My Hardest Won
October 28, 2010
Come along with Bowhunting's Crew as they share some of their toughest triumphs
Bowhunters are a funny lot. Ask the average bowhunter to recall his favorite trophy and it's just as likely to be one that tested him mightily rather than the biggest of a particular species. I guess this is easily explained by the very fact that as hunters we've elected to choose the difficult path. A trophy too easily won is not as cherished as one earned in the face of adversity.
Jim Dougherty, Trails End
"My hardest won? That's easy. In the late 1970s I went bowhunting with Chuck Adams in British Columbia. The hunt was a disaster from start to finish. Mainly, the outfitter was an unmitigated incompetent. The weather wasn't his fault, but that was a large part of it.
"We were to make a 200-mile pack-train circuit through rough mountains. It was a mixed-bag hunt for moose, caribou and goat. It started off bad and got progressively worse. The weather was nasty--rainy, snowy, foggy. To make matters worse, the horses were no good, the camps we were supposed to stay in weren't set up, and the Indian guides had never been into that country before.
"Due to the foul weather there was hardly a single moment during the 10 days when we could glass at all. I remember one late night in particular, arriving at a camp in the middle of a blizzard. The camp was not set up; which we had come to expect. The horses were in bad shape and could hardly go. It got so bad that the so-called wrangler eventually turned some of them loose to fend for themselves.
"Then, one day late in the hunt, we were riding along and the sun came out. I looked up and saw a goat, pointing it out to Chuck. The guide insisted there weren't any goats in the country, even though he had never been there before. Obviously he didn't want to climb up the mountain.
Dougherty plucked success from chaos when he arrowed this mountain goat.
"Chuck and I climbed up but couldn't find the goat when we arrived. We began glassing, finding more goats across a big canyon. Chuck volunteered to hike across and deal with them, and took off. I was sitting, looking around, when the goat we had seen originally walked out below. I snuck down to 40 yards and shot him. I was more deliberate and careful with that shot, than any other shot I can remember taking in my life. I was also more pleased with myself than ever before.
"The goat took two steps and fell over. 'Wow!' I was thinking. Then he started kicking and rolling down the mountain like a boulder. I was sure he would be trashed. When I got to him, he had only chipped a horn tip, but he had gone from this gorgeous pure white animal to a dirty mess.
"I was dealing with the goat when I heard a whistle. I looked up and saw Chuck walking toward me. He had also gotten his goat. We were pretty proud of ourselves. Then the weather socked in again and it was all over. It was just one of those neat breaks you get sometimes in the midst of adversity."
Bill Winke, Center Shots
"It was 1991, and I'd just started in the outdoor writing business. I was between jobs, basically unemployed--a hunting bum. I only owned cheap gear; cotton clothing mostly, and rubber boots probably rated for 40-plus degrees. I didn't have the money to buy good stuff.
"On Halloween I was out scouting and placing a stand when a huge storm hit, conditions turning from moderate temperatures and light rain, to brutally cold and snowing within an hour. This was as nasty as Midwest weather gets. The storm dumped at least two feet of snow. The wind chill factor was 20- to 30-below zero.
"In the Midwest you have to hunt the first week of November if you're serious about shooting a big whitetail. I remember mornings, getting up early to hunt, hearing the tin roof of the little apartment my wife and I lived in vibrating in the wind. It blew 20 to 30 mph every day. It was pretty hard climbing out of a warm bed to face those conditions. Every morning I'd have to shovel my Jeep out of a snowdrift just so I could get out of the parking lot. When I got onto the graveled back roads, where I hunted, I'd have to get out at least twice each morning to shovel a Jeep-sized hole through the drifts.
"As bad as that was, on stand it was worse. The wind blew so hard it was a whiteout much of the time. If sitting along a field edge I could only see across it about every 10 minutes. I could only see 75 yards max most of the time. That week I experienced the most pain I've ever dealt with while hunting. There was no way to sit all day without risking death. I was seeing nice bucks almost daily, so I didn't dare take a day off.
"On November 9, nine days into the torture, I had my chance. I reached my afternoon stand at the edge of standing corn by 11:30. It wasn't until about 4:30 that I heard a crash in the corn and a doe bounded out, followed by the buck. I first thought, 'that looks like a mule deer' because he was so wide. I was so gung-ho then that I always kept my bow in my hand and release snapped to the string. That day it actually paid off.
"The doe peeled to my right and the buck turned left for just a second before realizing he'd messed up. He paused for only a few seconds in the middle of my shooting lane at 15 yards--just enough time for me to draw and aim quickly. He wheeled away to follow the doe just as I released. I hit him in the hindquarters but cut a femoral artery. It was a lucky hit, and he went down quickly.
Bill Winke's frozen feet almost never forgave him, but this whitetail buck made up for the pain.
"When I saw him fall, I remember feeling more relieved than excited. I could finally quit suffering. It was literally two to three months before I regained feeling in several of my toes. I'd worried about my 90-pound draw weight at that time, but when the buck showed up so fast, I just hauled it back. I don't remember drawing or aiming. After enduring the wicked conditions for so long the final result came down to just a few seconds. Sometimes it's like that.
"The physical pain of enduring those brutal conditions makes that hunt memorable. The buck was an eight-point scoring in the 140s. I've taken better whitetail since, but never one that took so much out of me physically. They say a whitetail buck loses 20 percent of his body weight during the rut. I think I lost 20 percent of my body weight during that rut too! I literally shivered it off."
Patrick Meitin, Adven
Africa's ever-abundant warthog are active during daylight, and highly dependent on water. This dependence brings them within slam-dunk range of bowhunters guarding such sites from hides (blinds). Warthog are easy.
Not for me they weren't!
My warthog jinx started with my first safari in 1999. It's embarrassing to admit the number of point-blank opportunities I blew during that week in South Africa. I arrowed a monster eland, a world-record-class gray duiker, even a rare (for bowhunting) alpha-male baboon at ranges from 30 to 37 yards, but I couldn't kill a warthog to save my life. I missed them over and over again at ranges fewer than 25 yards, and worse, I hit two well that achieved burrows before expiring. We couldn't recover those. I missed or lost eight, all told.
I returned to Africa in 2002, fairly obsessed with the ugly critters. I found my haven on Thodo Garbade's Onduno "farm" in Namibia. I've only witnessed one place in all of Africa with so many warthog. By the end of a three-day visit I'd brought my all-time tally of bungled warthog to an even dozen; including one that I absolutely drilled, but made a rocky burrow not far away. Again, digging proved futile. My jinx remained firmly intact.
Then the hunt ended.
Thodo didn't give up. My hunting partners and I had exactly two hours that last morning before we had to catch a bus for another destination. My friend Gray Farnsworth and I installed ourselves in a hasty hide near water. We waited an hour before a young male arrived. Broadside at 25 yards, I knew he was mine--until he caught me drawing the bow. Instead of fleeing he ran straight to us, finally crashing through the corner of the flimsy hide, sending us into a mild state of hysterics. After 15 minutes we were still giggling uncontrollably.
Until, that is, he returned.
Patrick Meitin's warthog jinx spanned a dozen opportunities and two trips to Africa before he finally connected with this diminutive but prized trophy.
We could hear him coming in grunting lopes. Apparently he wanted another look. I drew and turned hard left, sitting flat on my rear. Gray leaned into the dirt to create a shooting lane. At something like three feet he skidded behind a scrubby bush, head on. I let him have it. He turned on his own head, squealing horrendously and rolling toward us while Gray screamed and abandoned the hide. He regained his feet and vanished.
Thirty minutes latter we'd not located him. Our time was up. I was cussing my luck and warthog in general, suspecting another burrow escape. Just as we announced defeat, Thodo's shaggy Irish terrier, Tina Turner, located the boar 80 yards away. He was not large, as warthog go, but he'd broken my jinx. There was time to snap exactly three pictures before speeding away.
It was that close.
I've taken nicer warthog since, but the frustration in collecting that first is something that I'll never forget.
Dave Dolbee, Assoc. Editor
"After two full days of air travel, a motel stay, meeting my outfitter to make the five hour drive to base camp, and a short floatplane ride into spike camp, my Newfoundland woodland caribou hunt finally began.
"I wanted to see a lot of the country, so I requested a guide who liked to walk. I've since learned to be more careful about what I ask for.
"We hunted hard throughout a long first day without spotting a stag big enough to justify taking. While closing in on a nice stag half way through the second day, not paying attention to where I was walking, I slipped into a bog and pulled a groin muscle. We continued hiking up and down hills, around tundra and bogs to the tune of 10 to 12 miles a day, with me hobbling painfully behind my guide.
"A hurricane arrived the fourth day, forcing us to sit it out inside the cabin. Being the only bowhunter in camp, and the only hunter not to have filled his tag, made for a rough day; more wind blowing inside the cabin than out.
"The following morning the wind still howled, so we stayed in camp, setting up a spotting scope to watch the tundra across the lake. At about noon, my guide spotted a good 'bou with a large herd of cows. We were afraid that if we took the boat across the rough water, we wouldn't be able to land it, so we grabbed our gear and started a two-hour hike around the lake to reach them.
"Once in the area, it took about 40 minutes to locate the herd again. I started my stalk from 150 yards out, crawling under falling rain and through cold puddles of water. I was 80 yards from the big stag when he stood to fend off a satellite bull bothering his cows, chasing him away, with the cows following. Sometime later the situation repeated itself, undoing another hour of careful stalking.
"I'd been stalking the big stag for four hours.
Bad weather nearly foiled him, but Dave Dolbee used a blustery last day to overcome the odds on his first Newfoundland caribou hunt.
"I stalked in again, seeing antler tops at 40 yards, the stag bedded in a slight depression with 16 cows and two satellite bulls scattered around him. I lay shivering for 30 minutes, waiting for the big stag to stand, contemplating taking one of the smaller stags I could easily see, just so I could get back to the cabin and get warm. One of the satellite bulls finally began stirring things up again. I got up on my knees behind a small bush, ready. When the stag rose, quartering away, I held two feet off his nose into a 55-mph wind and released. The arrow hit him just back of the liver and exited through the heart and lung on the far side.
"Upon reaching the downed stag we realized he was an old bull in decline, with only one good antler. While not my biggest woodland caribou, he certainly was my hardest won."
Jay Strangis, Editor
"I bowhunted deer probably five or six years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, taking a lot of does and baby bucks, but never a buck that claimed forked antlers. I had a lot of interaction with deer, saw plenty of them, but really didn't know how to bowhunt them effectively. That was in the 1970s when not a lot was being written about archery hunting.
I was in my early 20s, owned no tree stands, hunted with a recurve bow, and did all my hunting from the ground. I didn't even own camouflage clothing. I wore a green surplus army parka that reached to my knees; it reversed to white, so I'd turn it inside out when there wa
s snow on the ground. I had close calls with big bucks, but just couldn't kill one. After several years of making every mistake possible I was becoming frustrated.
"I was hunting big groups of deer feeding in field edges of picked corn and soybeans. The deer would come out into the fields to feed, decent bucks normally trailing well behind the herds of does. I had hunted through October and November without filling my tag.
"Around the first of December it had turned unusually cold, with about a foot of snow on the ground. I'd found a place where deer were filing out of a creek bottom to reach a picked soybean field. I climbed into a tree for the first time ever while hunting and perched on a limb. The deer came as planned. At the end of a long file of does and spikes was a six point, but it was so cold, and I had on so many clothes, I wasn't able to get a shot off.
A young Jay Strangis spent almost six years trying to arrow his first whitetail buck. The deer wasn't big, but the event was huge.
"After they passed I climbed out of the tree and ran around the quarter section field and got into a brushy fence line at the field edge. All the deer were slowly feeding my way. About sundown, as I knelt shivering in the snow next to a weedy fence post, the buck finally got close enough for a decent shot.
"I hit the buck too far back and he bolted and ran toward me and across the same fence I was hiding behind. I was panicked because he was headed straight toward some newly-built homes. I didn't know enough to wait, plodding through the snow following his tracks immediately. After a while I could see the buck ahead of me. He was slowing down gradually, obviously hurt, but getting closer to the houses. I just ran up to him. He was hurt enough that he stood and I put another arrow in him and finished him off.
"After all my mistakes and unconventional way of hunting, I had finally killed an antlered buck. I can't remember ever feeling so satisfied, so proud of myself. He was only a young six point, but a real milestone for me. He was my first buck with a bow."
Randy Ulmer, Full Draw
"Alaska's Chugach Mountains are some of the state's roughest, laced with glaciers, diced by deep chasms where anything not made of solid rock or ice is covered in devil's club and alder jungle.
"In early August my guide and I started my Dall sheep hunt, backpacking 12 miles while carrying 80-pound packs with enough food for 10 or 12 days. Three thousand to 4,000 vertical feet separated river bottoms from sheep country.
"The entire hunt was simultaneously wet, cold, miserable, frustrating, exhausting and frightening. I was mentally and physically prepared to handle all that. I had a tougher time with my guide's attitude. I've met rattlesnakes I'd rather share a tent with.
"We located the first legal ram several days into the hunt. He was huge, with horns past full curl. He was bedded in a large boulder field--a good place to stalk. My guide refused to let me go after him. He insisted that we watch him to see what he would do. I insisted we go after him.
"My guide refused to budge.
"A heated discussion followed, my guide pointing out a dozen times that he was the guide and in charge of all decisions and there was no room for discussion.
Randy Ulmer's guide declared the hunt over, but the determined hunter hiked 10 hours back to recover this cliff-fallen ram.
"He wanted to hike back down the mountain and glass for sheep from the river--where life was infinitely more comfortable--wait for sheep to 'come down.' It was obvious my guide was tired of being on the mountain.
"We camped near the river day after day with thin hope of seeing a sheep. With two days left in what I believed was my last Dall sheep hunt, I told my guide I was going up the mountain with or without him.
"After struggling up the mountain for a day we spent the night under a huge overhanging boulder. I climbed farther into sheep country the next morning and spotted a ram a half-mile away. I spent the rest of the day attempting different approaches, getting cliffed-up repeatedly, and having to back out. I finally found a knife-edge ridge--scooting on my rear much of the time--taking me directly above him. The wind was blowing so hard I had to wait.
"The shot would be straight across a chasm that was funneling the wind. The ram had been bedded four hours. I knew he could vanish at any time. When I shot him he disappeared over a bluff with a 500-foot cliff beyond.
"Darkness sent us back to the bottom. The next day we climbed back up to where the ram had disappeared and found blood trailing off the nasty cliff but we weren't able to see the ram. By bellying to the very edge of the cliff I spotted a patch of white hair on a ledge well below. I was convinced the ram was dead.
"We returned to the bottom, packed our gear, and hiked down the drainage to the side canyon leading to the basin at the base of the cliff.
"We were within spitting distance of the cliffs when my guide refused to go any farther and look for the ram, stating that the time I had paid him for was up and the hunt was officially over. Before I could protest he bee-lined to camp. I didn't have gear to stay. With not a single word exchanged I grudgingly followed to camp, loaded my pack, and made the 10-hour trip to the vehicle and parted ways.
"I found a young outdoor enthusiast with a car who offered to take me to the store and buy provisions, then hike back in. Soon we were beginning the long, painful climb back up to claim my sheep. I've never been so utterly and mentally exhausted in my life. It's the hardest thing I've done in my hunting career, struggling down the mountain with my sheep 14 days after my hunt began."