“Storytelling began with Stone Age hunters sitting around a campfire recounting their deeds.”
Think about that for a second. Hunting didn’t just give birth to hunting stories. It gave birth to storytelling itself.
The man who made that bold claim was Stephen E. Ambrose, the great American historian who wrote Band of Brothers, Undaunted Courage, Crazy Horse and Custer, and other famous works.
Ambrose wrote those words about storytelling in the 1996 introduction to a combined printing of two books by Theodore Roosevelt: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and The Wilderness Hunter.
Ambrose prefaced his thoughts about storytelling with these words about TR: “He was a great listener. Many of the hunting stories he tells he heard around the campfire. He seldom identifies a single source because he couldn’t see the face of the narrator. This gives the stories a timeless quality.”
Although we’ll never be able to prove or disprove Ambrose’s claim about storytelling’s roots, he’s probably right. After all, hunting formed the core of early man’s existence, and hunting stories include vital elements of all good tales, such as suspense, adventure, excitement, and uncertainty.
Today’s best hunting stories come from deer camps, especially those told and retold by old men to youngsters and newcomers. On a recent Monday night, for example, I heard two great hunting stories while hanging around Tom Heberlein’s “Old Tamarack Lodge,” a 70-year-old, electricity-free shack on the Conley Road west of Cayuga in northwestern Wisconsin.
In one story, our friend Chris White of Toledo, Ohio told how he shot a giant eight-point buck near dusk on opening day, November 23. He shot it from a treestand I know well, so I could envision every step the buck took as it walked through the Chequamegon National Forest toward White.
A “top three” buck
How big was White’s buck? Heberlein quickly proclaimed it as one of Old T’s top three bucks of the past 50 years. In fact, it might be number two, depending on how it compares to Ben Niemann’s big eight-pointer from 1982, known in camp lore as “Schleppus.”
As fate had it, we got our answer the same night. Not only did Niemann and his wife, Sue, join us for dinner at Old T, they brought Schleppus’ mount. Don’t worry. The Niemanns usually don’t bring shoulder-mounted bucks to dinner. They’re just downsizing and simplifying their lives, which means giving away stuff to friends and family who will treasure it.
Therefore, Heberlein now owns Schleppus, the only deer Niemann ever killed at Old T. Actually, we didn’t officially determine that White’s buck is bigger than Schleppus. The eyeball suggests it is, mainly because Schleppus broke off both of its brow tines. But we haven’t measured either buck’s antlers to verify their scores, and we likely never will. Good stories leave some things to speculation and imagination, right?
Anyway, Schleppus has long been famous at Old T, not only because of its size but because no one knows for certain how to spell its name. “Is it S-c-h or just S-h? Is it two p’s or just one? And are you sure it’s not Schluppes?”
All that’s certain is that Old T’s camp members once knew a state biologist of German ancestry who called all big bucks “Schleppus.” Whether spelled correctly or not, the name stuck to Niemann’s buck.
Niemann shot Schleppus on the fourth and final day that Heberlein’s crew hunted in November 1982. They capped the hunt by driving a piece of forest south of the shack, and assigned Niemann as the stander. To better his odds of seeing deer in the thick brush, Niemann climbed a large spruce and hauled up his rifle with a rope. He then stood atop two large branches while Heberlein, Rich Bishop, and Lyman Wible walked through thick cover nearby.
“That spruce let me see in all directions,” Niemann said. “About 11 a.m., I saw Bishop approaching, and then I saw this rack sticking above the brush about 30 yards away. The buck was looking around, deciding what to do, and sunlight reflected off its rack every time it turned its head.
“You got ’er”
“My bullet struck its neck, and it was dead just like that. Bishop comes over, finds my deer and yells, ‘You got ’er!’ That worried me. You got ’er? All I had was a buck tag, and I saw a rack. I’m saying, ‘No, no, no. I shot a buck, not a doe.’
“Anyway, it was a buck, and I drove it home to Madison (Wisconsin) in the trunk of my old Porsche, along with a balsam tree I cut for Christmas. I had to leave the trunk open to make it fit. I’m driving through downtown Madison, going straight to the taxidermist, and I’m hearing horns, beeps, and accolades. I’ve never had so many people pay attention to me. He was big.”
That’s the condensed-by-time, edited-for-space version of the Schleppus story, which doesn’t do Niemann or the buck justice.
Still, it’s from such tales that hunting stories become legends. It helps, of course, if they’re told to someone famous like Teddy Roosevelt to share.
Images by Patrick Durkin