I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be there.
There were manicured food plots. Carefully placed tree stands and ground blinds. Strategically set trail cameras. A jaw-droppingly beautiful Midwest landscape. And, of course, big giant bucks. Who wouldn’t want to be in the middle of that?
Me, it turns out. Because this was an outfitted hunt. Something I swore I’d never do. Something I was wildly uncomfortable with. But here I was, doing it anyway.
What I learned on my first true outfitted hunt both confirmed my suspicions and upturned my assumptions. It turns out the reality of outfitted deer hunts, like most matters surrounding our passions, is complicated.
For me, deer hunting is about the process, not just the end result of shooting something. I love the work that it takes to find a good spot. The miles on your boots necessary to learn a new location. The sweat in the eyes required to hang cameras and stands in the summer. The long days in the field learning the local deer and fine-tuning setups.
If I killed a deer with none of this preceding it would it really feel like a deer hunt? Doubtful.
I didn’t want my hand held. I didn’t want my options limited. I didn’t want the work to be done for me, even if that meant lesser “success.” Outfitted hunts always seemed a little too easy. More like a shoot than a hunt.
But this past season I took on a new challenge to explore and experience as many different hunting traditions and regions across the country as I could. I hunted the suburbs of Washington D.C. by knocking on doors and hunting postage stamp yards, I kayaked to isolated public lands in Alabama, I tracked bucks in the snowy mountains of Maine, and plenty more in between. But if I was going to get a full view of what the whitetail experience looks and feels like across the entire country, I couldn’t ignore the heavily managed and outfitted whitetail experience of the Midwest.
My introduction to outfitted deer hunting would take place in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. It’s quite possibly the most famed location for world-class whitetails and outfitters in the nation. And the most famed of them all is Tom Indrebo’s Bluff Country Outfitters.
Tom’s outfit is tucked deep into a timbered valley in western Wisconsin. My eyes widened as I took in the corn and soybean fields lining the dirt road leading back to the lodge, with high hardwood bluffs looming on either side. It was early January, there was fresh snow on the ground, and the extended forecast called for sub-zero temperatures in the near future. It looked too good to be true.
What stood out most about my first hours at Bluff Country Outfitters though, was how Tom, following introductions, wanted to spend his time. It was late and he easily could have sent us off to prepare for the big hunt the next day, but instead, he welcomed me into his office, pulled up his computer, and began what could have been an hours-long trip down memory lane. Along with another long-time client turned friend, we looked at old harvest photos, funny videos from past guests, shed pictures, trail cam shots, time-lapse films, and every other possible imaginable documentation you can imagine of the deer and people who had visited this patch of Wisconsin dirt. The deer, the landscape, the people, and the stories, were all deeply beloved by Indrebo.
After a quick ride around the property the following morning to get my bearings, my first hunt commenced in an elevated box blind positioned alongside a standing corn patch that Indrebo recommended. This, I noted with concern, seemed a little risky since we’d walked all around it earlier that day during our tour.
“And how can we get in there without deer spotting us?” I asked. The blind, tucked into the bottom of a narrow valley, would be in easy sight of any deer bedded on the ridges on either side of the draw. There was no way we could hunt here without deer knowing what was up. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Tom assured me.
And so it went for much of the rest of the week. I was given mostly free rein to venture where I wanted, but Tom offered his opinions. Opinions that often surprised me. Hunt that stand with a sub-par wind? No problem, he’d say. Hunt from a pop-up blind assembled that very afternoon right in the open? They’ll be less bothered by an obvious blind than one you try to hide, he reassured me. Hunt a spot that requires you cross a cut corn field after dark and spook the deer on your way out? Don’t sweat it.
This story repeated itself over and over. I saw something that, according to my previous experience, shouldn’t work. Tom would tell me to relax, the deer wouldn’t mind. And sure enough, they didn’t.
Over the course of my first few days of hunting, filled with plenty of deer sightings despite the unorthodox approach, I realized that two things seemed to be at play here. First off, Tom, as I’m sure is the case with most outfitters, knows his property and the local deer exceedingly well. He eats, sleeps, and breathes this place and these critters. It would be foolish to ignore his localized intuitions. Secondly, all of that experience came by way of a tremendous amount of time on the land. Time on the land that not only educated Tom, but also the local deer. People driving UTVs. People walking around food plots. People checking trail cameras. With the exception of a few old bucks each year, these deer did not associate anything negative with those human encounters. All of this has led to a deer population that, at least to a degree, is more forgiving of certain human activities.
But that’s not to say that these deer were dumb or that this hunting was necessarily easy. There were challenges aplenty.
On my third night of the hunt, after observing consistent deer movement the previous evening out of range, I moved to an old blind that would seemingly get me in the action. The blind, with chairs inside, was too small for myself plus a cameraman, so we removed one of them and hid it in a nearby pile of branches. That evening, after dozens of deer had fed out in front of us, one weary doe spotted something out of place. The half-hidden chair. She blew and the corn patch exploded with deer scattering like roaches when the lights are flipped on.
Fifteen minutes later, deer slowly returned and this time a shooter buck was with them, the first I’d seen that week. The tall-tined nine-pointer eased his way towards me, I moved my bow into position, shifted my legs in the chair, and got ready for him to walk through my window. And then, “Phew! Phew! Phew!” Another doe, or hell, maybe the same doe, had discovered the chair. And off they all ran again.
This scene repeated once more about an hour later, with another shooter buck in range but behind standing corn, and then a disheartening eruption of on-edge deer fleeing back to the woods. It was a confusing situation that I experienced that night and over the subsequent few days. A high percentage of deer would ignore or forgive typical transgressions, only to have one paranoid personality blow everything up and send us back to square one.
And schizophrenic deer were not the only challenge. All of this was paired with a true arctic blast sending wind chills down to -25 degrees, providing a somewhat consoling sufferfest to pair with the otherwise cushy hunting scenario. But despite great food sources, ideal conditions for deer movement, and a stellar deer population, we never could quite get one of the eligible mature bucks on the property both into range and clear for a shot.
All of this is to say that an outfitted hunt is still a hunt. The deer were still deer. Bad decisions were costly. Good decisions were still sometimes not quite good enough. Four letter words were necessary. Long hours on stand were required and toes and fingers throbbed before finally going numb. Like I said, sounds like a hunt, right?
And, yes, I had fun too. There’s no denying the excitement in hunting a place you know is well-tuned and ostensibly full of big whitetail bucks. I’ve got red blood flowing through my veins and a whitetail addiction deep in my heart, after all.
What stood out most though might have been Tom, his family, and his guides. They were the kind of folks you want to drink a coffee with and reminisce about old times. And I’m not just saying that. I met several folks during my visit who first came to Bluff Country Outfitters as paying clients and strangers, who now return annually as pseudo-family members, here for the community more than the deer. I had expected an outfitter to operate like a mercenary, shuttling new shooters in weekly and shuttling them back out with antlers in tow. I had no idea that the reality would be closer to a family reunion, with a shared love of deer and each other as the centerpiece.
But I also came away from this experience knowing that the outfitted thing still isn’t for me. As I feared, I had moments where I felt stifled by the limitations of hunting someone else’s place, under someone else’s rules. There were strict guidelines for what deer I could shoot and which I could not. And while I was given a tremendous amount of freedom, I still felt hampered by the need to ask someone else permission whenever I wanted to explore a new idea or location.
All along the way, I still couldn’t help but wonder if one of these bucks did come into range, would I have really earned it? In my own self-created deer hunting ideology, I’ve come to think that this is something that matters. But maybe I’m a stubborn asshole who likes to do things my own way.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this all felt a little like eating dinner at someone else’s home. I appreciated the invite, the hosts were great, and the menu was truly impressive. But the thing is, I like to cook! And, honestly, I’d probably be more comfortable eating something half as fancy at my own table.
Images via Dylan Lenz.