As Mississippi farmer Will Rives headed out for an afternoon bowhunt on Dec. 14, 2010, his father Bill made a bold prediction.
“When I left, I was walking out of the office and he said, ‘You’re going to shoot the biggest deer in the woods tonight,’ ” Rives recalled. “I said, ‘Whatever,’ and just headed out.”
Little did Rives know just how prophetic his father’s word were, because several hours later he had his hands around the antlers of the Magnolia State’s new record archery typical whitetail — a 15-point buck that scored 187 3⁄8 gross and 172 4⁄8 net.
For those of us looking forward to the opening days of this fall’s deer seasons, preparations may have begun weeks or even months before. But for Rives, who started accompanying his father on bowhunting excursions at the tender age of 3, the journey to his record-breaking trophy began more than three decades ago.
THE BOY BOWHUNTER
As a child growing up near Natchez, Miss., Rives found himself under the guidance of a number of strong mentors, none more influential than his dad. “Everything I am today as an outdoorsman is because of him,” he said.
“I started bowhunting in 1962,” Bill Rives said. “At the time, that was not the thing to do in this part of the country. People thought it was a little bit ridiculous to try to kill a deer with two sticks, but the first year I hunted, I killed a deer, and I was hooked after that.
“When Will was born, I was as avid then as he is now. When he was 3, I started taking him hunting with me. I’d pack him into the woods on my back. We’d sit down beside a tree and Will would play in the dirt, or throw sticks, and he’d eventually go to sleep and I’d hunt a little while. Then I’d pack him back out of the woods.”
Bill Rives bought his son his first bow when he was 5, and he allowed his son to start hunting with it at age 6. “I missed my first deer when I was 10,” Will Rives said. “It was a spike and I shot right under it. It’s funny how you remember things like that.”
It’s a memory that is still fresh in the mind of Bill Rives too. “He shot and the arrow stuck in the ground underneath the deer, and he turned around and looked at me,” Bill Rives said. “He was shaking and stuttering and said, ‘What’s wrong with me, dad? I’m shivering and I’m not even cold!’ After that, he was totally addicted to archery.”
In addition to his hunting pursuits, Will Rives also gravitated to the competitive side of archery, and it wasn’t long before he was outshooting archers several times his age. As his involvement in archery grew, Will Rives developed a relationship with another influential mentor. Ronnie ‘Cuz’ Strickland was an employee at a local sporting goods store in Natchez. He and Bill Rives shared a common pursuit in the outdoors, and shared a number of family values. They became fast friends, and even when Will was a youngster, Strickland said it was easy to see the first sparks of archery enthusiasm in the boy’s eyes.
“Little Will would hunt every day during bow and regular deer season because his dad had ladder stands up for him,” said Strickland, who is now senior vice president of TV and media services for Mossy Oak Brand Camo. “The stands were around the house where his mama, Lois, could literally keep an eye on him. He got to spend some quality hours bowhunting when he was really little. The whole time he was hunting, he was learning a whole bunch about deer hunting; what messed him up, what made his spot good. When you start getting your Ph.D. with a bow when you’re 8, 9, 10, you’ve really got something. By the time he was 12 years old, Will was mature way beyond his years as a hunter.”
Around that same time, Strickland, Bill Rives and some others started the Kanahal Archery Club, giving its members a place to practice and becoming a host location for tournaments.
“Kanahal is the Natchez Indian word for ‘bow,’ ” Strickland said. The club included a variety of shooting setups and required some real labor to get underway. “Bill was one of the guys helping us get it started, because he’s the kind of guy who can do anything, from running a bulldozer or a backhoe to drilling a well or running electrical wiring. Target archery wasn’t his deal, but he knew Will liked it.”
“It’s hard to tell you how hard Will worked at it,” Bill Rives said. “When he got into shooting competitively as a youth, we had an indoor range and he’d shoot 200 arrows a day, every day. Archery has been a wonderful thing in Will’s life. Some kids get distracted and go do stupid things. Archery kept him on the right track.”
By the time Will Rives was a teenager, he was one of the top shooters in Mississippi. “When he was 13 and competing in the open class of archery tournaments, I didn’t want to shoot with him in my group anymore,” Strickland said. “He made me look bad!”
Although Will Rives was an accomplished bowhunter and tournament archer before he even finished high school, it wasn’t until last year that he killed his first truly monstrous whitetail.
“This has been a quest I’ve been on since I was 18,” said the now 36-year-old archery hunter. “I wanted to kill a Boone and Crockett buck with my bow.”
Will Rives said the fateful date dawned with a hard frost but warmed quickly throughout the day. “In the place I was hunting, I’d found some big rubs with a cypress break to the southeast,” he said. “I had to wait on some sort of south wind to hunt it. As I was walking in that afternoon, I found four or five brand new, big, fresh scrapes right along the edge of the water. So, I circled back out and came in directly downwind of them. I was packing a climber and could only find one tree to climb right there, about 17 yards downwind from the scrapes.
“Have you ever gotten into the woods and had a feeling it was the right place, right time?” Rives asked. “I climbed the tree and it was just bare, with nothing for back cover, so I got up about 25 or 27 feet high.”
Rives hung a screw-in step for his bow, took out a pair of rattling antlers and went to work. “I rattled even though I’ve never had that much luck in the afternoon rattling,” he said. “Usually it works best in the morning, but just like the spot and the afternoon itself, it just felt like the right thing to do.”
Around 4:25 p.m., a doe and a yearling walked into the setup from the downwind side, feeding on hackberries. Rives considered taking the doe, but was stopped by the feeling something better was about to happen.
“The doe eventually winded me, blew and left,” he said. “After that, I rattled, grunted and bleated again. Pretty soon I saw something coming out of the cypress break, but couldn’t tell much about it. At first glance, it looked like a smaller deer, and we don’t shoot little deer. He started easing in and I was looking through my binoculars.”
When Rives saw the two-inch kicker sticking out of the buck’s left main beam, he put the binoculars down, picked up his bow, connected his release and started concentrating on making a shot.
“He walked in to 13 yards and was quartering to me,” he said. “I was debating what to do and how long to wait when he turned his whole front the other way. I drew and shot, but I couldn’t see the hit. I just heard ‘WHACK!’ He ran and circled, stopped 45 yards from me just looking, ears up, then he eased away and went off. I thought I heard him lay down at what would have been about 80 yards. Then I sat in the tree for an hour before I called my dad with my cell phone and confirmed what I already knew I was going to do, which was climb down and ease away quietly and give him plenty of time.”
A couple hours later, Will and a friend came back, picked up the trail, never lost the track and found the deer right where Will thought he would be. Not surprisingly, the first phone call Will Rives made upon finding his trophy was to the man who started him on his bowhunting journey more than three decades earlier.
“This has been a lifelong goal for him,” Bill Rives said. “It’s been my privilege to share it with him along the way.”