I should be writing about everything coming together on a great buck during a perfect morning in the woods on Nov. 1. Things set up that way until I made a poor shot when it mattered most.
I had been fortunate in 20 years of hunting to have never lost a whitetail. It’s not because I’m a better shot than anyone else, but I really believe it’s because I have been able to control my emotions during the moments leading up to the shot.
I’ve been able to slow down, to wait for that broadside or quartering away opportunity before releasing a bullet or an arrow. I did all those things again last Wednesday. Then when the shot presented itself, that’s when I lost track of all of that and rushed the release.
I knew the spot I was hunting that morning had potential to produce a great encounter. It’s a north facing shelf on top of a steep ridge that drops off down to a creek. I have sat near there in years past and watched bucks cruise that shelf on a south wind during the pre-rut. Does love to bed up there with that wind, overlooking the low area and letting scent blow over their backs to catch any danger coming from behind them.
The weather for the morning of Nov. 1 called for the first south wind in a few days. I knew I needed to get to the edge of that shelf, so I woke up three hours before first shooting light, grabbed my climbing stand and jumped in the truck.
I found a tree, trimmed a few shooting lanes and climbed up. I was only able to get about six feet off the ground, but that was better than nothing.
It was about 8:30 when I heard the crackle of the leaves to my left. A buck was following the script to perfection, nosing around the forest floor for any signs of a hot doe. I wanted a buck 3.5 years of age or older and this was it. Huge body, a 10-point rack outside his ears.
This was clearly a shooter, but he was quartering toward me. I would have no shot unless he turned directions. He put his head down, I drew and waited, following him with my pin as he walked slowly into a third shooting lane. The buck put his head down, stepped to his right and opened up his vitals to me.
I have replayed the next two seconds in my mind a thousand times in the last week. I knew this was my chance for an ethical shot, so I raised my bow in hopes of centering the pin on his lungs. But the second I saw brown fur behind my pin, it was like I instinctively pulled the trigger of my thumb release. The arrow passed through the deer too low. I knew it when I watched it disappear, but the buck kicked, trotted about 30 feet and stopped. His tail flickered as he walked slowly off. Please have hit the heart, I thought.
I texted my dad and father-in-law and told them the plan. I was going to sit it out in my climber for three hours. If he had bedded down just over the ridge, I didn’t want to bump him.
At 11:30, I climbed down and saw no blood on the arrow. My heart sank as I made my way out of the woods. At 12:30 p.m., the three of us came back and almost immediately picked up a good blood trail. That was an initial relief, but the further we tracked it, the more I worried. We found where it had bedded down and decided to back out.
Now the question was when to come back. Coyotes, like in most areas that whitetails call home, are a big issue here. Leaving the buck overnight could mean losing some of the meat. With that in mind, we went back a little after four that afternoon.
My father-in-law and I followed the trail all the way to the bank of the river. The buck had crossed and entered an island of thick bedding cover. I crossed, picked up the trail again and was on my hands and knees following the path.
All the blood was dry until I came up a slight hill into what was an obvious buck bed. He had been here until I bumped him off. I was sick, just kicking myself for not leaving him overnight.
We came back the next morning and picked up the trail again and continued to track him for hours. Everything led us to a dead end. The blood stopped and we grid searched the area. Up and down along the river. I crawled through the thickest brush, anything I thought he might make as his final bed. Nothing.
Losing this buck has made it difficult to enjoy being in the stand. It’s sickening. An awesome animal like this suffered because of my error. I shot a thousand arrows this summer and fall to be ready for this moment. Then it comes, and I blew it.
I hope I can learn from this for future encounters. If I could do anything over from the tracking process, it would be to leave him overnight after we did not find him initially. Yes, coyotes might get to him, but maybe they won’t too. I will never let that make a decision for me again.
As for the shot, archery hunting is so much more mental than physical. It’s easy for the mind to rush the process at that moment, and one really needs to almost talk himself through things.
I sat in a new stand on Sunday morning and had a nice eight pointer get my heartrate up. I drew on him and was waiting for him to take one more step. Go through your shot process, I kept saying in my mind. Center the pin, make a good shot. I felt ready before he scented a doe and walked directly away, leaving me without an opportunity to release an arrow.
So it goes in bowhunting. Nothing is guaranteed. I was reminded of that in a hard way last week.