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.
Besides prompting deer to move, the cold preserves still-warm venison that quickly spoils in hot weather, not a small consideration to a hunter faced with dragging a carcass through a mile or more of trackless forest. With his truck so close, Raithel won't risk that chore unless he misses the lungs (the largest, most vulnerable vital organ) and has to track down a wounded deer, which can run for miles even if mortally hit. But Raithel rarely misses. As a Marine in Korea during the war, he hunted pheasants with a bow, surprising hunkered-down birds before they could take wing (he never did manage to hit one in the air). He's just as good with a rifle, having once dropped an antelope in Wyoming at 700 yards.
Raithel rises from the tracks and looks around. He figures the deer are bedded down and won't be back for at least an hour. With time -- but no deer -- to kill, Raithel leaves the tracks for a bit more scouting, backing off the same way he came so he doesn't pollute the meadow with his scent. He walks back to his pickup, then up a steep primitive road in search of more sign. Like people, deer prefer paths of least resistance, so they're just as likely to use this nearly abandoned road as the harder-to-spot game trails favored in more heavily populated areas. Raithel already knows where he'll set up. His shooting stand at the meadow's edge is permanently installed in an oak, about 15 feet off the ground -- though cautious to the point of paranoia, whitetails rarely look up. But a walk in the woods on a crisp autumn day is as much a part of the hunting experience as pulling the trigger. The trees are barren, the ground thick with leaves that clatter noisily as Raithel walks -- if he'd come a couple weeks earlier, when the maples and poplars were in full blaze, it would have been really beautiful, he laments. But he's not complaining. He loves the woods no matter what. The forest holds a constantly changing collection of clues about where deer have been and where they might be headed.
Raithel soon finds pelletlike deer droppings near the center of the road. The droppings tell him the deer that left them has been eating a variety of food -- deer grazing exclusively in pastures leave behind formless piles. The droppings don't appear as fresh as the tracks he's just seen, not worth the trouble of a finger probe to determine whether they're still warm. Raithel moves on. Just 100 feet away, he spots a patch of dirt in the otherwise leaf-covered road. A buck pawed the ground here and probably urinated on the bare spot, though a close-up sniff reveals no untoward odor. It's called a scrape, and this one is brand-new, judging by the lack of debris on the barren earth. The behavior is unique to the rut. The best guess is, bucks use these scrapes to advertise themselves to does in estrus. Raithel looks up. Sure enough, tiny branches overhanging the scrape are burnished smooth. Classic. Bucks always pick spots where they can rub their racks while making scrapes.
About 100 yards farther up the road and just a dozen feet from the side, Raithel spots a spindly oak, its bark shredded about 3 feet from the ground. Created by antlers, this is a rub. If Raithel hadn't seen those tracks at the meadow and killed so many deer there in previous seasons, this would be an ideal spot in which to ambush whitetail. A buck will rub the same tree several times during the rut, returning regularly to see whether rivals have left their marks. Deer rub the same trees year after year, sometimes killing them. Biologists speculate that the rubs serve as signposts, enticing does and warning away rival bucks. Raithel's excitement is palpable. "Think of the force he used to take away all that bark," he marvels. "He must have really worked it." And he must have been fairly big. Hopes raised, Raithel turns back for the meadow. If he's lucky, deer will be heading down this road toward the meadow in an hour or two.
In 45 minutes, Raithel has found as much sign as he's ever seen here. He didn't expect it, given that hunting buddies have reported few hints of deer this fall. Raithel had worried the deer might be bedded down as a result of the warm weather, but the rub and scrape are promising. The rut appears to be under way, and that increases the odds of seeing a deer. A buck in rut will roam for hours and miles in search of a receptive doe, paying no attention to the time and not stopping until exhausted. Stopping at the truck, Raithel retrieves his bow and about a half-dozen arrows with razor-sharp, four-edged heads designed to sink deep and stay put. Then he returns to the meadow.
Walking on the clearing's edge, Raithel heads toward his stand, on the far side. When he's about 75 feet away, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out a tarsal gland from a buck he killed last year. Tarsal glands are enlarged areas on a deer's hind legs that excrete scent. A buck in rut urinates frequently, standing knock-kneed so the urine dribbles down its legs and over the tarsal glands en route to the ground to create yet another signal that warns off other bucks and tells does he's nearby and available. Raithel's tarsal gland, kept in a freezer since last season, is soaked in deer urine and tied to a piece of string about 10 feet long. "Here, take a whiff of this," he insists, holding the gland out. It stinks like fermented skunk, maybe worse. Raithel unwinds the string from the tarsal and drags the gland behind him as he crosses the meadow to reach his stand. He picks up a dead branch, paces off 30 yards and sticks it in the grass so it can be easily seen. He won't shoot farther than that.
Raithel goes back to the oak, then returns the gland to its airtight container. Digging at the base of the tree, he retrieves two iron spikes he buried last season. He makes two holes in the trunk with a hand-cranked drill, then inserts the spikes in the holes. Using the spikes for steps, he climbs into the oak and settles in a chair attached to the trunk about 15 feet off the ground.
Then he waits.
Though hunters travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of hunting trophy whitetails in Canadian woods or on private ranches in Texas, some of the finest deer in North America live -- and die -- in Missouri.
No hunter anywhere in the world has bagged a whitetail with more impressive antlers than one found dead of natural causes 19 years ago on a farm in North St. Louis County. The nontypical rack (meaning the tines weren't symmetrical) scored 333 7/8 points on the Boone and Crockett scale, a scoring method used to measure antlers based on inches and number of tines. A rack scoring 195 points is considered trophy quality and eligible for the Boone and Crockett record book, which guarantees immortality for a hunter. After seeing the animal alive, an off-duty game warden and the farm's owner were bow-hunting when they found it leaning against a fence. It weighed about 300 pounds, triple the average for a deer killed in Missouri but nowhere close to trophy bucks from northern climes, which can push 500 pounds. World record or not, the antlers are more bizarre than beautiful.
"When you look at it, it really looks like an oddity," says John George, an urban-wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "The first several times I saw it, I said, "This thing is grotesque. It must have had some kind of head injury.' I've finally seen it enough that it doesn't look odd to me anymore. It was just a very healthy deer." Just why antlers get so big is something of a mystery. Genetics and abundant food play a role but don't explain why regions that routinely produce much larger deer haven't threatened the St. Louis record. George guesses the local food supply contains minerals that spur antler growth.
The farm in the Missouri River bottom where the behemoth fell is now owned by the public, but hunters must enter a drawing for a chance to hunt the land, which is closed during the regular season. George is reluctant to reveal the location. "Otherwise, it would be inundated," he says. "We don't want people out spotlighting (poaching by immobilizing deer in bright light) every night to see if they can find another one." And there is another one, somewhere. Monster bucks still live in the metropolitan area, where no-shooting laws, anti-hunting sentiment and regulations against modern firearms on public land keep them safe. Pelican Island, where rifles aren't allowed, is a good place to see one, but the brush is dense and access tough. Hunters whose names are drawn for a limited hunt use boats to reach the Missouri River island at the northern tip of St. Louis County.
The department owns the record antlers but doesn't advertise them. "When people start selectively just wanting to harvest big bucks and not want to harvest anything else, it hurts what you're trying to do," George says. The state is trying to encourage hunting of deer regardless of sex or antler size. The state's herd, estimated between 800,000 and 1 million animals on opening day, is at a record high.
The state has no shortage of hunters. But too many people don't pull the trigger on does, which are less cautious and easier to kill than hyperparanoid bucks. Bucks are prestigious, magnificent, stately, elusive; does are dismissed as "freezer meat." The bucks-only tradition was forged when hunters weren't allowed to kill does for fear of wiping out a once-precarious herd. Uncontrolled hunting that continued through the 19th century devastated America's whitetail population. Not until 1900 did Congress enact legislation banning the interstate sale of venison, which until then was marketed the same as beef and pork and often cost less. Until 1905, Missouri hunters could kill as many deer as they liked, whenever they wanted. The state's first hunting law established a two-month season, limited hunters to one buck per day and banned the sale of venison. The restrictions didn't help the herd much. By 1925, a statewide survey turned up just 395 deer, and hunting was outlawed. Hunting resumed for a few years during the Great Depression, but the state again banned hunting in 1938 and started importing deer from Michigan. Limited hunting resumed in 1944. The entire state was opened to hunters in 1959, and the herd hasn't suffered because of it.
Come hunting season today, a deer in Missouri faces bleaker odds than an Allied soldier on D-Day. During the 10 days in November when modern firearms were allowed and some 400,000 hunters tromped the woods, 201,165 deer died. That's a record kill. Most -- 111,002 -- were shot on opening day. The slaughter will continue through mid-January, when the archery season winds down. By then, better than one in four of the deer in Missouri will have died at human hands. Despite the killing, the Conservation Department expects the deer population will climb back to an all-time high come spring, when fawns are born. Deer have a remarkable capacity to reproduce. In Michigan, wildlife biologists once installed a deerproof fence around a one-and-a-half-square-mile tract containing about 10 whitetails, including several fawns. Five years later, the land was crowded with 212 deer.
Although no one can say for certain, biologists believe there are more whitetails in Missouri today than when the Pilgrims landed. Deer numbering more than 60 animals per square mile in parts of St. Louis and St. Charles counties are causing big problems. They strip forests of undergrowth and ruin gardens. Consuming as much as 8 pounds of food each day, a whitetail treats the world as a smorgasbord, nibbling on grass, apples, mushrooms, corn, flowers and countless other plants while traveling from one food source to the next, taking a bite here and a bite there. Fencing is an expensive proposition, given that whitetails can easily clear 9-foot-tall obstacles. Their travels sometimes take them across roads when motorists least expect it. Every 22 hours, a motorist somewhere in Missouri strikes a deer, which can jump as far as 30 feet in a single bound but freezes when it sees approaching headlights. Last year, six people were killed in 5,211 deer-car collisions and nearly 400 people were injured, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol.
In suburbia, no-shooting ordinances and backyard gardens help multiply whitetail populations, throwing upscale communities like Town & Country into a dither: What shall we do about all these deer on our streets and in our roses? The obvious answer is "Shoot them," but politics hold sway over common sense when it comes to Bambi. Deer get a break because they're cute. The problems and the sentiments aren't new. Even George Washington complained about deer in his garden and agonized over killing them.
Town & Country traps its deer and sends them elsewhere, even though that hasn't worked in several other communities around the United States and early results here aren't promising. Time and again, wildlife experts have found that transferred deer die and the ones left behind just keep breeding. The mortality rate for transplanted deer ranges from 44 to 68 percent in areas where hunting is allowed. On the high end, a University of California study showed that 85 percent of deer transplanted in the San Francisco area died within a year. Some studies suggest that the mortality rate dips as low as 30 percent if deer are taken someplace where hunting isn't allowed. In Missouri, the Conservation Department estimates about 25 percent of trapped deer will succumb as a result of stress within a week.
The state reluctantly issues trapping permits for Town & Country but prefers the direct approach on its own West County land. Four years ago, the state started a limited annual hunt at Babler State Park in Wildwood, where an estimated 68 deer per square mile are eating everything within reach. At first, the hunt was limited to hunters with muzzleloaders, but the kill rate wasn't high enough to dent the population. Now, 200 hunters whose names are drawn in a lottery are allowed to use high-powered modern rifles, with a three-deer limit. Hunters this year killed 81 park deer, but park officials who want Babler's deer population reduced by at least two-thirds don't expect the harvest will do much more than keep numbers stable, at least in the short term. In past years, deer displaced by new subdivisions have moved in and replaced deer killed in the park.
Members of the St. Louis Animal Rights Team -- who greeted hunters at Babler on Dec. 2 with signs reading "Hunters Suck. Kill Them" and "Jeffrey Dahmer Was A Hunter" -- suggest contraceptive darts as a more humane way to control the herd. But contraceptives haven't worked elsewhere. Even if eight of 10 does get dosed (an extremely optimistic goal, given that deer roam freely and specialize in making themselves invisible), the remaining deer can quickly make up the difference. The animal-rights activists assert that hunting actually increases the size of the herd because it leaves more food for the survivors. Deer require a certain percentage of body fat to reproduce, and if fewer deer are left to compete for food, the birthrate goes up. "It tricks the herd into overpopulating," explains team member Bonnie Boime, who mistakenly contends that deer breed in the spring instead of the fall. "Essentially, nature does control its own population."
But Missouri has more than enough food to support the deer population, even if hunters didn't exist. George, the state biologist, estimates the deer population could exceed 100 per square mile in some areas before whitetail start going to bed hungry. In other states, such high numbers have been recorded in areas where hunting is banned and places where vast swamps and thick brush keep hunters at bay. The deer in such areas don't stop giving birth: They just don't get as big as they do here. "At this latitude and this region of Missouri, even at 100 deer per square mile, most lands could still support that and they would still be healthy," George says. "It wouldn't be until you got to 150 or 200 deer per square mile -- maybe in some cases exceeding 200 per square mile, depending on the area -- that the deer would start to become nutritionally deficient. It's not that the deer are making a choice by looking at the plants around them and then deciding to have more offspring. It's merely a function of nutrition. And we're just not at those levels anywhere, nor have we ever been anywhere near levels like that."
Like rats, deer thrive with people around. Present from Brazil to the northern reaches of Canada, whitetails have an incredible ability to adapt -- North American deer introduced to New Zealand were soon mating in April and May instead of November and December. The relationship between deer and man goes back thousands of years, when Indians who drove game into the open by burning forests also provided food for whitetail by creating room for shrubs that can't grow in the shade of mature trees. The same principle applied when Europeans arrived. Corn, soybeans and other crops produce much more food than whitetails can find in the wild, which explains why deer are plentiful and big throughout the Midwest. Deer aren't monogamous. A Texas study showed that 92 of 100 does will get pregnant each fall, no matter how many bucks are killed by hunters. Surviving bucks simply breed with more does, which come into estrus every 28 days until they conceive, with twin fawns commonplace come springtime. With the exception of man, predators -- at least those we haven't extirpated -- are few. Coyotes and domesticated dogs take some fawns in Missouri but rarely attack a full-grown animal.
With so many deer and so few remaining natural predators, a hunter in St. Louis County or St. Charles County can legally kill as many as nine deer each year -- two with a gun, two with a bow and as many as five additional does by bow. Hunters lucky enough to have their names drawn for special hunts can kill even more.
Bob Perkins lives in St. Louis but travels 100 miles to a Crawford County farm to stalk whitetails using both gun and bow. He knows he doesn't need to drive so far to bag a deer, but hunting, for him, is a tradition. He sees the season as a chance to get away from it all, to watch cardinals grown scarce in the city and listen for turkeys. He won't hunt on public land. Too many trigger-happy crazies, he says. (Statistics, however, show hunting is relatively safe. During the recently concluded gun season, the Conservation Department recorded four accidents with two fatalities.)
A hunter since boyhood, Perkins, 52, rarely gets a deer. He's killed just two in his lifetime, and he's hunted this farm for eight years without drawing blood. He's had plenty of chances. He usually lets the does go and passes up bucks unless he has a perfect shot, which has never happened. A perfect shot is rare in Missouri, where woods usually limit the range to less than 50 yards. An otherwise deadly bullet or arrow that strikes a pencil-sized twig can turn into a clean miss. Sentiment can also get in the way. A few years ago, Perkins was aiming at a mother deer when she suddenly leaped away and stood frozen between him and her fawn. "She jumped up right in front as if she was protecting her," Perkins recalls. "I thought, "Oh, man. I can't shoot you.'" The gun came down, and the doe moved on.
Tomorrow is opening day. There's an annual get-together of locals down the road who enjoy a night of poker and pornographic videos before the shooting starts, but Perkins and his host, Seric ("It's the only name I use," he says), opt for a quiet night and an early start in the morning. The dining-room table is cluttered with copies of Field & Stream magazine and hunting paraphernalia: clover seed, ammunition and a large bag of white powder labeled "30.06." The powder is a free sample, obtained from the Internet, which promises big bucks for hunters who spread the powder on dirt within firing distance. Think of it as andro for antlers. Deer instinctively know what's good for them, the advertising advises, and there's nothing a buck loves more than eating dirt mixed with this powder, which contains all the nutrients needed to spur healthy antler growth.
Sporting-goods departments are filled with such surefire deer attractants -- it's illegal to lure deer by leaving out food, but supplements are another matter. Besides 30.06, there are Deer Cocaine and Deer Crack. There are dozens of brands of deer pee that can cost as much as $12 for a couple of ounces. Still Steaming is one of the most expensive but well worth it, according to its maker. With each batch coaxed from a single doe at the height of estrus, Still Steaming is the real thing, right down to the color: "If it's not yellow, it's suspect," says the label. Other brands come with money-back guarantees and warnings to keep the substance off your clothes, lest you be attacked by a buck in rut. It's not a theoretical situation. "It was horribly frightening, I don't mind saying, " Jim Hughes told the Wisconsin State Journal after he spilled deer pee on his shoes and a buck jumped him two years ago. "I screamed for ten minutes and walked backwards for a quarter-mile while it stalked me. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the truck. I was sweating bullets. I hadn't been this frightened since Vietnam, but it was a different sort since it was so unexpected." In addition to urine from does, hunters can buy buck urine and red-fox pee; foxes are as skittish as deer, so a buck that smells fox urine is supposed to think everything must be OK.
To a neophyte, all this makes about as much sense as donning expensive camouflage, then ruining the effect with the blaze-orange hats and vests required by state law. The deer, which have poor eyesight, likely don't give a hoot what a hunter wears, so long as he stays still. If whitetails could see well, they wouldn't be attacking men with rifles, no matter how the hunters smelled.
Perkins has washed his clothes in scent-neutralizing detergent, then sealed the garments in Ziploc bags. Smoking is out of the question, and he hasn't eaten meat for a couple of days; a grain-rich diet is supposed to help make a hunter undetectable. When he rises tomorrow, he will shower with special scent-masking soap, then head to a hillside in the midst of an oak forest about 300 yards from the farmhouse. There, he'll hide behind camouflage netting at the base of a tree and wait until something worth shooting wanders by.
The day breaks cold. It's 28 degrees an hour before dawn -- ideal deer weather. At Woodson K. Woods Memorial Conservation Area, a 5,660-acre tract of publicly owned land about seven miles from the farmhouse, the parking lots and woods are already full. Arriving early is important, especially on public land. The first hunter in the woods will send deer running, but he often ends up with the first shot as later arrivals scare the deer back in his direction. Heading down a gulley that leads from the parking lot into the woods is like taking a trip through the Valley of Death. Blaze orange dots the gulley rim on either side every 50 yards or so, making this a veritable shooting gallery. It's anything but quiet. Hoping to fool deer into thinking there's a fight between rival bucks, several hunters are banging antlers together -- they call it antler-rattling. Others blow into snorkel-shaped deer calls that mimic a buck's grunt (yes, they do make noise). It's hard to believe any deer could be fooled by all this commotion, but gunshots ring out regularly, sometimes several per minute that come from all directions.
The shooting slows up about 10:30 a.m. The cold has chased hunters out of the woods, or the deer have gone into hiding, or maybe it's a combination of factors. Back at the farmhouse, Perkins is relaxing with a cup of coffee. Outside hangs a doe, upside down and already gutted, its eyes wide open but without a trace of alarm. After barely an hour in the woods, Perkins killed a deer. He tells the tale matter-of-factly, without a trace of braggadocio. And, truth be told, this deer isn't the kind hunters brag about -- perhaps two years old, it barely weighed 100 pounds when alive.
Perkins was leaning against a tree when he shifted his weight to take pressure off his right leg, which is held together by an 18-inch titanium rod that runs from knee to ankle, the byproduct of a multiple compound fracture sustained four months earlier while he was unchaining a forklift from a trailer and a steel bar crashed through his calf with 20 tons of force. As he eased into a more comfortable position, he looked behind him and saw the doe, foraging on acorns just 20 yards away. His first thought was "Wait" -- there's no better lure for a buck in rut than a solitary doe. The doe, oblivious, circled him, pawing for acorns and munching contentedly. Finally, he raised his rifle and drew a bead. But he just couldn't. And so he lowered his gun and kept watching, still hoping for a buck. Several minutes passed. This doe must have smelled him by now, must have at least seen him peering at her over the camouflage netting, but she just didn't care. Once more, he raised his rifle to his shoulder. Once more, he changed his mind and lowered his gun. He made direct eye contact. The doe simply looked back, then started eating again. After several more minutes, he raised his rifle for a third time. He thought about the nine years he'd gone home with no venison. He thought about his aching leg. Finally he squeezed the trigger. He was so close he didn't bother using the rifle's scope. The shot went right through the shoulder, an instantaneous death. "She was looking right at me when I shot her," he marvels. "That little stupid doe. It just stood there and looked at me for 20 minutes. I only shot it because it was stupid."
With the deer dispatched, the real work begins. Perkins walks about 100 yards to a barn, where he retrieves a rope, which he ties around the doe's legs. Dragging the beast by the rope, he huffs, puffs and limps his way back to the barn, where he strings the doe up by its hind legs and puts a 5-gallon bucket underneath. He slits the underside from throat to anus, allowing the innards to fall into the bucket with a single plop. Then he hoses out the inside of the carcass, throws it in a pickup truck and drives back to the farmhouse, where he strings the doe up again and wedges a stick in her ribcage to keep the belly open so the meat can cool. All told, it takes about an hour. "There was blood everywhere," he recalls.
That evening, Perkins' doe is the smallest in sight when he arrives at Val-Jon's Southside Package Store in Steelville, one of many checkpoints around the state where successful hunters bring their deer so the Conservation Department can keep track of the harvest. By 7 p.m., nearly 400 deer have come in. Polaroids of the best bucks crowd a countertop inside. Outside, nearly a dozen pickups fill the small parking lot, with each new arrival drawing a throng of camouflage-clad hunters who peer at each slain deer and mutter assessments. The worst is "That'll make some good eating," a sure sign that your deer is no trophy.
Perkins makes no apologies. He can barely lift his mangled leg -- it hurts just to watch him limp across the farmhouse kitchen, let alone trek to that shooting stand and drag a deer back. But he'll be back with his bow in few weeks, after archery season resumes (rifles and bows aren't allowed in the woods at the same time).
"I don't look at it as a sport," Perkins says. "I don't look at myself as a sportsman. It's not like hitting a home run. I just enjoy hunting. The adrenaline pumps. The heart pumps. You can feel it in your ears."
Hunting a creature with infinite patience takes patience. And restraint. You don't always get what you want, and sometimes it's just as well. But you always take something away.
Bob Raithel remembers shivering in the woods with a 9-year-old son, a blanket wrapped around both of them and a quiet determination to wait just a little bit longer. He remembers helping steady the muzzle of the boy's rifle as he drew down on a buck, unaware that his father had moved the gun to the side for a surer shot at a much closer doe. It was his first deer, but the boy cried as he lowered his gun and discovered Dad had tricked him. You aren't supposed to shoot does, but later he understood there was no wrong in making sure the kill was clean. Many years later, he will bring his own son along so three generations can hunt together on Raithel's 12 acres near Weldon Spring.
But today, Raithel is going home without a deer.
About 45 minutes before sundown, just inside the treeline about 100 yards to his left, the leaves start rustling. Whatever is making the noise is hidden by an embankment, but it sure sounds bigger than a squirrel. For at least a half-hour, it rustles, then is quiet for a few minutes, then rustles again, over and over until it's finally too dark to shoot. Raithel climbs out of the tree. He hasn't heard a thing; he has almost no hearing in one ear and has just 30 percent left in the other. Hearing aids don't entirely compensate. "That's a big handicap for a hunter," he says.
Sometimes the tales are just as good when a hunter comes up empty -- like the first day of archery season in October, when Raithel came nearly within spitting distance of a buck that wandered through his acreage.
Perched 18 feet above the ground, Raithel hadn't seen anything that day and figured it would end up nothing more than a pleasant afternoon spent outdoors. Call it hunter's instinct, call it luck, he looked over his left shoulder. Behind him was a deer, so close he could almost smell it and walking straight at him, its head obscured by a tree.
"My first feeling was "Oh, boy, this is a great big doe and I'm going to be able to sit here and just watch,'" he recalls. Then it moved from behind the tree and showed its antlers, a 10-point rack that would quicken any hunter's pulse. Raithel figures it was 3 years old, a respectable age considering most bucks don't survive more than a couple of hunting seasons. Although nowhere near record size, this was a beast hunters show their friends. "I thought, "Oh man, I don't need this meat, but I can't pass him up,'" he says. And, after all, he does have 23 grandchildren who like venison.
As the buck moved closer, Raithel reached for his bow and turned around ever so slowly, never taking his eyes off the target. Deer can look straight down a gun barrel without spooking, so long as the danger remains motionless. Unexpected movement, however, sends them sprinting. "I don't move on a deer when he's standing still," Raithel says. "You have to wait until he takes a couple steps, and then you can make a little move, and if he stops, you have to stop." With Raithel's bow nearly in shooting position, this buck froze. It was only 20 feet away -- a gimme shot even for a novice. "He just stood there, locked up," he says. "He knew something was wrong. After about a minute, he looked behind him, over his right shoulder, and I thought, "Oh boy, he's going to straighten out and start walking, and I'm going to draw on him.' Then he just popped his head up and looked me right in the eye. And he just stood there staring at me for about two minutes. You can't draw or anything -- you just freeze." As the staredown continued, Raithel's puzzlement grew. He'd been very careful and couldn't figure why this buck was so wary. Suddenly it jumped, covering 20 feet with a single bound, then taking a few steps before settling with its head and neck behind a tree about 30 yards away. Shielded by the tree, Raithel could now draw his bow without being seen. But he didn't.
Had this been a paper target, Raithel could easily have scored a bull's-eye. But a bowstring makes a slight noise when the arrow is released, and he didn't want to take any chances. "I don't like to shoot that far at a deer, because at 30 yards, if they hear the release, they can move about 8-10 inches straight down in preparation for a jump, and you have a very poor hit," he explains. "I thought, "As spooky as he is, I'm not going to shoot at him from this far.' He walked off and I thought, "Boy, that was great.' I got everything but the deer."
After studying his stand, Raithel concluded that a chrome padlock had alerted the buck. The lock, barely 2 inches square, secures his stand and was directly in front of the deer, which probably caught a glint of reflected sunlight that didn't belong in the woods.
Raithel is philosophical. He saved himself a lot of hassle: It was hot that day, so he would have had to take the carcass to a meat locker instead of hanging it on the shady side of his house for five or six days before butchering -- unlike most hunters, who take deer to butcher shops, Raithel does the job himself. But he doesn't think he'll get another chance at this deer. "Once they look up in a tree and see there's a stand, if they do come by that way again, they'll look up in that tree," he laments. "They seem to have a pretty good memory." So does Raithel:
"Looked me right in the eye. Twenty feet!"
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