Bowhunting for whitetails, while a passion of mine, is also a source of much frustration. The hours that I spend scouting, planning, driving, walking in, setting up, and sitting in a tree stand far outweigh the rare moments when I actually see deer in the woods.
In my current managed deer hunt, for example, I’d devoted about 20 hours to scouting and hunting before my first opportunity came. That chance was today, at the most unexpected time, in the most unexpected place so far. After spending a few cold, fruitless hours in the stand this morning, I decided to stalk hunt along a ridge toward a bedding area that I believe holds does and is roamed by a mature buck. The wind was optimal for such a hunt, but the frost-frozen ground was not. I spent an hour or so stalking and saw nothing, so I came back to the main trail.
Keep Hunting or Go Home?
At this point I had a decision to make: part of me wanted to go home for a hot late breakfast, and part of me seriously considered checking out another conservation area nearby. But the dogged, stubbornest part of all wanted to stick it out and keep stalking because the wind was right and there’s only about two weeks left in the season. So I passed the trail and walked up a clear-cut toward some narrow crop fields which are a hotbed of deer activity. At this point I was passed by a couple of groups of mountain bikers, which always tends to mar my hunting experience. I told myself that the deer were used to them, so I shouldn’t worry.
Why Not a Turkey?
I left the clear-cut and made my way to the first of two long, narrow fields separated by a wooded ridge. About halfway up this field, walking upwind, I heard a turkey calling up on the ridge. My permit lets me take a turkey during the managed hunt, so I thought hey, why not? I slipped into the woods and started quietly uphill. The risen sun had at least melted the frost so I could move quietly. A bench about three quarters of the way up the ridge gave me some cover to where I believed the turkey was calling from. I sidled up this to a large oak tree and made some yelps. Nothing. I moved to continue my way up the ridge and heard the turkey yelp.
It was the alarm yelp, the “you surprised me and I’m outta here,” yelp. Bummer. Even so, I made a few more calls. Then I started working up the ridge again. I was in the open woods when I spotted movement along the ridge upwind of me. The heads of two does bobbed into view. Then two more, then two more. A whole herd of does, some yearlings, some older, all of them moving cautiously but running from something. I froze, watching them.
Whitetails In Range
The next ten seconds were probably the most thrilling moment of my bowhunting career. A turkey sounded behind me, and close. Any other moment I’d be going after the bird, but I had whitetail fever now. I was downwind, stock-still, and thinking, please come this way. They obliged.
I might have drawn then—I had an arrow knocked—except for a bit of whitetail lore in the back of my mind. Sometimes groups of does are followed by mature bucks. Sure enough, right as the half-dozen does started heading my way, I saw a bigger, darker shape behind them. Old Mossy Horns. The biggest buck I’ve seen in the woods, and he was hot on their tail. They were all headed my way.
There were two problems, though:
- I was out in the open, with no cover and no time even to take a knee without being spotted.
- They were coming. RIGHT at me. As in, the does would have to trample me.
My heart was hammering. I stood paralyzed and horrified, with no real options. Again, I might have drawn to cut down one of the does as they came in, but I’d seen the buck and could think of nothing else. But he was at the back and still out of range. Running or not, frightened or not, the deer weren’t going to go right past me. My camo is good but not that good.
Deer in Retreat
Sure enough, the inevitable happened. The front doe spotted me at fifteen yards and jumped about five feet in the air, backpedaling. The deer scattered. I had eyes only for the buck, hoping to have a shot. In the moment of deer confusion I quickly took a knee and hit my grunt tube. The does ignored it and kept running. The buck started to turn back. For half a heartbeat, it seemed like he would turn and pause, giving me a broadside shot at 25 yards. No such luck; he stuck with the does and they all ran back the way they’d come.
The moment they dropped out of view I was moving again, hoping to crest the ridge and see where they’d gone. To my dismay, it was a gradual downslope into thicker timber, not a steep ridge of open woods where I might have spotted them. I followed upwind but never saw them again.
Handling Hunting Disappointment
My heart gradually slowed. The adrenaline faded, and it left behind a pit of despair that had me shaking my head. What bad luck, to be in the open and right in their path! If only I’d stayed longer at the oak, or even gained the top of the ridge. Two minutes either way would have done. On the other hand, I’d made a dozen small decisions, any of which, if made differently, might have caused me to miss the event entirely. I might have ignored the turkey’s call from the ridge, and stayed down in the field. I might have gone home for breakfast. And then I wouldn’t have this thrilling, if bittersweet, hunting story to share.
I’m trying to see a silver lining to all of this. At least I saw some deer, including a very nice buck, on land that I get to hunt for two more weeks. If I’d remained on my stand I likely wouldn’t have seen anything. I might have given up on the managed hunt entirely, or lost my motivation. I’d rather have a day like this than a cold one in the stand seeing nothing.
What Could I Have Done Differently?
Even so, for the rest of the day, this question has burned in my mind. Maybe I should have taken a doe when I had the chance. Sure, I wanted the buck. I was mesmerized by the buck. But bringing home meat for the freezer would have been nice, too.
What if I had hit the grunt call sooner, before the does were right on top of me? That might have stopped them, but they’d be looking for me (and likely blocking a shot at the buck).
Image courtesy In Search of Whitetails