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Bill Winke - Get to Know a True Whitetail Expert

If you want to know about BIG whitetails, Bill Winke could tell you a thing or two. If you want to know about aerospace engineering, Bill could tell you a thing or two about that. It's interesting how life takes you in a direction you never saw coming.

Hoyt: Bill, you are thought of by many as one of the most knowledgeable whitetail guys around. It helps that you live in the heart of whitetail country. Tell us how you ended up in small town Iowa.

Bill: I actually grew up in small town Iowa.  I was born on an 80 acre dairy farm four miles from the small down of Waukon, IA.  It was a great way to grow up, in the heart of the Mississippi River Bluff country of northeast Iowa: trout streams, ruffed grouse, pheasants, lots of ducks on the river and of course the whitetails.  In 1986 I took a job in Michigan as an aerospace engineer right out of college. While there I met my future wife, Pam.  We decided in 1990 to quit our jobs at the aerospace company and travel the country until we ran out of money.  That is a big, big story all its own – one I need to really tell some day.   We literally mixed into the local landscape everywhere we went.  The obvious activities when you pull into a town are always the most expensive, and with a budget of $300 per week, we didn’t have much to spend!  So we hung out with the locals and they took us to all the cool places that only locals know about.  We had some great adventures.  It is amazing if you are out of your comfort zone how many fun things you can find yourself doing!


With a few odd jobs thrown in (assistant golf pro, engineer at an archery company and even baling some hay) we stretched $15,000 for 18 months.  Our life savings gone, we had to settle somewhere so we headed back to my hometown of Waukon.  I tripped sideways into the writing business (another long story) and as that started to take off I heard of a property in southern Iowa that was very large in which you could buy a share of ownership and then hunt the whole thing.  We again put up our entire life savings, borrowed the rest and even had to have my sister put up here Ford Explorer as collateral and co-sign the loan.  It was only $40,000 but it cleaned us out.  We moved to southern Iowa and lived on the property for three years, buying additional ownership in the property.  Long story short, we eventually sold that share of ownership and started buying land nearby that we own exclusively.  Long story, but that is how we ended up where we are.


Hoyt: Was there a close second when making your decision on where to settle down and start your family or was it pretty obvious that you belonged in the Midwest?

Bill: As we traveled around the country, one of the things we focused on was where we might someday like to live.  We both really liked Bozeman, MT.  That was back in 1990/1991.  I am not sure what it is like there now, but it was the perfect place for an outdoor enthusiast back then.  We really did consider moving there a time of two.  We also liked Boise, ID.  Not a small town, but a very nice small city.  Another one we really considered.  Being close to whitetail hunting was important to me personally and professionally and being from Iowa made it easier to just stay here.  I have always liked the Midwest so it was a pretty natural decision, but not an easy one. 


Hoyt: You are very blessed with a beautiful wife and two wonderful kids. Tell us more about them and what their interests are and what you like to do as a family.

Bill: Pam, my wife, is not a big outdoor person.  We love to travel – go places and have a few adventures.  Pam will visit these places, but she doesn’t care for the “roughing it” part anymore so she prefers the lodges and cabins to the true adventure.  Jordan (our 14-year-old daughter), Drew (our 13-year-old son) and I like to get a bit dirtier so we tend to venture off the beaten path a bit more.  Pam is more inspired by relationships and people and helping at the church and those kinds of things.  They are all good things to do, of course.  The kids both love to hunt and we go after turkeys and deer mostly.  Drew and I do some camping and fishing too.  I grew up fishing and still love it.  That is always fun.  Jordan is active in track and basketball.  Drew likes football and both of the kids are very smart.  They take their education very seriously which is good to see.  Junior high and high school sports are fun but it is your brain that will ultimately determine how successful you are in life.


Hoyt: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Bill: Professional football player, of course!  I moved away from that dream when I was in high school.  I realized the commitment that those guys have to make to keep excelling through college and how hard they have to work.  I didn’t play college football because I didn’t want to give up four or five years of hunting!  I was good for high school, but I would have had to really bring it every day to be a top college player and I wasn’t sure I wanted to play football that hard for that long.  In the back of my mind I always thought that being an outdoor writer would be cool.  I loved reading and writing, but I had no idea how one would get into that business so I just went to college to study what my high school aptitude test suggested I would be best at: engineering. 


Hoyt: You are one of the most successful outdoor writers today, and have been for the past 10 to 20 years, but you actually went to college to become an engineer. How did you go from being an engineer to being an outdoor writer?

Bill: This is actually another long story.  I will try to shorten it down.  As I mentioned, I worked for the aerospace industry for four years in MI and was actually the project engineer on the horizontal tail flight control system for the F22 when I left there – we were prototyping that thing way back in 1990!  That is how long many of those military procurement cycles take.  It was a great learning experience.  I actually learned more about life and people and choices, etc. there than anywhere I have ever lived or worked.  Very good experience.But I also realized that I was spending too much time staring out the window wishing I was on the other side.  I knew if I was married and stayed in engineering, I would be doing it my whole life.  Nothing wrong with that, but I really wanted to explore life a bit more first. That is why we quit our jobs the day before we got married and started traveling the day after we tied the knot.  That “honeymoon” took us to all corners of North America.  We would take turns picking the activities and locations and menus each week. One week we might be at the Grand Canyon camping on the Rim because Pam wanted to go there and the next week we would be at Yellowstone fly casting for trout because it was where I wanted to go.  We kept track of every dollar we spent and kind of made a contest to see who could lead us on the cheapest week of adventure.  Pam would have us eating day old donuts five meals a week and by the time it was my turn I would be so sick of day old food that I would splurge and buy a pizza or two.  We camped 95% of the time.  One of the legs of our crisscrossing trails across the west took us through Lewiston, ID.  I knew there was a bow company there at the time and I wanted to stop and see the plant. 


We stopped at the Shop to find that the company had only recently moved to Tennessee, but the owner, Spencer Land, just happened to be in town getting ready to hunt elk.  I set an appointment to meet with him to see if he needed any engineers and at the end of our meeting, he hired us both to start working a short stint after the hunting season that winter.  I was to be an engineer and Pam was to work in their finance department.  We worked for Spencer for six months; I actually worked as the plant manager (a job I was woefully under qualified for).  While working there I met a fellow named Greg Tinsley who had just recently come to work there as the PR manager.  His former job was at Petersen’s Bowhunting where he had been the assistant editor.  Greg was called back to Petersen’s about the same time Pam and my stint ran out so he asked me to submit an article about deer hunting.  That is how it all began.  The next few years were not easy but the doors kept opening.  It is very humbling that God really does know the desires of our hearts and creates for us those opportunities.  Being out of your comfort zone is a good thing.  You never know where God will nudge you! 


Hoyt: When you first started out writing, did you ever think it would turn into the career you have been able to enjoy over the years?

Bill: No, absolutely not.  Every time I sold an article back in the first two years I would do a dance in the rented apartment.  It meant I wouldn’t have to build fence or bale hay that week to buy groceries!  It really was that lean at first.  In 1992, I made $8,000 gross pay.  That was not a lot of money then.  Pam was not working.  We lived simply and had a surprisingly good time, actually.  Each year my income grew but it wasn’t until the fourth year that I actually felt like I could support us long-term.  There was some real soul-searching in there, to be sure.  But again, God kept the doors open that he wanted me to go through and kept the doors closed that my insecurity about the future prompted me to try to open.  I think you can see that the whole thing was just a gift.  That is why I said earlier in this interview that I tripped sideways into this business.  I was scared every day for several years.  I would have reached for any good life preserver as I floundered in the waters of life, but there were none nearby so I just kept swimming.  God had a place for me to go.  It still humbles me and I never take it for granted.


Hoyt: You write a lot of technical gear articles as well as hunting articles. Which do you prefer?

Bill: I love writing the hunting articles for sure.  The gear articles are OK, but I did those a lot at first because I had to pay the bills and my engineering degree made those a natural fit for me.  I don’t do very many of them now. 


Hoyt: After whitetail hunting, what is your next favorite animal to hunt?

Bill: I love hunting mule deer. I have taken some nice ones both from the tree and from the ground.  I love the country where they live and I love that they are a realistic trophy for a bowhunter.  They are very fun to hunt and have big antlers. 


Hoyt: You manage your farm very carefully to grow big bucks. What are some things you have learned over the years that hunters with a small farm or lease can do to help improve the quality of deer they have in their hunting spot?

Bill: Every 80 acres should contain everything the deer need to thrive: food, water and security.  You can micro-manage a bigger farm in small sized pieces like this or manage a smaller farm to produce these elements.  Of course, you have to hunt very, very carefully.  I am super careful about where I hunt and how I hunt so that the deer don’t have much indication I am after them.  It is just a matter of keeping them on the property and moving during daylight (at least some of them).  You have to be realistic. If you don’t own a large piece of land you are still at the mercy of your neighbors no matter how well you do, so long-term, co-ops are the best answer for guys who own limited land (to be honest, even in the Midwest, anything under about 5,000 acres is too small to totally control your own destiny!).  So you need good neighbors.  Food, water and thick cover helps, but ultimately you need help from your neighbors to produce older bucks. 


Hoyt: Food plots have become more and more popular over the past several years. Do you plant food plots? If so, what types of food plots do you plant and how do you use them strategically?

Bill: Yes, I started planted them back in 1995 when we first moved to southern Iowa to live on and manage the big farm we bought a share of.  I still plant tons of food every year and feel that it is the key to success, especially in the late season.  Early season is about the food and late season is really about the food.  The rut is about the does and they are more or less focused on food, at least at the start of the rut.  So if you have plenty of food, you can control the daily patterns of the deer better than if you don’t.  I plant soybeans in much of my food plot acres but I also plant clover and Big N Beasty (both from Frigid Forage) in my smaller plots.  I also over-seed (or re-seed) Big N Beasty into any parts of my soybean fields that didn’t produce.  I will take an inventory in late July and then replant those areas in early August. It works really well because the Big N Beasty allows me to save any plots, or any parts of plots, that otherwise would be useless.  Like I said, we do really well on food plots in the late season.  That is when they are really worth their cost. 


Hoyt: A few years ago you started a web video series called Midwest Whitetail. All of us here at Hoyt quickly became addicted to watching it during October, November and December. What made you decide to try your hand at filming and producing hunting webisodes? Why do you think Midwest Whitetail has been so successful both on the web and now also on TV?

Bill: I could see that the writing business was tailing off.  I was writing as much as anyone by the late 90s and early 2000s and by the mid-2000s I could really feel the shift.  Television was on the rise.  I didn’t really want to do TV (I didn’t know where to start) so I decided to produce a show for the web instead.  That was 2008.  Hoyt was one of my first sponsors so I definitely appreciate that.  I just decided to do something that I would enjoy watching.  It was so innocent and genuine at first (and hopefully still is) that people just found it engaging.  Plus, we shot a lot of big deer!  That always helps.  The real hook for our shows is the fact that they are “semi-live” as close to live as we can make them.  People like that because they can follow along on the story as it happens.  They are hunting too so they tune in to see what we are doing and what we are seeing.  I try to bring as much detail to the strategy each week as I can so that we are not only entertaining with the hunting action, but also educating.  People can compare notes and then next weekend try what we are doing where they hunt.  It also helps to have an ongoing story with some big deer that get away.  I also show all my screw ups (some epic ones) and I think people like that because they never know what is going to happen next.  Heck, we never know what is going to happen next!  But we record it all as professionally as we can and bring it the viewer each week.  We really enjoy producing the web shows because they are so real and the stories are so compelling with bucks we are after.


We gravitated to TV in 2010 and have won awards each of our first three years.  We are successful there, I think, because we focus on the hunting and the animals.  I also have some really good people working for me.  Honestly, they are very good.  Greg Clements, Aaron Warbritton and Drew Yarkosky have the most experience.  We add a few interns each year and have added other full time employees that are gaining experience.  You have to have good people to produce good product.  Our format is a bit different too.  We don’t spend hardly any time bringing glory to the hunters. The stars of our shows are the animals and we show tons of footage of big deer and talk about how to kill them.   We also kill some pretty good ones.  And like I already said, that does attract viewers.  They know we aren’t just blowing smoke because we have the experiences to prove that what we are saying actually works.  We are doing it ourselves on our own properties (or on permission - or even on public land). We are killing good bucks the same way the viewer hunts.  We don’t feature any outfitted hunts.  I have nothing against outfitted hunts, but we want all our hunts to revolve around stories of the deer:the hunter trying to find, pattern and kill his own bucks.  That makes for a good story no matter the outcome. 


Hoyt: When does the next season start on TV? What kinds of bucks will we see on the upcoming episodes?

Bill: TV started the first week of July on The Sportsman Channel and runs through the end of the year. We are on Full Draw Fridays at 9:30 PM Eastern.  I killed my biggest buck ever last season so that one will be on this year.  We always shoot some big deer.  Midwest Whitetail has a very big pro staff so every year we end up with some really good bucks on the ground. 


Hoyt: When do the online webisodes start this fall? Any changes to the format from what we’ve seen over the past few years?

Bill:The web shows start up again on Aug 19.  You will just have to tune in to see what bucks we will be after this year.  In fact, I don’t even know myself.  I guess that is the fun of this; you get to see them at about the same time as I do!  It is the whole story as close to live as we can bring it.  No changes in the format.  People keep telling me to keep it the same.  We will have the regional shows each week for the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Heartland, East and Southeast and the Main Show that I host that is basically the story of my season, my family’s season and that of the guys in the local area.  I am very hands on with that and really try to bring the education as much as the action. 


Hoyt: This past season, you shot two really big bucks that you have been after for several years. Do you think you’ll ever top last season?

Bill: No, I don’t think so.  In 2011, our son shot a 170, I shot a 180 and a 190 and missed a 200 and then killed that 200 last season (2012).  I will never see another run of luck that good again.  I am too old.  If I was ten years old it might be possible, but I will turn 50 this fall and it would take at least an entire lifetime of hunting a really good farm to top that run!  I still love hunting mature bucks even if they aren’t that big.  The history with the deer is what makes them special to me and we have some good bucks on the farm and some with a long history so we should have some fun stories to tell this year even if we never see a giant.


Hoyt: What is the biggest buck you have ever shot?

Bill: That buck last season scored 206 –mostly typical.   That is the biggest.  I shot a 205 mule deer (also mostly typical) back in 1995 or 1996.  That was a really good buck too.  I may some day top the whitetail but I don’t do enough mule deer hunting to shoot a bigger mulie, but who knows.

Hoyt: What is the most memorable hunt you have ever had?

Bill: I have had some incredible hunts.  Amazing hunts.  So I probably have several that really stand out.  Our kids’ first deer are very high on the list.  I love those moments.  Those memories get more precious to me each year.  Our daughter was 7, wearing a pink snow suit under her blaze orange vest, when she shot a buck from a low tree stand in a cedar tree on a very cold December evening.  Our son shot his first buck from an old log cabin standing on the edge of a small field (now a food plot) back in the farm.  That was a lot of fun.  I used to take checkers with us when we hunted the cabin.  We stoked a fire in the old stove and played checkers while watching out the open window. It is like a really big ground blind.  Lots of fun.  Eating Whales, playing checkers and drinking hot chocolate.  Doesn’t get much better than that! 


My own top hunt is probably the buck last season. I actually hunted that deer for four seasons before finally getting him. That produces a lot of drama and really a lot of bitter sweet reaction.  I had hunted him for so long that when I finally killed him I was genuinely sorry that he was gone.  People loved watching along with those web shows and daily video blog updates as the buck kept giving me the slip.  I had spent many, many hours matching wits with that deer.  I almost felt sorry for him in the end because he was getting increasingly visible and he seemed to be getting dumber.  We see that sometimes as bucks get fully mature (he was 7 last fall), they kind of lose their edge.  It was rewarding to accomplish the mission, but saddening that he was gone.  I will find another one (maybe this year) and the story will start over again.


Hoyt: Give us all some advice for the upcoming season. Where do you see most people make mistakes?

Bill: My best advice is to keep it simple.  Think in terms of trying to keep every single deer on your hunting area from knowing that you are hunting them for as long as you possibly can.  If you can hunt that carefully, you will eventually have success.  Pushing too hard and hunting high impact stand sites will kill a season faster than anything else.  When it comes to gear, make sure that you spend at least a month shooting your bow every day so that it becomes a part of your body and your mind.  Shooting needs to be instinctive, because if you have to think about it during the moment of truth to shoot well, you are in big trouble. 

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