Major League Bowhunter is a popular TV show on the Sportsman’s Channel, and for good reason. Hosts Jeff Danker, Matt Duff and Chipper Jones are charismatic outdoorsmen who approach the sport of bowhunting with the same passion and spirit that brought them success on the baseball diamond.
They are hard-working, serious bowhunters, but they have fun while doing it. Like the clubhouse of a successful big-league team, Danker, Duff and Jones frequently razz each other, but they also lift each other up when they flub a shot or fall into a slump. They are teammates, through thick and thin.
In both baseball and bowhunting, even the most skilled participants succeed a relatively small percentage of time. Failure is a given, as blown opportunities and unsuccessful hunts often occur with the frequency of pop-ups and strikeouts. Painful as it may be, the dedicated bowhunter draws on this experience, makes adjustments and looks forward to their next at bat.
Major League Bowhunter’s catchphrase, “Never Stop Learning,” was simply the byline of an entertaining show to me until last November on an annual father-daughter whitetail rut hunt. On that trip, my daughter, Kendra, and I had our fat, lazy pitches thrown right down the pipe. We just fouled them off.
What mattered, though, was that 2015’s bowhunting experiences forced my daughter and me to remain humble, draw on the positives and continue growing. Danker, Duff and Jones were right — if you want consistent success in baseball or bowhunting, never stop learning.
With that in mind, you might want to follow along and read closely from the on-deck circle, because your turn at bat is likely just around the corner.
Lesson No. 1: Stay Humble
My daughter, now 18, has bowhunted since a young age. Experienced beyond her years, she has enjoyed quite a bit of success. Kendra practices diligently on 3-D deer targets for months prior to any hunt and is honestly one of the best shots I’ve ever seen from a tree. I’ve always marveled at how calm and cool she remains at the moment of truth, even when she arrowed her record-class Alaskan brown bear from a mere 12 yards at the age of 16.
I too have had some great hunts and taken a handful of nice critters. This past November, for example, one week prior to Kendra’s Kansas hunt, my good friend Adrian Kopp in Indiana texted me several big buck photos with the words, “Get here now! These bucks need killing and I’m working too much to hunt my own farm!”
A few days later, the first flight of my father-daughter Kansas plane ticket was changed, and I arrived in Indiana. Adrian showed me his little farm and promptly stuck me in a tree over a tiny food plot. From that spot, I cleanly arrowed a gorgeous five-year-old, mid-150 class deer.
It’s that easy, right?
Wearing a grin and full of pride, I then flew to Wichita, Kansas, to meet my ultra-confident teenager. From there, we drove to good friend Richard Blakeslee’s Triple Creek Outfitters. It was there where I would sit in a tree above Kendra and surely watch her arrow a Kansas giant. After all, success was a given — she had killed two monster bucks in the last two years with Richard.
Of course, success at any age can be taken for granted and has the potential to swell one’s head to unsafe levels — something that can easily go unrecognized and spiral downhill quickly.
Like the cocky slugger with a smug grin, Kendra and I confidently strutted to the plate. I should have known an “up-and-in” brush-back pitch was headed our way.
Lesson learned: Be confident, but remember to remain humble.
Lesson No. 2: Be Ready And Think Twice Before Stopping a Big Buck
The fourth morning, which was our seventh sit, finally provided an opportunity.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Richard walked us into a little micro-plot tucked into the woods near some heavy bedding cover. He bid us a hushed, “Goodbye and good luck!” as Kendra and I scurried up a tree and methodically settled into the ladder/hang-on combo. The wind was perfect, softly but steadily hitting us in the face.
First light brought a dark form that seemed to magically materialize. Initially, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, until I slowly raised the rangefinder from around my neck to take a closer look. That’s when things became clearer. This deer was huge and had plenty of tall, white tines to match his considerable bulk.
My firm but hushed command of “Draw!” preceded a crude mouth grunt that not only stopped the buck in his tracks, but also alerted him to our exact location and wired the experienced warrior like a coiled rattlesnake.
Long story short, Kendra’s diminutive but deadly Victory VAP arrow flew perfectly true, but the combination of a lighted nock, the dim light, the slower arrow speed of a 42-pound bow and an extremely alert buck created the perfect storm that translated to a 9.9 score at the String Jumping Olympics.
In retrospect, Kendra and I recognized the opportunity as our pitch, but it clearly caught us flat-footed at the plate, creating a rushed and somewhat panicked scenario that screamed, “Swing!” Naturally, we barely got the bat off our shoulder by the time the fastball blew by us.
Lesson learned: Always be ready for your pitch, and don’t stop a buck if you can help it.
Lesson No. 3: Don’t Draw Your Bow Too Soon
After a quick lunch back at Richard’s cozy lodge, Kendra and I donned our scent-free clothes and slipped into the same tree extra early that afternoon. We knew big bucks can cruise any time during the rut, but we didn’t fully expect a sighting until later on.
When the perfect 10-pointer emerged from the brush at 22 yards to our right and nonchalantly strolled into the food plot in slam-dunk range at 3 p.m., it took us by surprise.
Kendra’s no minor leaguer when it comes to bowhunting, so she spotted the buck first and was already up with her stance adjusted and release clipped. She has hunted whitetails enough to know a good buck when she sees one, and her eyes were burning a hole in this deer’s side as he slowly trudged in.
When she drew, the deer was slightly angled toward us and instantly caught the movement. He slammed to a stop, his eyes nearly as big as baseballs.
The standoff lasted a mere 20 seconds, but it felt like 20 minutes to this anxious dad. In hindsight, I may have cracked under pressure when I hissed, “Shoot!”
At the shot, the buck whirled and dropped under Kendra’s arrow with super-natural speed, just as the buck earlier in the day had done. Kendra and I were shocked as we realized we had flubbed our second fat pitch. By drawing within sight of the deer, we had bunted a bit early and allowed our opposition to make defensive adjustments.
Lesson learned: Don’t draw your bow too soon!
Lesson No. 4: Pick a Spot, Hold your Aim, And Follow Through
At this point our hunt became totally mental. Kendra needed to fight off the negative thoughts that creep into every bowhunter after a miss or two. I needed to curb our frustrations by downplaying the two failures, and Richard needed to restore his confidence in a young lady’s shooting ability.
Back at the lodge, with our outfitter and me closely observing, Kendra test shot a few arrows into the 12-ring of Richard’s weathered Glendale Buck 10 times in a row, exhibiting perfect form and a great bow tune. It was quite impressive as I can honestly say that after 40 years of archery, I still can’t shoot with such consistency. Richard and I knew she could physically perform on foam, but the unspoken question was if she could hold it together and mentally execute on flesh if blessed with a third shot opportunity.
We would soon find out.
The next morning, the wind remained, and we returned to our little hotspot once again, hoping and praying for one more chance at redemption.
Just after 7 a.m., after watching a few flatheads come and go, we heard loud crashing followed by antlers clacking, and we knew — two bucks were fighting.
No sooner had a mature doe bounced from the heavy cover than the clear victor emerged. This buck was what Kansas is famous for and easily one of the largest deer I’ve ever seen.
I said nothing, but Kendra knew right away that he was a dandy.
The big buck initially sauntered directly toward us, offering a poor angle and no shot. As Kendra waited for the situation to evolve, bow in hand, I noticed her arrow shaft above and to my left visibly trembling on her rest.
“Come on, Kendra, hold it together,” I thought to myself.
The muted command “Calm down!” was spewed, which likely did little good.
I whispered, “28 yards,” at the same moment the quartering-away monarch paused, and Kendra’s shot was instantly cut. And I mean instantly. It happened that fast.
In hindsight, the hushed thump of Kendra’s bow totally caught me off guard. She had an ultra-fast shot, and everyone involved quickly realized the painful truth — she missed.
I knew the shot was rushed, Kendra knew she had punched her release, and the big buck knew he had just survived a near-death experience.
Before me stood a very emotional young lady who had forgotten everything she ever knew about good form and proper shot execution. Clearly, buck fever had gotten the best of her as she had failed to pick a spot, hold her aim and follow through.
Just like the slugger with a plummeting batting average who blindly takes his eye off the ball and prays to make contact, the end result was the same — a clean whiff.
Tears welled in my daughter’s eyes and suddenly that big buck didn’t matter to me. My 18-year-old was badly hurt, and she was once again my baby girl of yesteryear. At that moment, as a loving father, my only concern was how to alleviate her pain. As we waited my self-established, mandatory one hour before climbing down to inspect the arrow — something that both of us knew wasn’t really necessary — we talked, a deep father/daughter talk conducted in hushed tones.
Lesson learned: Focus on proper shot execution, and then accept the end result with a positive attitude.
Lesson No. 5: Every Bowhunter Misses
Triple Creek Outfitters (TCO) is a unique place. It’s not fancy or phony in any way. The owners, Richard and Lori, are down-to-earth midwesterners that truly care about their guests. Likewise, Richard’s right-hand man, Wade, and Wade’s lovely bride, Tonya, will bend over backward for you. The lodge has a warm, homey feeling, and the food is equally satisfying. You instantly feel like family when you stay at TCO.
Perhaps that’s why industry greats such as Jackie Bushman, Major League Bowhunter, HeadHunters TV, and countless entertainers and professional athletes repeatedly choose to hunt there. It seems at TCO, you’re just one of the guys, a regular bowhunter who wants to hunt hard and have a good time doing so. Over the years, I can honestly say that I have yet to meet a hunting celebrity at TCO that acted stuck up or thought they were something special.
So when Kendra and I dejectedly returned to the lodge that day and confessed to another failed sit, we were treated to one of the kindest gestures I have ever experienced.
One by one, virtual strangers lifted my daughter up with heartfelt stories of similar painful experiences.
Matt Duff of Major League Bowhunter hugged my girl and spoke of several big bucks he had missed over the years. Mike Timlin, retired Red Sox hurler, sat her down and spoke of watching his best fastball knocked out of the park in front of 40,000 screaming fans. Nate Hosie of HeadHunters TV relayed a tale of woe from just that morning where his arrow had nicked a limb and sailed harmlessly over the back of a 160-inch class stud. Finally, a professional cameraman confessed to watching his hunter arrow a world-class buck through his viewfinder, only to look down and discover he had double-punched the record button, completely missing the footage of a lifetime.
Indeed, one by one, Kendra’s teammates lifted her up for her next at bat, whenever that might be.
Lesson learned: Every bowhunter misses.
Final Lessons: Be Thankful And Never Stop Learning
We hunted that last evening but saw little, and that was okay. We had our shots, both figuratively and literally.
The drive to the airport the next morning was quiet. Kendra was likely replaying what-if scenarios as much as I was.
Like dads often do when they don’t know what to say, I blurted out an awkward question that I instantly regretted.
“Did you have fun, Kendra?”
Her quick reply stunned me, as I suddenly knew my young huntress really “got it” and would be just fine.
“Best hunt ever, Dad!” It was nothing short of music to my ears.
And Kendra was absolutely right. So what if we didn’t win the World Series? We never stopped learning, and next season was right around the corner.