The deer was eating leaves off an apple tree when she prepared to throw. She’d missed the previous two — both throws too high — but this time was different.
Dawn Wagner of Truxton, Mo., heard the bamboo dart, propelled with more accuracy and speed by the atlatl, whoosh through the air. She saw it connect, just missing the “double lung” shot — the most effective placement aside from hitting an animal in the heart.
She knew it had connected, though, and she knew if it dropped the deer she’d become possibly the first woman in modern U.S. history to take the animal with an atlatl.
The primitive tool, which means “spear thrower” in Aztec, was first used in the Americas around 11,000 years ago. It is a hook that attaches to the end of a long, metal-pointed dart. The atlatl provides extra leverage when throwing the shaft, Wagner said.
“Most people don’t give the caveman or early man enough credit,” she said. “Cavemen were very smart. They figured out how to attach a stick to a stick, to give it that much more leverage and power.”
Until 2009, it was illegal to hunt with an atlatl in Missouri. Now, it’s only legal in that state, Nebraska and Alabama.
Wagner, 47, had only begun hunting in 2013. She didn’t start with a bow or gun but went straight to the atlatl, which hunters say requires a high level of skill to use effectively.
“The difficulty is so high,” said Jerry Nevins, the president of the Missouri Atlatl Association, and a hunter himself who admitted he doesn’t believe he’s skilled enough to hunt with one. “It’s one thing to throw at a target, it’s another to throw at an animal that’s watching you.”
Wagner was on her 18.5-acre farm for an evening hunt in late September. She stood poised in a 106-year-old barn that served as her ground blind, 13 yards away from the deer.
After she hit it, the deer ran, breaking off her 6.5-foot-long dart and leaving behind only a few droplets of blood.
Days went by. A neighbor on horseback finally found the deer and alerted Wagner. She went immediately to it, finding it about 700 yards behind her barn. The metal tip of her dart was broken off inside the deer’s chest. One of its lungs had been punctured.
Wagner has taken flak for not finding the deer sooner, but she said she did everything she could to locate it. The track dogs with her were thrown off its trail by the many deer in the area. It left behind little blood.
She’s also been harangued because she’s a woman. She said one man said she has “penis envy.” Others say she wants to be a man.
She tries to brush it off. The atlatl has given her life a new direction. She practices daily, gives atlatl lessons to people of all ages and at a recent International World Atlatl competition, she took fifth out of 150 women. She maintains a Facebook page by the name of “The Atlatl Huntress.”
The sport even helped her move on from a troublesome past.
““This is something that has empowered me and made me feel that I am who I am,” she said.
Becoming the first woman to kill a deer with an atlatl has been “phenomenal” for her.
“I’m still trying to soak it all in. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.”
Her husband, Brian Wagner, is also an atlatl hunter and wrote a congratulatory note on Facebook: “I sure am very proud of my wife.”
Wagner is still waiting on confirmation from Nebraska and Alabama, but to her knowledge it’s possible she’s the first woman in modern U.S. history to take a deer with the atlatl.
Even so, she said she’s dealing with that flak coming her way, regardless of the feat.
“I want women to know that we have all the same abilities that a man has,” Wagner said. “We are able to do anything that a man can do. That’s the part that I really like pushing for these young women and girls — to realize it doesn’t matter if you’re man or a woman, you can go out and do the same thing.”