COLUMBIA — Gripping an atlatl made from his father’s old cherry tree, Eric Smith held his breath in the woods, motionless. He held up his arm, ready to pierce the heart of a deer with his spearlike weapon.
He saw a deer coming at him.
Atlatl diary, from Justin Garnett
Deer season, 2010
This was the first morning of the first official atlatl deer season since the Late Woodland Period. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and painted my face to break up my features, got my gear together and set out to the woods. I took a Basketmaker II atlatl and three darts, each just a hair under six feet long and tipped with foreshafts of stone, sharper than commercial archery broadheads or even surgical scalpels. I was using a portable “Blind,” a large sheet of camouflage burlap which can be staked out to provide cover while I squatted. You can’t really sit with an atlatl — well, not if you expect to hit anything. Deer are very wary, and as such you have to make sure that there’s a minimum of motion for them to detect.
In the forest at night you don’t use a flashlight. You rely on your senses and peripheral vision to keep you on track. I found my way through the forest, down ridges and gullies until I found my spot — I had staked it out weeks before and only visited briefly to avoid alerting the deer to my presence. It’s a good spot, the deer travel a well-worn game trail down a steep embankment and funnel up the middle of a small gully — I had a spot alongside the game trail where I knew the deer would have to go. I positioned myself downwind from the trail, and sat behind my blind.
As the sun came up, small birds landed in the branches around me, almost close enough to touch, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I crouched in silence until around 7:10 a.m. I was scanning the area for any signs of motion — and saw something. It was another hunter, about 250 yards away, upwind from me — I was in his scent column. He was very difficult to see, since he wasn’t wearing the required blaze orange. I contemplated shouting for a second, but opted just to retreat up the gully — I was very close to some large rocks and trees, which would provide cover.
I got up and, as I did, a flash of white appeared between the other hunter and I — there had been a deer between us in the valley, and it ran toward him. I ducked behind those trees and rocks without so much as a second look, and walked away from my blind. There is no sense in hunting so close to another hunter, especially when you’re hunting with a weapon as short-range as the atlatl. And it is a dangerous situation to be in the firing lane of another person — especially when there is game between the two of you! He didn’t fire on that deer. Perhaps it was moving too quickly or wasn’t what he was looking for. In any event, I’m glad there wasn’t an accident.
I did a bit more scouting for other game trails and headed back home, and decided not to go back until the excitement of the season (and the high competition) dies off a bit. I’ll be going back out on the mornings later this week and this weekend. It’s a great feeling to be hunting with a weapon you make yourself, especially if you eventually get a deer. I count myself lucky to have been out and enjoyed that opening morning, the weather, bird songs, scents and sounds, to have seen a deer, and not to have been involved in a hunting accident. Even if the morning was cut a bit short, it was still a great feeling getting out there to join the hunt with the weapons of my ancestors.
Fifteen feet away, an eight-point buck stood right behind a cedar tree. Smith thrust his atlatl at the buck. The dart landed right by its feet. The thickness of his gloves, he soon discovered, prevented him from having precise and total control over the atlatl. He decided to remove his glove.
Smith was close to being the first person in Missouri to capture a deer with the atlatl, a primitive weapon that became legalized for deer hunting in the Show-Me State this year.
Later, a doe sneaked up behind him, seven feet away. He couldn’t do anything because even a slight turn would scare the deer away. That day Smith went home empty-handed.
“It gave me a small taste of what it must have been like for Missouri's earliest hunters,” said Smith, president of the Three Rivers Chapter of the Missouri Archaeology Society. “I've taken deer with both gun and bow, but this was the ultimate test of all my hunting skills.”
Though Smith and a score of atlatl hunters didn’t bring home any deer this season, they said that it was a good learning experience.
Many unforeseen problems, however, surfaced during this first year of atlatl deer hunting.
It mostly had to do with timing, they said. The atlatl could only be used during the firearms season in late November, which lasted 11 days. Many atlatl users agreed that if the atlatl could be moved up to the archery season — which typically starts in September and is four months long — things might go better for them next year.
Being allowed to hunt so late in the year makes it difficult for hunters to conceal themselves, said Ray Madden of Joplin.
"Once the weather gets cold and rain comes, you lose leaves," Madden said. "You’re too exposed."
Also, deer are more likely to be on high alert during the firearms season than in the archery season, Madden said.
Another problem is that hunters in firearms season are required to wear a blaze orange vest and cap. This poses a challenge for the atlatl users, because they have to be in close range with animals, generally no more than 20 yards away. The color makes them stand out. Even though deer are colorblind, they do see a solid color, said Smith.
In addition to external factors like the weather, some atlatl users said they realized that they need to hammer out a different hunting strategy for next year.
Madden said it was difficult to throw a long dart on a tree stand. Next year he will stay on the ground.
Curtis Waggoner of Sedgewickville agreed but said it won't be much easier to hunt on the ground.
"If I hunt on the ground with the atlatl," Waggoner said "I'll have to watch where I'm hunting because of the limitations of tree limbs and brush. It'll present some problems that will take some time to work out."
Waggoner said that he hopes he’ll soon be able to throw the atlatl in the archery season, which will give him more time to test different strategies.
Unlike Waggoner and Madden, Chip McGeehan of Marshfield said he’ll stick with his tree-stand strategy: sit, watch and wait.
But like Waggoner, McGeehan, a member of the Conservation Department Commission, wishes the atlatl season were longer.
It will be up to the Conservation Department to decide whether to extend the length of the season.