The Buck Stops Here

Modern-day Daniel Boones are a deer's best friend -- and its worst nightmare

Barely 200 yards from his pickup, Bob Raithel reaches the edge of a meadow and looks down. There, he sees the first sign.

Tracks. Lots of them. And fresh, judging by the sharpness of cloven-hoof outlines in the muddy ground that divides forest from the grassy expanse pocked with clover, a favored food for whitetails. At least three deer, maybe four, passed through here, likely this morning. Older tracks, edges soft, show this is a regular route. Deer, to their detriment during hunting season, are creatures of habit that sleep in the same spots and travel the same paths each day, making them easy targets for hunters who can deduce where and when to lie in wait.

Smiling, Raithel crouches for a closer look. Deer hunting is largely a matter of educated guesswork, and reading tracks is no exception.

It is early afternoon in late October, the season when usually wary bucks surrender caution -- and their lives -- to sniff the ground for doe pee, their heads down in woods filled with rifles and bows. No one knows precisely when the mating season, or rut, will arrive each fall, but the tracks at Raithel's feet show promise. One of these deer is significantly bigger than the others. Could be a buck stalking does. Or maybe just a mature doe traveling with yearlings, which hold little interest. Raithel considers himself a meat hunter but doesn't shoot at anything without antlers and makes no excuses. Old habits die hard in a man who remembers when scarce deer made it a crime to kill does.

Fresh tracks are always auspicious, but Raithel isn't particularly surprised. He is in a prime spot, engineered by man and nature to guarantee doom for whitetails. Surrounded by soybean fields that keep deer fat and plentiful, these 460 acres of steep, wooded hills and small hayfields near Marthasville, about 50 miles west of St. Louis, are nothing short of whitetail heaven. The woods are carpeted with acorns, a favorite treat for whitetail whose ancestors may well have been stalked by Daniel Boone, who was laid to rest just a few miles away. Even during hunting season, deer are relatively safe here, because there are few hunters and guns aren't allowed. Raithel has one of two keys to the locked gate that guards the entrance road to the property owned by Earl Hoyt of St. Charles, who, at 89, is getting too old to draw a bowstring.

Raithel, 66, has been coming here since the mid-1970s, when he helped Hoyt hack this meadow from the woods, then planted clover to create a killing field. He guesses he's shot 21 bucks here, all with bow and arrow. That's a phenomenal success rate, considering most archers are lucky to even get a shot, antlers or no. Though slight of build, quick to chuckle and loath to use any exclamation stronger than "shucks," Raithel is a stone-cold deer assassin who rarely buys meat from a store.

For nearly 50 years, Raithel has been hunting in Missouri, where he's killed 42 deer with a bow. He killed his first buck in Michigan in 1951, one year before Jack Compton became the first archer in modern times to slay a Missouri whitetail. Raithel didn't buy a deer rifle until the mid-1960s, when a bow alone couldn't guarantee enough venison to feed six growing children. Though he doesn't come from a family of hunters, Raithel is a born deerstalker. He was 12 when he killed his first rabbit with a homemade arrow and a crude bow he got for Christmas. At 15, he made his first trip to a real archery range. His parents wouldn't drive him, so, toting his bow, he took a bus downtown from his home in Jennings, then hopped a Greyhound to Weldon Spring, home of the St. Louis Bowhunters Club. Raithel was soon a regular, and Hoyt, a onetime Olympic archery coach, knew a hunter when he saw one. "Earl offered me a job making arrows in his archery shop out by the airport," Raithel recalls. "I was making 70 cents an hour in an ice-cream parlor about a block from where I lived. I quit that job and went to work for Earl for 40 cents an hour. He was seven miles from my house. Every day after school, I jumped on my bike, and I'd go out there and work for a couple of hours. I got so I could make that seven miles in about 20 minutes."

Today is a good day to kill. Firearms season is three weeks away, so the deer haven't been spooked by gunshots that can turn a whitetail nocturnal until spring. There hasn't been much rain, so rustling dry leaves will betray anything moving through the woods well before it walks within range of Raithel's bow and arrow. The wind blows steadily from the meadow toward the spot where Raithel will hide. With a sense of smell 4,000 times more powerful than Raithel's, whitetail rely on their noses to keep them alive, but the breeze today will carry his scent away from the clover. Though not ideal, the temperature, which had been in the 70s until yesterday, is in the 50s and falling. Cold weather is a hunter's ally. Deer lie down to nap and chew their cuds when it's hot, waiting for nightfall before emerging from beds hidden deep inside nearly impenetrable thickets.

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