that he was a first-class bowhunter.
“Paul uprooted a 75 foot white pine,” the tale went, “broke off the limbs and roots and bent it into the shape of a bow, using a logging chain for a string. For an arrow he used a mere 30-foot sapling, leaving on the top branches to guide the shaft. He shot this arrow across a lake five miles long and against a rocky cliff under which a herd of deer was feeding with such force that the shaft splintered into a thousand pieces flying in every direction and killing 27 deer with one shot.”
This amazing feat supposedly took place in the vicinity of the town of Blaney on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so it seemed only appropriate that Fred Bear, a resident of the Wolverine State, and a few of his bow hunting buddies go there on a “Paul Bunyan” hunt back in November of 1943.
Although there was a resort at this 5,000-acre wilderness, it catered to rifle hunters and closed after they left. Fred persuaded the owners to open it up for bowhunters, but the rate of $75 a week (close to $1000 in buying power today) scared off all but the most hard-core archers.
Most of the group Fred hunted with opted instead to hunt “Hard Luck Corners” on the Molasses River, but six days of continuous rain and no shooting dampened their enthusiasm for the spot. The group then moved to an old tried and true place near St. Helen, where they ran into Fred and a buddy (“Wind Just Right” Bill Folberth of Cleveland) who were on their way to Blaney. Since word had it that the deer around St. Helen were as scarce as those from where they had just come, they decided that their only hope of bagging a buck was to take a hit in the pocket book and tag along with Fred. After a rough boat trip of 100 miles across Lake Michigan, they arrived at the huge estate.
It was “the kind of hunting terrain archers dream of,” group member and chronicler A. J. Michelson writes, “many small lakes and rivers, dense spruce and balsam swamps windfalls and rough down timber, grassy plains, cut-over and burnt lands and still some virgin timber, as well as sparse and heavy second growth poplars and evergreens.”
There were lots of hiking and riding trails though, making it possible to access most of it. Although rifle hunters had been there earlier, only forty individuals were allowed per season and most of the shooters stayed closer to the lodge where the deer were less skittish and tags were easier to fill.
“But get off the beaten path and you will find them just as wild and jumpy as they make ‘em,” Michelson tells the reader. “There are spots in Blaney few hunters have ever ventured into, and bucks live and die there without ever seeing a car or a human being.”
The hunters spent the first day getting a feel for the country, which included some 33,000 acres. There was fresh snow, and they spent the morning doing more scouting than hunting. Still, they saw several deer and took a few shots. By the end of hunting hours, everyone had a pretty good idea where they wanted to build blinds and concentrate on arrowing a big buck in the days ahead.
On Tuesday the hunting started in earnest. “Wind-Just-Right” Bill picked a place with some logging going on after he discovered that as soon as a tree was felled the deer would come in and feed on the tender tops. He saw plenty of deer, some within twenty feet, but all does and no bucks. He finally realized that the big boys didn’t show up until after dark and departed with the dawn.
This photo by Fred Bear shows the group of successful Michigan bowhunters and K.K. Knickerbocker’s buck.
K.K. Knickerbocker was the first to fill his tag. He and his partner, Fred Bear, heard the thumping of hooves just before reaching a bend in the bridle path they were walking together. A 10-point buck came careening around the corner, put on the brakes, and came to a skidding stop when it saw the hunters.
“Fred nudged Knick to shoot,” Michelson reports. “A quick move would have startled him off. The only chance for a shot was a slow draw.
“Knick’s bow crawled up in slow motion, the drawing hand inched the bow string back to anchor. A steady aim, and twang, the arrow flew true for the juncture of the neck and body. Just before the arrow arrived, the buck turned, but not soon enough, for the arrow caught him sidewise through the windpipe and jugular vein. A few jumps and the buck collapsed.”
This was the first of two bucks shot with the “slow draw” technique. The author tells us that, “If the deer spots you, your best chance is for a shot by the slow draw. Make your movements slow and deliberate, like Knick’s. I know of a dozen shots that have been had that way.”
A fellow called Don “Plenty Bucks” Beyer seemed to have discovered the best spot on the property.
“He would go out every day with a quiver full of arrows,” Michelson relates, “and come home with but a few left. He had found a ‘buck pasture’ but would not tell where it was. Every night he told stories of shooting at bucks feeding and bedding down within sight of his blind.
“The shooting was brushy, but not a day passed without Don seeing a couple to half a dozen bucks.”
When he finally did connect with one, the animal took off and some tracking was required. To the dismay of the hunters the snow revealed that they weren’t the only ones on the trail. Several wolves and a bear were also after the wounded whitetail. The tracks showed that at one point the wolves had cornered the buck, but it had escaped by making a jump over a high stack of windfalls.
“His wound evidently was not serious, as the blood trail stopped and the buck still kept going. He deserves to live after eluding all his enemies, and we wished him luck,” the author concludes.
Another hunter shot a big snowshoe hare, with the arrow passing completely through the animal. The mortally wounded wabasso ran into a hollow log, but backed out immediately with a nose full of porcupine quills. Evidently a porky lived there, and with its help the archer was able to retrieve the rabbit.
Perhaps the most interesting tale came from “Little Leo” (who, as you might guess, was a portly gentleman reportedly weighing 275 pounds).
Near the end of the week Leo came upon an old cutover area and spotted a nice 12-pointer. The animal was about forty-five yards away headed directly toward him, but it seemed distracted. It would advance a bit, stamp its hooves, and stare more or less in Leo’s direction. Leo feared the whitetail was on to him.
After the buck came to within thirty yards the shot was almost there, but it stopped and began to walk back. Leo decided to loose an arrow anyway and raised his bow.
“He was just ready to draw when there was a terrific snort not ten yards to his left which startled the daylights out of him,” Michelson recalls. “He looked, and here was a still bigger buck—a Paul Bunyan Buck—about an 18 pointer, looking Leo right in the eyes.
“Before Leo could come to his senses, the Big One trotted off, leaving Leo standing with his mouth open. He had unknowingly almost been a referee in a fight between two monarchs of the forest. Leo evidently arrived on the scene when the 12-pointer was challenging Grandpa. They were both too interested in each other to see him until the challenger decided that discretion was the better part of valor and decided to depart.”
Nels Grumley shot the biggest buck of the trip near the end of the week. There was a blizzard with high wind and heavy snow, but the hunting was good.
“Nels…stalked a 12 point buck to within 52 yards and made a beautiful shot back of the shoulder,” Michelson recounts.
The hard-hit animal staggered but continued on. Instead of waiting for a few hours to take up the trail, however, the weather dictated that the shooter follow up immediately, lest he lose the trail.
“Nels started stalking him and got in another 50 yard shot through the lungs. The big buck collapsed in his tracks.” The animal weighed in at nearly 200 pounds dressed.
There were other tales of misses and near misses, and in the end four deer hung on the meat pole. During the week’s hunting, every archer had seen anywhere from eight to twenty mature bucks, and all had had numerous shooting opportunities.
The narrator concludes, “It would have been even better if the old ‘buck fever’ had not entered into the picture. We all agreed it was the finest bow hunting we had ever had.
“And are we going back next year? The war and the Lord willing, you bet we are! We have all started cutting down on tobacco and chewing gum and saving our nickels, for we have a date for 1944 with one of those Paul Bunyan bucks.”