Campfire Tales: No Place Like Home

Are you serious? This 170-class whitetail was taken in Arkansas?

This is a common reaction I get when showing off my grandfather's prized deer mount of his buck taken Dec. 14, 1968. I'm honored to have this once-in-a-lifetime trophy now gracing the walls of my home. My grandfather—Papaw, as I called him—was quite the deer magnet, with no desire for all of the current "scientific" deer attractants. He lured this trophy in as he was beating his pipe on his hand. Maybe this coming season I should try this "rattling" technique combined with some tobacco smoke scent bombs.

Papaw passed on in 1975, at age 58. I was only 8 years old. If he was still with us, I would give him a big hug and say, "Thank you!"

As hunters, we come in contact with people every day who have not yet experienced the camaraderie, anticipation and thrill of the hunt we all enjoy every season. If not for the influence of Papaw in my dad's life, I very possibly could've been in the same boat. When reminded of this, I realize how fortunate I am that Papaw passed on the magic of the hunting tradition.

Papaw was my dad's father-in-law, J.B. Saltonstall. He became the father figure in my dad's life. Papaw did the honors of fanning my dad's ember of interest in hunting and turned it into a blazing fire. Their adventures together created a bond that eventually led to Salty's Deer Club, established in 1970 near El Dorado, Arkansas. This club hunted the hallowed ground where Papaw's 170-class whitetail had lived.

The deer population near our northern Arkansas home was minimal in the 1970s. Dad was glad to make the trek to the southern part of the state as often as possible in hopes of getting a shot at a descendant of Papaw's buck. It wasn't long before my brother and I were tagging along and heading to Salty's Deer Club. It seemed this was where all the big deer roamed.

The memories are still vivid more than 35 years later as I recall the times with Dad in the four-legged deer stands. I remember the surreal moment of seeing my first deer, feeling as though I was watching ghosts or extra-terrestrial creatures. It's also quite memorable thinking of when Dad would wrap trash bags around me to keep me warm, wondering why he didn't just bring me some extra coveralls. After all, he did run a clothing store.

Then there was the first time I was allowed to hunt in one of the deer stands by myself. It was there I remember lying on the floor of the stand to take a quick nap. When I woke up, my gun was nowhere to be found. It was notin the stand, and I was not able to seeit anywhere on the ground. When Dad arrived to be sure I got down safely, I found my gun: I couldn't see the gun from the stand because all that was facing me was the butt-stock; the rifle was sticking barrel first into the forest floor.

During the 1980s, thanks to conservation-minded hunters and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, big game populations were increasing near our home in northwest Arkansas. So, in the latter part of the decade, we spent less time driving and more time hunting near the house. It wasn't long before we built our own hunting cabin nearby, and Owl Hollow was established in 1994. My late uncle, Randy Saltonstall, even moved up north just to hunt with us. We enjoyed watching the Salty tradition continue. It was here that a new generation of memories began.

It seemed that in just a blink of an eye I was hunting with my son and nephews. I was proud (and a little envious) as they were harvesting bigger bears and bucks than those of their fathers. The sons also preceded their dads in winning trophies at the elk calling contest that takes place at the Arkansas Elk Festival. This is an annual fun-filled family event that celebrates the reintroduction of Rocky Mountain elk to our area. And in 1995, our state was officially nicknamed "The Natural State."

My success in the field finally began to improve. I was able to seize more big game hunting opportunities and fill more tags in one year than I ever before had done in The Natural State.

During 2009, I decided to take a more aggressive approach to bear baiting. It had been tough in previous seasons to compete with the abundant acorn crop. However, on opening day I experienced another surreal moment in the outdoors: The work of baiting finally paid off when my brother and I both tagged our first Arkansas black bears.

After my brother shot his bear, I also experienced my first genuine "bear hug" as my chest cavity took the brunt of an adrenaline-filled brotherly hug. We were soaring high, savoring the moment of a plan coming together. And for a little icing on the cake, it was later confirmed that the skull of my bear surpassed the Pope and Young Club's minimum score.

On the very next day I thought I would try my luck hunting the whitetail bucks that had been spotted while scouting. In past seasons, I'd never been able to take a buck with more than 7 points. This stat improved when I harvested a respectable 9-pointer on the second day of the archery season. What an incredible opening weekend at Owl Hollow.

With my hunting confidence and optimism running at an all-time high, I had the opportunity to go back to Idaho for a second try at hunting mountain lions. The mountains there felt like our Ozark Mountains on steroids.After a challenging trek through some tough country, I was also able to score on my first beautiful mountain lion in that rugged country.

Then, toward the end of deer season, my brother saw some critters we'd never seen on our place before. He saw a group of eight "Arkansas razorback" wild hogs, and they were tearing up our corn feeders. So I took my son and nephew up to hunt them.

On New Year's Eve the wind was in our favor. Only an hour after jumping into our ground blind, the hogs came streaming in and my Mathews drilled the first one. I had my first razorback boar under my belt. It was a very happy new year for my friends, family and me—we enjoyed some great table fare!

In January, another hunting buddy told me he had located some gray fox, and I immediately realized this could be another first for me. We went out an hour before dark one evening, made some rabbit-in distress calls with no luck, and then we decided to try one more location before dark. We set up and started calling, and a couple of minutes later I had my first close, heart pounding encounter with a beautiful gray fox. I was glad to do the honor of giving it a ride to the taxidermist.

What a great season it was. I took my first Arkansas black bear, 9-point buck, mountain lion, wild boar and gray fox. Maybe in the near future I'll finally get drawn for a coveted elk tag at the annual Arkansas Elk Festival. I think I'll also put in for the Arkansas alligator tag. Maybe I should book a famous Arkansas duck hunt. I can't imagine living in The Natural State without ever being exposed to the hunting tradition.

Lifelong memories continue to mount every season. Thank you, Papaw. And thanks, Dad, for including me, too. I hope my restlessness in those four-legged stands down south didn't keep you from your 170-class whitetail.

Now that I think of it, there are lots of other folks who would probably like to thank them both as well. I'm sure that people such as my taxidermist, hunting outfitters and hunting store operators would also like to say thanks.

May we all give thanks to those who made sure that we experienced the thrill of the hunting tradition. We might not be able to thank them personally, but we can honor them by sharing the hunt with someone this hunting season.