We drove along the banks of the mighty Mississippi, following Highway 61’s serpentine course. It was the fall of 1991, my freshman year in high school, and my dad and I were on our way to Iowa’s Hunter Education Program. My parents weren’t surprised when I expressed an interest in hunting, but were hesitant at first, having no experience in the field themselves. Still, they understood my passion for the outdoors and gave me the green light, provided I received the proper training and tutelage. Iowa requires the completion of a Hunter Education Program before you can purchase a license, and I thought it would be a good place to start.
There I first met Andy and Roger, two individuals who would profoundly change my life. Andy was Roger’s youngest son, and although he was a few years my junior, we seemed to share the same passion for the outdoors. At the end of the afternoon session, Roger offered to take me squirrel hunting with Andy that fall. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, and a few short weeks later we were doing just that. After one such venture chasing bushytails on a warm, October afternoon, Roger and Andy put their .22 rifles away and pulled two bows from their car trunk. They practiced in the fading light, flinging arrow after arrow downrange. I can still see those fletching flying through the autumn air, piling into an old Pizza Hut box propped against a hay bale. To say I was in awe is an understatement, and I knew in that moment I wanted to be a bowhunter.
For Christmas that year I received my first compound bow and a dozen aluminum arrows. Looking back now, the draw length was much too long and the arrows close to the same, but I knew no different and could not have cared less. With more naivety than knowledge, I began practicing in the front yard, and let’s just say Robin Hood’s job wasn’t in jeopardy. In the weeks and months that followed, I slowly improved, shooting hours upon hours at bottle caps, tennis balls, and a three-dimensional deer target placed below our tree house. I would shoot nearly every day, often until the sunset closed the door on my practice sessions. After watching Andy and me improve throughout the spring and summer, Roger felt that we were ready to bowhunt whitetails that fall.
My learning curve was steep, and that first autumn was filled with more trials and tribulations than I can count. Although I tried to keep my glass half full, it wasn’t always easy, and I learned some painful lessons along the way. In late November of that ‘92 season, I made a poor shot on a giant buck, hitting him high in the shoulder at last light. Despite an extensive search the next day, we never found a trace of him or the arrow. To add insult to injury, it was a whitetail the landowner had been pursuing all season. That was a tough pill to swallow, but unfortunately, the autumn of 1993 was no better. I failed to recover two does that I drew blood on, hitting them too far back and trailing them much too soon. Lying awake at night with regret at the mistakes I’d made almost made me quit. Some of my peers advised me to take up other forms of hunting, salting a wound that wouldn’t heal. The harsh reality of bowhunting was beginning to take its toll.
As the fall of 1994 drew closer, my third season with the stick and string, I focused on the positives rather than the negatives. Although I had made mistakes my first two years, I’d also learned a great deal along the way. My goal that summer was to find a farm closer to home, so I could hunt more during the week. I eventually gained access to a property I would come to cherish, owned by a farmer to whom I will always be indebted. A stone’s throw away from my parents’ house, its proximity meant that I could hunt after school, which would allow more time in a treestand. Soon, the dog days of summer relinquished their bind, and yet another whitetail season began to unfold.
On October 26, 1994, nestled in an oak tree on the new farm, I finally harvested my first whitetail. Based on fresh sign and easy access, I had hung a stand at the base of a ridge, returning a few days later on a perfect fall morning. Not long after daybreak, I noticed five does working their way toward my stand where they milled around eating acorns. I released what appeared to be an accurate arrow and watched with trepidation as the whitetails bounded down the ridge and out of sight, much like the first two I had lost the previous fall. There was something different this time, though. I thought I’d seen a flash of white and heard a subtle crash at the base of the ridge. I wanted to appease my curiosity, but because of my previous missteps, I elected to back out and get help before pursuing the trail. I called my best friend Ryan, and we were back in the timber within an hour. Unable to locate any sign initially, we spread out, hoping to gain insight into the severity of the hit. We were moving down the oak-laden hillside at a snail’s pace when Ryan suddenly called out ahead. The doe was lying at the base of the ridge, her form obscured by the leaves through which she had tumbled. It was my first animal with a bow and arrow, and as we dragged the doe from the timber that day, I felt a sense of pride that is difficult to describe.