He'll never admit it, but my dad's had to put up with a lot during the course of teaching me how to hunt. But no matter how many hunts I messed up, or how many of his best spots I sabotaged, Dad never got upset. He always found a way to keep things fun. Just like the fathers and grandfathers of many North American Hunting Club members, my dad instilled a passion and desire for hunting in me that continues to strengthen each day. So when I got an opportunity last fall to turn the tables and take him hunting, I jumped on it.
Dad and I were guests of NAHC Life Member Alvin Cordell and his Mon-Dak Outfitters- aptly named because some of Alvin's hunting property is in Montana, and some is in South Dakota- for an early season South Dakota bowhunt for pronghorns. After we rolled into camp, we walked through the front door of the camp bunkhouse and right into the smiling faces of NAHC Members Kim Smith and Marty Adams, of Denton, North Carolina. Kim and Marty have been hunting white-tailed deer and pronghorns with Alvin since 1988, and were in camp last fall to do more of the same. Marty was on a quest to tag his eighth Pope and Young Club pronghorn with Alvin. After hearing that, I knew Dad and I had come to the right place.
After dropping me off at my blind the first morning of our hunt, Alvin and Dad jumped back in the truck and drove a half-mile up the field to Dad's blind. We'd sat for probably an hour before something happened that didn't occur much in South Dakota last year- it started raining. Soon after, I saw Alvin's beige-colored Chevy coming my way.
"That's funny. Before you guys got here, it had rained only 5 inches in 14 months," Alvin took off his cap and scratched his head. "There's no sense in staying out here now. This rain will shut these waterholes down. Let's get your dad and get you guys back to the bunkhouse and dried off. We'll start back up after it stops."
Dad and I had just crawled out of our wet clothes when Alvin came bursting through the bunkhouse door. He'd been out driving around and had spotted a pronghorn buck that was showing early signs of rutting. Alvin's eyes lit up as he pulled a life-sized pronghorn doe decoy from behind the bunkhouse door; a decoy he'd made himself with two-by-fours and real pronghorn hide.
"OK, you stay real close to me now, almost on my heels," Alvin said as I pulled my bow out of the truck. "If it happens, it's going to happen fast, so be ready. Give me your rangefinder. I'll give you the distance and then when I say 'shoot,' you shoot."
Alvin set the decoy on the dike of a dry pond that overlooked the field the buck was in and then slowly began moving it back and forth with his right hand. "He's about 400 yards and walking away from us," Alvin said, rangefinder glued to his eyes. He continued working the decoy for another 10 minutes, but finally gave up when the buck crossed into Montana.
"That didn't work," Alvin said as he stood up.
We jumped back in the truck and decided to spend some time driving around to see if we could find a buck out in the open that we could attempt to stalk or decoy. We hadn't gone more than a mile before we came upon a small herd of six pronghorns- two bucks and four does. We watched them saunter over a small hill and then parked the truck, got our stuff and started our stalk. Alvin lugged the decoy while I followed close behind with my bow.
As we crested the hill, Alvin positioned the decoy. "He sees it; don't move," Alvin whispered, talking about the bigger of the two bucks.
"I can't see anything," I said, poking him in the back and craning my head around the decoy while trying to get a better look.
"Stop moving!" Alvin nudged me back into position. "You just be ready; I'll tell you when to shoot."
To make a long story short, I couldn't stop fidgeting and the buck finally spooked. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a pit blind next to a waterhole in the middle of another field.
Back at camp that night, Dad told me he had pronghorns around his blind all afternoon, but unfortunately none of the bucks would stick their noses within bow range. Although I was disappointed he didn't get a shot, I was happy he was seeing pronghorns.
Day two started exactly as day one had, with Dad and me back in the same blinds. I watched one particular buck feed and bed just out of bow range for the better part of the morning before he decided to search for greener pastures. I could see through my binoculars that Dad had pronghorns on all sides of him. Alvin had set the decoy next to him this time and it was working. I kept my eyes on his blind for the next hour or so, hoping one of the bucks would give him a shot.
Just before 10 a.m., the pronghorns around Dad were spooked by something. I quickly turned my binoculars toward his blind, and a few seconds later, saw the top of his head emerge as he stood up. I hadn't seen him shoot, so I assumed he just needed to stretch after being cramped up in the blind since dawn.
A few minutes later, Alvin's truck pulled up to Dad's blind. After making sure Dad was OK, Alvin bounced the truck my way. "Your dad got a shot at one," Alvin said nonchalantly as he climbed out of the truck.
"About 30 minutes ago; shot over its back," Alvin walked over and rested his arms on my blind. "Said he misjudged the distance. Guess it was a nice buck."
My heart sank. I felt sorry for Dad, but I was excited that he'd gotten an opportunity.
I spent the next few hours watching four does and a buck lazily feed several hundred yards behind me. Finally, just before 2 p.m., they simultaneously picked their heads up and started trotting toward the waterhole I was guarding!
"Holy crap!" my heart started pounding as I watched the animals come in.
I was sitting on the ground with my back against the blind when the buck entered my shooting window. I'd practiced from this position before, but wasn't confident I could make the shot so I tried rolling to my knees. Just as I started to roll, the buck caught my movement and turned himself inside out trying to get a safe distance away from me. But at 40 yards, he stopped, turned broadside and glanced back. I found my anchor point, buried the sight pin, touched my release, held my follow-through and watched my arrow sail over his back!
After a few minutes of self-deprecation, I squeezed out of the blind to retrieve my arrow. That's when I saw Alvin coming toward me again in the truck. As I was telling him what had happened, I noticed movement over his left shoulder. "Alvin, don't move," I said, my eyes looking past him. "There are four pronghorns walking this way." Amazingly, less than 15 minutes after I'd shot and missed that buck, these four pronghorns were coming in to drink ... with Alvin and me standing in front of the blind and the truck in plain sight.
"There's a small buck in with them," Alvin whispered. "It's up to you."
"Is he legal?"
"Yes, but we can do better," Alvin said.
"If he's legal, I'm going for it," I said, slowly strapping my release back around my shooting hand while keeping my eyes on the pronghorns.
After they reached the waterhole, I nocked an arrow.
"How far is he?" I asked Alvin, my voice trembling with nervous excitement.
I pulled my Mathews FX to full draw, found my anchor point, settled the sight pin, squeezed the release, held the follow-through ... and watched the arrow dive under the buck's belly and into the water.
"I think you shot low," Alvin said.
We spent the rest of the day attempting to spot-and-stalk several other bucks, but they'd either bust our approach or I'd miss again. I was beginning to feel bad for Alvin. He was working so hard to get me within shooting distance of these bucks, and I kept messing things up.
All's Well That Ends Well
I remember having a good feeling about the final day of our hunt as Alvin and I were driving toward a new stand location he said was probably the best on the property. I'd offered the spot to Dad, but in typical fashion he refused, opting instead to return to his original blind.
Alvin had me positioned in a clump of trees overlooking a waterhole 40 yards distant. To my rear was an alfalfa field Alvin said was getting hit hard by pronghorns. To my front, beyond the waterhole, was a ridgeline that extended left to right as far as I could see.
Shortly before 8 a.m., I was in the middle of a handful of trail mix when I caught movement to my left. Five does were coming off the alfalfa and in to drink. I watched them drink for a few minutes and then noticed them pick their heads up and look to their right. I slowly shifted my eyes in that direction and picked up a good-sized buck barreling across the ridge full bore toward the waterhole.
I threw the trail mix down and grabbed my bow.
The buck was quickly closing the distance before he suddenly slammed to a stop, lifted his head, looked over the ridge and then took off like a rocket! My only guess was that he'd spotted another buck trying to invade his territory and steal his does, which during this time of year was something I knew he'd have had a problem with.
The does continued to drink for a few more minutes before walking off in the same direction the buck had gone.
The next couple hours were pretty uneventful after I ran out of trail mix. I knew the buck was just over the ridge from me because I could see the tops of his horns bob up and down from time to time as he patrolled the ridge, and his does.
At 1 p.m., I was twisted around and watching another buck through my binoculars in the alfalfa field when something told me to check the waterhole again. I turned back around, looked toward the water and nearly jumped out of my seat! The buck was back.
I slowly set the binoculars on the ground and reached for my bow. After coming to full draw, I shifted my body, swung my bow around and steadied the sight pin behind the buck's front shoulder.
I heard my arrow clank against the back end of the waterhole as the buck whirled around and ran back up the ridge. He made it about 60 yards before his legs started to wobble. Then, he fell over.
I jumped to my feet and looked at the buck lying on the ground, my body shaking with adrenaline.
Soon after retrieving my arrow and dragging the buck back to the blind, I saw Alvin and Marty coming in the truck. When they got close, I could see the dejection in Alvin's face. Because I was outside the blind, he must have thought I'd given up for the day.
"Well, jump in," he said after pulling up beside me. "Let's go see if we can find another buck."
"I don't think that'll be necessary," I said, pointing to the buck lying in the weeds.
"You got one!" Alvin got so excited his cap almost flew off his head.
While we field dressed the buck, Marty told me he'd also arrowed a buck just hours before me; a buck that would easily find its way into the P&Y Club record book.
By the time we got back to camp, Dad was outside relaxing after another long day in the blind. He walked over and somewhat sarcastically looked into the back end of the truck. But when he saw what was back there, his eyes got big.
"You didn't. You didn't!" Dad repeated the phrase a few more times as I got out of the truck.
After I told him the story, Dad put his arm around me, patted me on the back and then reached into the truck to run his hand over the buck's hide. And I knew from the smile on his face and the look in his eyes that it was like he'd shot the buck himself. And in a way, he had.