The story behind this deer dates back to August 2, although I didn't actually realize it until after I tagged him and looked back to see if it was a deer I had pictures of. His camera appearances were sporadic at best, and after moving trail cameras to multiple spots on the property I really didn't have a strong feeling on where he and the other buck pictured below were living, or how they were moving through the property. These two deer didn't get names, or put on some kind of target list. I was simply thankful to know there were at two good bucks in the area and figured some in-season scouting would help me pick and choose where and when to hunt.
Fast forward to Friday October 19: with the day off school and winds blowing from the south, my son and I hunted a stand hung on the northern part of the woods in hopes of getting a deer, any deer, within bow range for him. We had a good buck work within 45 yards of us, but he had other plans taking him out to the field edge making scrapes and heading eastward away from our location. After we watched a flock of turkeys work their way past our stand the decision was made to hunt until mid-morning, then scout the southern portion of the property, checking one camera and hanging another on any fresh sign we found. There were at least dozen fresh scrapes opened up along the southern edge of the woods accompanied by a few really good rubs. We headed home after our speed-scouting, excited by all of the fresh sign we found.
Due to family and work obligations the next opportunity to hunt was going to be Wednesday October 24. I started planning to hang a stand and hunt near a cluster of good rubs we found at the intersection of a grass waterway and the edge of the standing corn. With thick bedding, lots of acorns on the ground and the fact we hadn't hunted this part of the property yet, it felt like a promising spot.
I arrived in the early afternoon allowing plenty of time to scout the sign along the field edge and work cautiously into the woods to hang my stand. With the leaves on the ground sounding like you were walking on cornflakes, each step was purposefully timed with any breeze that offered up some background noise. A cluster of trees offering great cover and located downwind of few trails provided the perfect ambush spot. By 3:45 pm I was tucked into the tree canopy waiting and watching.
It wasn't long before deer were moving through the woods, then around 5:00 pm I caught the movement of an antler coming through the understory. It was a buck and it was heading my way. He browsed on leaves and his nose worked the area a doe and yearling had just meandered through. My mind shifted quickly, debating whether or not to draw my bow back as he cautiously walked toward the field edge. He stopped broadside at 20 yards. It looks like a good deer. He moved again behind some cover, still facing south, still broadside and moving closer to the field edge. At 25 yards he took his frustrations out on a tree, raking it up and down as I stood still, still debating on whether or not to shoot. I passed on the shot, watching him disappear into the standing corn.
The rest of the evening was spent watching deer move in and out of the woods. The wind direction remained in my favor and none of the animals I photographed ever knew they were being watched. In the back of my mind I continued to scrutinize my decision. What the hell was I waiting for? There wasn't a much bigger deer around, at least as far as my trail cameras and scouting reported. What was I holding out for? Some unknown, non-existent, apparition of a deer to appear from a magazine cover? Maybe I just didn't want my hunt to be over? I have vacation days to burn with the best deer hunting just getting started. Was I being selfish? Was I thinking only about my season? Maybe I should be thinking about the season of the people I could be mentoring and creating these experiences with instead. That was a great deer. What was I waiting for?
The alarm clock sounded at 5:00 am Thursday morning. After breakfast, coffee and a shower I was out the door and driving down the gravel road. By 6:30 am my boots were pushing through the frost covered grass situated as a divider between the woods and corn field. The full moon on October 24 was the Hunter's Moon, and it still illuminated my early morning walk on October 25, casting my shadow clearly on the ground.
I hiked to my stand as silently as possible, yet with no wind rustling the dry cornstalks every step seemed to echo out to the deer in the darkness. First light was at 7:26 am. I was climbing into my stand well before then, listening to the darkness, waiting for the world to awaken. The gray light of early morning slowly gave way to dawn's orange glow as the birds were now talking. The noises I had heard in the darkness and perceived as deer walking through the woods had gone silent. It was dead calm with only the slightest breeze blowing from the northeast.
The stillness of the morning ended sometime after 8:00 am when I caught movement of a buck walking down the small hill to my east and angling to the northwest. Wanting to see what the deer looked like, I reached into my pack, pulled out the grunt tube and let out one long grunt. He stopped immediately and whipped his head in my direction. He turned to the nearest tree and ripped it to shreds, making so much noise it sounded like he was taking a baseball bat to the tree. I could hear his feet tearing into the ground as his antlers thrashed against the trunk and branches swung wildly back and forth.
He was looking for a fight, hoping his tree-thrashing display would scare off the challenger. I grunted again. A slightly long grunt followed by two, quick, abrupt grunts. The kind you hear when a rutting buck exhales with each step. The deer immediately started a semi-circle course in my direction, looking to find who just called him out. At 40 yards he found another tree to bully, and he gave it a beat-down that I wish I had on camera. Instead I was on my feet, bow in hand, release clipped on the string, heartbeat in my ears. It was the same buck from the day before.
With the second tree battle finished, the buck continued on a line straight toward the base of my tree. Somewhere inside 30 yards I drew my bow and held, knowing I would not be able to draw when he came closer. He was angling toward me, stopping and starting his heavy steps every few feet. It always seems like an eternity as your mind races through millions of scenarios, analyzing every moment, yet somehow time slows down and your mental focus is as sharp as ever. When the moment is right, you pick a spot, settle your pin and execute your shot sequence. Feet, grip, anchor, pin, follow...
Suddenly the world is set back in motion as the buck bolts out to the field edge then cuts 90 degrees to his right. My eyes following him, my mind again analyzing his path and behavior. Losing sight of the buck forces my ears to take over, listening for sounds of a deer crashing. I think I hear him fall, but I trust my eyes more than my ears and uncertainty crept in. Was it a good shot? It was practically straight down. Yes, it was a good shot, he went down. I tried to reassure myself. Did I rush it? Should I have waited one more step? Doubt pushes back in. No, he's down. Waiting another second would have let him walk past you and into cover again, blocking a chance at a clear shot. He's dead.
My mind ping-ponged back and forth as I hung my bow up and sat down. The adrenaline release caused my legs to bounce. I felt confident in everything that just transpired, but I don't get excited until the tracking job is complete. It was 8:18 am when my arrow connected with the deer. With more time to think things through, I slowly lowered my bow to the ground and started the process of pulling my stand and sticks down from the tree. The plan was to take my time, work back to my truck, text a few people and wait an hour before pursuing the trail.
After quietly lowering myself and my gear to the ground, I began packing up. Apparently I was doing a good job, as I heard the sounds of a deer approaching. Standing at the base of the tree, I turned and saw more antlers walking my direction. Reaching for my phone I flipped over to video mode and captured this moment:
The encounter with that buck caused feelings of thankfulness to swell. What an amazing morning. How lucky are we, as hunters, to have these experiences? We're able see the natural world in a way that very few people walking the planet today are able to. We interact so intimately with the natural world that we are part of it's process. It's easy to take for granted, but in that moment I was simply soaking it all up. Living, breathing, smiling, immersed.
With my backpack shouldered and bow in hand I retraced the steps my buck took, starting at the spot he stood when my arrow was released and following the upturned ground his hooves dug into. Stepping out into the grass, good sign was immediately visible. A single droplet caught my eye, then another and another.
I looked at the frosty ground and the deer's tracks were slightly visible in the long grass. My eyes lifted from the droplets on the ground in front of my boots, following the path I last saw the buck take. There was no need to walk slowly back to the truck. Feelings of thankfulness again swelled.