Introducin’ The Pit Barrel Cooker

A bunch of guys warming themselves around a flaming, black barrel while drinking beer doesn’t necessarily summon up feelings of serenity. In most cases I’d probably cross the street in order to avoid being shanked. Don’t get me wrong I’m no angel and I’ve sipped from more than one brown paper bag over the years, but until I caught a whiff of the Pit Barrel Cooker in action I probably would have been a little hesitant to walk up on that sort of a crowd.

It was late in the 2017 college football season and the Penn State home crowd was doing what they do best…they were tailgating Happy Valley style!

I was doing what I do best…sipping on an adult beverage, snacking and people watching when I caught a whiff of something intriguing.

As I followed my nose I came across a group of guys standing around what looked to me like a 55-gallon drum. They were drinking beer and having a pretty good time so I struck up a conversation. The guy that owned the Pit Barrel Cooker couldn’t stop talking about it. He kept mentioning that the ribs he was cooking were the best he’d ever prepared. I must have dropped enough hints as he finally opened up the lid on the PBC and pulled a rack out.

The first thing that I noticed was the beautiful color that he had accomplished on the ribs. At virtually the same moment I noticed the Pit Barrel Cookers unique “Hook and Hang” system that allowed the ribs to be treated to a steady convection cooking process. As he slapped the ribs down on the cutting board I had a funny feeling I was in for something special. He invited me to try a rib prior to saucing them. He had used the Pit Barrel Cooker Company’s own All Purpose Rib Rub. That rib was absolutely delicious.

He then sauced the rest of the ribs and put them back on the PBC to caramelize the sauce. I evidently lost track of time, as I listened to the PBC gospel being preached by this true Hang Time convert. In what seemed like just a couple of minutes he took the ribs back off of the PBC and offered me another bone. Truth be told I enjoyed the rib better “dry” (which is not unusual for me) then “sauced”, but it was still a darn good rib.

Those ribs were so good that on the following Monday morning, I started to investigate the Pit Barrel Cooker Company. They have a very user friendly website with plenty of recipes and helpful tutorials on how to use their products correctly. What I was able to find out about the company, and the product, truly impressed me.

This is a hands on, family run business and the founder is a Military Veteran. They were tremendously responsive to my inquiries for information and were more than happy to allow me to test drive some of their products. I’ve been fortunate enough to experiment with both the Classic Pit Barrel Cooker and the Pit Barrel Jr. and I can tell you that the advertised price is more than fair for a product of this quality. There is nothing chintzy about the PBC, the rubs are really good and all of the accessories make cooking easy.

Both the Pit Barrel Cooker and the Pit Barrel Jr. have delivered some very impressive results. I tend to be a huge fan of cooking over charcoal and this set up has helped the members of our Chasin’ Whitetails Media “Hunt-Fish-Forage-Farm team” accomplish some very solid results on everything we’ve thrown at it including kale (yes kale), stingray, burgers, hot dogs, ribs, pork shoulder, London Broil and even a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

As the holiday season approaches keep the folks at the Pit Barrel Cooker Company in mind. If you have a BBQ aficionado to shop for, and you’d like to win them over, I’d strongly recommend giving the folks over at the Pit Barrel Cooker Company (www.pitbarrelcooker.com) a chance to impress you as much as they’ve impressed me

An Exercise in Patience and Fitness A Hunt for a Dall Ram

Like many hunting stories, this one started last year with a phone call from a stranger who is now a good friend.  Outfitter Forest Smith of Southern Gold Mine Outfitters called to inform me I had drawn one of the most coveted tags Alaska has to offer: Dall sheep, unit 14C, archery only.

Forest’s call was quite a shock, as I had no hopes of actually winning this bow hunting lottery.  I had been applying for this tag for the last ten years and had never been chosen.  After a lengthy conversation with Forest, I immediately called a few of my friends who frequently hunted in Alaska and listened to their praise for him.  He was a legend.  Soon, I called Forest back and said, “Forest, it’s Steve, and I will be seeing you in October.”  The hunt was now booked, and it was up to me to turn up the dial on my workout meter!  I needed to lose 50 pounds if I was going to be able to do this hunt.  My weight has been a constant battle I have fought since my mid-twenties.  Hunting has served as a great motivator to get in shape and loose unwanted weight each summer. 

After five months of training, my mind and body were ready.  The only problem would be leaving my daughters for such a long time.  I would be gone for at least two full weeks, and possibly a third. The thought was weighing heavily on my mind, but I also knew if Campbell was 25 instead of 4, she would be stoked for me to go on the hunt of my lifetime.  In fact I am positive she would be trying to go with me.  So, I set my sights on this hunt, made the plan, and visualized success!

September 30th had finally arrived, and it was time for my epic adventure to begin.  I had been waiting for this day for over twenty years.  This was one of the hunts I dreamt about when I was kid.  Like all hunting trips, this one began by getting all of my stuff through the airlines and to my final destination.  That, in and of itself, can be a nightmare.  Fortunately for me, this time everything arrived with me.  Luckily, I found a direct flight from D.C. to Anchorage.  With a direct flight, I knew I was more likely to land with all of my belongings than if I had taken a cheaper two stop flight. 

After landing in Anchorage, I collected my gear and made my way to the hotel for a good night of rest and reorganization.  All I could think about was if I was really ready for this.  I wondered whether I had trained enough, whether my job would be okay without me, and most importantly, whether my girls would be okay.  I had my cell phone and a newly purchased satellite phone so I would always be able to communicate with them.  For anyone who plans to go on any hunt where cell phone service is nonexistent, or sketchy at best, a satellite phone is well worth the investment.  It not only becomes a piece of comfort equipment like a good sleeping bag, it becomes a piece of survival equipment like a first aid kit.  I really had to make an effort to not let my mind run away with the low percentage “what if’s” and “maybes” that were tormenting me.  I just kept thinking about the Zen master Phil Jackson and his book along with its great lessons.  The practice of positive visualization came into play, and it slowly began to lead me in a positive mental direction.  I couldn’t wait for this hunt to begin.

An Alaskan Dall sheep hunt requires extreme physical and mental fitness on the part of the hunter and the guide.  After a full-day hike into base camp, hunters can expect to spend their days climbing and descending several thousand feet at a time as they attempt to glass for trophy rams.  Again, I said to glass for them, there is no guarantee you are even going to see one.

The next morning, I re-packed my backpack, got my personal bag together, and made positively sure my bow was ready.  I spent an hour shooting in the parking lot out to distances of 60-80 yards.  At 7:30, Shane Reynolds, one of my guides, showed up at the hotel to pick me up, and we were off to meet Forest at a small airport about an hour away and then would head out to our spike camp.  Forest’s wife, Linda, and their two kids were there to give their daddy a proper send off before he headed off, once again, into the Alaskan bush.

Forest talked to Shane the entire drive up to the trail head in the famous Chugach Mountains.  Almost all of unit 14C is located within Chugach State Park, which covers 495,000 acres in Southeast Alaska.  Fortunately, it was an area Forest and Shane knew well.  They discussed certain land features and past hunts they had worked on together and a part, and described where particular bands of sheep possibly were, and how we would go after them, how we would make our approach, and how to maximize a shot opportunity.  That’s all you get there, is just one shot.  I paid close attention trying to familiarize myself to the features they discussed.

Accommodations on an Alaskan Dall Sheep Hunt aren’t fancy; but after climbing mountains all day in search of a trophy ram, extreme comfort isn’t usually required to fall asleep.  Our camp consisted of tents with sleeping bags and portable stoves for cooking.  Prepared, freeze-dried meals in a bag would be plentiful.  I felt like I was like a kid on his first dove hunt; I was beyond excited to be one of the very few who had been granted permission to hunt these awesome animals with bow and arrow!  Adrenaline was starting to build.  When we arrived at the trail head after what seemed like an eternity, we immediately started to prepare the final preparations for the nine hour hike into the Alaskan wilderness. 

It was about 10:00 am, and we were on the trail with our heavy packs.  In my mind, I knew I was ready because I had trained exactly for this!  Training is a must for this type of hunt.  I had spent the spring and summer training with an eighty pound pack on my back five to six days a week.  My motto was “train harder than you will hunt,” and now it was about to start paying off.

After two hours, we stopped for a quick lunch break.  I asked Shane how much farther it would be to our camp.  “Oh, about 12 more miles should get us to the general area where we’ll start looking for sheep,” he said matter-of-factly.  Believe me when I say, I thought he was pulling my leg…he wasn’t!  Seven hours later, we stopped to set up camp, but only because it was about to get dark.  We were still about two miles from where base camp would be located.

The next morning was cold, and Shane had the camp stove fired up and hot coffee was soon to follow.  The mountains that surrounded us were quiet, yet screamed with adventure.  After a quick breakfast, we hastily packed up camp and headed up the moose trail towards what I will call “Emotion Mountain.”  After about 15 minutes, Forest pointed out a healthy grizzly on the mountainside.  You could tell these two spent many months each year hunting wild game in the Alaskan bush.

Only in their early 30’s, Forest and Shane are well- seasoned guides, and they really know how to have a good time and make hunts fun; that is if Dall sheep hunting can really ever be described as fun.  It can be the most rewarding hunting experience of your life, but fun?  Ask an experienced sheep hunter that question, and I’m sure you’ll get a surprising answer.

Later that afternoon, Forest spotted a band of sheep with a pretty good ram in the group.  We looked him over through the spotting scope, and the general consensus was that he was good, but we should continue glassing.  I had told them I would be happy with any ram, they both told me not to settle for anything less than a true trophy.  After climbing for another 45 minutes up a small “hill,” as Forest called it, we leveled out and slowly moved around Emotion Mountain.  We set up to glass for the rams we had seen earlier.  As I sat there with the cold wind blowing in my face, I let my mind race off again and dreamed of the giant rams that lived here on this mountain.

Soon, it was back to the task at hand, which was keeping up with my guides and spotting sheep.  I thought I better get focused, because these two guides weren’t here to babysit.  I can tell you one thing, as long as I was safe, they weren’t waiting for me. 

That evening, we climbed high on the mountain and glassed for a few hours.  Forest and Shane kept whispering as they glassed the hills, “They’re here.  I know they’re here.”

After hearing that, I was confident the rams were in fact there, but also knew they must have gone higher up the mountain.  Going any further would not be in our best interest, as they most likely would catch our wind and be gone.  And when sheep are gone, they are just that; gone for days.  We elected to back off and search for these rams from farther down the mountain.  Soon after we descended, we found the rams and watched them get out of their beds and walk within 20 yards of the position we had just left early in the day.  We continued watching them until they were out of sight, which was our sign to head back to camp and get ready for the next day.

On morning three, we woke up to yet another awesome day.  Yeah, my boots were frozen solid, and rather than try to pry my feet into them and wear them around camp for about 30 minutes before I could tie the laces, I opted to put on my sneakers and set my boots by the fire to warm them up.  It was still an awesome morning, even if I had to defrost my boots.  The sun would soon be over head, my feet would be warm, and my belly full of Forest’s gourmet instant coffee and oatmeal.  We didn’t even eat much breakfast that morning.  Instead, we threw some energy bars into our packs, gulped a cup of hot coffee, and headed up the mountain after the two rams we had seen the night before.  Forest stayed on the valley floor, and Shane marched me up the mountain.  I kept positive and reminded myself I wasn’t a slouch in the mountains either.  I had hunted deep into the Montana wilderness many a times, played lacrosse, and had trained hard.  So, I figured I could keep up well enough, but I was only fooling myself.  By the time we got to our first glassing position, I was sweating like a fox in a forest fire, and Shane was proving just how seasoned he actually was.  He was hardly breaking a sweat!

After Shane let me catch my breath, he told me he was just going to peek around over the edge to see where the rams were.  Soon, he returned and said, “Let’s go!”  Quickly, I put on my pack and followed him through some unfriendly terrain.  Shane moved like a mountain goat, and I followed in his footsteps.  Soon, we were right on top of two giant rams, but still out of bow range.  The wind was perfect, so we watched the rams feed, and Shane got some great video footage. 

After watching for an hour, the rams began to move up-hill, and Shane and I followed, always climbing just a bit higher than the rams as to prevent them from catching our wind.  Shane whispered “82 yards,” a little too far for my bow.  So we waited and waited, and climbed higher and higher, until we ran out of cover.  It was at this point, many hunters elect to pull out the gun.  But, on this hunt, it just wasn’t an option.  This was a bow hunt, and I am a bow hunter.  Eventually, the rams caught our wind and climbed up and away from danger.

Later that day, we caught up with Forest and had lunch.  We continued to glass Emotion Mountain and found our two rams from earlier that morning.  The only difference was, they were about 2,000 feet higher.  We also spotted a group of five rams and watched them the rest of the day.  They just kind of hung out, and we bedded down with them for the afternoon.  Just before dark, three of the five came down the mountain to feed on some of the last remaining grasses.  We left them there, feeding peacefully, but knew tomorrow would be a different day.

The next morning, we headed back to our glassing location about a mile up the river.  Soon, we spotted two of the rams from the previous evening.  After watching them for a while, Forest said, “Look, they are right where we want them. Let’s go!”  And off to the races we went!  Again, Forest and Shane showed why they are professional guides and sheep hunting extraordinaire.  They are mentally tough, physically strong, and most important, driven to assist their hunters to succeed.  When they say, “Let’s go,” they mean “Let’s go!”!  By the time I had shouldered my pack, I was 100 yards back and had to double time to catch up.  Twenty minutes later, we were directly across the river and about 1,500 feet below the two shooter rams.  This time, Shane stayed to direct Forest and me.  It was still very early in the morning, and I did not have those 30 minutes to warm up my frozen boots enough to tie them tight before we headed out.  I was climbing in loose boots, but it didn’t matter, because we had a “giant ram” to stalk, and I had a great guide pulling me up the mountain to do just that.

After a 25 minute climb, Shane signaled that we were even with the rams.  Gulping breaths of air, Forest and I labored to whisper to one another about our plan of attack.  Shane signaled the rams were 300 yards away, and as we moved, he signaled 200 yards.

From afar, we must have looked like two hungry coyotes moving in on a well-guarded chicken coop.  Soon, Shane signaled 100 yards.  I couldn’t believe what was happening, and adrenaline definitely took over.  I wasn’t tired, cold, or nervous.  My feet no longer hurt.  And, like my two guides, I was feeling seasoned.  Forest said, “Give me a puff,” and I was like, “Huh?” And he said “Give me a puff!” again; then I remembered my wind checker.  I checked the wind, and it was perfect.  We continued to move to what we figured was about 80 yards from the rams.  There, we dropped our packs and became one with the mountain as we morphed into extreme stealth mode.

After slithering in another 30 yards, Forest slowly raised his head and peeked over the ridgeline.  He immediately dropped back and whispered, “They are right there!” He ranged them at 50 yards.  I nocked my arrow and started visualizing my broadhead slicing through the vitals of a giant ram.  Forest nodded as if to say, “Let’s go.  It’s show time, Steve.”  I slowly stepped toward the sheep and moved to the edge.  I could see the back of one of the rams and knew he was feeding toward me.  I ranged him at 42 yards, came to full draw, and slowly stood up.  As I cleared the grass, I suddenly moved my eyes to the left, and spotted a ram at 18 yards!  He was larger than the other, and at freaking 18 yards!  I immediately focused on the closer, bigger ram, turned quickly, and picked a spot just behind his front leg.

At the release, everything seemed to go into slow motion.  The arrow struck just behind the heart and passed through the ram to the gravel mountainside.  As the ram ran uphill, I had already nocked another arrow.  He stood there, looking back at where he had been standing, rather than take a chance of him going much further, I ranged him at 70 yards and let another fly, and watched the bright Blazer vanes disappear into the vitals.

After the shot, both rams ran away from us along the slope, but my ram was leaving a crimson trail for us to follow.  Just 54 yards out, he crashed, rolled over, and landed softly on the only flat spot in sight.  At this moment, I heard a distant “Whoa, yeah!” from about a mile away.  It was Shane celebrating.  He had witnessed the entire stalk from the riverbed below.

I raised my arms to the sky, followed by my eyes, and lastly, my heart.  I could feel the powers from above touching me.  Within seconds, I was experiencing emotions I had never experienced before.  The lump in my throat brought on salty tears I just couldn’t fight back.  I dropped to my knees and placed my hands over my face. There was no stopping the flood of emotions.  I prayed; thanking the Lord above for all that he had given me.  As I knelt there, I thought about my early failures as a whitetail hunter, and just how far I had come. 

Soon, Forest came to my side and slapped me on the shoulder. I hugged him and said, “Thank you!”  I was so happy and thankful that I could hardly talk.  Forest and Shane had guided me to a real “smoker ram,” and I was now feeling seasoned enough to be a part of their team, which was a good thing, since we still had a 22 mile hike back to the truck.

Ground Blinds – A Playhouse for Hunters

Over the past decade, more and more companies have begun to produce ground blinds. Why the explosion?  They work.  Not only are they responsible for a large number of kills each year, but anyone can use them.  Anyone can hunt out of them, and for people that are afraid of heights, they are the perfect way to conceal yourself in the woods.  The best part is if you fall asleep in a ground blind, the only thing you might fall out of is your chair.  Ground blinds weigh typically less than twenty pounds, and are easy to carry in and out of the woods.  They can keep you out of the wind and rain and they turn a normally miserable hunting day into one that is comfortable.  Companies have begun making specialized light systems, fans, heaters, and chairs for ground blinds that are quiet and scent free. 

The most popular style of ground blind is the hub design.  It sets up in minutes and comes in a variety of camo patterns.  You want to choose a camo pattern that matches the area in which you plan to hunt.  Most even have mesh windows that you can shoot through.  It is important to remember that set up does not end with an erect blind.    

Next, you need to try to arrange the blind so that the sun does not glare off it.  A good way to do this is to face a morning blind west and an evening blind east.  Set up your blind downwind of where you will see any game, especially if you are hunting deer. Spray your blind with an odor-killer.  Make sure to close the back door of your blind, so that game cannot see you through the other side.

It’s a good idea to set up your blind, and then let it sit for a while in the weather.  This will cause it to blend in a little better.  Don’t set up your blind in the middle of a path or thoroughfare, as this will alert game to your presence.

Next, look at the vegetation around you and decided how to use it to help your blind blend into the environment that it is sitting in.  I, normally, try to find a variety of tree branches and leaves to help blend my blind into its surrounding.  Always carry a small saw when you are hunting out of a ground blind.  This will make trimming branches and limbs a snap and will allow you to set the height exactly the way you want it.

You may want to bring a pruning shear, as well.  These two tools do not add significant weight to your backpack and make a world of difference in the overall look of your blind.  I am also very cautious not to block my shooting lanes.  Finally, I always put the blind about 10 to 15 yards back off the edge of a trail or field.  That helps the blind stay concealed and undetected by the animals.  Remember, the goal is to make the blind look like it has been there forever.  If you spend a few extra minutes doing it the right way, it will pay off later. 

Camouflage is the standard uniform for the bow hunter.  However, black is a better option for the ground blind hunter.  Inside the blind is dark, and darker clothing helps conceal you even better than camo.

Ground blinds may not be for everyone, and they won’t work in all circumstances.  They limit your mobility to some degree, and you can’t see or hear, as well, from inside.  But they do offer some distinct advantages.  Portable blinds weigh less than most climbing stands, and you can set them mostly anywhere, instead of hunting for the right tree.  They also take minimal effort and time to move, should you want to make minor adjustments in your location.  You don’t have to worry about moving when game is close-at-hand, and they help to control your scent.  They’re also safe; to my knowledge, no one has ever fallen out of a ground blind.

In Search of Rocky and Bullwinkle – An Alaskan Moose Hunt

Despite the single digit temperature, the small outboard motor came to life on the second pull.  I let the 50 horse power Yamaha water jet engine warm up for ten minutes before shoving our 20-foot aluminum skiff off into the fog-engulfed river.  I navigated slowly, making my way through the shallow water by memory and bumping along the exposed rocks as the first crimson rays of sunlight crested the nearby hills.  It was opening day of the archery moose season in Alaska, and I was back guiding magnificent hunts.  The previous three years, my buddy, Tim, had gone home empty-handed, but not this year.  I was determined to make it happen.  I also knew that there was a good chance that I could connect on a moose, as well.  We were heading towards a glassing knob four miles upstream from which we could scout for moose in the area.

As I slowly navigated the skiff upriver, Tim was sitting on the bow glancing from side to side, trying to detect movement along the willow-choked riverbanks. Tim Higgs and I have hunted together several times before.  Tim’s last hunt with me was a Dall sheep and caribou hunt, during which he took a beautiful 36” ram and an excellent caribou that narrowly missed the Boone and Crockett record book.  I recalled the day, two years earlier, when Tim had moose hunts on his mind and booked this trip for us.  He was so excited then.  I bet he thought this day would never come.  I know I did. 


I gently idled to a tree that we had used the day before to tie up the boat while scouting. The ride took twenty minutes longer than normal due to the fog, but we still had plenty of time to make the 400 yard climb before we had good glassing light.  Tim hopped onto the riverbank with the bow rope in hand, as if he had done it a hundred times before, and tied off the boat.  We donned our packs, grabbed our bows, and headed up the hill.

About halfway up the hillside, we heard a bull grunt, followed by the unmistakable sound of antlers on brush. The bull was no more than 600 yards in front of us, but with the low blanket of fog, we could only guess how big he was.  Tim looked at me with a smile. “Should be a good morning,” I whispered.

We continued to the top, took off our packs, and waited for the fog to clear.  We listened through the calm, cold, autumn air as our mystery bull continued to destroy everything in his path.  Our eyes were intently focused where our ears thought the bull was, hoping to catch any movement.  The sun was still a few minutes from its unveiling, when the north wind chilled my face.  The bull’s only means of protection was about to disappear.  I gave a bull grunt and raked some brush with an old paddle from where I was sitting.  The bull immediately grunted back with every step he took in our direction.  “Maybe I called a little too soon,” I told Tim.  “Will he climb the hill to us?” he asked.

They will occasionally, but they usually wait for a visual before they do that.  The bull came about 100 yards closer, stopped, and commenced destroying a tree, when another bull grunted.  Tim nocked an arrow and was ready if a shot presented itself.  Though it seemed longer, not more than two minutes passed before we could see the two bulls.  They were 20 feet apart, and 50 yards below us, on the edge of a slough.  By now, the butterflies had taken flight in my stomach, but Tim was unshaken.  He was ready with his bow in hand, waiting for me to size them up.

“The one on the right is the biggest,” I said. “Well, the one on the left is huge! How big is the other one?” Tim asked, seemingly in disbelief.

I held my response as the bulls met head-on and began sparring. I made sure Tim was comfortable with his position, and gave a cow call.  The bulls seemed to forget one another and looked directly at us.

“The one on the right is nice. He’s a solid 63 inches, with four brow tines on each side. He might go 65. The left one is about 60. What do you think?” Tim asked.

With any other hunter, I would suggest taking him, but there are bigger bulls here and this is only the first hour of a 10-day hunt.

“I never tell a hunter not to shoot a legal animal, so I am leaving it up to you,” I said.  While we sat for a minute and debated taking one of them, the two bulls milled around the slough in front of us, in no hurry to go anywhere.  Then, I spotted another moose a mile away.  I quickly put my spotting scope on him.

“Your question is answered Tim. This is the bull you want.  Take a look.”

“Holy cow! How big is he?”

“He’s definitely 70 inches, but he’s a mile from the river and moving away from us,” I said.  I made my loudest call, and raked some brush.  The old warrior heard me, stopped for a few seconds, but continued on his way. I had already forgotten about the bulls in front of us when Tim said, “I would have never guessed that those two bulls could look small.”

We hunted the next five days for that bull, and never laid eyes on him again.  In fact, we saw only two other bulls despite the cold and seemingly perfect weather.  One was in the high 50 inch range, and the other about 60.  So, after the morning hunt on the sixth day, we packed our light camp to re-locate to a different drainage.

We navigated slowly downstream through the rocks and ice chunks, which had been getting larger and more numerous.  A mile below our old campsite, our progress was severely hampered by a 300 yard ice jam.  We realized then that if we didn’t get to some faster water today, we would be hiking out.

Luckily, the water was just under hip height.  I was able to walk in front of the boat and chop out the ice with an ax.  It took us 30 minutes to chip through those 300 yards.  I was ready for a rest when I fired up the motor and resumed our trek.  We came to four more ice-jams; luckily, we were able to break through with the boat by leaving it in idle, driving our paddles through the ice, and paddling our way through.  This was why we chose to get a boat with a jet motor.  The water was too deep to wade in.

We were relieved when we came to faster waters.  We continued down the main river for two miles, and then came to the mouth of a shallower, but faster drainage.  The cold, dry weather didn’t help our cause, as we had to get out of our boat and pull it over to more than a dozen shallow spots before we reached our pre-determined campsite.  By 7:00 pm, we were tired and irritable (me, more so than Tim) and ready for sleep.

We quickly set up our tent on a small gravel edge and paddled across the river to get a view from the adjacent hill.  Before 8:00 pm, I spotted a small bull.  A few minutes later, Tim spotted a bull in the timber.  We finally saw enough antler for me to identify him.  It was the same bull I saw on the previous hunt.  I knew, or so I thought, how to get him.

We immediately ran down the hill to the boat and paddled across the river.  With only one hour of daylight left, we quickly stalked to within 100 yards of the bull, when we came to a frozen beaver pond.  I knew we would break the ice if we tried to cross it, so I pulled out the boat paddle and went to work.  I followed with two bull grunts.  The bull grunted in response, followed by multiple cows!

“He’s got cows.  He’s going to be tough,” I told Tim.

The experienced moose hunter knew exactly what I was talking about.  Suddenly, a branch broke.  Through the willows, we could see a moose coming, and Tim was ready.  What we thought was a cow turned out to be the small bull we had spotted earlier.

With day light fading, we heard a bull grunt 300 yards behind us in the timber.  We cautiously approached through the loud spongy tundra, calling and raking brush with every step to mask the noise of our movement.  We stopped when we came to the edge of the timber he was in and waited quietly.  At dark, we quickly slipped back to our tent, which was only a quarter of a mile away.

The next morning found us atop the same hill across the river from our tent; the same frost glistening from the foliage, and the same stiff north wind hitting us in the face.  Again, we heard two bulls in the timber, but we could never catch a glimpse of them.  We decided to wait them out until evening.  Finally, at 3:00 pm, Tim and I simultaneously spotted a moose.  It was a cow.

Then, I spotted an antler, and two more cows came into the small opening.  The sight that followed in the next few seconds was all we needed to confirm that he was our bull.  Tim immediately suggested that he walk across the river to a gravel bar where moose had been crossing, not four yards from the moose, and wait as evening approached.  I agreed.  Tim found a suitable spot, and I stayed on the hill to watch.  By 7:00 pm, having neither seen nor heard a moose, I decided it was time to make something happen.  I walked down to talk to Tim. “The moose are in the same five acre willow thicket we last saw them enter.  We can either go in there, try to call him out, or I can try to drive them to you.  It is so thick in there that if we do get close to them, we will probably only see hair and maybe a flash of antlers.  This wind is perfect, but we have to do it now before it dies down”.

“Then let’s try the drive,” Tim said without hesitation.

I immediately took off, crossed the river, and started looping around the moose.  I cursed myself for forgetting to leave my boat paddle with Tim.  In less than five minutes, I was in perfect position.  The moose were somewhere between Tim and I, with a ten mile per hour wind blowing directly from me to them.

I paced back and forth, spreading my scent through the willows.  I had just begun to enter the willow thicket, when the herd exploded through the willows!  It sounded like they went about 75 yards towards Tim and stopped.  I eased closer.  I busted the moose again.  This time they split up; some of moose went west, but I could tell by the antlers hitting the brush that the bull went east.

I ran, trying to get upwind of the bulls, pushing them towards Tim, but the bull broke out of the willows and into the tundra flat.  Seeing this, I instantly gave my loudest bull grunt.  The bull stopped and looked back.  He started to leave again when I grunted once more, and waved my cursed boat paddle in the air.  The bull turned and faced me.  I hunched over, grunting with every step, waving the paddle as I stumbled through the tundra.  I knew I wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but I was able to get around and upwind the bull once again.  He smelled me and whirled around to the south.

“Here he comes, Tim!” I yelled at the top of my aching lungs.

I was running in Tim’s direction when I heard the twang of his bow strings, and the whack of his broadhead hitting the bull.  I kept running for another 20 seconds before I heard “YEHAHHHH!” I plowed through the willows and came to the river directly across from Tim.

“Where is he?” I asked. “He’s 20 yards to your right.  I think he’s big!”  Tim exclaimed. 

I walked to the bull.  “Tim, he’s not big, he’s huge!  Get over here and check him out.”  Tim was about half an inch from filling his hip boots, but he made it to his bull.

“He’s awesome!  I wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing by pushing him, but I knew we had to do something different, and it paid off big time,” Tim said.


We told our stories to one another, of what happened, and how we both wondered if it would actually work.  We took pictures, and then skinned and butchered the bull. It took us a little while to get to the quarters, and then head back to camp, and we need to take our time given the terrain and the fact it was dark.  We were back in camp after midnight, and we weren’t in bed till much before two.   

The next morning, after a breakfast of steak and eggs, we loaded Tim’s quartered bull on to the boat, along with all of our other stuff from camp and headed downstream.  The 14 miles to base camp was an adventure, to say the least.  The rock infested river would normally be an adventure, but with the ice in the water it made the danger all the more dangerous.  Additionally, we still had time to stop and set up another spike if we saw signs of another good bull.  Without all the obstacles, we could have gotten down the river in under an hour; however, with the moose, the ice, and the rocks it took over seven hours to make it back to camp.  We stopped along the way to check out different spots that we thought might hold some nice bulls, but none answered our calls so we continued downstream.  On numerous occasions we were out of the boat breaking ice and dragging the boat behind us.  I would not have attempted the journey with such a heavy load with any other hunting friend, but I had confidence in Tim.

Later that evening, after we shared a meal with the other hunters in camp, and washed it down with a couple of cold beers, we shared the story of our hunt before heading to bed, knowing that we had made memories to last a lifetime. 

Up, Up and Away Tree Stands 101

Using a tree stand is like anything else: the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more comfortable it will feel.  With so many options out there, there is a stand for everybody, and every hunting level.  Ladder stands, climbing stands, and fix stands all provide their advantages and disadvantages.  It is important to remember that any time you are using a tree stand, you MUST wear a harness and a fall arrest system.  Keep in mind that more people are killed each year from using homemade tree stands than all others combined.  Old boards crack, nails and screws become unattached, and rain and sun weaken the boards.  They are just plain unsafe and should be avoided at all costs. Additionally, any time you are hanging stands, you should also be wearing a lineman’s climbing belt for additional stability and balance.  If you are afraid of heights, then a tree stand is not right for you.  There is nothing wrong with hunting from the ground.  I will cover that topic later.

Ladder stands are just as the name implies: a ladder with a tree stand attached at the top of the ladder.  They come in a variety of materials, most often steel and aluminum.  When installed properly, they are the safest of all tree stands.  They are extremely stable, and some are big enough to hold two hunters comfortably.  This makes them ideal for taking young hunters aloft for their first few seasons.  Generally, this type of stand is put up once at the beginning of the hunting season and left up in one for spot for the duration.   

Ladder stands require two people to set them up and are often cumbersome to maneuver around.  Most ladder stands range from 15 to 17 feet in height.  At this height, most people feel comfortable hunting and it provides them with the optimum shooting angle.  The higher you are off the ground, the steeper your shooting angle becomes, making it more difficult to get a double long shot.  Ladder stands are attached to the tree with a series of straps and ratchets the lock it in place.  The ladder is very easy to climb, and is extremely sturdy. 

The platforms on ladder stands vary in width and length depending on your specific hunting need.  It is important to match your platform to your style of hunting.  Rifle hunters generally do not need as big of a platform, because most of their shooting is done from the seated position.  Bow hunters, on the other hand, often prefer larger platforms so that they can shoot either standing or sitting. 

The only downside to a ladder stand is that they are more visual in the woods, thus making it more difficult to hide than the other two types of tree stands.  Also, because of their size, they are not portable. 

A climbing stand is the most portable of the three types of tree stands.  It is carried into the woods the day of the hunt and taken back out at the end of the day.  There are two pieces that make up this type of stand: a seat and a base.  Each piece is attached to the tree via a cable. The hunter then inches his/her way upward by lifting the seat up and the base up, much like an inch worm moves, until he/she is at their desired height.  To climb a tree with this stand, it must be straight and free of branches.  Essentially, you are climbing a telephone pole.  This can leave the hunter exposed to the game if the stand is on the edge of a field or any other open area

Climbing stands are the most comfortable to sit in for long periods of time.  Most come with a heavily-padded seat and arm rests.  Some hunters refer to this type of stand as a lounger, claiming that they are as comfortable as their favorite lounge chair.  I can personally attest that many of the high-end climbing stands have chairs that are very comfortable, too comfortable for my liking.  This is the type of stand that most hunters fall asleep in and fall out of. 

One major advantage of this type of tree stand is its versatility and ease of use.  You only have to carry the stand.  There are no ladders and no other items to carry into the woods with you.   Also, if you are going to hunt public land, this is your best option for getting off the ground.  Any time you leave a stand in the woods, you are at risk of having some steal it.  I have even had this issue on private property.

The third type of stand is a fixed stand.  It requires the hunter to carry the stand, plus some type of a climbing device.  Climbing devices range from portable ladders, to interlocking climbing sticks, to strap-on rail systems.  This type of stand is very popular because of its ease of use and its ability to be highly mobile if necessary.  This is the type of stand that I use most often.

They allow individuals to climb to any height desirable.  Most climbing sticks and ladders max out at 20 feet.  Additionally, they allow you to place the stand above limbs and branches, allowing the hunter to have extra cover from the game below.  The platforms are very spacious and allow the hunter to shoot comfortably from the seated position or standing. 

Fixed stands are stable and very safe when used properly.  They typically attach to a tree with a belt or chain that is affixed to the stand directly below the seat.  Once connected, the hunter then synchs the belt tightly to the tree.  Add a secondary strap on the bottom for stability, and you are all set and ready to hunt.   Many high-end companies such as, Lone Wolf and Summit, now connect the stand to the tree with a strap and a hook system.  This system makes hanging stands extremely simple and fast. 

With any tree stand I hunt out of, I always attached a few extra accessories to the tree to aid in my comfort.  First, I always screw a bow holder to the tree.  From the bow holder, I can then hang my ropes for hoisting my bow and backpack up to the stand.  It also provides me with the space to hang my gear, backpack, range finder, binoculars, and calls.

When trying to decide where to hang your tree stand from, remember it is all about location, location, location.  Logging roads, field edges, and creek bottoms all make excellent locations to hang stands.  You should try to hang them some place where the deer are going to move past as they are following their daily routine.  Keep in mind that all deer have to eat and drink.  You just need to find out how they are getting from their house to the supermarket.  This is where off season scouting and trail cameras can pay big dividends. 

How high should a tree stand be?  Well, for most of us there is no reason to go above the 15-20 foot range.  Within that range, a hunter should be able to find adequate cover, even into the late season. 

Another important factor to take into consideration when hanging a tree stand is your ability to approach the stand undetected.  You need to determine what the prevailing wind is for that area and base your decision of how to enter your standoff of that.  You do not want to wake up the deer as your entering your stand area.  This may require you to go the long way in and out of your stand, but it will pay off in the end.  As walk, go slowly.  The slower you move, the quieter you become.  Do your best to avoid stepping on leaves and sticks in order to minimize noise. 

If you want the perfect tree stand location, keep your mouth shut.  Far too often, people want to brag about the big deer they have scouted around their tree stands.  Whether you do it in person during a conversation or chat about it online, the results will always be the same: someone else is going to either sit in your stand when you are not there, or they will erect one of their own nearby.  If you want to brag, wait till after you shoot the deer and then tell everyone that you shot it in the peach orchard.  Within a week, someone else will have a stand in that peach orchard. 

You must be comfortable on your stand.  You need to be able to sit fidget-free all morning or all afternoon.  The more you have to move around, the more likely that a deer is going to pick you off.  It is also important that you learn how to shoot from your tree stand in the seated position.  This will help you further conceal your movement in the tree. 

If you are seeing lots of deer, but cannot seem to figure out why they keep giving your stand a wide berth, look at the ground below.  Often times, fallen branches, downed trees, and other obstacles may be forcing deer to move just out of shooting range for you.  You want to move obstacles so that they force deer towards you, not away from you.  This is a little thing that can make a world of difference. 

The Retrieve with Bags and Shadow

Chapter 2 – Picking a Puppy

Let’s start at the beginning.

So you’ve decided you want to get a hunting dog. The first step would be determining what species you intend to hunt with your new canine partner. Knowing what game birds you’ll be hunting will help you determine what breed of dog would be best for you. You may be interested in upland hunting so a pointer might be a good choice for you? I hunt predominantly waterfowl so a Labrador Retriever serves my purposes.

Once you’ve decided on the breed that best suits your needs you’ll need to do your homework!

Determine your budget. Hunting dogs can range anywhere in price from free from a neighbor to thousands of dollars. A common misconception is that the more expensive the dog the better that dog will hunt. That is not necessarily true. I have seen dogs that cost a couple thousand dollars struggle to show interest in chasing a ball. I have also seen dogs that cost the owners virtually nothing show incredible drive and natural instinct.

It’s very hard to argue with heredity and breeding. There are some incredible bloodlines out there that have taken generations to develop. That said I also believe that, like any other sport, great athletes can be made.

And yes…I consider hunting dogs to be athletes.

If you make the decision to purchase your dog from a breeder spend a lot of time researching that individual or kennel. Buying a dog from a reputable breeder is very important. Obviously you don’t want to support a puppy mill nor do you want to purchase a dog from a bloodline with noted health issues. Check references and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask questions.

A reputable breeder will be able to provide you with some credentials (AKC certification, veterinarians records, the bloodlines health history) for all of their dogs. A good breeder will provide some sort of health guarantee and most hunting dogs breeders will have some sort of training guarantee. Just because a dog has papers doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog will be free of genetic defects, nor does it mean they’ll finish first in field trials, but knowing the bloodline can certainly help to limit surprises.

Don’t be offended if the breeder spends some time researching you as well. After all they are trusting you to raise one of their puppies. A good breeder should ask you questions and try to help pair you with the right puppy. Most likely the breeder has spent a lot of time with puppies and will have a feel for their personality. In some cases, a breeder may ask you to take a personality test to help make the perfect match for their puppy.

Quick recap…you now know you want a hunting dog, you know what breed of dog you’d like, you have an idea how much money you’d like to spend and you’ve found someone that you trust to provide your new hunting companion.

Before we go any further I feel that it is imperative to point out that this puppy is a ten to fifteen-year commitment. If you cannot commit to bringing this puppy into your home for its entire life, please do not purchase a hunting dog! Stop reading this article and step away from the computer now.

If you are still with me let’s talk about what to look for in your new puppy.

As noted I am a Labrador Retriever guy so we will use that as our example. You’ll need to look at the breed and any breed subsets. Within the Labrador Retriever breed you’ll have the option of American vs. British. You’ll also have a color variation (Yellow, Black, Chocolate). Lastly the difference in personalities between the sexes, male vs. female.

On your visit to the breeder have a game plan in place. I’d also strongly encourage you to bring someone else along with you to help watch the reactions of the puppy, its littermates, the mother and even the breeder. I would also empower your assistant to veto your decision should you “jump the rails” and stray from the game plan when surrounded by all those cute little puppies.

Plan to take your time. Do not go to look at puppies if you have dinner reservations or somewhere else to be that may force you to rush into a bad decision. Make sure that you connect with the sire and dam (if they are both onsite). Watch the litter to see how each of the puppies interact with one another.

Don’t be afraid to ask the breeder questions and get their opinion on each dog. As I mentioned before some breeders will ask you to take a personality test before picking out your puppy. The reason for this test is so they can help you identify which puppy may best suit you. Remember the breeder spends almost two months taking care of the puppies.

These are all things you should be doing prior to handling the puppies.

At this point you should be forming your short list. You may now pick up the puppies, but understand that once you pick up a puppy their training and connection to you begins. Limit your handling to only the puppies that you are seriously interested in (Example: you have decided you want a female puppy there is zero reason to pick up a male puppy). When you pick up a puppy and separate it from the litter have your assistant watch the dam to see how she reacts (temperament). Play with the puppy don’t just snuggle it. Throw a small toy and see if the puppy attempts to “retrieve” it. Talk to the puppy…does it look at you or flat out ignore you. Remember you are looking for a connection.

They are all cute, but do not make a snap decision. If you aren’t 100% sure simply walk away. That said if you’ve done your homework and stuck to the game plan by the end of your visit you will have a good idea which puppy you feel connected to.

Good luck picking out your new teammate.

Until next time…”Keep the retrieve alive!”

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy A Montana Elk Hunt

Because of the long summer drought, it was predicted to be one of the worst years ever for hunting Elk in Montana.  I didn’t see much in the way of size that year, until after a week of hunting and right before dark, the mammoth of all bulls appeared 40 yards in front of us.

The beginning of archery elk season in Montana was only a few days away, and the blood in my veins was starting to flow with excitement and a nervous anxiety.  Avid elk hunters everywhere were awakening to the call of the bulge.  The small coffee shops around town were full of old timers retelling stories of their youth of how good the hunting used to be, and how they used to hunt better than we do today.  And, of course, how good they shoot their long and recurve bows back in the day.

In my mind, I could already see the hunt unfolding in front of me.  I could feel the early September heat and sweat rolling down my face, listening to the early morning bugles in the distance, and the chasing and stalking to where we thought we had heard the bugle come from.  There is no better time to be in the woods than during the elk rut.  I knew hunting was going to be tough and slow as we were chasing a 1000 pound monster through the dry and brittle forest.  The drought had dramatically slowed antler growth and there were only few mammoth bulls out there with nice racks.    

I had spent most of the summer with my family in Montana so that I could scout the woods all summer.  It is a challenge to leave my two daughters for 8 weeks.  One advantage of being a teacher is that I have the summer off.  I rented a small cottage outside of Paradise Valley for the months of June, July, August, and the first few weeks in September.  The girls were happy to get away from our suburban home outside of Washington, D.C., and enjoy the mountain air.  While I knew my daughters would miss their friends, I knew that they would enjoy the quality sister time ahead.  While I scouted along the ridges and bluffs during the day where I had seen elk in years before, the girls enjoyed playing outside, fishing, boating, and swimming in the lake. 

The majority of the big bulls I had seen had weak fifth and sixth points, and there were some smaller five by five bulls around that I would see through my spotting scope from time to time.  The morning before opening day, I found a very large bull with another great bull tagging along with it.  I was excited about this duo of bulls.  The bigger bull was very unique and his rack was off the charts.  The terrain he was in was extremely steep and rocky. In addition, it had some rolling hills and wooded areas.  This is definitely not the favorite type of terrain for a chubby hunter like me.  There was almost no way to approach the bull from where I had glassed him.  From any direction, he would be able to hear me, smell me, and probably even see me.  The valley was deep, rocky and extremely long.  Above him, about three miles, there were a lot of cows with mountainous terrain and tall timber.  A few miles below him, there were also some cows and some ponds low on water.  There was still enough water in the ponds for the cows to wallow in.  Cow elk like nothing more than blowing a hunter’s cover as they approach a big bull; they are the watch dogs of the herd.  I cannot lie, I enjoy shooting cows just as much as bulls.  Hey they all taste great.  This year, however, I drew a bull tag, so that is what I was after. 

Longtime client and friend, Jimmy Decico, and I were heading out into the hills the first week of September.  Jimmy had scheduled to hunt with me the first through the sixth.  Jimmy had more money than God, and always made it a point to book with me the same week every year for a public land hunt.  I only guide five clients per year, and Jimmy was one of them.  These five elk hunts would make up a large part of my salary.  I charged a flat rate of $2000.00 per day.  There is five day minimum, though most clients will book ten days.  If they tag out early, most will stay for a few days, unless there is some pressing need at work.  My clients were not average people; they were titans of industries, who book with me yearly to escape the stress of their daily life.  Some would bring a spouse, or occasionally a client.  On more than one occasion, I had to remind my clients to leave the phone at office, if they cannot go hunting without answering every dam call they get.  They are used to having people bow down to them; this is the one time of year where they are taking orders instead of giving them.  The price included lodging, food, and, of course, a world class guide.  I took care of their transportation needs, as needed.  Although, majority of them drove trucks that most only dream of.

Jimmy, like all of my clients, set tough personal standards of never shooting any animal smaller than one they had previously taken.  Over the last five years, we had been successful in besting his previous year’s harvest.  This year, we had to find something bigger than the 800 pound bull he shot the year before to best his mark.  We hoped during the six days of Jimmy’s hunt, the big bull I had seen the other day, or another one as big, would move in our direction; or at least toward the cows to signify the beginning of the rut.  Our plan was to catch the bull on the way toward the cows, or catch him moving around them heading to the ponds.

The first three days, we hunted in the open, rolling, country hillsides.  The temperatures climbed into the high eighties each day and at night would luckily drop into the fifties.  The sun would beat down on us each morning as we glassed the open expanses for the bull I had seen before Jimmy arrived.  We would cover a lot of ground in the early morning before the full heat of the day would set in.  The afternoons were spent sitting near a variety of water holes hiding from the sun hoping a giant bull would appear.  Late in the morning we would hike from where we were glassing, and head towards where we thought the bulls would come out of the timbre and into the ponds to wallow at night.  Every day seemed to produce the same results.  Sporadic calling, long stalks and lots of smaller elk.  We would see a few small herds of cows and some smaller four by four and three by four bulls that would have worked for most people, just not Jimmy.  But there was no sign of the giant bull or his traveling partner that had been with him.  We had yet to see any signs of the beginning of the rut or even to hear consistent bugles.  I wondered if the bull had gone to another area from where I had first glassed him.  With that thought bouncing around in my head, we decided on day four we would head to another area where we might be able to hear some bugles and close some distance on him or another bull.

The fourth morning we arrived at a new location about a mile away from where I had seen the bull.  We made a big loop calling, stalking, and still hunting.  Three different bulls answered my calls, but each of the bulls only answered to say hello.  The good part was they were starting to talk, the bad news was they were not crashing through the forest looking for a hot date.  The afternoon was spent sitting by another waterhole in the area.  Partly because we thought that the bulls would come through the forest to drink at the waterhole, and partly because after four days of hunting we had log nearly forty miles, and Jimmy’s legs were starting to tire.  We saw nothing on the forth evening, but there were lots of positive elk signs around the waterhole.  We discussed, at length, and decided the remainder of our hunt would be spent hunting here by the water hole.  Jimmy and I each had a gut feeling this was the place to be.

The next morning, we arrived back at the area at 4:00 AM, after a big breakfast, in order to catch any predawn bugles that we could hear in order to get an early jump on a stalk.  We drove into the area in an electric Bad Boy Buggy, so not to create any excess noise.  I parked the Buggy, and covered it so not to get busted by any elks that might come up from behind us.  We sat there in the dark and listened to the world around us come to life as the sun began to rise over the horizon.  A cool breeze blew lazily from the north.  For the first time in days, I was actually cold.  I knew that it was only a matter of time until the sun was once again baking us like a couple of biscuits.  As we began to glass the surrounding area in the early morning haze, there was now enough light to make out objects off in the distance.  Suddenly, we could not believe our ears.  It was like someone had turned on the light switch and the rut was finally on.  Bulls were bugling in all directions, and they were bugling loudly and aggressively.  With the adrenaline pumping through our veins, we gave each other a high five and scrambled around to the back of the Buggy for our bows and our backpacks with all of our gear.

We were on a flat stretch of land, on a steep hillside, that had been logged and cleared out a few years earlier.  Tall, native grasses and small evergreen trees now littered the area and provided us cover as we moved cautiously toward the sounds of the bugling elk.  A large group of cows started to move up the hillside and the bulls followed behind in a single file line; filtering into two drainage areas with long thin fingers of pine trees and spruce trees in between.  Running up the middle of the pine trees was a thin old dirt logging road.  It was perfect.  The elk were on both sides of us, and the logging road would allow us to be quiet, and easily move up on the bulls without being discovered by the cows.

The elk that were wallowing to our right were starting to move over to the next drainage and across the finger we had moved into.  We managed to sneak up on two bulls that were bugling, but did not shoot them, they were smaller at only around 500 pounds.  They needed another year to grow before they were big enough for Jimmy.  I called in another three hundred inch bull that we also passed on, as he had a smaller body frame than you would expect on a 300 inch bull.  Let me tell you how hard it is to pass on three hundred inch bulls with a bow standing broadside at 35 yards!  But, it was not my hunt, so we moved on. 

No matter how fast we moved, we just couldn’t catch up to the lead bull to see how big his rack was.  We knew that he was a solid bull, but how big was he?  The whole time, we hoped it was the big monster that I had seen just the week before during my summer scouting trips.  We just needed a look, and we knew we would have to be aggressive if we wanted to see him.  The bull moved into a thick patch of spruce trees and bedded down in the shade for the day; he wasn’t moving anymore.  He would answer our cow calls, but just wouldn’t come out.  By mid-morning, I thought we might be able to slip down to where he was holding in the spruce trees and glass into the thick timber to get a look at him.  We snuck all the way up to within 50 yards of where we thought he was and started glassing into the shade laded timber.  I could not see any sign of the bull.  I knew that if we got any closer, we could spook him, so we backed out to regroup and devise a new plan for the afternoon. 

As the mid-afternoon arrived, it had started to rain lightly.  I had hoped that this might be the lucky break we needed.  The moisture from the light rain would soon soften the ground and wake up the bull from his afternoon nap.  The game plan was to go back to where we had left the bull and set up an ambush point.  He was bedded on the side of the hill of a very long ridge with drainage below him, and with another cut off drainage to the southwest.  I felt the best place to wait for him was 200 yards below where he had bedded down and let him come to us.  At that location, the wind would be right in our faces and it would be on the way to where the bull would be feeding and staging for the night.  We arrived at our ambush point around 2:30 pm, and the rain was now coming down harder.  Jimmy set up 80 yards in front of me, and I began to cow call periodically.  We hoped the bull would walk towards the cow call so Jimmy would have an easy shot.

30 minutes passed, and not a sound.  Making eye contact with each other, we both had the puzzled look of “what happened to all the elk?  Did they all just leave without us seeing them?”  We sat patiently through the rain awhile longer, the raindrops bounced off my hat and landed on my jacket.  After about an hour of hard rain it began to slow, and then stopped.  As the rain came to a halt, we heard a bugle, then another, and another, and then the bull we were waiting for bugled.  He was still there and was moving into the bottom of the drainage coming in our direction, just as we had hoped.  He was right there in front of us, but we still could not see him.  Cows started popping out at 50 to 75 yards away, but still there was no sign of the bull.  The bull we wanted was bugling, but circling the cows on the side hill of the opposite ridge we were setup on.  The cows started to move up the drainage to our left.  I moved quickly down to Jimmy and said, “See that hump where the drainage leads?  If we can make it up there before they do, we have a chance.”

We hustled up the opposite side as quickly, and as quietly, as we could go to get setup on the bull.  On the way up, I caught some movement through the pines and spruce and could tell it was a 350 inch class bull.  With only one day left, I had hoped Jimmy would decide to take him rather than go home empty-handed.  We turned our attention to stalking to get a better look.  The bull was pushing a few cows through the thick timber, towards the same hump and bugling all the way.  On the opposite side of the drainage, the bull we were originally after was bugling.  Sneaking to within bow range of the 350 inch class bull, I told Jimmy to range him and shoot.  He paused and said, “That’s not what I’m here for; let’s just stick to the game plan.  Let’s try to catch the other bull.  We still have time.”  It made me sick to think we might go home empty handed, but I was the guide and he was client, so it was his decision.  I knew that Jimmy was going to say that, so I was not in total shock.  It just speaks volumes about the types of clients I have. 

So we moved aggressively 200 yards toward the hump, and then all of a sudden it sounded like the bull had dropped into the bottom of the hillside right below us.  With weak, tired legs, and sweat pouring down my face, we moved ahead of him trying to cut him off.  We still had not seen the bull that we had been pursuing all day.  The bottom of the drainage was open and had been logged a few years before.  The side of the hill the bull was on was full of thick spruce trees.  From the thick side of the ridge, a cow popped out, then another.  A total of five cows came out feeding on the new grasses right towards us.  Then here he came, but he was another 300 inch bull.  When I saw him, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach like the one you get when you have a flat tire on the freeway.

Where’s the big bull? The five cows and bull fed only 20 to 40 yards in front of us.  The bull was now 25 yards away.  Jimmy had an arrow nocked and was ready to rock and roll, but this was not the monster we were looking for.  I cow called just to see his reaction.  He picked his head up and bugled and started to feed off in the distance.

With only 15 minutes of shooting light left, I knew we were just about done for the day. Then Jimmy said, “Look to your right, where the other elk came out. “  I turned and saw the top of a rack; I quickly threw my binoculars up. A very large bull was walking right at us on the same path the other just came through.  He was much bigger and had eight on one side, and his sixth points were at least 15-inches long.  His eye guards were unreal; well over 20 inches.  This was him.  This was the bull we were waiting for. 

Jimmy was ranging everything. “I’m ready,” he said.  “Make sure you make a good shot,” I replied.

The bull walked up to 40 yards and stopped behind a big pine tree, with only his head sticking out.  He stood there just looking in our direction.  I was watching through my binoculars, shaking so badly I was seeing double.  He started to step out and Jimmy started to draw.  The bull stopped and stepped right back behind the tree in the same position.  It was as if he knew he was safe standing there.  He stood still for another minute and then decided he didn’t like this and turned to leave.  When he whirled, Jimmy drew.  He cleared the tree, and I cow called.  The bull turned, quartered away and stopped.

Just as soon as he stopped, the shot was in the air.  WHACK!!!  The arrow hit mid-body, but quartered away.  It should be good, I thought to myself.  I turned to Jimmy and asked, “Did you hit him?” He said, “I think so.”  Then, he asked if he was a good one, and I said, “Oh, yea!”  We sat quietly for an hour in the dark.  After that long hour we walked down to where the bull was standing, and I found a volleyball-sized spot of blood with a piece of stomach in it. We looked past where the bull was standing and found the arrow with the same results. With darkness overhead, lack of moonlight and given the indication of the strong blood trail, we decided it would be best to recover the bull in the morning.

Now, you can only imagine what the ride back to camp was like after describing the bull to Jimmy and what I thought he would score.  We were both beat and soaked to the bone with sweat and rain.  Both of us probably could have slept all the next day; but due to my companion, I can say we literally didn’t sleep at all that night.  We spent the whole night talking about the bull. 

The next morning, we arrived an hour before daylight to the spot we had just left hours before.  This time though, I had attached my long trailer to the back of the Bad Boy Buggy.  As the sun peaked over the mountain tops, we begin our search.  Carefully, we followed the blood, noting each speck on the ground.  Finally, we saw him; he had gone only 150 yards and was lying there dead.  Plenty of hugs and high fives were shared between us as we celebrated the kill of this magnificent bull.  This type of bull usually eludes hunters, except in the myths and stories that are told by the old timers in the coffee shop.  This is what keeps us returning every fall.  When he was officially scored, he came in at 405.  Jimmy has already booked for next year and said he hopes to go even bigger.

We carefully quartered the bull and saved the hide and the rack and loaded it in the trailer so we could get it hung to age before Jimmy headed home. 

Once everything was cleaned up and put away I dropped Jimmy off at the airport and headed back home.  Tomorrow another client was coming, and it would be time to do it all over again. 

Safeties on People Using Common Sense

Have you ever wondered why some people jump out of perfectly good air planes, or why others drive dragsters over 200 miles an hour and not worry?  The answer is simple: they have on safety equipment that protects them when something goes wrong.

There are guys who will spend well over two thousand dollars for a bow, a set of arrows, countless accessories, a tree stand and scent proof clothing, but yet are too cheap to buy a quality safety harness.  I just do not understand this thought process.  For many, this line of thinking results in severe injury or death. 

Every year, we read in the papers or in magazines about guys and gals who fall out of tree stands and are severely hurt or die, and for what?  Because they are too cheap or too lazy to wear a full body safety arrest system.  For me, the best $200.00 I could spend on hunting equipment is on a harness and a life line climbing line.  One of the best companies out there is Hunter Safety System.  All they do is make harnesses and harness accessories.  This company is dedicated to bringing you back home at the end of the hunt.  It is so simple: buckle the harness on, (which takes ten seconds) and then clip the harness in the safety carabineer before you step on the ladder to climb up the tree.  It is just that simple.  Now I have no worries.  If I slip off the ladder, not a problem, I will hang comfortably in the air until I can reach the ladder and regain my balance, or wait until one of hunting party comes along to help me down. 

There are just too many things that can go wrong when you are 20 feet in the air.  One of the most common ways in which people fall out of tree stands is that they simply fall asleep.  The early hours of the hunt, the cool breeze, the gentle rocking of the tree, put many hunters right to sleep.  Many do not ever wake up again, and those that do often wake up in intensive care and suffer from severe paralysis the rest of their lives.  The second most common area where hunters fall is while they are climbing up and down their ladders or climbing sticks.  Others fall out of their tree stand as they are preparing to shoot.  They lose their balance or step where there is nothing but air. 

These are senseless injuries that could all have been prevented by simply wearing a full body fall arrest system.  Would you get in your car and not wear a seat belt?  If so, you are gambling with your life.

If you are going to hunt by yourself, let someone know where you are going, and when they should expect you back.  Also, before you ever head into the woods, remember you have to purchase more than a bow and a license.  There are pieces of safety equipment out there specifically designed to get you into the woods and back again safely.  Please considerer all the cost associated with hunting, not just the cost of basic equipment. 

With all of today’s modern techno gadgets for hunters, there are simply no excuses for dying in the field.  Years ago we would hear tales of hunters who would die in the mountains because they would get lost and become so disoriented that they could not find their way out of the forest. 

Now, thanks to hand-held global positioning systems (many that cost less than a set of good arrows), there are fewer and fewer of these types of stories being told in deer camp.  Online, you can find free mapping programs that can give you a complete lay of the land before you ever leave your house.  There is even a spot beacon locator that allows you to communicate to friends and family that you are ok.  Heck, if you want to, you can even purchase a personal EPIRB to take with you into the woods.  There is just no excuse for getting lost. 

As a point of emphasis, I am including the Tree Stand Safety Guidelines from the Tree Stand Manufactures Association, despite some redundancy:

ALWAYS wear a Fall-Arrest System (FAS)/Full Body Harness meeting TMA Standards even during ascent and descent.  Be aware that single strap belts and chest harnesses are no longer allowed Fall-Arrest devices and should not be used.  Failure to use a FAS could result in serious injury or death.

ALWAYS read and understand the manufacturer’s WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS before using the tree stand each season.  Practice with the tree stand at ground level prior to using at elevated positions.  Maintain the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS for later review as needed, for instructions on usage to anyone borrowing your stand, or to pass on when selling the tree stand.  Use all safety devices provided with your tree stand.

NEVER exceed the weight limit specified by the manufacturer.  If you have any questions after reviewing the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS, please contact the manufacturer.

ALWAYS inspect the tree stand and the Fall-Arrest System for signs of wear or damage before each use.  Contact the manufacturer for replacement parts.  Destroy all products that cannot be repaired by the manufacturer and/or exceed recommended expiration date, or if the manufacturer no longer exists.  The FAS should be discarded and replaced after a fall has occurred.

ALWAYS practice in your Full Body Harness in the presence of a responsible adult prior to using it in an elevated hunting environment, learning what it feels like to hang suspended in it at ground level and how to properly use your suspension relief device.

ALWAYS attach your Full Body Harness in the manner and method described by the manufacturer.  Failure to do so may result in suspension without the ability to recover into your tree stand.  Be aware of the hazards associated with Full Body Harnesses and the fact that prolonged suspension in a harness may be fatal.  Have in place a plan for rescue, including the use of cell phones or signal devices that may be easily reached and used while suspended.  If rescue personnel cannot be notified, you must have a plan for recover/escape.  If you have to hang suspended for a period of time before help arrives, exercise your legs by pushing against the tree or doing any other form of continuous motion or use your suspension relief device.  Failure to recover in a timely manner could result in serious injury or death.  If you do not have the ability to recover/escape, hunt from the ground.

ALWAYS hunt with a plan, and if possible, with a buddy.  Before you leave home, let others know your exact hunting location, when you plan to return and who is with you.

ALWAYS carry emergency signal devices such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie, whistle, signal flare, PLD (personal locator device) and flashlight on your person at all times, and within reach, even while you are suspended in your FAS.  Watch for changing weather conditions.  In the event of an accident, remain calm and seek help immediately.

ALWAYS select the proper tree for use with your tree stand.  Select a live straight tree that fits within the size limits recommended in your tree stand’s instructions.  Do not climb or place a tree stand against a leaning tree.  Never leave a tree stand installed for more than two weeks since damage could result from changing weather conditions and/or from other factors not obvious with a visual inspection.

ALWAYS use a haul line to pull up your gear and unloaded firearm or bow to your tree stand once you have reached your desired hunting height.  Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back.  Prior to descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.

ALWAYS know your physical limitations.  Don’t take chances.  Do not climb when using drugs, alcohol, or if you’re sick or unrested.  If you start thinking about how high you are, don’t go any higher.

NEVER use homemade, or permanently elevated stands, nor make modifications to a purchased tree stand without the manufacturer’s written permission.  Only purchase and use tree stands, and Fall-Arrest Systems meeting or exceeding TMA standards.

NEVER hurry!!  While climbing with a tree stand, make slow, even movements of no more than ten to twelve inches at a time.  Make sure you have proper contact with the tree and/or tree stand every time you move.  On ladder-type tree stands, maintain three points of contact with each step.

Copyright © 2009 by TMA

My Corn-Fed Iowa Giant – It’s a Whitetail World

Although I have been hunting Whitetail deer for nearly 20 of my 40 plus years; I have had very few opportunities to take a real trophy buck.  My brother was lucky enough to shoot the buck of a lifetime at the age of twelve.  It was a 183 and ¼ inch Boone and Crocket.  People stopped by camp all night to take pictures of his deer.  After years of talking about a trophy Whitetail hunt, my buddy Olaf and I decided to book a hunt in Iowa.  My goal was simple; take what I considered to be a trophy deer (something in the 185 inch to 200 inch class deer), and beat the monster my brother shot, or go home empty-handed.

Our outfitter Spike Dicemen, of Super Buck Outfitters, told us we should come the last week of the archery deer season, as the best part of the rut would be in full swing and the cold weather would keep the deer moving throughout the day.  The weather reports coming out of Iowa in the weeks prior to our departure seemed to be exactly what we had been told to expect.  Then, four days before we were scheduled to leave, the weather in Iowa warmed drastically to the mid to high 40’s.

When Olaf and I arrived in Battle Creek, Iowa, on November 12, it was 45 degrees outside.  Most of the snow was gone from the early November storms, and it had been raining for the last two days.  Sunday morning, Spike picked us up at the airport, and we could tell he had a rough time the week before.  Spike told us the weather was not going to help us, and it looked like things were not going to change until mid-week.  We met up with our guide, Whitey, Sunday afternoon, and he took us out to see the country where we were going to be hunting for the next few days.

Olaf picked out a spot that looked promising and would sit up in one of the Gorilla tree stands.  I decided to set up on the edge of a field several hundred yards from Olaf.  The following morning, I heard a scream of joy about 8:30 am from Olaf’s direction and figured “one down one to go,” knowing it couldn’t possibly be this easy.  Upon picking up Olaf that evening, it was quite a letdown to find that several resident hunters had noticed our setup, and jumped his spot.  Olaf had to watch them drag out a 190-200 class buck that he had spotted about 500 yards out and was waiting for a shot.

The afternoon of the second day, Spike decided to take us to another area he felt was more promising, and one he had exclusive rights to.  Spike and I packed up everything while, Whitey went to collect Olaf from his tree.  When we met that evening, we decided that we would split up, and go one on one with a guide each.  The temperature had started to drop slightly, and there was some precipitation in the forecast.  I was set up in a portable ground blind on the edge of a large oat and hay field.  I spent a few extra minutes tying in some additional brush to the blind.  Tuesday afternoon produced very little in terms of shooter bucks, but I did see enough to want to return to the blind on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday morning before daylight, I had a buck thrashing the brush 40 yards behind my blind, but I never got to see him.  All I saw was the rustling of the brush, and I heard his antlers rubbing on a tree or something.  That afternoon before heading out, the farmer who owned the property showed me a set of very large sheds that he had found from last year.  He said that this buck was still around and much bigger this year.  That really got my heart pumping and got me excited.  Despite my initial excitement, when I set out that afternoon, the rest of the day was pretty slow. I only saw one little spike.  The weather front that was predicted finally started moving in, and it had begun to sleet and snow, so things were looking up.

On Thanksgiving morning, it was 15 degrees out and we had two inches of fresh, wet snowfall overnight.  As I woke up, I could smell the fresh coffee brewing and the fire burning in the hearth.  After filling our bellies, Whitey and I laid out a plan for the day and felt that the deer should really start to move with the weather changing. He was going to drop me off and then go and set up a tree stand in another spot for the afternoon hunt.

I expected to see a lot more activity that morning with the change in weather, but all I saw were several does just before dawn.  I was honestly starting to get a little discouraged.  The temperature had risen to about 25 degrees, and even though I had on about five layers, I was still freezing.  My hands were so cold I could not feel the tips of my fingers.  Around 7:30 am, I heard two loud grunts a quarter mile away.  This was followed every three to five minutes by a single loud grunt over the next 25 minutes.  Despite the cold temperature, the grunts began to warm my hunting soul.  I waited until things quieted down, and blew a single grunt from my call.  I waited a couple of minutes and did it again, then quit. 15 minutes later, the spike I saw the day before came out of the tree line and was looking around.  He stuck his nose to ground and began feeding.  Then suddenly, the spike looked to my right, and I turned to see what he was looking at.  A huge buck came trotting across the field toward me.  He stopped directly in front of my ground blind, just 35 yards out, and standing broadside to me. He looked directly at me, and I froze.  He then turned his attention to the spike. When he did, I immediately grabbed my bow from the stand and drew back on the monster.  I concentrated on making sure to put my sight pin on his vital area and not to look at the rack.  Looking at racks was something you did after the deer was on the ground and when he was on the wall, I told myself.  I believed this was the buck that produced those huge sheds the farmer had shown me the day before.  My frozen fingers squeezed my release, and I watched the arrow go into the buck behind his right shoulder.  He immediately bucked like a wild rodeo bull and ran off through the wheat field before dropping less than 80 yards from where I hit him.

I sat in the blind for probably thirty minutes, now sweating despite the cold air temperature, not really believing what I has just done, or really knowing how truly large this buck was.  Every ounce of my being just wanted to sprint towards the animal, but I knew I had to wait.  The excitement finally overcame me and I literally threw the blind over and cautiously walked over to find that I had bagged the monster I had come to Iowa for.

After tagging him, I wandered back to the farm house to wait for Whitey, who was to arrive around 10:00 am.  When I got there, I told the farmer and his wife of my success. She said, “You got old Chuck!” They were almost as happy as I was.

Whitey arrived shortly after ten and I told him, “We’ve got a problem.” After a short pause I said, “I don’t think this deer will fit in your truck!” Whitey went nuts.  Looking the deer over, Whitey asked me if I had any idea what I had.  I didn’t, and it took several weeks for it to sink in.

The deer was a 14 point non-typical buck with double drop tines.  He field dressed at 270 pounds and scored 204 Boone and Crocket.  The deer was six years old and there was not an ounce of fat left on him.  He was rutted right out. My Rage Broadhead performed flawlessly.  It was very important to me that this deer was taken cleanly with one shot.  It is my belief that as hunters, we all owe the animals that much, especially a true king of the forest like this.

A Cut Above Selecting the Proper Broadhead

Every veteran bow hunter has had a range of experiences with broad heads, much like people we all have dated: some have been good, some have been bad, and some were just plain ugly.  I may have blamed a lost animal or two on a broadhead when the real problem was my lack of proper form.  I also have attributed my success to certain broad heads, when any head that would have stayed in one piece could have cleanly killed the animal.  For a lot of hunters, choosing a broadhead is a very emotional subject, and I really do not know why.  I have never gotten into a heated argument in hunting camp about which bow is the best, but I have certainly been in a number of them when it comes to choosing a broadhead. 


There are two basic types of broad heads: mechanicals and fixed blade.  Mechanical heads open two different ways.  There are over the top deploying and then there are rear deploying. Both have their followers, and both are solid choices.  Personally, I shoot the Rage two blade rear deploying broadhead.  Accuracy is the most important goal of any shot.  That has to be priority number one.  Accuracy equals dead animals on the ground.  I have talked with many people over the years, and even those that didn’t use mechanical heads stated that any broad heads that stay more or less in one piece will kill a deer-sized animal if you hit it in the right place.  Well…duh.  So then, hitting the deer in the right place is obviously a big deal, or should I say, the biggest deal? 

There are many fixed-blade heads that fly nearly as well as field points under a wide range of conditions.  This was not always true with mechanicals.  This is a relatively new thing, as only a decade ago this was not so true.  It was just impossible to achieve any sort of accuracy with anything but a fixed blade head.  Achieving accuracy with fast arrows was a huge challenge.  I spent many days each year tweaking and making tiny changes to improve my accuracy.

When I first began trying mechanical heads, taking them to the field to use on live game was a no-brainer.  My accuracy was so much more consistent; my confidence surged.  Knowing you will hit where you are aiming is huge. 

More than three years later, I am sure that I have shot more than enough big game animals (I shoot does everywhere I hunt) with mechanical heads.  My recovery rate has been very high.  I can’t think of a single shot that I would take again with a different head.  I have never had reason to question the effectiveness of the mechanical heads I have used.  I’m sure there are situations where they are inferior to fixed-blade heads, but I have not encountered those situations personally.

Any time you put a wing at the front of a projectile, you have the potential for steering.  That is exactly what you are doing when you attach a fixed-blade broadhead to your arrow.  You work hard to figure out how best to shoot a bow, and you tinker with the tuning until you have great arrow flight.  Now, the last thing you want is an arrow that decides for itself which way it will go once it leaves the bow.  With a wing at the front, there is always that potential.  The larger the wing is, the larger the potential problem.  I’m not saying a problem is guaranteed.  When you have a well-tuned bow and a perfectly straight arrow with a nock, insert, and broadhead all in alignment, and when you hold good shooting form through the shot, you will shoot most fixed-blade heads accurately.  But if any of those elements breaks down, you will have a wind-planning issue.  And the faster it flies, the more it will wind-plane, and thus move further off target.

If you remove the wing from the front of the arrow, or reduce the size of the wing, you eliminate or reduce the possibility for a problem.  The goal then becomes a combination of two tasks.  First, make the wing as small as possible.  Second, get the bow, arrow, and your shooting form as good as possible.  The smallest wing is no wing, and that is the only reason to shoot mechanical broad heads.  Your choice in broad heads will end up being as much an emotional decision as a scientific one.

A lot of guys want a small mechanical head that opens to roughly 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches.  This is perfect for young archers because if you hit the shoulder bone on the shot, you will get better penetration.  You need to be able to kill a deer that you accidentally shoot in the shoulder.  With a smaller head, you increase the odds of a clean kill due to the increased penetration.  I prefer to use the larger Rage two blades that open to two-inches, or more.  My arrows possess enough energy to shoot a mechanical that opens up to six inches, like a pair of steak knives.  Ultimately, you need to shoot what you feel confident with.  I feel confident with Rage Broadheads.

When a mechanical head opens from the back forward, it acts more like a fixed-blade head on impact.  Less of the arrow’s energy is needed to open the blades, and more of it is available to penetrate the animal.  If the blades open from the front back (the way most of them do), the shorter blades used in the smaller designs will not rob as much energy.

Mechanical heads are definitely a good choice for those who want the most accurate possible head, but they aren’t as durable as fixed-blade heads.  Because the blades of a mechanical head are unsupported, it is easier for them to break off on a bone hit.  You can expect to replace them twice as often as fixed bladed designs. 

We need to go back to the analogy of the wing on the front of the arrow.  If we make the wing smaller, it has less potential to steer the arrow.  I like the new category of fixed-blade heads also for beginning hunters that have dominated the market during the past three years.  They have short, compact blades with high blade angles.  Like mechanical broad heads with short blades, they create more of a chopping effect than a slicing effect. 

Most of us can live with a chopping effect as long as the head hits where we aim.  That is the strength of these heads: by reducing the amount of blade surface area, they fly better under a wider range of conditions and at higher arrow speeds.

Here are a few examples of this style of broadhead.  There are many on the market now and I will probably miss a few, but you will at least get the idea.  Look at the New Archery Products’ Nitron, Muzzy MX-3, Slick Trick, American Broadheads’ Sonic, Wac’ Em, Aftershock Maniac, Steel Force Sabertooth HP, Tight Point Shuttle T-Lock, Rocky Mountain Blitz, Grim Reaper Hades, G5 Striker, Rocket Bunker Buster, Wasp Boss and Innerloc Stainless Extreme.  Cut-to-the-point versions include the Magnus Stinger and the NAP Hell Razor.

These are just some of the heads on the market.  The above list is in no way comprehensive.  There are literally dozens of different fixed blade broadhead models.  Not only can you choose between several different styles of replaceable blade heads, but you can also choose between several different styles of cut-on-impact one-piece heads.  The choices can seem bewildering.

As mentioned, you can choose between one-piece cut-on-impact heads or replaceable-blade heads.  Both styles have their advantages.  Recently, the cut-on-impact heads have really improved to the point where they will fly well, even from fast compound bows.  There is no reason not to try them.  It is the perfect choice if your number one goal is penetration.  A two-bladed cut-on-impact head will penetrate better than anything else on the market, bar none.

Replaceable-blade heads are obviously easier for the majority of bow hunters to use because you don’t need to sharpen the blades.  When you shoot them, simply replace the blades with new ones.  Most replaceable blade heads have three blades, some have four blades, and a very few have two blades. 

Cutting diameter creates another tradeoff.  A large cutting diameter means more surface to potentially steer the arrow offline if you are using a fixed-blade head.  However, on impact, especially with soft tissue, having a large cutting diameter increases the chances for quick kill.  Each person must make this tradeoff for themselves.

The more blades the head has, the less it will penetrate.  This is because every blade encounters resistance when it cuts into the animal.  The more blades, the more resistance.  Beyond a certain point, you gain very little tissue damage by increasing the number of blades.  I don’t see much value in shooting heads with more than three blades, the only exception being cut-on-impact heads with two primary blades and two smaller bleeder blades.  In this case, a four-bladed head makes sense.

If you know you are going to make a perfect hit, the broadhead you choose isn’t important.  It has only to be sharp.  However, making a perfect hit is where the challenge lies.  First, you need to figure out how you will make it, and then you have to reduce the downside if you don’t.  Those are the two big issues when selecting broad heads.

Your goal should be to choose a broadhead that lets you zip your hunting arrows just as accurately as your field point tipped practice arrows.  While accuracy is priority number one, it is never guaranteed.  If you choose carefully, you will also end up with a head that offers all the penetration you need to make good on a shoulder hit.