"Go away... shooo!... GIT !! " I thought to myself as the sun rose on the opening morning of deer firearms season. Instead of going away, the button buck browsed, frolicked, meandered and posed like a supermodel with dozens of perfect bow shots over the next three hours, circling my stand no fewer than six times. Perhaps the doe pee I spilled on myself had him thinking the blob up in that tree was his Mommy. "Where's your Daddy?", I kept asking myself. I was not legal to shoot an antlerless deer with my rifle and I was only hunting with it this morning because my son was to join us and I could party hunt on his antlerless tag. But at the last minute, he never showed up. Hunting had lost out to girls and work this year, so here I sat, tagless, slack-jawed and cursing the Murphy who put me in this predicament. I vowed to hunt with my bow for the rest of the weekend. Well, I sort of vowed.
"Gun or bow. Gun or bow". I lost track of how many times I said those words this firearms opener, and with them, the varying choices of an appropriate deer stand. I had sixteen stands set up at strategic locations, but some lent themselves to bow hunting better than gun hunting, and visa versa. The Minnesota firearms deer opener had become a tradition, but somewhere along the way my interest in downing a whitetail with a rifle had begun to fall by the wayside and had been replaced with an archery addiction. This opening morning, I had nostalgically decided to carry my Remington Model 7, .308 – the killer of my first whitetail many years ago. It smelled of fresh gun oil, its Leopold optics were crystal clean and I knew its operation by Braille. Of course, the only deer I saw was one I could not harvest with a gun, at least not legally.
I had previously experienced this dilemma just last spring while turkey hunting in Wisconsin, going so far as to take both my Benelli M1 Field and my Jennings Rackmaster bow with each hunt. I never did pick up and shoot the gun, although I danced with the notion at least three times where a kill would have been a slam-dunk with it instead of my bow. I did not harvest a turkey in Wisconsin but came away quite satisfied none the less.
"Gun or Bow, Gun or Bow". It had become the joke of the weekend with my guests, Janice and Mike Baerstchy. She was bow hunting, and he was gun hunting. And I was beginning to feel like a nut case with my indecision. Often, it was only minutes before I walked out the door that I made up my mind which weapon to use. And of course, the two times I had sure shots, I had the wrong terminator for the situation. I could have harvested that button buck with my bow. On the second day, I had a shot at a six pointer where I misjudged the distance due to thick early morning fog and missed the shot with my bow. Had I been toting my gun that morning, I would have put more venison in the freezer. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. My arrow went over the six pointer's back, and even though there was no blood trail whatsoever, I did spend a good three hours looking for the animal "just in case". In the process, I jumped two bedded does who ran straight toward me and stopped at 15 yards with their ears perked upright as they tried to decide if I was a tree with eyes. Did I have an arrow nocked? No, my brain was still checked back at the stand where I missed the six pointer, or more likely, back at the hunting shack before the morning ever began. I stood there staring stupidly as the does sized me up for ten long seconds while I made a feeble attempt to sneak an arrow out of my quiver. They quickly gave me the white tail salute and bolted into the next county. By this time, out of pity, Mike had volunteered his management permit so I could shoot a doe with my rifle. I declined. I was going to use my bow, by golly.
How many hunters have gone through this dilemma and ultimate conversion from the dark side of cold iron and gunpowder, to the purity of archery and it's more demanding skill level? I do like my guns, don't get me wrong. I teach Firearm Safety, and I have many guns. I like their feel, their weight, their precision and their simplicity. No arrows to flip off your rest, no quiver to fall out of your stand, no release aid to forget at the shack, no range finder to run out of batteries, and no broadheads to slice open your thumbs. But gun seasons are short, and their challenge does not begin to match bow hunting. Quite simply, gun hunting is a lot easier. Quite honestly, bow hunting is a lot more exciting.
My first year deer hunting was in a traditional deer firearms camp with my twelve year old son and about twenty guys. For me, deer hunting was "love at first sight", to the point that when firearms season was over that year, I went out and bought a bow and shot arrows for two weeks till my arms nearly fell off. I then hunted late season archery in Minnesota on various public lands, never seeing a deer, but utterly enthralled with archery and bow hunting. It's a mystery to me how so many Minnesotans can go gun hunting only once a year for two or three weekends, just as it's a mystery to me how whitetails can tolerate mating only once a year. No wonder adult bucks get so belligerent in the fall. Certain things just cry to be experienced with greater frequency, and bow hunting is definitely one of them.
Bear hunting was another gun/bow conversion story for me. My first year bear hunting I carried only my bow. Had I been toting my rifle, I would have shot my first bear that year. The pin sights on my bow were faded at dusk, but my rifle with light gathering scope would have done the job. My second year, I carried both gun and bow, but never saw a bear. This year I had a gimme shot at a bear at 15 yards, but my archery tackle malfunctioned and I blew the shot. Had I been gun hunting, I would have a booker bear.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Gun or Bow. Gun or Bow. Sometimes the right choice is no choice, and perhaps I should just leave the guns at home and spare myself the mental gymnastics. The end of firearms season makes that decision for me, and I then go back to straight archery again. It's almost a relief. Today, I just put one of my shotguns in the paper to sell. It was a scary choice. I'm having withdrawal symptoms, and I think I might need a twelve-step program. I also decided not to sell one of my bows after all. I had a "come to Jesus" with God decades ago, and now I think I'm having another one with archery. Bless me, Dwight Schuh, for I have sinned. I really am trying to give up heavy metal.
© December 2002