The Ones That Get Away

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The bucks we fail to tag are often the ones we remember most

Failed attempts and white flags. Do your nightmares look like this? Better there than in your reality. (Ed Anderson illustration)

We nicknamed him the “Stranger Buck” for the happiest of reasons; he’d grown so big from the previous season that we simply didn’t recognize him. My neighbor and I both had oh-so-close encounters with a monster 8-point the year before, and we had high hopes he’d be around the following fall. Not only was he an active buck that didn’t seem to fear daylight, but as 4X4s go, his tall and heavy rack was about as good as they get around our place in Minnesota.

But when that same deer showed up on camera the next October, he’d added mass, a fork, a kicker, and an extra tine to his already-dandy rack. I was so distracted by the extra junk that it took me two weeks of staring at his pics before I recognized the distinctive frame and the tumblers clicked. I was elated to rediscover such a great buck. I also felt like I had a good chance of tagging him. While the Stranger Buck made an occasional swing through that farm during the rut, he’d positively lived on our food plots in December. I’m a sucker for Minnesota’s late-archery season, and this year held special promise.

So, on a frigid December morning, and with my buck tag still unfilled, I went on a scouting mission to find one deer. I’d seen enough tracks from the old giant that I figured I could recognize his snowshoe print in the winter food plots he adored. And if they were there, I’d set up on Stranger and spend the last few days of the season waiting just for him. I love the rut as much as anyone, but push me hard and I’ll admit that my two favorite times to hunt a single mature buck are September and December, when the game is as simple as finding what a buck wants in his belly, then waiting for the right conditions for him to feed.

I spotted a funny-looking tree branch sticking from the brush at the edge of the field. Within three steps I knew I was looking at the beam of the very buck I was hoping to kill.

Unfortunately, I found a whole lot more than the track of the Stranger Buck. Poking my nose into his favorite winter food plot, I spotted a funny-looking tree branch sticking from the brush at the edge of the field. Within three steps I knew I was looking at the beam of the very buck I was hoping to kill. As I knelt by the carcass of the old warrior, I felt a deep sadness; while I could find no visible wounds to Stranger, I recognized the tough lives that mature bucks endure and wondered what had ended his prematurely. Injuries suffered from a buck fight? The aftermath of a vehicle collision? Or perhaps just some poor, dumb luck. Whatever the cause, the object of my quest had bested me in the simplest of ways: dying by hands other than mine.

Hard Lessons

I’d like to say that the Stranger Buck was an exception; that virtually every big ol’ deer I set my sights on eventually wore my tag, but of course I’d be lying. In fact, I like to joke with my hunting buddies that the surest way to guarantee a buck will slip my grasp is for me to take an oath to hunt him. But the quip is pretty half-hearted. Any hunter with some fade in his camo is usually smart (and humble) enough to know that the deer win far more often than we do. As one of my friends likes to say, “they’re way better at being bucks than we are at being hunters.”

The trick, in my mind at least, is to take these drubbings in stride and learn from them. The Stranger Buck, for example, reminded me that mature bucks lead tough, highly stressful lives, and avoiding hunters is only one of their challenges. Since I could find no visible wound on that great old buck, I can only assume that lingering injuries from a buck fight, a vehicle encounter, or perhaps just the rigors of the rut – mixed with old age and brutal weather – just wore him out. Whatever the case, Stranger renewed my respect for mature whitetails and the incredible gauntlet they run each year.

He also reminded me that the deer that beat us have lessons to impart, and if we’re paying attention, we can heed those teachings and become not only better deer hunters, but also better people. Here are a couple examples from my hunting journal.

You never want to find a deer dead like this; but that's part of nature. The Stranger Buck met an unknown fate. The author did not conduct an autopsy to determine cause of death. (Scott Bestul photo)

The Vagrant Ten

I have to reach way back in my hunting history to remember a buck that made me a deer caller. I was a relative bowhunting rookie when I encountered a Wisconsin giant that, with the benefit of hindsight, was among the most killable bucks that never wore my tag.

I had shot a few nice deer with my bow when I first started hunting the Badger State’s famed Buffalo County. But I was like a high-school quarterback suddenly thrust into a starting role with a Division I college team; literally a boy among men. While I killed my first trophy there, the number of whopper whitetails I screwed up would be embarrassing – if I could remember them all.

The buck I recall most vividly was a heavy-beamed 10-pointer that practically screamed to be shot. Not only did I consistently screw up my stand placement (lesson one) on the highly active and constantly-seeking buck but I was also terrified to call to the out-of-range whitetail. In my young mind, rattling was reserved for Texans (remember, this was the 1980s, so don’t laugh too hard) and grunting was something I tried only tentatively. Fortunately, a friend and aggressive caller of deer (and turkeys, and waterfowl, and predators) took me under his expert wing and showed me the error of my thinking.

Once I got more assertive with my deer-calling efforts and saw the results, I had an immediate realization – that heavy 10, who wandered around like a lost and lusty yearling, would have probably crawled up my tree if I’d have worked him with a call. Instead, he stepped in front of a milk truck a week before the rut popped. Had I been a better hunter, I could have saved him (and myself) from that fate.

A Big-Woods Whiff

Hunt whitetails long enough and you’ll miss a bunny shot. You’ll want to call back one of those slam-dunk opportunities when an arrow or bullet finds nothing but that big pocket of air surrounding a deer. While some of these whiffs represent nothing more than a goofy mishap, others can teach us a lesson about how to be better at actually killing deer.

Mine happened in northern Wisconsin, where my buddy Tom and I had spent the better part of two days scouting the big woods for bucks. This was all public land marked by miles of forests, with no agriculture and zero food plots. To get on a buck here, you better know your natural deer foods and be willing to walk to find them. Otherwise just stay home and watch football.

It's common to get photos of giants, like this one. We obsess over these bucks and constantly strategize on ways to kill them. Sadly, most we never even see in person. (Scott Bestul photo)

Tom, a logger and passionate bowhunter, and I had burned some serious boot leather to find a few pockets of oaks dropping acorns, and enough buck sign to know that toting a stand a mile or more from the truck was worth the effort. I set up on a beautiful little hogsback dotted by oaks where, in addition to solid feeding sign, there were several rubs and a solid scrape lacing the trails that led from a bedding marsh to the oak ridge. I slapped three climbing sticks to a maple, snugged a hang-on stand slightly above, then pulled up my bow and settled in.

To shorten an agonizing story, I saw only one deer that night: a gorgeous, mature, wilderness 10-point that walked into 15 yards like he was following a script. Fortunately for the buck, the moron who drew on him was tagging, field-dressing and butchering before the arrow left the rest. When that missile finally launched, it sailed over the buck’s back before burying firmly in the dirt beyond. I’d taken the shot opportunity bowhunters dream about and turned it into a nightmare.

Beyond the obvious lesson of focusing on every aspect of even the easiest shot, then simply picking a hair to aim at, I’d committed another huge – but frequently-made – error on close-range chip shots. Instead of drawing, then bringing the pin up on the vitals from below, I’d done exactly the opposite. This is a shooting tip a pro-shooter (and excellent hunter) had given me years ago, and it’s spot-on. An adrenaline-addled brain will scream “fire” as soon as it sees a pin hit hair. If you’re coming up from below, the top pin will be on or close to the vitals if you shoot early. If you do the opposite, the bottom pin will be the first to touch brown. That will lead to disastrous results.

I can’t recall how many years ago that whiff occurred, but I can vouch with certainty that it haunts me like no other. I’ve got mounts in my man cave that out-score that Wisconsin buck by dozens of inches, but I’ve wanted no buck more than that big-woods ghost.

A Learning Process

Of course, these are just a few of the deer that have eluded me and taught me something in the process. There was an Iowa nine-pointer that proved the value of reading body language. The North Dakota mule deer that proved, despite conventional wisdom, that mature muleys are at least as wary and no more curious than their whitetail cousins. Then there’s an old nanny doe that lives right behind my house and desperately needs killing, but keeps reminding me that an old slickhead is as smart as any buck wearing a candelabra. And I’m willing to bet that, despite my years of experience, there will be more deer that still find a thing or two to teach me.

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