Buckmasters Magazine

The Final Frontier

The Final Frontier

By Russell Thornberry

If you’re going to do it yourself, you might as well go all the way!

Several does milled around my ground blind like gray ghosts, emerging at dawn from the vicious Mexican flora of chaparro, black brush, mesquite, cat claw and prickly pear cacti. I watched them through tiny holes between the leaves of the thorn-clad walls of the ground blind that I had bled to build.

If one of the does ventured within range of my shooting window, I would launch a river-cane arrow tipped with a stone point, propelled by an Osage orange longbow — all of my own making. I had spent a long, ambitious and often frustrating year preparing for this moment, and I was about to find out what primitive bowhunting was all about. My hope was to shoot a deer with my antiquated equipment in an effort to experience what hunting was like in North America before Europeans set foot on these shores. Any deer would be more than ample. After all, Native American hunters were not after trophy antlers — they were after food.

Suddenly, a doe appeared 5 yards from the blind, standing broadside in front of my ragged shooting window. I took a deep breath, leaned forward slowly, and in one motion drew and launched my cane arrow. I watched in amazement as the arrow arced over her shoulder.

How could I have missed? She was only 4 1/2 paces away. I went back and shot at my target and all was fine. To be sure, instinctive shooting is a whole new challenge, but I was deadly out to 15 yards. Had I actually choked on that doe? Could excitement have had such an effect on me? I wasn’t sure. I had taken a grizzly bear and a Cape buffalo with compound bow and arrow, which caused me considerably more angst than that doe. I was puzzled and frustrated. Does 1, Russell 0.

That evening, another doe followed in the footsteps of the first. At approximately the same range, I missed her, too. That miss really rattled me. As before, when I shot at a target, I was dead on. Desperation set in. I wasn’t going back inside a blind until I figured out what was wrong.

Fortunately, I discovered the problem the following morning. I realized that when I drew my arrow I was bent at the waist to a lower position than my blind’s shooting window allowed. It was too high. With confidence I returned to the blind in the middle of the day and lowered my window. That evening, just before dark, I made a perfect shot on yet another doe and felt as though I had just conquered Mt. Everest. Man, was I pumped. A year of preparation had paid off and I had taken the most challenging animal — THE bowhunting accomplishment — of my half-century-plus hunting career.

The generous folks of 2J Outfitters (www.2joutfitters.com) at Rancho la Palma celebrated with me and urged me to try for a buck. It was an easy sell. At dawn the following morning, I watched the deer movement around another blind I had made. Guide Jimmy Ferguson told me there was a nice 10-point buck in the area, so I wanted to sit back and watch from a distance before I made my move. At first light I saw the buck and was stunned. Nice? This buck was not nice; it was awesome! I couldn’t imagine driving a flint-tipped arrow into its ribs. To make things even more dramatic, it was nibbling the tips of the newly cut branches of my ground blind. Adrenaline shot through my body. I could scarcely believe my eyes. This was going to be a hunt!

The Final FrontierAfter a couple of days of peek-a-boo from the blind, the buck reappeared just after dawn and looked like he might give me a shot. I stood back from my shooting window, fighting to breathe quietly as my heart slammed away in my chest like a jackhammer. My bow hand trembled involuntarily. My mind screamed for control, but my body couldn’t hear it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw high mahogany antlers only feet from my blind. I was not sure I could hold myself down for the shot. The hair stood at attention on the back of my neck, and my knees felt like they would buckle at any moment. The buck’s antlers passed my shooting window — his rib cage followed. He paused and began nibbling on a black brush bush, angling slightly away. Everything was perfect. It was now or never.

The doe entered the picture as I began to draw. She saw movement and blew up as I was releasing my arrow. In a millisecond she jumped for cover, taking the buck with her, but I was too far gone to hold. My arrows plunked into the rocky ground where the buck had been standing less than a heartbeat ago. I felt like a dishrag, entirely spent. It was like every muscle and nerve in my body was going to come unwound. Never had I been so electrified. I walked back to the lodge and took a nap. It’s better to lie down on purpose than fall down by accident, I guess.

The next attempts proved fruitless, and finally it was time to head back to Texas. To call it quits was a hollow event, like breaking up with your first girlfriend, only worse. I wanted just one more chance. Just one more cast, as fishermen say. I changed my flight schedule so I could have one last chance at that glorious buck. If it didn’t show the next morning, then so be it.

At daybreak Saturday morning, the buck appeared suddenly — like an apparition. My body assumed its involuntary electrified state as my nerves went from 0 to 60 in an instant. This time there was no doe around. The buck looked relaxed and confident. Admittedly, I was completely off the wall by then. I was pinning the needle on my pucker-factor gauge. A year of preparation and practice had come down to this magnificent moment. I knew exactly how Peyton Manning feels when he’s backed up at his own goal line, down by six, with two seconds on the clock and no receivers in sight. Exhilarated!

I can’t take little credit for what happened next because I hardly remember it. When the buck passed my blind at five paces, my body responded beyond my mind’s capacity to call the play. I went onto autopilot, I think. I remember initiating the draw, but in truth I have no idea how the arrow got to the deer’s heart. Somehow, it did.

The buck piled up in the brush and I had my own version of a nervous breakdown. If I never hunted whitetails or anything else for the rest of my life, hunting owes me nothing. I am grateful, I am content, and I am very, very lucky.

Writer’s Note:

I dedicate this article to two awesome men: Ben Contreras, my arrowhead-hunting mentor, who God placed in my path when I was a wild teenager in need of a father figure; and the late Bill Metcalf, who tutored me in flint knapping and bow building. Without him, this story would have never taken place. May he rest in peace.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to Jimmy Ferguson, Jr. and Abraham Garcia for the privilege of hunting on their incredible Rancho la Palma in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Both the lodge and the hunting are as good as it gets!

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This article was published in the July 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd