Tips from Okmulgee's Veteran Bowhunter

Tips from Okmulgee's Veteran Bowhunter

When a bowhunter shoots 32 deer -- 27 of them bucks -- in 34 seasons, it's not just a matter of dumb luck! Wayne Willis tells us how he's honed his hunting skills and earned his success.

By Bob Bledsoe

How many young Sooner bowhunters would be willing to hunt for a decade before killing a deer?

Every weekend, outdoors-oriented TV shows celebrate archers equipped with the newest, fastest, most gadget-laden bows; arrowing one trophy buck after another, they make it look easy. It's enough to give a guy who's hunted a couple of weeks (much less a couple of years) without taking a buck qualifying for the record books an inferiority complex.

Veteran Okmulgee bowhunter Wayne Willis did indeed go 10 years before getting his first deer - and those years weren't wasted. In that time, he says, he learned a lot, spent a lot of time in the woods and became a better hunter.

Since those days, Willis has become a respected member of Oklahoma's bowhunting community. A founder of the bowhunting club in Okmulgee, he served for many years on the board of directors of the Oklahoma Bowhunting Council. And he's killed two Pope & Young bucks.

The latest of those, a 12-pointer that scored 133 7/8, he downed in 2002 at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant. And "the depot" (as many Oklahomans still call McAlester) also surrendered Willis' first P&Y qualifier; that kill occurred back in 1983, when compound bows were still allowed.

Willis doesn't even own a compound bow these days. He does most of his hunting with a recurve, which he sees as a return to his roots.

Willis grew up in Okmulgee. His grandfather was an avid bird hunter, but no one in the family was a bowhunter. "But I wanted to bowhunt," he recalled. "I got a fiberglass recurve bow, and I'd shoot it in the back yard. At night, I'd pore over a Ben Pearson Archery catalog and study all the equipment. Jim Dougherty was my hero." (Dougherty, a renowned bowhunting writer, former Pope & Young Club president and archery industry consultant, at that time worked for Ben Pearson Archery, since purchased by Tulsa-based fishing equipment manufacturer Zebco.)

Using a recurve bow to down bucks of this quality is an art. Wayne Willis has invested 34 seasons of Oklahoma deer hunting in developing the skills needed to get close enough to take 140-class animals like this. Photo courtesy of Wayne Willis

Willis became a regular at Pat's Archery, a hometown shop whose owner, Pat Giulioli, became one of his mentors. "Pat showed me how to find an active scrape line and hunt it," Willis said.

Pat's Archery was one of the first archery pro shops in the state, one of the few places back in the 1970s where a hunter could buy a compound bow and get it set up properly. "All the best bowhunters hung out at Pat's," Willis recalled. "Every evening, the guys would come out of the woods and drive to Pat's to compare notes before they went home. That's where I figured out that deer can travel a long way on a daily basis.

"Back then, there were a lot of small leases up and down the river west of town. You'd see a buck go by, then talk to another hunter who was on a lease a mile or two away who saw the same deer an hour later."

Okmulgee has long been a hive of bowhunting activity, with seemingly far more bowhunters per capita than elsewhere in Oklahoma. According to Willis, a couple of particular factors probably helped create the large bowhunting community there. One is that the Deep Fork River bottoms of Okmulgee County has long held lots of deer, even back when many Oklahoma counties still had few whitetails. The other is that significant number of the many workers who came from Pennsylvania to work in Okmulgee's glass factories brought an avid interest in bowhunting with them. The glass plants had shift work, so the guys could get off work in the afternoon, be in their deer stands in 10 or 15 minutes and have a decent hunt before dark.

In Willis' 34 years of bowhunting, he's killed 32 deer, 27 of them bucks. That may not sound like a lot when you consider that there are bowhunters in Oklahoma now who arrow four deer almost every year, but Willis rarely kills does, and passes up plenty of opportunities at bucks. He often hunts entire seasons, or even multiple seasons, for a single buck that he knows is around.

It's a practice he began years ago while hunting those leases just west of town at Okmulgee. "I'd pick out a buck and I'd hunt that particular buck all season, trying to figure out just how to get close enough to get a good shot at that one buck."

Trying to match wits with and predict the movements and behavior of a single deer, he asserts, helped him become a better woodsman and hunter. It also shaped many of his bowhunting habits. Because he's primarily a buck hunter, he hunts the early- and mid-November rutting period aggressively. The early weeks of bow season in October he calls his "scouting times."

Some bowhunters prefer to scout earlier, in August and September. "I'm not saying you shouldn't do that," Willis noted. "Every hunter should hunt his own way. But around here, almost without fail, the bucks will do a big changeup in mid-October. That's when I like to be scouting and seeing what's going on."

The does start coming into estrus about that time, and Willis has observed that the bucks change their movements and behavior, often based on where the does are spending their time. "You might say I'm hunting the does. I find out where the does are eating and bedding, and I can pretty much know that the bucks will come around as soon as the rut starts."

Willis is a firm believer in hunting scrapes. "Lots of bowhunters get discouraged quickly if they're not seeing several deer every time they sit in a tree," he said. "But I can sit for a week without seeing a deer as long as I'm hunting an active scrape, because I know that it's just a matter of time until that buck comes back to check it."

That's not to say that Willis just hangs a stand above a scrape and camps out for a week. "I move a lot. I'm constantly reevaluating and studying and trying to figure out what the buck is going to do."

Like many accomplished bowhunters, Willis believes that your first day in a given location will afford you your best shot at a deer. Scent, noise and other factors quickly educate deer that a human is hanging around a given spot, he says, and the longer you hunt from a given spot, the less likely you are to get a good, close shot at a deer there.

For Willis, getting close is what it's all about. He believes that there's too much emphasis today on fast-shooting bows, lighter arrows, flatter trajectories

and the like, and that such considerations have split bowhunters into two factions. "You have bowshooters," he said, "and then you have bowhunters.

"You've got the guys who have the latest $800 bow with the lightest carbon arrows that shoot the fastest; they might be able to make a shot out to 70 yards, but they aren't good enough hunters to get close to a deer. Then you've got the guys who might shoot a compound, or they might shoot traditional gear" - recurves or longbows - "but they're putting in their time and learning how to hunt. They'll probably kill most of their deer within 15 yards."

Time spent in the woods is probably the most important factor in becoming a skilled bowhunter, in Willis' view. Putting in some hours in a tree stand is of much greater value than all the latest state-of-the-art technological improvements in the world. "Some younger hunters would probably call me old school, and I guess I am," he admitted. "But I'm concerned about where I see bowhunting going these days. I think lots of guys are in too big a hurry.

"We're living in a time when people stand in front of the microwave and say 'Hurry up!' These new hunters think they're going to rush out there and kill trophy deer. They see it on the TV shows. I don't think their expectations are realistic."

Willis' next ambition may help put things back in perspective: He hopes to create a television show that focuses on traditional bowhunting. He's been working for several months, assembling videotape footage of deer and other creatures in the woods. The show might take an occasional detour for some other outdoor activities, he says, but traditional bowhunting will be its core.

Willis pits his talent with a recurve bow against a number of species. He has killed mule deer bucks in Colorado and New Mexico and has a Pope and Young black bear to his credit, as well as several wild turkeys. He hopes to complete a grand slam of all turkey species with a recurve bow soon.

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