Category Archives: Hunting

Jake and Me – another chapter

Sunday’s Outdoors page carried a feature story about a mentoring friendship I’ve had with 11-year-old Jacob Holem. The article describes what we’ve both gotten from the friendship, and chronicled some of our adventures. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ THE STORY, AND FIND THE PHOTO GALLERY

While some people were reading the story, Jake and I were out in a snow covered field of corn stubble, trying to get the personable boy is first goose. Our previous trips had resulted in not a shot, let alone a bird in the boy’s hand.

Jake Holem, left, and MIchael Pearce ended the goose season with a lot of bangs...and limits of six Canada geese, apiece.

Jake Holem, left, and MIchael Pearce ended the goose season with a lot of bangs…and limits of six Canada geese, apiece.

Funny what a difference timing and weather conditions can make. For each of the past five or so years I’ve had my best goose hunts of the season in February. Ditto on this cornfield when there’s snow on the ground, and the decoys are more visible.

At daylight we scattered about six dozen decoys.. Jake used a broom to clear several areas of open ground, like a flock had found a place where the wind had blown some snow away, and food was being found.

We barely had gotten into the goose pit when the first flock came over. In fact, Jake didn’t even have his gun loaded but I dropped a goose. We had to hustle because more were coming. I shot a bird and as I was pulling on another, it faltered and fell….Jake had his first goose. It wasn’t long before he had a second, and third, and fourth, and eventually sixth.

Sunday was one of those days when all seemed to be working. The birds were coming off parts of El Dorado Reservoir and assorted ponds, and their flight path had them passing within easy sight of our decoys. I doubt there was a total of 10 minutes all morning when we didn’t have geese in sight, and many wanted in on our spread.

Geese responded to calls, both Jake’s and mine, and we passed up probably a dozen opportunities at birds that were in range of my 12 gauge magnum, waiting for geese to come in close enough for Jake’s 20 gauge,…which was quickly going through his partial box of ammo. One of the highlights was a lone white-fronted goose, the first I’d ever seen over the field, that came down from way up in the sky, wings cupped until it was about 20 yards out.

Had the limit still been three Canadas per hunter, like last year, we’d have been done by 10 a.m., or about 90 minutes of hunting. Thankfully, the limit is six per person.

When Jake was getting cold, and down to about a dozen shells, his mom, Kimberly, came and brought more yellow shells and cups of hot cocoa. As we warmed in Kimberly’s pickup, a flock of about nine worked within 25 yards of where we sat.

Four groups, from one to a dozen or so in a bunch worked the spread the 30 minutes we were away from the blind, including a nice flock that flushed from near the blind when we headed back at about 11 a.m. At about straight up noon four new birds worked in from the east. Jake hit one hard and Hank, my Lab, closed our season with the retrieve.

Guns unloaded, we were only about half-way through picking up the decoys when Kimberly arrived at the blind again, with a large, steaming cheese pizza and other snacks.

So Jake and I mostly stood outside the truck, reaching in for piece after piece of probably the best-tasting pizza I’ve ever had, watching more geese come and go, while talking about the morning’s hunt. We got a few photos, finished picking up the decoys and headed to a spot out of the wind to clean Jake’s birds. As we were beginning the process, Jake looked up and saw a bald eagle barely clearing the trees above the river.

“I could see his yellow beak he was so close,” Jake said a few minutes after the bird flew from sight. “That was really exciting to see him that close.”

All in all, the entire day was pretty exciting, and a great way to end our hunting seasons together. Now, come on spring turkey seasons and fishing!

Casts and Blasts from Gumbo-thon, 2014

Some smells are just meant for certain seasons….the smell of freshly-cut grass the first time in the spring. Those of us old enough, remember the smell of burning leaves in the fall. Yesterday the smell of simmering gumbo filled our house, a sure sign that we’re in probably the coldest week of the winter. I call it gumbo-thon. Here are a few bits about it -

About four gallons of gumbo that includes turkey, pheasant, venison and, unfortunately, store-bought sausage.

About four gallons of gumbo that includes turkey, pheasant, venison and, unfortunately, store-bought sausage.or the coldest week of the year, and make it early enough that it can sit and season for a few days and take us through the weekend. A few facts -

– I learned how to make gumbo from Margaret Simien, mother of Wayne Simien, Jr., past KU All-American. She’s been like a big sister to me since we worked together in Leavenworth when I was in college. She learned it from her mother-in-law, a Louisiana native.

– She taught me how to make it per “batch.” though the least I’ve ever made is a double batch. A batch contains, roughly, one onion, one bunch of celery, the meat of about two chicken breasts and a package of tube sausage and, of course, shrimp.

– Tuesday morning I really intended to just make a double batch, but ended up making a quatro-batch, which is about all my large plug-in roaster will hold. I have that problem of stopping once I get started making gumbo. No matter, it freezes well and we always seem to have plenty of friends wanting to help reduce the load.

- I started with the legs and thighs from a mature tom turkey shot last week. I separated them at the joint, placed them in a tall stock pan and added about a gallon of water, one chopped onion and one chopped bunch of celery. With the lid on, I let them simmer for about five hours. The meat was tender enough to be easily shredded with my fingers and I had a great starting stock for the gumbo.

- I added all that to the roaster, with three more onions and three more bunches of celery chopped. The water was sprinkled liberally with seasoned salt, garlic powder and Creole seasoning, and tasted for testing. I like my stock to be almost too spicy for me to handle. That will make it about right when more meat is added and the gumbo is put on rice when eaten.

Gumbo is an excellent destination for the thighs and legs of wild turkeys, simmered with onion and celery for about five hours.

Gumbo is an excellent destination for the thighs and legs of wild turkeys, simmered with onion and celery for about five hours.

- As for other meats, I kind of went to the “beer and worm” fridge in the garage, and found what hadn’t been frozen yet from hunts the past week or so. That included all the thigh meat from six pheasants, and one slab of turkey breast meat. From the freezer I added a loin and roast of venison, too. All was cubed, of course, and added to the gumbo that was not at a high simmer.

– I hate to admit it, but I had to buy four packages of sausage (oh, the shame!). I used to take elk or wild pig into Parson’s in Derby, and have them make it into brats, but not this year.  I also used to use Johnsonville New Orleons style sausage but I can’t find it any more and I refuse to pay the shipping on the real stuff from Louisiana.

– In the past, I’ve also added duck, spoonbill catfish, bison, elk roasts, moose roasts, limb chicken (squirrel), cottontails, a lot of wild pig, and several things I can’t remember, I’m sure.

– Yes, I can make a roux from scratch but no, I don’t. Every couple of years I’ll order several large jars of what’s basically a concentrated roux from  This batch used about a cup, first dissolved in boiling water, then added to the gumbo.

– The entire conglomeration simmered together for about four or five hours before I moved the entire roaster to the cold garage. One of the secrets of making really good gumbo, is to not eat it until it’s set for at least a day or two.

– I’ll share about half of this year’s batch with some friends living west of Newton (Yes, PJ, that includes you!). They’ve had several people sick and were very kind in letting me enjoy some of the best pheasant hunting of my life, on their lands.

– Oh, I don’t like to add the shrimp until just before the gumbo is re-heated and served. This year, though, high shrimp prices may mean quite a few bowls without shrimp. Ste. Kathy, my wife, actually prefers her gumbo without shrimp.

– No, I don’t use okra, but I sometimes add peanuts or cashews to a bowl to give it some crunch.

Sometimes, pheasant planning works

Pheasant hunters are some of the greatest planners in the outdoors.

There were WWII island invasions with less details than some of the pheasant drives I’ve been on, with hunters coming towards a cover from all directions, a push with wingmen to be exactly 41.237 yards ahead of the other hunters. Unfortunately, pheasants are really bad and falling such plans and normally find plenty of ways to run, flush wild, hold tight, fly the wrong direction….of the scheming gunners.

Friday, on Kansas’ last day of the season, all went as planned for me and my ancient Lab, Hank.

For about the past three weeks we’ve been dibbling and dabbling on some pheasant hunts at some fantastic spots in Harvey County, normally only hitting a covert for  a half-hour to an hour, taking a bird or two and then heading home happy. Even as late as Thursday morning,  we only hit a patch long enough to take a pair of roosters, including one with Boone & Crockett tailfeathers, before resting the field in advance of Friday.

So for Friday, the season’s last day, and possibly Hank’s last pheasant hunt (he’s about 13) we went for broke, heading to  the best spots I have in Harvey, Reno and Stafford counties.

Hank, with the four rooster limit from Friday's hunt the last day of the Kansas pheasant season. The photo was taken Sunday afternoon.

Hank, with the four rooster limit from Friday’s hunt on the last day of the Kansas pheasant season. The photo was taken Sunday afternoon.

About 8 a.m. we did an early raid on a roosting area that’s basically at the edge of a friend’s yard. The first rooster was holding tight, flushed close and fell dead. The next took a little trailing by Hank before the flush, then a lot more after the shot. With super-dry conditions, it took the old dog about 20 minutes to catch up with the wing-hit bird. With a self-imposed two bird limit on that property, we headed west.

Grass where I’d seen five or six roosters a month ago held just a hen in Stafford County. After lunch in Sylvia, I passed on a chance to hunt some CRP in Reno County because of the field’s immense size and thickness. I could tell Hank was already tired, so we headed back towards home and Harvey County. We got to the property, which was across the road from where we’d hunted that morning, with about 90 minutes of daylight left. Basically I was counting on the final 20-30 minutes.

For most hunters the pheasant season that closed Friday was the worst of their lives, but there were some good pockets of birds scattered about. Michael Pearce found his best hunting of the past several seasons in Harvey County.

For most hunters the pheasant season that closed Friday was the worst of their lives, but there were some good pockets of birds scattered about. Michael Pearce found his best hunting of the past several seasons in Harvey County.

Hank and I took a seat near the field’s north end, where pheasants often traveled back and forth between the lush grass and a neighbor’s soybeans. We’d seen three roosters sail into the grass when we got up with a half-hour of season remaining, quietly walking along the field’s western edge, so we could work it into the northeast wind.

Two more roosters sailed in about the time we started the season’s last push.

Most longtime hunting  dog owners will tell you scenting conditions improve greatly just before sunset. Friday was no exception. Hank hit scent where we’d seen one of the birds land and started trailing, and 50 yards further it came out of the grass cackling. It’s partner had landed about 60 yards away, and Hank was hot on its scent when it flushed and also fell.

With a limit of four filled, my first in several years, I set the gun and vest along a farm trail and just followed the dog as he worked out the rest of the grass. He was still pushing up hens as grayness  settled over the field, including a cluster-flush of about a dozen brown birds at the field’s northeastern corner.

I hated to see the season end, since there’s no promise Hank may be around for the next or at least be healthy enough to hunt.

Well, if there is a perfect hunt for ending a season, or possibly a hunting career, a rare day when all the pheasant planning comes through is certainly it.


Last day of duck season…four out of five ain’t bad

Four mallard drakes from Sunday's final hunt of the 2013-14 waterfowl seasons.

Four mallard drakes from Sunday’s final hunt of the 2013-14 waterfowl seasons.

All I was allowed to shoot was a single mallard when I headed to a blind Sunday afternoon. Andy Fanter and I had hunted the same blind in the morning, when he’d taken a limit of five drake mallards and I’d shot four.

The buffet at the Wheatland Cafe in Hudson had left me literally about as full of friend chicken as I could be as I headed for the final sit of the duck season.  Friend Bob Snyder joined me in the afternoon, needing three drakes. for himself.

Scores of times in our 13 seasons of  friendship we’ve dropped the four drakes we needed from a single flock. Bob had also shot some nice full-limits of ducks on afternoon hunts several prior days. No problem, right? Mother Nature had other plans.

The ducks flew late in the afternoon, which isn’t unusual when it’s warm, and by that time the wind had totally died. Decoys looked as lifeless as lawn ornaments on the water. Calm conditions also lets the birds circle and circle a spot looking for danger.

Oh, there were a few chances.

A drake and hen flew within 25 yards of the blind just as I’d arrived, before my shotgun was loaded. Another pass was in range but silhouetted, so I couldn’t tell the drake from the hen. Yes, hens are legal, but not something we target at the wetlands Bob creates and manages.

The last half hour had plenty of ducks around, and one pair gave us several in-range passes. I passed on a shot I should have taken, and took one I shouldn’t have and missed.

…and fifteen minutes later the duck seasons that began on a hot September morning for teal were finished until next fall.

Disappointed? Nope.

Not one of my best duck seasons as far as numbers of birds killed, but still plenty of memories made.

Another wolf killed in Missouri

Biologists say what a landowner shot thinking it was a coyote has turned out to be another wild wolf shot in Missouri. It is at least the third such wolf shot in the Show-Me State in the past few years. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT IT.

It appears the wolves are expanding from a population of gray wolves in the Great Lakes area, which is where a wolf shot in western Kansas last winter was believed to have originated. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ about the first official wild wolf to have been shot in Kansas in more than 100 years.

Meanwhile, a lot of eyes are on the wolf population of the northern Rocky Mountains, where states and parts of the federal government are feuding over control of the introduced animals some claim are expanding rapidly, and are wreaking havoc on many elk, moose and deer populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Old shotgun, old dog, great spot = like old times

I have access to a great spot for pheasants, even this year, and it’s only about 15 minutes from my house. It’s the kind of place you don’t take lightly because access only comes from a very deep friendship with three generations of the same family. That they probably like my old Lab, Hank, as well as me certainly helps.

Since this family hunts deer on the same lands means I can’t access the dense CRP fields and food plots until the last of the doe seasons is over. No problem, January has always been my favorite month for hunting pheasants.

The long-awaited first hunt in the fields happened this morning, and I knew it wouldn’t last long. Hank’s about 13, and dense grass saps his energy fast. I figured he’d have an hour’s worth of power at best, especially with the warm temperatures and heavy winds.

At almost 13, Hank is down to about an hour of pheasant hunting. The shotgun was my father's pheasant gun and so far is two for two this month.

At almost 13, Hank is down to about an hour of pheasant hunting at a time. The shotgun was my father’s pheasant gun and so far is two for two this month.

All through the weeks of anticipating the trip I figured I’d be caring my Ruger over/under shotgun, which brought an end to hundreds of pheasants and quail before I became hooked on waterfowl hunting. But when I went to get it, I noticed another gun. It’s an ancient Remington 1100 semi-automatic with a cheap camo paint job.

It was my father’s pheasant gun up until he died in 1997. Jerrod shot it for waterfowl for a few weeks, hence the paint, before he moved on to a magnum model. Back in the early 1980s I’d carried the shotgun several times when dad wasn’t along. It’s still the only gun with which I’ve shot a limit of four wild roosters, with three shots, while standing in one spot.

When I lifted the gun for the first time in years last night it felt good, and snapping it to my shoulder it pointed exactly where I was looking. I left the Ruger at home.

The landowners had recently seen up to about 40 pheasants in just one part of the place, so I figured we would see birds. Indeed, two roosters and a hen crossed the road at the property’s edge as I drove up.

The land is a 1960′s mix of well-managed prairie grass with a lot of forbs. The fields are framed with brushy fencelines with nice plum thickets and just the right amount of cedar trees.

Hank and I looped around to get the heavy wind in our face and when the food plots were empty of birds we waded into the grass…but not very far.

I think 18 or 20 pheasants erupted from the grass a few yards in front of the dog. As usual, the illegal hens offered slam-dunk shots and several roosters flushed out of range. One did rise within about 15 yards but made a beeline right at the landowner’s house as if it was headed to the back porch, which means I couldn’t shoot.

Fifty yards from there, though, we pinned a running rooster where tall grass met an open lane and it fell amid a true jungle of plums, hedge trees and cedars. It took some time to get Hank over a woven wire fence, and to where he could even enter the thickets. He found the bird at the bottom of a dry creek.

The plan was to shoot one bird each trip the rest of the season, and head for home…but on the way back Hank again started working scent. Probably 100 yards from where his trailing began two roosters flushed inches from his pouncing paws. I shot one and let the other one go.

I’ll head back out a few more times before the season closes the end of the month. The trips will be short for Hank’s sake, and I’ll carry the old shotgun for mine.

But we’re off to a good start – old dog, old proven shotgun, two shots and two roosters in less than an hour. It kind of reminds me of old times.

Retriever/pointer cross, the best of both worlds

Duke, owned by Tom Devlin, is a Lab/pointer cross that points and honors as well as any.

Duke, owned by Tom Devlin, is a Lab/pointer cross that points and honors as well as any.

Through the years I’ve hunted over a few hundred bird dogs. Most were purebreds, and some from bloodlines seemingly as long and legendary as  that of England’s royal family.

I’ve also hunted over some mixed breed dogs, too.

There was Duke, a terribly ugly Boston terrier/pekingese/rat terrier mix that was heck on chasing rabbits and treeing squirrels.

There was also Goldie, a friend’s yellow Lab and English pointer cross that had about as much drive as the Cowardly Lion. She probably only pointed one bird for every 20 found by my Brittany, Rose. But it seemed every time Goldie did point it was a rooster pheasant…never a quail, never a hen pheasant…go figure.

And there was also Brillo, which I think was a cross between a German shorthair and a German wirehair. That dog was death of working running pheasants. Slow and steady, it was rare when she took up a trail that didn’t result in a solid point.

And a few weeks ago I got to spend the afternoon with another Duke, a “kennel accident” owned by Tom Devlin. This Duke is a Lab/English pointer cross that basically just looked like another case of an unplanned meeting between a pure Lab and a something else.

Duke Devlin, though, seemed to get the best of both breeds. He pointed as well as the good Britts and shorthairs with which he shared the fields and found more than his share of the wild quail and released pheasants and chukars. He honored the points of the other dogs as well as they honored his.

Duke's Lab lineage really showed with his excellent retrieving.

Duke’s Lab lineage really showed with his excellent retrieving.

Where he really excelled, though, was once a bird was shot down. It made no difference if it fell 15 or 150 yards away, Duke was probably the dog that brought it back. I can’t recall not finding any downed birds for which he searched.

I wonder, though, how well Ol’ Duke would do on a duck hunt. I’m guessing he’d probably do just fine.


Monster moose in your lap, anyone?

OK, one of the reasons I’ve been bowhunting for 40 years is the rush of getting the animal in close.

I’ve shot bucks as close as four yards to the end of my arrow, had turkeys attacking my decoy for ten minutes only one yard further.

And personally, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a big, mature elk walk up and bugle, and destroy trees, in your face from only 12 yards away.

But…I’m not sure I’m ready to have a rut-crazed, world-class moose nearly walk into my lap and then shoot it.

CLICK HERE to see video of just that happening to a Canadian bowhunter. The video is on Outdoor Life’s website.

Seriously, I really don’t think I could have held it together.

An archery polar buck for Miss Kansas

Since September’s opening of archery deer season, Theresa Vail had been looking forward to spending a few days in a deer stand. Those days finally came over the weekend when Vail, the current Miss Kansas, got to battle what she called “brutal, brutal, brutal” conditions as she hunted near Pratt.

“That this was finally my first time out, because of a very busy schedule, made it even more special,” said Vail. “It was cold but I enjoyed every moment of it. I told David that this was the kind of stuff I really live for.”

Along on her hunt was Realtree’s David Blanton, videoing her experience for a Realtree Outdoors television show amid cold and snow that reminded him of hunting whitetails in Alberta.

Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas, waited in the cold and snow for three days before bow-killing this buck Sunday afternoon.

Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas, waited in the cold and snow for three days before bow-killing this buck Sunday afternoon.

“It’s 15 (degrees) now and was 22 when we were in the stand,” Blanton said minutes after Vail shot a buck late Sunday afternoon. “This morning we had a windchill of zero. Any bowhunter would struggle under these conditions but Theresa was into it. When it’s this cold, you can probably get by with just hunting the evenings but she wouldn’t have had any part of that…she was there to hunt.”

Blanton and Vail were hunting on lands managed by JB Outfitters, near Pratt, an operation Blanton visits about annually for his own hunting.

During the summer Vail drew a lot of media attention at the Miss America pageant when she announced she would not be covering up her tattoos, like other contestants.

The week after winning her Miss Kansas crown in June, the Wichita Eagle printed a story on her love of hunting and recent addiction to bowhunting, something she’d first tried last fall. That, too, ended up getting her a lot of media coverage around the country.

Vail tried to get some archery practice time throughout her Miss Kansas travels. Things got a bit complicated when Blanton said he wanted her to shoot a bow made by Bear Archery, a show sponsor, rather than the Hoyt she’d used for about a year.

“I got it, and got it ready to go and sighted in like two days before the hunt,” said Vail. “I switched releases, too, so that took some adjustments but I love, love the bow. I was confident.” She credited assistance received at Wichita’s Diamond Archery for helping get the new equipment ready for the hunt.

Saturday's heavy snow packed on Theresa Vail's face and hair. The windchill Sunday morning was near zero.

Saturday’s heavy snow packed on Theresa Vail’s face and hair. The windchill Sunday morning was near zero while she hunted.

Realtree had furnished her with plenty of cold weather gear, but the cold and snow of their Friday-Sunday hunt tested it. Still, Vail said part of the experience was not having to dress in the typical fancy clothing she’s been wearing when she makes appearances.

“It was so great to get up, and put on camo clothes and boots and just go hunting,” she said, “and after the hunt I’d go into a diner for breakfast still dressed like that. It felt amazing to go out in public like that…that’s me.”

After passing up shots on numerous small bucks and does throughout the weekend, Vail and Blanton saw a nice buck coming their way Sunday afternoon. She drew her 55-pound-pull bow, but then the buck stopped facing away from her, which is not a good body angle for bowhunters.

“We checked later, and I held the bow at full-draw for one minute and five seconds” she said. “It was awful, but he finally turned and was quartering slightly away.”

The shot was about 28 yards and perfect.

“I’m telling you, she pin-wheeled that joker perfectly, I mean she drilled him,” said Blanton. “She’s a whole lot better shot under those conditions than I am. Seriously.”

Blanton said the buck was at least 5 1/2 years old, and had it not been for some antler damage the buck probably would have grossed more than 140 inches. Though they didn’t see it fall, Blanton assured Vail the buck wouldn’t go far.

The recovery was quick, easy and with enough daylight left for some good photography opportunities.

Via a text message Vail referred to it as “THE most enjoyable photo shoot” of her life and the whole hunting experience one of the top events of her life.

“I was speechless, and just so proud,” she said. “I mean, we were out there freezing for three days in the cold and the snow, and I’d spent hours and hours practicing at the range whenever I had the chance, hoping for one shot and it all paid off. It was amazing.”

In her second season of bowhunting, Theresa Vail tagged her first bow-killed  buck on Sunday. Last season she shot some antlerless deer and she's shot a variety of game with guns through the years.

In her second season of bowhunting, Theresa Vail tagged her first bow-killed buck on Sunday. Last season she shot some antlerless deer and she’s shot a variety of game with guns through the years.

The venison was taken to an area processor, and Vail is anxious to start eating the assorted products. She’ll think of the hunt often when she gets the mounted buck back from the taxidermist.

Blanton headed back to Georgia Monday morning with the makings of a very good television show, and a new friend that impressed him with her love of hunting and willingness to endure such conditions.

He chuckled as he spoke of some of their treestand conversations. “I’ll never forget it, what she said immediately after she shot the buck,” Blanton said. “She looked over at me and immediately asked, ‘Can I shoot a doe now, too.’ She was really into it.”

Helping to heal a Wounded Warrior

Former Marine Irona Cliver got a 10-point buck Sunday afternoon and, hopefully, much more.

Marine veteran Irona Cliver got a 10-point buck Sunday afternoon and, hopefully, much more.

Irona Cliver is 33, in good condition but Sunday afternoon she about suffered a physical malady she hadn’t experienced since she was a very little girl.

“Oh my God, I almost (wet) myself,” she said through a loud, excited laugh, a split-second after watching a nice whitetail buck fall to her shot.

The Marine Corps veteran, a sergeant, was more than due some positive excitement in her life.

Irona Cliver fills a plate of catfish, home-made French fries and more at a dinner in her honor.

Irona Cliver fills a plate of catfish, home-made French fries and more at a dinner in her honor.

We met in October when she was a guest at a Wounded Warrior’s-style event. Cliver was probably the most popular of the 25 or so vets being honored because of her out-going personality. At the closing dinner she understandably broke into tears as she spoke of enduring more physical and emotional damage within the past few years than I have in my 55.

We talked for a few minutes, I  gave her my card and a “contact me if you ever want to go.”  Usually you don’t hear from people after such offers.Within a week of the event Irona more than convinced me she really wanted to go  deer hunting, something she hadn’t done in about eight years. I figured  we would go. I hadn’t figured we’d have so much assistance.

But the forecast for serious cold, plus about a slam-dunk chance of freezing drizzle and snow ,meant we’d need shelter for her to be even remotely comfortable. So I called my friend, Ed Markel, to see if we could use an enclosed shooting tower on 160 acres he owns in Reno County. It’s a great place to which I’ve been granted access for several years. Still, taking someone with me deserves special consent.

But when I told Ed  Irona’s story, he instantly said, “Or there’s the ranch, it has a lot more shooting houses and probably a lot more deer.”

I was stunned.

Offering up “The Ranch” over the other land  is as much an upgrade as offering a golfer a chance to go to Pebble Beach over their local favorite course. It’s about 4,000 acres in Elk County that are managed more for wildlife than cattle and crops,…much more. It’s part of the famed Chautauqua Hills, with the steep rimrock canyons, dense woodlands and patches of great prairie and amid all of that are more than about 60 acres of food plots.

And it’s Ed’s baby, …his best spot, a place he understandably only shares very rarely with a relative or friend from out of state. The ground is so sacred to Ed I’ve never asked for bowhunting access out of respect, despite 12 years of our very good friendship.. But he offered it up instantly if I thought it would help Irona  to have a good time. It was just the start of unrequested kindnesses.

Ed Markel, left, visits with Irona Cliver, after she shot a nice buck on Markel's Elk County Ranch.

Ed Markel, left, visits with Irona Cliver, after she shot a nice buck on Markel’s Elk County Ranch.

Ed’s ranch manager, Rick Mitchell, volunteered to guide us around on his day off and help in anyway possible. Another nearby friend, Greg Pickett, flat insisted we come to his ranch to warm up and enjoy a fish fry feast after the hunt. Possibly the best outdoorsmen I’ve met in Kansas, Greg also offered up advice on which stands to hunt on The Ranch, given Sunday’s freakish southeast wind and snow.

Everyone involved was probably offering up some silent prayers for success, too. Deer activity had been almost nil since the weather turned so cold several days earlier.

Rick met us at the ranch and took us to the stand we thought was the best option. Things got off to a good start when a doe and fawn flushed when we neared the heated shooting tower. Within ten minutes later 37 turkeys, far more than Irona had ever seen in a flock, came on the scene and entertained us for an hour. A gorgeous, big male coyote gave us a long look, too.

I’d told her not to expect any deer until at least 4:30 that afternoon, but it was only 3:50 when we saw a buck working the edge of some nearby standing corn, a route that would quickly take it in front of our stand.

Irona was using my .30-06, and earlier I’d let her dry-fire it  so she could get a feel for the scope and the trigger. With each shot on an empty chamber she’d gone through a good 15 second breathing and squeezing ritual and I’d been left wondering if she would take too long if a buck appeared. That was not a problem.

I grunted like a deer to stop the walking buck,  and somewhere between my “Take”…..and…”him,” the rifle sounded.

An 80 yard shot from a trained Marine marksman wasn’t a challenge and the 10-pointer was quickly down, though a little later the perfectionist did grouse that the bullet had hit her deer about an inch from where she’d been aiming.  Irona laughed, she thanked, she hugged, she high-fived, and she shook visibly from more than the cold. But her day was far from over.

Rick was on the scene in minutes and after a photo shoot we were off, with the buck in his truck, to Greg’s ranch. There we took the buck into a building that was toasty warm from a wood-burning stove, and  Greg and I skinned and quartered the deer as Irona warmed by the fire, watched and chattered.

Irona Cliver stands by the kind of shooting house that kept her warm and dry amid Sunday's nasty weather.

Irona Cliver stands by the kind of shooting house that kept her warm and dry amid Sunday’s nasty weather.

What followed was a full-fledged southeast Kansas feast as Greg, and other friends who had volunteered to help, made platters of homemade venison sausage, fried catfish, freshly cut French fries, long-simmered beans and a homemade apple pie served still steaming.

More importantly, Irona was being nourished emotionally more than physically as she talked and laughed with Ed, Rick, Greg and others first at the table, and then by the fire. When we headed back to Wichita, Irona had several month’s worth of venison, the makings of a fine European mount for her wall and what could be some very important memories.

Through time she’ll remember the kindness of strangers that she knows really cared about and appreciated her.

And there will be times in the future when she mentally returns to some of those dark chapters of her life, which will always be as much a part of her as her blue eyes or her Semper Fi attitude. But she WILL have the memories of a special day, and she will know she has friends from that day that care deeply about her, and that the outdoors can go a long, long ways towards patching wounds that simply can never completely heal.

And I promise you…Ed, Rick, Greg, and I are better people having spent time with “our” Wounded Warrior.

If nothing else, seeing her bravery re-emphasizes how fortunate we all are in our lives. Seeing her smiles and hearing the excitement in her voice, we now have even more confidence that we can make a positive difference where it’s really needed.

She may be our first Wounded Warrior, but I’m pretty certain she will not be our last.