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In the land of the Pawnee: a modern bowhunter connects with the past.

There are some places across North America that have been attracting hunters for centuries; places where the success of game-seekers is measured on a historic level, rather than over the course of a few years.

Nance County, Neb., is such a place. For some 300 years, Pawnee braves carrying stick and string scuffed their moccasins combing the rolling prairie here to provide food for their tribes. European settlers followed and continued the hunt. I was thinking about who had walked the land before me as I sat in a ladder stand strapped to a creek-bottom cottonwood near the Loup River on Oct. 22, 2011.

The cadenced sound of feet hitting dry leaves in the thick tuft of cedars to my left brought me out of my daydream. Thankfully, I heard the deer coming before it stepped into the clear 30 yards away. So I was ready--standing up, bow in hand, release clipped to the string loop.

It could have been a doe, a forkhorn or a 200-inch giant for all I knew It turned out to be a 120-class 8-pointer. A pretty buck, but not what I was looking for on the first morning of my weeklong hunt in the land of the Pawnee.


Rich Hunting Heritage

Archaeological evidence suggests Pawnee Indians began building earthen lodges along; the Loup River in east central Nebraska in the 1500s. Historic texts indicate these Native Americans chose this area, which includes what is now demarcated as Nance County; to settle because of the excellent hunting. Elk, bear, buffalo and other game was abundant in this fertile prairie country.

Buffalo were the main prey of the Pawnee, and they became masters of hunting the vast herds from horseback. They carried bows made of ash or hickory and fortified with pieces of bone. The strengthened limbs allowed a galloping brave to glue extra energy to an arrow hurled at the flank of a buffalo. Hopefully, such a shot would send the flint-tipped shaft through the rib cage, causing the buffalo to stop and lie down, where it would either bleed out or offer the opportunity for a follow-up shot. In the days of the Pawnee, the resident deer roaming the rolling hills of Nebraska most certainly were muleys. Whitetails likely didn't show up until well after the tribes had moved to Oklahoma in 1875.


Among the earliest European settlers to arrive in Nance County following the departure of the Pawnee were the English-immigrant ancestors of Doug Russell. He's the owner of Nebraska. Outfitter, based in the Nance County seat of Fullerton. Thousands of acres along the Loup and Cedar rivers settled by Russell's kin are still in the family today. That's the ground where Doug and his son, Dustin, guide bowhunters for whitetails.

Much of the land is farmed, yielding vast crops of corn and milo. River bottoms and draws between rolling hills of little and big bluestem are choked with cedars, cottonwoods and box elders. The combination of food, water and cover is perfect for growing big whitetails.


Nebraska is, after all, the Cornhusker State. Everything here grows a bit larger than normal--the cattle, the deer, the football players--feast-ing on the state's marquee agricultural product. In the Boone & Crockett Club's record books, Nebraska ranks 11th among the 50 states for both the number of typical and nontypical whitetails registered: since 2000.

That high ranking is partly due to the quantity and quality of the food. But as it goes with whitetails, perhaps the most critical ingredient to producing trophysized animals is age. And according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the age structure of the state's whitetail herd has only improved in the past 15 years.


In the mid-1990s, about 35 percent of the bucks shot in Nebraska were 2 1/2 years old or older. Among the state's 18 management units, the percentage of bucks age 2 1/2 and older shot in 2010 ranged from a low of 65 percent to a high of 93 percent. Statewide, the average was 75 percent.

With hunters obviously holding out for older bucks, it's no wonder Nebraska is coughing up trophies like the 17-point, 203-inch monster typical Kevin Petrzilka tagged there in 2008. It's Boone & Crockett's seventh-largest typical of all-time, and the second-biggest registered by the club since 2000.

Biding His Time

Knowing the potential and history of the area, I elected to pass on that 120-class 8-pointer my first morning out, even though he offered a tantalizing broadside shot at 15 yards. I don't imagine a Pawnee hunter would have let such an animal walk. It would have been a welcomed prize to add to the stores of dried buffalo.

The buck meandered past my stand, through a gully and across a chunk of hillside prairie before he disappeared. It was a neat encounter, but I wanted to see bigger headgear.

Later that afternoon, Doug drove me across his hunting lands as we tried to devise an evening game plan. He wanted me back in the stand I had occupied that morning, since it was situated perfectly between two cornfields, and was certainly in the path of deer traffic. But the wind was wrong.

Doug took me to a tripod standing in an awesome-looking cedar thicket that was littered with fresh rubs and scrapes. The stand was set primarily for gun hunters, however, and with no cover around it, I worried about being able to thaw my bow undetected.

"Let's go to this stand behind my house," Doug said. "You'll probably see a lot of deer from it, but we don't hunt it too much because deer could come from anywhere. It's almost impossible to pattern them back there."


My mind and heart were set on the morning stand, so I had no problem killing an evening in an observation post before returning to the cedar gulley the next day--presumably with a favorable wind. It was an old but sturdy ladder Doug led me to, situated on a fenceline separating two sections of pasture. Indeed, dirt trails ran in every direction around my tree, but I couldn't tell if they were made by deer or livestock.

The stand sat in a low spot between two cedar-choked hillsides. Doug told me the deer liked to bed on both hills, and travel down through the pasture to head out to a big cornfield about a half-mile in front of the stand. Would anything pass within bow range of the stand? That was the million-dollar question, Doug said.

It was a warm afternoon in the tree. I passed the time sending text messages to buddies in other parts of the country. Some time after the sun slipped behind the top of the hill to the west, deer--all does and yearlings--began filtering out of the cedars. Some walked past my perch at 5 yards. Others were 150 yards out.

As several deer made their way toward the cornfield, I heard a faint, high-pitched grunting sound. Far behind me, a doe picked through a swath of big bluestem grass, heading my way. She was grunting steadily. The doe kept up her calling as she passed through a cluster of box elders to my right, and ran out through the gate to join the other deer.

With all the racket that doe was making, my attention was firmly locked on her. She had gone 100 yards past me when I heard an odd cracking noise to my right. I turned in my stand and, in the dying light, saw a large buck attacking some low-hanging limbs on one of the box elders.

The rack was wide and heavy and carried 10 points. No question it was a shooter. My heart rate increased instantly.

The buck continued to thrash the branches as I picked up my bow and rose to my feet. He pawed at the earth with his right front hoof, then turned in the direction the doe had just traveled.

The buck was now some 45 yards out and branches blocked his vitals. No shot. If he went straight to my left, he'd pass behind a cedar and I'd never get a shot. That's exactly what he did.

A sinking feeling drained into my belly, but before it had time to settle, the buck inexplicably turned straight toward me, walked about 10 yards, and then curved back toward the box elders. He stopped at what I guessed to be 35 yards, with his vitals perfectly framed between two branches parallel to the ground 20 yards out. I had to bend my knees a bit and lean a little to the left, but I had a clean shot, and I took it without hesitation.

I watched the arrow arc perfectly between the branches and disappear behind the buck's front shoulder. A loud crack announced the impact. The buck barreled into some cedars about 70 yards to the west before all fell silent. Only then did the shakes set in. My knees trembled so badly, I had to sit down.

"Just smoked a big 10," I wrote in a text to Doug.

Since I was hunting right behind his house, Doug showed up in his truck within a few minutes.

"Do you think you got a good hit?" he asked.

"I think so," I replied, "but I've been wrong before."

We decided to let the buck go for a while and headed back to camp for dinner. I described the shot and the buck's reaction many times for Dustin, who seemed to think we'd have no trouble finding it, even though it was now dark.

He was right. With lanterns and flashlights in hand, we returned to the scene two hours after I had shot and quickly found blood. The buck traveled about 100 yards before piling up between two cedars.

"That's the kind of buck you hold out for here," Doug said, as he lifted the 145-inch rack out of the prairie grass.

Some time during its sprint after I had shot, the buck broke my arrow in two. We managed to recover the broadhead-tipped half. The fletched end was lost in much the same way as the Pawnee left behind arrowheads while hunting buffalo. We walked the same land 200 years apart, but we walked with the same purpose.

For information on hunting with the Russells, visit their website at, call them at 308-536-2241 or contact Gary Young's Hunting Adventures at www.garyyoungsoutdoo radventures.aom or 722-388-0678.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Pawnee's Plight: Caught in the Middle

In the wildly popular movie Dances With Wolves, the lead character, played by Kevin Costner, was U.S. Army Lt. John Dunbar.

After fighting in the Civil War, Lt. Dunbar was dispatched to the abandoned Fort Sedgewick in South Dakota. While there, he befriended the local tribe of Sioux Indians, who endured frequent attacks by raiding parties of Pawnee Indians.

It is said that art imitates life, and Dances With Wolves is no exception. There really was a man named John Dunbar, but he was not a soldier. He was a Mormon missionary who arrived in Nebraska in 1834. For 12 years, Dunbar worked with the Pawnee Indians and maintained an outpost near what is now Fullerton, in Nance County.

In real life, it was the Pawnee who endured repeated attacks by nomadic Sioux. Though they once were the most numerous group to populate Nebraska, disease and attacks by the Sioux decimated Pawnee numbers by the mid-1850s.

The Pawnee tribes moved east along the Platte River to escape the Sioux, which eventually brought them into conflict with westward-expanding European settlements. In 1859, the Pawnee signed a treaty with the U.S. government, under which the Indians forfeited all land in Nebraska, except Nance County, which encompassed the heart of their hunting grounds. That became their reservation.

There, the Pawnee continued their traditional hunting lifestyle until 1873, when about 100 braves on a buffalo hunt were massacred by a Sioux raiding party. A year later, the Pawnee bands that remained in Nebraska began moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma.
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Author:Reilly, P.J.
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Geographic Code:1U4NE
Date:Jun 16, 2012
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