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The Apprentice

The Apprentice
by Darrin Bradley

Upon completion of the evening hunt I headed for the truck, stopping occasionally to remove my hat and wipe the sweat from my brow. I stepped out of the timber, sinking to my ankles, and began the long muddy walk across the harvested cornfield. It had been another unsuccessful attempt at the great white racked buck which fed atop the ridge in the two acre cloverfield. I had become frustrated with my attempts to harvest the monster Boone and Crockett whitetail buck. It was the end of another fruitless evening hunt which always resulted in a tiring walk back to the vehicle, another pathetic excuse for my failure, and a late dinner. “Is it all worth it?”, I thought to myself. Hell, why can’t I just hunt like a normal person? How had I become so obsessed with bowhunting. Once more I stopped half way across the muddy field to wipe my brow and catch my breath in the darkness. Glancing over toward the direction I had positioned one of my hunting partners I viewed beams of light bouncing through the timber, down along the ridgeside toward the field’s edge. It had to be Joe.

Joe is a second year bowhunter who, for all practical purposes, learned everything he knows of bowhunting from listening to my long winded stories and relentless instruction. Joe works in the medical profession, and has established a distinguished career for himself. Joe possesses an eloquent vocabulary, and undoubtedly is far above average intelligence. However, when I met Joe, he was naive in regard to the pursuit of whitetail deer. For some reason, unbeknownst to me this med. grad was dashing down the ridgeside in the darkness in route to my location. I pointed my flashlight his direction, blinking it off and on several times to assure him of my identity, and location in the spooky Illinois riverbottom. I was curious. Several minutes later we stood face to face. “I’m tagged out buddy!”, Joe shakily spoke between all the exhaling an inhaling. “I killed an eight point buck and a big doe. Oh my God, you should have seen it. They were all around me. Deer were everywhere.” Calmly interrupting my wide eyed companion, I asked, “Are you sure? Did you mark the spot you saw them last?” Joe replied, “I’ve already field dressed the buck. Brent is tracking the doe right now. Come on, Let’s go!” With no other choice but to run up the ridgeside with him, my heart began to pound on his behalf. Joe didn’t care he had only arrowed a sixty class eight point. Joe wasn’t resentful like I had become over my efforts to harvest a Boone and Crockett buck. He was grateful. Joe was on top of the world, and he wasn’t coming down for a while.

Meanwhile, Brent, a seasoned hunter who has harvested many a Pope and Young buck, was still on the darkened ridgetop looking for the big doe. I was sure the doe would be recovered. Brent is a virtual bloodhound you see. If it is bleeding or not, you can bet Brent’s gonna find it. Brent prides himself on tracking whitetail deer after the shot. The bad part is Brent knows he’s good at it. I knew as soon as I reached the ridgetop I would have to deal rationally with Joe, the crazed rookie bowhunter who had just doubled on his first two bowkills, and Brent, the “tracking scientist”, who would demand our utmost cooperation. This meant Brent would be watching our every step atop the ridge. If we were to step out in front of him he would respond as usual, in a threatening manner, by yelling, “Get back! Don’t kick the leaves up! Don’t move a muscle if you want me to find this deer!” I also knew if Brent was to recover the deer we would be expected to listen to a lecture on shot placement, as well as a detailed account on how Brent recovered the animal through his “superhuman” tracking abilities. Worse yet, I would be the packmule who would be expected to drag the heavy carcasses through the muddy field, in route to the truck. I forced a smile across my face, patted Joe on the back, and rolled my sleeves halfway up my arms which I hoped would keep my new camo from becoming bloodstained. Needless to say, I was going to be late for dinner.

At the foot of the ridge out in the harvested cornfield, Brent ended his search for the missing doe. She laid in a heap. The result of Joe’s second perfect heart shot of the day. The excitement began again. Joe was jumping into the air. It was handshakes, hugs, and high fives for everyone all the way around. Next, the field dressing would take place, while Brent would simultaneously reminisses on his track strategies he had implemented just moments before. Everyone would be expected to listen closely. Joe couldn’t hear a word of it. He was elbow deep in deer, with a smile stretched across his face. Joe was reaping the rewards of being a good apprentice.

Bowhunting whitetails is a complex sport. There are few self made trophy whitetail bowhunters. Almost all of us held onto someone’s apron strings early in our archery career. Those of us who do serve as good apprentices usually go on to successfully harvest record book animals with bow and arrow. The ones who don’t serve a period of learning under a veteran hunter generally fail.

I have had the opportunity to be both the apprentice as well as the teacher. I have failed and succeeded at both positions. As the teacher, I begin by emphasizing the importance of a quality weapon. A good bow with quality accessories in today’s archery world can usually be obtained for under $500.00. To some, this may seem a bit expensive. To others, it is a small price to pay to obtain the benefits of a good weapon. Four years ago, a friend approached me who regularly earned over $50,000.00 annually. This friend wished to begin bowhunting. I lost him at the weapon purchase. Rather than purchasing a quality weapon, he traveled to the local pawn shop and bought a used bow with poor accessories. I continue to stress the importance of a good weapon to him, yet every October he enters the timber with the bargain bow. Every January he exits the timber without a trophy whitetail buck, and misses a multitude of shots. An inferior weapon has a greater chance at producing an inferior shot when an opportunity arises.

Following the purchase of a quality weapon comes the practice. I stress the importance of practicing with the weapon. The weapon must be an extension of mind and body. One can only develop this union through practice. Practicing from a treestand is time well spent.

Although I implement a deer management program on all ground I hunt, this program is exempt to first and second year bowhunters. My philosophy is that rookie bowhunters need experience in harvesting situations. There is only one way to gain that experience. Shoot whatever you can. I instruct the apprentice to shoot any deer that walks within thirty yards of the treestand which is a legal deer under legal conditions. Deer management program or not, young hunters need to build confidence and experience.

I usually place the apprentice in a specific stand location. I choose stand locations which offer a lot of activity. Young hunters need encouragement. Encouragement often takes the form of many deer sightings. This also enhances the knowledge of young hunters by allowing them to observe whitetail behavior. Prior to placing an apprentice in a stand location, I review aerial photographs and maps. I explain the dynamics of topographical advantages. (Funnels, bottlenecks, etc.) I want the rookie to understand stand location above all else. Only by gaining understanding of stand placement is one able to hang his or her own trophy stand setups later in life. Stand placement is the single most important factor in harvesting trophy whitetail bucks. If you can’t get within bowrange of trophy deer, you can’t harvest trophy deer. It’s as simple as that.

Failure when training an apprentice for trophy hunting can occur as a result of non-teachability. Some people are simply not teachable. Simple lessons, inclusive of broadhead usage, scent minimization, prime whitetail hunting localities, etc. are often stumbling blocks to rookie hunters. Some people are just stubborn. I am associated with a bowhunter, who has hunted hard for over ten years. This hunter dedicates himself to hunting a public access area which was destroyed by the Mississippi River Flood of 1993. This area is without much live vegetation or mast production. This area is hunted by hundreds of individuals each fall. For the past several years I have asked this individual to join me for hunts in prime trophy-buck areas. He has always responded by saying, “I want to keep hunting the public access area. I want to kill a big buck on that ground.” He has top of the line equipment and is without a doubt, the best shot I have ever known, but has never qualified for the Pope and Young Recordbooks. No matter how many deermounts I hang on my wall each year, this fellow just doesn’t get it. An apprentice must be willing to listen and follow the instructions of a veteran hunter. Anything less usually results in failure.

As a result of being a good apprentice, Joe harvested his first respectable whitetail buck just months after this manuscript was completed. It was only Joe’s third season as a bowhunter. I’m certain next season Joe will harvest his first Pope and Young buck. (Let’s just hope Brent doesn’t have to track it for him.)

Darrin Bradley

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