From her spot inside her family’s 106-year-old barn, Dawn Wagner watched a young spike buck approach an apple tree 13 yards away.
Heart racing, she took careful aim and did what ancient hunters did 20,000 years ago to put meat on the fire.
Wagner used an atlatl to launch a long dart into the deer’s side, hitting the creature solidly with the steel-tipped point.
“When you have a deer right in front of you, you get a little bit shaky,” Wagner recalled.
There’s a term for that, as many rifle and archery hunters know. It’s called buck fever.
“I was aiming right where you’re supposed to hit a deer, but he jumped (at the sound of the 7-foot dart) and it went in 3 to 4 inches above where it would have been a double lung shot. He ran off and snapped the dart where it hit a tree.”
Wagner, from Truxton, Missouri in Lincoln County, became the first woman in modern Missouri history to successfully kill a deer with the ancient atlatl hunting tool. Missouri is one of three states that allows atlatls for hunting deer and turkey.
Nebraska and Alabama also permit atlatl hunting.
Wagner said she has hunted deer with her atlatl since 2013, and had a few throws at them, but the long dart either went too high or too low and missed the deer altogether.
But she scored a solid hit on the spike buck during her hunt on Sept. 25. Like many deer do after they’re hit by an arrow or bullet, her deer ran off and Wagner spent the next two days trying to locate it.
Two tracking dogs were brought in to help. She could have given up, but Wagner said she was determined to do the right thing and locate her quarry.
“A neighbor on horseback found him on his property,” Wagner said. “Unfortunately, coyotes had already got to its back end and were feeding on it. That was not my intent, but that sometimes happens even with rifle or bow hunters.”
She contacted a conservation agent and properly tagged the deer, even though the meat likely was too far gone to consume. She does plan to have the head mounted as a trophy for her first atlatl deer kill — and first deer kill ever.
She acknowledged some people might think it’s not ethical to hunt deer with an atlatl, but it’s a device the Missouri Department of Conservation made legal to use in 2010.
The method is legal throughout all portions of Missouri’s deer seasons, from Sept. 15 through Jan. 15.
Wagner said she and her husband Brian became interested in atlatls after the young son of a friend brought one to their property to practice throwing darts at a target.