Do You Hunt Deer Exclusively With a Bow?

By Patrick DurkinSeptember 14, 2021

Do you hunt exclusively with a bow? If so, why? If not, what is it that pushes you to the point of trading in your bow for a gun? 

The Bowhunt or Die mantra obviously speaks to the commitment of a team of hunters that produce content with archery gear at the heart of everything they do. 

However, there are those that are more committed to punching their tag on a specific buck, regardless of whether that means trading in their bow for a gun when the gun opener rolls around. Pat Durkin’s story below is a classic example of this particular type of hunter. 

Do You Hunt Deer Exclusively With A Bow?
Are you committed to your bow for the entire season, or will you trade in your weapon when the gun season comes in?

Just like most serious bowhunters, Gregg Johnson was counting down the days to Wisconsin’s Sept. 18 archery deer season opener.

But unlike most bowhunters, Johnson likely decided before Labor Day which specific public-lands buck to target within driving distance of his Chippewa Falls home. In fact, he’ll focus on that buck until he or someone else arrows it.

“I like hunting specific deer,” said Johnson, 33, who spends many summer twilights glassing for bucks from rural roads and roadside ditches with a spotting scope. “Hunting specific bucks is a lot of fun. I don’t give them names, but I try to keep track of at least one buck each fall. I remember every deer I hunt without needing to name them.”

Wisconsin Bowhunter Zeros In On Specific Bucks
What are your reasons for bowhunting all season long?

Johnson knows, however, that he’ll struggle to match last year’s success. He shot a big 10-point buck on opening day of the November 2020 firearms season after spotting it six of the seven times he bowhunted it the previous two months.

“I had him within 50 yards four times with my bow, but never had a good shot opportunity,” Johnson said. “He’s the biggest buck I’ve ever killed. My taxidermist estimated he was 5½ years old. He had 10 points, and scored 154-6/8 with one broken antler.”

Johnson never saw that buck until summer 2020, and began looking for it after a “friend of a friend” saw it leave a block of public land at dusk one day. “After I heard about it, I drove up there with my spotting scope but never saw it the first four times I went,” he said. “I finally saw him stand up in the swamp I was watching from a road. I started making adjustments on when and where to watch for him, based on the wind direction.”

Wisconsin Bowhunter Zeros In On Specific Bucks
Finding his target buck in the swamp renewed Johnson's desire to double down on the buck.

Johnson also put out some trail cameras, including one mounted on a big poplar tree 50 yards from where he saw the bedded buck. The buck never triggered that camera, but Johnson’s cameras deeper in the swamp occasionally photographed it at night.

Even so, Johnson thought that poplar tree was his best bet, and hung a portable treestand 35 feet up it. He saw the buck twice from there while bowhunting, but it never got close enough for a good shot.

Johnson decided his only chance with a bow would require hunting from the ground.

“He never moved from his bed until after sunset, and he never moved far enough before dark to offer a shot,” Johnson said. “The farthest I saw him move in daylight was 100 yards. I realized my only chance would be making a move from the cattails.”

Either way, Johnson knew the only way to get within range undetected was to wait for the right wind and then cross 1½ miles of wet, lumpy marshland hummocks to reach his starting point. Sometimes he wore hip boots for the long stumble, and other times he wore rubber knee-high boots and jumped hummock to hummock. The 40-minute trek also required a wide loop to ensure he didn’t bump other bedded deer and blow his cover.

Johnson got within 200 yards of the bedded buck on one attempt, but didn’t push closer for fear of alerting it. He got closer the second time, probably within 150 yards, and saw the buck moving toward a beanfield. He got within 100 yards of its bed during yet another stalk, and watched the buck come within 50 yards. Unfortunately, marsh grass and other vegetation prevented a clear shot. Still another effort yielded similar frustration.

Wisconsin Bowhunter Zeros In On Specific Bucks
Johnson had to maneuver around a swamp to position himself for a shot when the buck moved from his bed.

Johnson thought he ruined everything during a bowhunt Oct. 28. He said he got lazy in his approach that afternoon, skirting the marsh and walking its edge to avoid the 40-minute stumble.

“When he came out, he made a big circle,” Johnson said. “I saw him working along the edge of the field and swamp, heading my way. When he cut my boot tracks, he spun 180 degrees and ran across the beanfield, across the road and up to the ridges. I thought he was gone forever. I never saw him again until gun season.”

The gun season opener, however, couldn’t have begun much worse. When Johnson met his father that morning before dawn he discovered he had grabbed a box of .32 Winchester ammo instead of a box of .270 bullets.

“By the time I drove home and got the .270 rounds, the sun was coming up,” he said. “I decided not to hunt from the poplar treestand until later. I hunted the same marsh, but I had minimal confidence in the spot.”

Still, Johnson sat there until 10 a.m., and then climbed down and drove around the marsh to see what other hunters were doing. “I didn’t want to walk near their stands and ruin their hunts,” he said. “By 11 a.m., I couldn’t see anyone out there, so I started walking in.”

Johnson reached his treestand in the big poplar by 11 a.m., and saw a 6-point buck chasing a doe and fawn at noon. After those deer disappeared, he kept glassing the swamp with his binoculars. The little buck chased the doe and fawn past him again about 2:15 p.m. He lowered the binoculars when they disappeared.

Wisconsin Bowhunter Zeros In On Specific Bucks
Johnson traded in his bow for his gun for the sake of killing this buck. Would you?

As Johnson looked straight out from his treestand at 2:30 p.m., he saw the big 10-pointer rise from its bed 75 yards away and stretch. Johnson quickly settled his riflescope on the buck’s lower chest and shot it through the heart. The buck ran 20 yards and fell dead before Johnson could chamber a second round.

What will he try for an encore this year?

“I’ve been watching a couple of good bucks this summer, but they aren’t as big,” Johnson said. “It’s still fun, though. I’m trying to figure out where I can put my treestands to intercept one of them with my bow.”

What about you? Do you swap out your bow for a gun when the opportunity arises, or are you committed to hunting with a bow regardless of if that means eating a tag? 

There’s no right or wrong answer, but we want to hear from you. Comment below and let us know what you think. 

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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