Four budding hunters were given the special opportunity to hunt on pristine ranch land in the Sandhills.
By Justin Haag
The description would surely get attention from near and far if posted by a real estate agent: “Outstanding mule deer property with 7,000 acres of pristine ranch land in the Sandhills of northwestern Cherry County. Has not been hunted in decades.”
Four budding hunters were given the special opportunity to hunt such a property in December 2022 during the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s first mentored muzzleloader hunt at Bowring Ranch State Historical Park near Merriman.
Jeff Rawlinson, the Game and Parks assistant division administrator who supervises the state’s hunter outreach programs, and Aaron Hershberger, a hunting education specialist for the agency, organized the effort and were joined by three volunteers in mentoring the hunters.
The group arrived at the ranch’s visitors center, which served as base camp, on a Friday evening for orientation, dinner and card games. After biscuits and gravy the next morning, the hunters set out in the dark to pop-up ground blinds that had been erected at various locations of the park.
Not only did the participants get the opportunity to pursue mule deer, an emblematic species of the American West, they also experienced the magnificence of the region’s landscape, flora and fauna. The park has long provided visitors insight to the workings of a Sandhills cattle operation with grazing on the surrounding acreage owned by the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation.
Alexandra Sutton of Lincoln, a young mother who got her itch to hunt in the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, harvested a young buck with guidance from Russ Tooker of David City, a longtime hunter education instructor. She said she’s looking forward to passing on what she learned to her young son.
Later that day, teen Cameron Copple, a recent hunter education graduate, harvested a mature doe with mentor Todd Schmidt of Gordon and his mother, Chanda, nearby.
It wasn’t Cameron’s first deer, but it was a special one. When Cameron was 13, his father, Ben, mentored him in harvesting a whitetail doe. His father died a year later from injuries sustained in an accident.
“I wanted to continue to foster Cameron’s passion for hunting but knew I couldn’t do this on my own,” Chanda said.
While driving back to the ranch from a morning of no deer activity near the blind, Schmidt noticed a distant herd providing a good ol’ Sandhills spot-and-stalk opportunity. The two set out on foot.
“I had never shot with a muzzleloader or hunted mule deer before this,” Cameron said. “Once I had the deer in my sights, I took a shot, and it dropped. I was so happy.”
The mentors assisted the hunters in field dressing the deer.
“Mule deer chili was delicious,” Chanda said. “We also had some of it processed into deer sticks and summer sausage. It is so good.”
The other two hunters were teen Brody Rouse of Axtell and BOW participant Dawn Daniel-Conton of Bellevue. Clifford Cady of Merriman, who works on the Bowring Ranch and knows the property well, also served as a mentor.
As another group of aspiring hunters is making plans to gather at Bowring Ranch this month, the experience certainly has the support of one mom.
“I am so grateful for this mentorship opportunity that Nebraska Game and Parks provided,” Chanda said. “Cameron is now connected to a hunting family that has offered him future opportunities to hunt. It is beyond incredible.”
Bowring Ranch State Historical Park opened in July 1987 after being gifted to the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation. It provides the public a view of a quintessential working Sandhills ranch. The visitors center’s modern displays and the ranch’s historical buildings tell of early ranch life, the development of the region and the lives of Arthur and Eve Bowring, each who were prominent in state and national politics in the early to mid-20th century.