The night I met my wife, Gwyn, she related in no uncertain terms how she hated hunters, was a member of the Humane Society (not then aware of the organization’s alignment with radical groups like PETA) and a volunteer at an animal-rescue facility where unwanted pets landed after flunking out of state-run animal shelters. She listed the usual indictments against slobs who spotlight and kill animals out of season, are interested in antlers only as collection pieces, shoot roadside signs and toss beer cans from vehicle windows.
I smiled and offered my stock reply. "We’re in agreement then," I said, pausing for her look of confusion. "I hate them too. But of course, you’re not talking about hunters. You’re talking about jerks who happen to own firearms."
And that, as the man says, might have been that. But instead — and it might’ve had something to do with those intriguing eyes of hers — we danced the night away. By night’s end, she allowed that bowhunting was "fair." So, maybe not all hunters were bad.
We moved in together three months later and married within two and half years; just before my 42nd birthday, breaking a lifelong vow of bachelorhood. After nearly six years together, I no longer have to toss out junk mail from the likes of Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and PETA.
Making the Switch
Early in our relationship, Gwyn started shooting bows, soon showing an aptitude and joyous affinity for shooting live targets such as frogs and carp. We might have been together a full year when she announced, quite unexpectedly, she wanted to shoot a turkey, because, you know, they’re ugly. The suggestion of a shotgun in way of a logical start was received with contempt. I could write volumes on the two tough years of turkey hunting to follow. The girl was jinxed, simple as that. It took moving from New Mexico for a new start in Idaho to break that jinx, and then success arrived in a flood of impressive gobblers and difficult fall hens. It didn’t matter where she sat; turkeys arrived to her calls and were summarily dispatched.
With five turkeys under her belt, Gwyn began sitting for whitetail. Now it’s important to stress that Gwyn is deathly afraid of perches situated higher than the average stepladder. Pop-up blinds were placed and heavily brushed. She put in her time, accumulating hunting tales but remaining deerless.
One evening, sharing a ground blind situated to ambush a bevy of turkeys frequenting water, a 2 ½-year-old buck wearing admittedly underwhelming antlers arrived at 17 yards, broadside, drinking contently, completely unaware we existed. My heart pounded. My breath arrived in gasps.
"Buck, buck, buck!" I hissed. "Grab your bow!"
She calmly set her book aside and carefully picked up her bow. She shifted to peer through the shooting port and gave me one of those looks she does when I suggest I need another trail camera or have discovered an expensive addition to my vintage broadhead collection on eBay.
"He’s not big enough," she whispered serenely, setting her bow aside and resuming her reading. Noticing my stare, she added, "I’ve let bigger bucks walk without shooting," as if that explained something.
"Sweetie, you have to start somewhere," I insisted, nearly hyperventilating. "He’s two and a half years old and doesn’t look like he’ll grow bigger," trying the game management tack.
"He’s not big enough," she said, the matter settled.
"What exactly do you have in mind?" I asked after the buck moved on.
"Well, you know, like those bucks you have hanging in the trophy room," she said. Those bucks of a lifetime were killed after 25 years of bowhunting places like Iowa and Kansas. Oh, OK…
Spring arrived with its flurry of hunting opportunity, which in Northern Idaho is as much about turkeys as it is about bear baiting; wonderfully legal here in selected units. Nearly as nonchalantly as she’d once declared she wanted to shoot a turkey, Gwyn suddenly announced her desire to arrow a bear. I thought she was joking, bears being cute and all that. She was not.
This presented some obvious logistical problems. There’s the aforementioned fear of heights and further eliminating options — namely ground blinds — my wife is decidedly afraid of bears. Let me reiterate. Little girls are afraid of spiders and snakes. Gwyn is afraid of bears like most people are afraid of tightrope walking between skyscrapers or a drug-addled crack addict holding a loaded Saturday night special to your head.
A call to Summit Treestand’s Mike Mattly solved my immediate problems in the form of a Double Barrel Ladder Stand, making it possible for two people to comfortably occupy a single ambushing perch. This provided Gwyn some small security via a massive platform and side rails, also keeping me on hand to literally hold her hand during moments of doubt — and wield a massive hand cannon assuring my lovely wouldn’t become bear food (despite the fact I never tote a gun into a bear stand, even while bowhunting alone).
The bigger issue would become schlepping this 175-pound array of steel a walking mile into a productive bear bait. I did it in three partially assembled pieces, following an initial five-mile ride on a diminutive ATV. Did I mention how much I love my wife?
Matters became further complicated by Gwyn’s brutal work schedule and the fact our bear-baiting unit is 3 ½ hours away from home across twisting, rutted, muddy roads shared by intermittent but hurried logging trucks. Her time was limited to weekends. We would have to make the best of available time.
Enter the modern trail camera.
I might have made five trips over, leaving in the dim dawn, arriving to unload the heavily-burdened ATV before tooling over treacherous, long defunct logging skids to leave competition behind, packing bait in multiple trips to fill bait barrels at three sites, swapping camera cards (and batteries as necessary), typically arriving home bone sore and muscle achy some 12 hours later.
And then it was time.
On Idaho public lands, where bears receive a tad more pressure than Alberta or Saskatchewan wilderness, this means a couple of relatively reliable bears appearing during daylight hours. We left the house at noon, arriving on site in time to climb into a stand by 4 p.m. There’s no real expectation of an arrival until at least 8 p.m. (darkness falling at nearly 9:30 this far north), installation at this early hour simply allowing scent to dissipate and things to settle down. But with darkness falling and Gwyn’s chronic bad back (too much airline travel, a situation surgery has since successfully remedied) deviling her mightily, these highly reliable bears made no appearance. This is how it can be with public-land bears.
We arrived home at 1 a.m., Gwyn’s back eliminating the option of camping.
We repeated the tedious schedule the following day, settling into the double ladder by 4:30. The barrel I had turned upright while exiting the night before was tipped and nearly drained of contents. Conditions felt right.
The bear arrived early, only an hour later, slinking through thronged alder and willow like a wraith. I elbowed Gwyn, but she was ahead of me, whispering under her breath to hold still or I would scare him away. She had become quite intense.
The bear did not make the bait, melting back into swallowing second growth without presenting a shot.
"You scared him away," Gwyn said, her brow furrowed.
Something you must understand should you endeavor to take your wife bowhunting is they absorb anything you might offer in way of advice and warning quite literally. If you suggest it’s not wise to shoot through brush on living game they will someday refuse to shoot a broadside animal at 10 yards because of a single blade of grass. If you remind them that sometimes bears will hover in the shadows for long periods to scan carefully for danger (usually bigger bears), that minimizing movement is a must, they will take this to mean you’re not allowed to scratch your nose or slowly reposition a numb foot.
"He’ll be back," I assured her.
And if you remind them to be careful to stay away from the shoulder while shooting, that, too just might come back to haunt you…
Feeling the Rush
The jet-hued bear appeared 30 minutes later, placing his steps delicately but slipping in deliberately with only the briefest pauses. I could feel Gwyn tense, hear her breath becoming raspy. This is great, I thought, this is very cool. She was feeling it, that rush of adrenalin that keeps us coming back. I was running a video camera, following the bear as it approached the barrel, waiting for him to settle in. Gwyn drew her bow. The angle was a tad off but I said nothing, thinking she was simply getting the jump.
The bow went off, the arrow entering safely behind the shoulder, but appearing to angle back too severely, burying into the dirt after a complete pass-through. Her little 50-pound BowTech Equalizer and Steel Force Phathead certainly delivered in that respect.
The bear grunted and sprinted directly beneath our stand, thrashing around momentarily before retreating into nasty brush on remarkably quiet feet. Gwyn was ecstatic. "I hit him perfect!" she exclaimed. I was doubtful.
We returned to the truck for a nervous, two-hour wait, and because our young Lab, Napoleon, is a natural blood trailer. But returning to the site just before nightfall there was no blood, only the occasional scuff in moldering forest litter. I followed these scuffs and the path of least resistance, Napoleon’s basic trajectory, stalking ahead quietly with Gwyn at my heels. After 100 yards, we reached a fork in the faint game trail. Napoleon suddenly became animated, tail gyrating wildly. The thundering of a flushing ruffed grouse sent my heart into my mouth, my hand to my holstered pistol and involuntary curses across my lips.
Scanning the trail I found no convincing sign so returned to the fork, Napoleon’s enthusiasm returning anew. He plunged into brush 10 yards ahead and in seconds burst back out, running through my legs to hide behind mommy’s legs. The .45 appeared in my hand and Gwyn and Napoleon retreated in the opposite direction. But just over a fall of earth was Gwyn’s bear, stiff as lumber.
It would be months before Gwyn would relate her real feelings, afraid of ruining it for me, of all things. She admitted nearly crying, a mourning sadness for having taking a life, combined with overwhelming joy to have done it right, to have remained calm and made her shot count.
"Is that weird?" she asked.
"No, it’s not weird at all," I replied. "It’s a natural part of the process, something any thinking hunter feels at one time or another."
Gwyn still has not taken a deer, but that event is on the horizon, sure as death and taxes.