The afternoon of September 17, 2010 found me sitting in a treestand in Northern Illinois, dripping with sweat from the late summer heat and fighting off nasty mosquitoes left and right. I had just finished hanging a second treestand on a piece of property Todd Graf allowed to hunt, and remember watching an endless Midwestern sunset thinking to myself, “I am 800 miles from home, sitting in a treestand with no clue what the next 5 months have in store for me. What have I gotten myself in to?” Well, this past weekend, January 22nd, I took that same treestand down in over 6 inches of snow and a wind chill of 5 degrees. As I took down that same stand and watched the same sun slip beneath the horizon, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past 5 months.
When Todd Graf offered me an internship at the Bowhunting.com office last June, I accepted the position almost immediately and was anxious to make the move from Virginia to Illinois. The opportunity to live in Illinois for an entire hunting season seemed too good to be true, but it was very real and I promised myself to make the most of it.
My first weekend on the job consisted of me filming Todd on his property in Wisconsin for the archery opener.
Todd and I wasted little time getting to know each other as we climbed in the tree for the first time together my first weekend on the job for the opening weekend of the Wisconsin archery season. That first weekend was a nightmare. Todd and I were clumsy with all of our hunting and camera gear, got busted several times on stand by wary whitetails and our communication in the stand was atrocious. My first weekend on the job, and I was already questioning whether or not I worthy of the position. Fortunately, with little time to sulk, Todd and I headed back to Wisconsin the following weekend and I was able to film him harvesting a big, mature doe. The ice had been broken and I was ready to climb in the tree myself!
I was able to film Todd harvesting this doe on a late September bow hunt in Wisconsin.
The following weekend marked the beginning of a new chapter in my bowhunting career. October 1st meant the first day of the Illinois bow season and I couldn’t wait to get settled in the stand and hunt those famed Illinois whitetails. My first two hunts as an Illinois bowhunter yielded frustrating results; I didn’t see a single deer! On Sunday afternoon October 3rd, I went to my best stand on one of the properties Todd granted me permission to hunt, and was optimistic about my chances. About an hour before sunset, a mature doe snuck up on me, but I was able to harvest my first Illinois whitetail on film. I was pumped! Follow this link to view the footage of my first Illinios whitetail!
After a slow first couple of days in Illinois, I was able to film myself harvesting mature doe on October 3rd.
The weeks that followed were a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. My site broke while in the stand on a morning hunt in Central Illinois on Justin Zarr’s lease, however, that same weekend I was able to film Justin’s friend Jeremy Enders harvest his first deer which was a cool experience. I remember Jeremy shaking like a leaf when that doe walked in at less than 10 yards, but Jeremy made a perfect shot on her and I was able to capture it all on film. My luck then turned sour again, as I was in a minor car accident the following weekend that forced me to take precious time out of the stand to get the car repaired. I was thankful to not have been injured, but I wanted to be in the woods!
My view from behind the camera just seconds before Jeremy shot his first deer.
While I was thrilled with the harvest of my first Illinois whitetail, I was still driven to get my first Illinois buck as well. It was Halloween weekend and Justin and I were headed down to his lease in Central Illinois in Pike County for a three day hunting adventure. He and I struck up a deal. I was to film him for three hunts and then I had three hunts to get it done myself. After seeing some awesome buck activity filming Justin three times, I couldn’t wait to try my luck on a Pike County buck. I didn’t have to wait long, because on my first hunt, again about an hour before sunset, a shooter buck stopped perfectly broadside in my shooting lane and I put an arrow right through his heart. On the afternoon of October 30th, you would have been hard pressed to find happier bowhunter. It was literally a dream come true, harvesting a good buck in Pike County, Illinois, and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Click here to view the footage of my buck harvest as seen in Bowhunt or Die.
My Halloween Weekend buck that I was fortunate to harvest on Justin's lease in Pike County, Illinois. This is not only my first Illinois buck, but my biggest buck to date. I am super proud of this buck!
Harvesting that buck was a bittersweet moment, because it meant I was tagged out in Illinois. As a non-resident I was only issued one buck tag and one doe tag. But given the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I was able to hunt back home in Virginia for a week over the Thanksgiving holiday, but just couldn’t seal the deal on a Virginia whitetail. I was bound and determined to shoot an Illinois buck and a Virginia buck in the same season, but I just couldn’t pull it off.
I went home for the Thanksgiving holiday and was thankful to do a little hunting with my brother, who doubled as a camera man.
When I got back to Illinois after a blessed week at home for Thanksgiving, Mother Nature smacked me in the face with some brutally cold weather. But cold weather means usually means good hunting and Todd and I hit his property hard several times hoping a giant buck would visit one of Todd’s food plots. We saw several does during those hunts, a couple younger bucks and one nice buck that was a borderline shooter, but Todd elected to pass. I was, however, able to film Todd’s good friend Dr. Ali Shaibani harvesting his deer. Ali was the second hunter I was fortunate enough to film harvesting their first deer in 2010, which was pretty special!
As December faded into January, my primary focus wasn’t on bowhunting anymore, but on the annual ATA Show in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had heard several bowhunters talk about the ATA Show and how cool it was to hang out with all the pros and see all the new gear, but I never thought that I would actually be able to attend. Just like the majority of my experiences in Illinois, the 2011 ATA was another first for me. I couldn’t believe how big the show was! Every time I turned around I saw one of the pro hunters I grew up watching on TV just carrying on a casual conversation with a dealer. It was a bowhunter’s paradise! However, like my Halloween Weekend buck harvest, the ATA Show was a bittersweet experience because after the show, I had just a couple weeks before my internship was over. Just like that, 5 months had flown by and it was time for me to go home.
Here I am posing with Jim Shockey at the 2011 ATA Show. Jim was a cool guy to hang out with and meeting him was one of the many highlights of my first ATA Show experience.
Todd asked me just the other day what my favorite part of the internship and living in Illinois was. It was a cliché question, but it completely caught me off guard because I honestly hadn’t thought about it. It would have been easy to say the ATA Show, or harvesting two Illinois whitetails on film, or even being with Jeremy and Ali when they shot their first deer, but those thoughts never entered my mind. I simply answered, “The relationships.” In the future when I look back at my time as an intern at bowhunting.com, I’ll think of the great friendships I had made, particularly those with Todd and Justin. I can’t thank them enough for all that they did for me over the last 5 months and all they taught me. Not to mention everything I learned from them by just hanging around them in the woods and in the office. I’ll never forget the famous motivational speeches Todd gave me when he sensed I was lagging behind or getting discouraged, and the laughs I shared with Justin when hunting with him on his lease are irreplaceable.
To Todd and Justin, I can only hope that one day I will be able to return the favor, and I look forward to the adventures we are sure to share in the future; thank you!