The story of an unforgettable bow hunt on a rainy October cold-front evening
Back in the day, before hashtags made tree saddles cool, mobile bowhunters used climbing stands. Climbers still work fine wherever tall, straight timber is found, and I especially like using them this time of year when I’m hunting scrapes and pinch points in the hardwoods.
There’s another cool thing about climbers, too: They’ll call up bucks. When I was young, my dad hunted out of a climbing stand most of the time. One October evening, he was late getting back to camp. I was pacing the porch, waiting to see the beam of his headlamp materialize in the timber, and when it did, I assumed he’d shot a deer, it being so long after dark. But he had a story to tell instead.
He’d climbed down and heard a deer approaching in the dark, just as he stepped off his platform. That’s not uncommon in a good spot, of course, having deer come through after shooting hours — but this deer didn’t blow and leave when it got close. Instead it kept coming, and then Dad heard a furious rush of air — a snort wheeze. He shined his flashlight beam ahead and a big buck stood there staring into the light not 15 yards away, ears pinned and eyes aglow. The scraping of Dad’s stand against bark had called that buck right up to the tree — and that buck was pissed. Dad kept the tree trunk between himself and the deer, since he didn’t want a G2 through a love handle, and yelled at the buck, which finally stomped away.
I’ve remembered that story my whole life. I’ve since had a little buck or two come marching in shortly after I ascended a tree, but I never had a story to match Dad’s until last week. It was a rainy cold-front evening, Oct. 25, and I decided to press my luck on the end of a series of hardwood finger ridges that spilled into a creek drainage. I knew deer were bedding on those ridges. I’d been hunting on the other side of the drainage, where I’d done a good job at remaining undetected but a poor job at killing anything.
So I snuck across that creek for a midday look around, knowing full well it was risky, and sure enough, I watched an army of white flags go a-bouncing across the ridges, soon as I crested the far-side creek bank. A closer look around wouldn’t hurt anything at that point, I decided, since it seemed I’d already spooked everything anyhow. I took a quick walk, noted a good rub line and a couple of fresh scrapes, and a particular abundance of deer pellets scattered among the white oaks. I was back within an hour with my bow in hand and climber on my back. I picked a tree, and did my best to keep quiet.
The thing about climbers, though, is they’re not silent. As I was clicking the cables into place and getting the platform just right against the tree trunk, I thought to myself, This really does sound like two bucks sparring.
Sometimes, it’s as if the woods are watching the story in your head. When I caught a glimpse of the buck marching through the wet leaves just 70 yards away, it was almost confusing, as if my mind were projecting it and trying to see if I would react. I dropped to my knees, pulled my binoculars up, and saw black-stained tarsal glands. This was no apparition. The buck’s head came into view and the frame that told me I needn’t count points or look for the cues of age. This had become a bow hunt, and it was happening right now.
The buck was above me slightly on the ridge, and it trotted momentarily out of sight. An oak sapling 50 yards away began rocking, as if tied to some unseen rope that was being yanked by two good-sized kids playing tug-of-war against it. The buck had decided to stop and thrash that tree, and that gave me the chance to range a black oak trunk at 32.5 yards, and then grab my grunt call. I gave him a couple good grunts — bellows, really — that I suspected he would not ignore, given his apparent state of mind. He didn’t. The next I saw of him was a rack that bounced into view, 25 yards away and closing so quickly that I couldn’t do anything except sit still.
I sat on my knees, release clipped to my D-loop, hiding behind the riser of my bow as if it were the rim of a foxhole. It was raining now, cold and raw, and the buck stood there, staring through me and into the creek bottoms, obviously frustrated because his opportunity for violence seemed to have melted away in the rain. I couldn’t draw my bow until he turned to march away for fear that he’d see me, and I knew that by that point, it’d probably be over. He threw his flag up when he turned to leave and I drew, but only on a glimmer of hope that I’d get a shot.
But a glimmer was enough. He was turning to flank me, a maneuver that took him behind the black oak that I’d ranged. When he stepped from behind it, he was broadside and in the open. I aimed and let it go, and it sounded good. I sat there maybe 10 minutes and then snuck ahead to look for my arrow. I could see his white belly through the open woods, 100 yards away. He’d been heart-shot and died fast.
Walking up to him, I found that he’d broken off both of his brow tines and snapped away a G2 just above the beam. He had a history of the type of behavior that got him killed. I felt guilty for a minute, having snuck into his place and fooled him and shot him, but only for a minute, because killing a buck is what I was out there to do. I enjoy the stories that come from deer hunting, and this buck had given me a good one.
I tagged him and checked him in, and then walked back down the ridge, my footsteps silent in the wet leaves. I had a long night ahead of me, but first, I had to unfasten my climbing stand from the tree.
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