Editor’s note: This article is the first of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from expert hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt!
For nearly every North American hunter, regardless of which state or province he or she calls home, some type of deer is virtually always the first big game animal to be pursued in the field. Since deer are by far the most abundant type of big game wildlife in our hemisphere, this is not surprising. No matter where one lives in the lower 48 states, there are always deer within a few miles of you by crow-flight.
Because deer, in general, have proven more adaptable than any other big game species on the continent at coping with shrinking habitat and living in close proximity to man, it is only natural that a person’s first hunt (especially a young person’s first hunt) should be for deer. For most Americans, Canadians, or Mexicans, that would be a whitetail hunt. For someone like myself, raised in the Pacific Northwest on the west (wet) side of the Cascade Mountains, that could have been (and probably should have been) a blacktail hunt.
This is not the way it was, however. I had no mentor in my family to lead me into hunting. What was worse was that, while growing up just outside Seattle, I didn’t even know a single hunter within the circle of my family’s friends and acquaintances. Perhaps even more to the point, however, I didn’t have any idea that a healthy deer population lived all around me—so very good are blacktail deer at staying in heavy cover during daylight hours and avoiding human detection. Now, as then, relatively few hunters pursue the wily blacktail, and the few who do never talk about their secret hotspots, or even much about their occasional successes.
My introduction to deer hunting was sort of a fluke, actually. It happened late in the last summer before I was old enough to drive, and only because of a grandfather who lived in Idaho, and who was always looking for ways to spoil his only grandson. My mother’s parents, George and Edith King, had a summer cabin on Payette Lake near McCall, Idaho. Even when Dad couldn’t get away from his Seattle law practice to join us over there, Mother always took my sister and me to Idaho for at least a month every summer.
In late August of 1955, we were all staying at the Payette Lake cabin, when one day Mr. Pasley, who had the summer home right next-door to my grandparents’ place, told me about the many mule deer he had seen on a recent pack trip into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. His story really revved up my imagination, and by the next morning I had talked Grandpa King into buying me an early season archery license and driving me to the edge of the Salmon River Wilderness Area, right where the long trail to the Middle Fork began. The plan called for him to leave me there so I could hunt for 24 hours, and he would return and pick me up at the same time late in the afternoon the next day.
As the last sounds of his car dissipated into utter stillness, I suddenly realized that for the first time in my life I was completely alone in the wilderness. There wasn’t even a single vehicle parked there at the trailhead, and as I hiked a couple miles down the path to where I decided to pitch my tarp for the night, I felt a strange mixture of mild anxiety and intense exhilaration. It was a feeling I was never to forget, and often to experience, later in life.
I had forgotten to ask Mr. Pasley if he had seen any bears on his pack trip, but I knew it was generally considered bear country, and the fact that the only weapons with me were a knife, a bow, and a half-dozen arrows didn’t leave me with a very strong sense of security. As I lay in my sleeping bag that first night, I found myself wondering how my mother had managed to set aside her natural maternal worries and actually let Grandpa deposit me “in the bush,” and then “abandon” me there!
Sleep came with difficulty, not so much from my latent anxiousness as from the fact that I had stumbled across three does at very close range just as twilight was setting in. The brief encounter, though not giving me a shot opportunity, recharged my enthusiasm batteries, and I finally drifted off to sleep dreaming about a big 4×4 buck standing broadside to me within easy bow range. I actually did find that buck the next day, but the scenario wasn’t anything like the one in my dream!
The first arrow I ever released at a big game animal was at a mule deer doe that nearly ran over me shortly after daybreak. My arrow passed over her back cleanly, at perhaps all of 15 yards, and I realized that even had she been stationary I would still, no doubt, have missed her—just from sheer excitement.
My second opportunity for a shot came about 11 a.m. as I inched along the horse trail and out onto a big, open rock slide. With no canopy of trees above me, I was starting to feel the late morning heat when suddenly I spotted a gorgeous buck feeding in the shadows up ahead, and at the bottom of the slide some 80 yards below me.
Being totally without cover (and any experience to go by), I didn’t do then what I would do today. Rather than freeze and give him a chance to come closer, I simply raised my bow immediately and proceeded to take what I hoped would be “dead” aim. Though the buck’s body was largely broadside to me, he spotted the motion of my drawing—or else a flash of sunlight off my bow—and the next thing I knew his head was high, and he was staring right at me.
I will always remember the thrill I felt as I watched my arrow descend upon him. Until the last fraction of a second, I was convinced I was going to kill him. My deadly missile, tipped with a Bear Razorhead, passed low between his antlers, splitting his ears. Had a deep voice above me boomed forth with the words, “You parted the hair on top of his head,” I certainly would have believed it! Needless to say, there was no chance for a second shot.
My disappointment was matched only by my elation at having seen such a beautiful animal, and at having had at least the opportunity to try to take him. An opportunity is all any hunter ever asks for! When one arrives, what you do with it is entirely a function of experience, instinct, skill and luck. On that day, my life’s first full day of big game bowhunting, I had no experience, no skill, no luck. Only passionate instinct, and an eagerness to learn from my mistakes. Yet when Grandfather King arrived to pick me up late that afternoon, I was all smiles. On the hike back to the trailhead, I had managed to arrow a pair of big, fat, “dumb” Blue Grouse! And the following day, thanks to Grandmother King’s culinary skills, I learned that roasted breast of Blue Grouse has no peer in the fresh meat department.
These stories are excerpts from Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here.
I am gratified that OutdoorHub has offered me the opportunity to share many of my previously published stories with their Internet readership. BAREBOW! is much more than a collection of 104 stories of adventure and misadventure. It is just as much a book of fine art—illustrated by the enormously talented father-son team of Idaho artists, Hayden and Dallen Lambson. Their art dominates the work throughout and more than makes up for the absence of kill-photos at the end of each story or chapter. It is also an encyclopedic reference work on all huntable North American big game species—complete with taxonomic and biological material on each, as well as colored maps of the continent showing range and distribution of all the species and subspecies.
Each of the 29 chapters carries the title (name) of one of the North American big game species, and the chapters are chronologized in order of first harvest for me of each type of animal: “MULE DEER” is Chapter One, for example. Thus the early stories will introduce you to a young lad who ventures forth into the hunting world—with no mentors whosoever to lead him there. As the reader accompanies the author through his teens, twenties, thirties, and beyond, he or she will be witness to his gradual maturation as a sportsman, and to the progressive development of his hunting ethic in the field.
Our plan for the BAREBOW! Chronicles is to present an average of two stories per chapter, so that it will stretch out over 29 months, with each chapter from the book being represented by at least one story. Since the stories in BAREBOW! vary so greatly in length, many in the Chronicles series will need to be shortened or redacted in some fashion.
One final note of explanation is called for in this brief introduction to the forthcoming series. Some of the early chapters in the book (and therefore in the series) contain a story that transpired many years after the other stories recounted in that chapter. This is simply because—much later in life—I went back to hunt that particular species again and ended up taking an exceptional animal, as part of an adventure story very worth telling. Or, in a few cases, a much-later-in-life, unsuccessful hunt generated a story truly worth the telling.
To hunter and non-hunter alike, I extend the invitation to come along and witness the natural world of North American wildlife as Hayden, Dallen, and I have perceived it—and experienced it firsthand. Come journey with us through the BAREBOW! Chronicles! You’ll be glad you did.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson