Outfitter ends six-year drought with tougher cut of venison.
By Mike Handley
Ever since Tim Puhalla traded a time clock and regular paycheck for the feast-or-famine role as an outfitter, he's had to indulge his passion for deer hunting through the eyes and feats of paying clients. Without the luxury of having vacation days to burn for the chance at a big whitetail, the 39-year-old Nebraskan spends the bulk of the season scouting for his customers, chauffeuring them and patting them on the back before taking a knife to their bucks.
On the rare occasion when Tim finds the time and energy to bowhunt, which is maybe six or seven times a year, he's pretty much loaded for venison. He considers himself the doe-taker on his good friend Todd Albers' 200-acre "Deer Camp," which is where most of his customers hunt.
If a doe strolls within range of Tim's bow, she's carrying a signed death warrant. The venison is put to good use, of course, and the property could definitely stand to lose some of the does. But he also does it to stay in the game.
"I have to do that much to sort of get the monkey off my back," he grins.
It's not that Tim doesn't want to arrow a decent buck. He goes through the motions. But in the six years leading up to the 2008 season, he was content to tag the first doe within bow range. Juvenile bucks are of no interest to him; he'd rather leave them for seed or for clients who are happy with a 2- or 3-year-old that might well make the record book.
Six years is a long time to go without shooting a buck. It makes a man less eager to crawl out of a warm bed before dawn, especially when he'll have no choice in the matter once clients start arriving.
When Tim awoke on Oct. 18, he decided he'd rather see the sunrise while sitting in a tree vs. through the dining room window. At worst, with the year's first clients coming in a couple of weeks, he could chalk up the vigil as scouting. At best, he might even put venison in the freezer to feed them.
It was a misty and foggy, 40-degree morning. Not long after 6:00, a full hour before daybreak, Tim was within 20 yards of his treestand when a deer snorted. He was aloft by 6:30, hoping the alarmed deer hadn't winded him and ruined the hunt.
The tree was on a hillside overlooking a wooded draw that empties into the neighboring landowner's unpicked soybean field. Three prominent trails, leading from the beans to the cedar-studded bedding areas, were within sight.
A previous client had suggested the spot a couple of years earlier.
To get the attention of any bucks that might be feeding in the soybeans, Tim decided to tickle the 8-point sheds he'd found on that very property in the spring to see if he might lure a buck out of the 40-acre field north of his position. He followed up the light rattling with a couple of grunts. It was still dark.
He repeated the sequence about 20 minutes later, and then did it again shortly after sunrise. The last time, he was quick to hang the antlers and free his hands.
"I've been caught too many times with antlers in hand," he said. "The bucks respond to rattling here, and they don't waste any time."
Almost immediately, Tim heard the splash of what he figured must be a very large deer - that or either two animals - crossing the nearby creek separating the wooded ridge from the beans. A moment later, a lone deer sailed over the barbed wire divider.
"As soon as the deer jumped the fence, it was at 30 yards," Tim said. "I could see a huge beam and knew immediately it was a shooter buck.
And it was close. I had just enough time to grab my bow because it was coming straight to me."
Tim never expected he'd have to make a snap judgment. He was committed to this deer before he even noticed its 20-plus-inch spread, the long tines and considerable mass.
As the buck approached, another deer - presumably a doe - snorted behind Tim.
"Oh, great, it's over now," the hunter thought.
But the buck paid little attention to the alarm. After registering it, the deer continued its roundabout approach, pausing to sideswipe saplings and limbs in its path. Tim quickly estimated the rack to be pushing 160 inches, bigger than any of the many sets atop glass-eyed mounts hanging in his Pawnee City farmhouse.
"It wasn't bristled up, but the buck definitely came in with some authority," Tim said. "It was as if it was modeling for me."
Tim soon found himself weaving on his feet. He could hear his own heartbeat. He knew he was suffering the effects of buck fever.
"I kept telling myself: 'It's just another deer. I've seen thousands. It's just another deer, Tim.' But then I'd think: 'My god, what a buck!' And then, 'It's just another deer,'" he laughed. "It was like I had a little angel and devil sitting on my shoulders."
Tim drew his bow when the buck passed within nine steps of his tree. At that moment, the deer stopped behind a cluster of saplings.
Almost panicking, Tim thought he was living the deer hunter's cliché.
"How many times have you read about or seen TV footage of a buck's vitals being obscured at the moment of truth?" he asks. "Thank goodness, I was wrong."
In a split-second, Tim realized that while he couldn't see the deer's head, neck or much of its flank, he could see its shoulder through a gap of between 10 and 12 inches.
"As soon as the arrow sailed through that hole, the buck did a big old rodeo kick and bounded off a little ways. And then it slowed down to a walk.
"A few seconds later, I heard the crash and gurgle.
"At that point, I was shaking like it was 40-below rather than 40 degrees above zero. I had to sit down and take several deep breaths. When I looked at my watch, it was 7:47," he added.
Between the post-shot shakes, rubbery legs and a general state of disbelief that he'd heard the buck take its last raggedy breath, Tim couldn't sit still for long. He also knew that, just in case his mind wanted to reach the ground before his feet, he'd better throw his rattling antlers far from the tree so he wouldn't impale himself if he fell.
The crimson-smeared arrow and well painted trail soothed his doubts. He found the buck about 20 yards beyond the scrape where he'd last seen it hesitate before disappearing. It had even bled in the scrape.
"It was as if bleeding in that scrape was the buck's way of saying his goodbyes to the world," Tim said.
While elated over his success, the young proprietor of Wild Things Outfitting still feels a little sheepish over having taken such a nice buck out of the woods where he stashes his paying customers. He was worried about his regulars' reactions, but he needn't have bothered.
Not only have his friends accepted the news with high-fives, but even bigger whitetails were seen during the '08 season. One of those is wearing at least 190 inches - verifiable from the distinct shed Tim found in the spring of '08.
The hunt lasted 15 minutes. Not that he's complaining, but Tim almost feels as if he was cheated. He says it was "too textbook." But he's still grinning.
Editor's Note: If you'd like a crack at a beefy buck in a state where affordable bow tags may be purchased over the counter, give Tim a call at (402) 520-0006. Statewide, buck-only rifle tags are also available, but cost more than those won via drawing.
Hunter: Tim Puhalla
Official Score: 158 3/8"
Composite Score: 178 6/8"
-- Reprinted from the July 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.