I'll Take What I Can Get

When time is limited, you're wise to make the most of a golden opportunity.

This nine-pointer is my biggest whitetail buck to date.

Plans for my 2008 hunting season went from high expectations to frustration. I had very little vacation time built up at work, and I was literally calculating each and every hour I could get. All this was complicated by the fact that I'd planned to hunt far from home. I had to miss a moose hunt with my best friend because of work, and it was looking like I'd be forced to miss my yearly whitetail hunt back at the family farm in Pennsylvania.

I struggled with the decision, and finally I had to break the news back home. The disappointment was evident through phone calls and e-mails, but my uncle and our hunting partners said they understood. We all have lives outside of hunting, but I couldn't let go of the idea that I'd be breaking the cycle we'd started several years ago. And our yearly deer hunt is a big part of the bond my family shares.

I wrestled with the emotion for a couple of weeks. Then, I just couldn't take it anymore. I sat down with my boss, a man who also likes to hunt, and worked out the best plan I could. It took some creative scheduling, but I was able to barter for three hunting days.

The arrangement relied on tight travel times and good weather -- both of which I don't put much faith in. When I called back to Pennsylvania with my itinerary, my uncle said, "How about staying long enough to make small talk?" I could hear the smile in his voice, and without missing a beat, I told him, "Hey, I'll take what I can get."

"Amen," was his reply, and with that, I hung up and started packing.

As luck would have it, my flights connected seamlessly and my baggage made it to my final destination. The weather was typical for early November -- gray and cold -- and perfect for hunting. The deer were rutting and life at the farm was as I remembered it, with my uncle keeping track of several big bucks and listening to hunting reports coming in at all hours. I was just thrilled to be there, period.

That night, as I readied gear and caught up with family, my uncle described several of the bucks running around the area and showed me a few trail camera pictures. "You gotta hold out this year, buddy," he told me. "You'll get a chance at a monster." This was his mantra, and it was often true for him. But I've never been able to do it. I just don't place as much priority on antler size as I do the hunt itself. I've been fortunate enough to kill a few dandy animals, but I didn't sift through a bunch to get them.

"Like I said before, I'll take what I can get," I told him. "Especially with three days to hunt."

He paused and looked over at me. "Well, at least try," he said. I just smiled.

The next day was beautiful, and seeing the sunrise through the frosty branches got my heart going. Several does, a small buck, and a flock of turkeys walked by, all of which were in range but none of which were legal. It was a great day to be in the woods, even though there were no shooting opportunities.

The second day broke overcast and chilly, and my uncle elected to try a new spot. We usually hunt the thickest stuff we can find, but as we walked to the stand location, I could see we were switching tactics.

We skirted the edge of a farm field and dropped downhill just inside the tree line. There was a small clearing with a huge oak in the middle of it, spanning about 40 yards across and twice that long. My uncle stopped in the clearing, and I kept walking, thinking he was answering the call of nature. He whispered and motioned me over. When I stepped next to him, he thumped his hand on a naked cherry tree and pointed up, as in: "That's where your stand is going."

With the rut in full swing, I planned to make the most of my three-day hunt on the family farm back East.

He nodded with emphasis when he saw my expression. I theatrically looked around the clearing and then back at him. He leaned in close to my ear and whispered, "Trust me." As we strapped the climber stand onto the tree, my uncle told me to watch the downwind area as it was a good bedding site. We employed a simple one-source scent setup that had worked reliably in the past and would hopefully pull any deer to the big oak in front of me. It was a wide-open shot, if I could draw undetected...

When I settled in, I couldn't help but feel like a big neon sign hanging on the side of the tree. As darkness turned to gray, two does came past on the expected route, giving me hope and confidence. But the lighter it got, the less I liked my stand. I felt so exposed I was wondering if I could even blink without being noticed. Small game season started that same day, and soon shotguns were booming in the distance. A slight breeze began to rattle the remaining leaves, and it felt like snow was not far off.

An hour later, movement upwind caught my eye, and I slowly rotated my head to see a doe emerge from the trees at the corner of the clearing. I had that funny feeling and my body started to move before I could really think of why I was doing it. As I inched into a standing position, I saw the antler tines of a buck in the brush behind the doe. When his head emerged, I froze in a crouch. He looked around for a moment, and I saw he was not only a legal buck but a BIG buck -- by far the biggest I'd seen while hunting Pennsylvania whitetails.

The buck put his nose to the ground and fell in behind the doe, which allowed me to reach a standing position and turn my shoulders for a shot. The buck acted like he was on a towline and followed the doe as she zigzagged across the small clearing as though she didn't know where she wanted to end up. My hopes surged and faded in waves as she headed for the farm field, then turned and came toward my stand, then reversed again, all in rapid succession, with the buck chasing and grunting. My heart pumped as she drew closer to the big oak, which was my 20-yard marker. When the buck caught up to her, she turned and walked directly uphill into the farm field. The buck stopped just behind the tree and hesitated, looking at the doe.

Go straight, go straight, I tried to project into the buck's mind, knowing the chances were slim. I didn't want to draw prematurely, but I knew getting to full draw might be impossible if the buck came any closer. I drew to a solid anchor, thinking I might be able to grunt him to a stop if he followed the doe. Instead, his antlers, and then his head, came into view, con

tinuing on his original line of travel.

This is the clearing where the buck chased a doe before stopping 20 yards from my stand.

As he cleared the oak, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder in the direction he came from. My 20-yard pin settled on his snout, which was perfectly covering his vitals. I started wondering what he was looking at so intently -- I wasn't sure it was the doe. Then I realized it must be another deer, probably a buck. Maybe a bigger buck? My uncle's words about holding out echoed in my brain.

I had enough adrenaline going through my system that holding at full draw was hardly noticeable. I was absorbed in trying my best Jedi mind trick to get the buck to turn his head. Time seems to change when you're hunting, especially in the memory of events. I worked to control my breathing, and the buck stood fast for what seemed like a solid minute. I thought again about another buck approaching, and I considered looking away to see if I could spot anything. Just as quickly, I said a firm No to myself and stayed focused on a shot I hoped would present itself. This was a beautiful deer, a big deer, my deer, and frankly, I just didn't care if there was another buck. I wanted this one. By this time my control mechanisms started to slip as I felt the string weight, and I swallowed against a dry throat.

Move! I shouted in my mind at the deer. His ears flicked back and forth, almost as if he'd heard me. His head swung forward, my pin found the crease behind his shoulder, and I turned the arrow loose. The white and yellow fletching seemed to move away from me in slow motion as I watched the arrow bury into the buck's ribs. He spun and ran downhill past me, turning back toward the way he came. His crashing stopped abruptly after a few seconds, and I sat down with weak legs to catch my breath.

I called my uncle on my cell phone before I got out of the stand. He answered by saying,

"How big is he?"

"Big." I whispered between deep breaths.

"How big?" he asked again, and I could see him mentally going through the catalog of bucks he knew in that area.

"I dunno, 10-point maybe. Biggest buck I've shot," I said, with another deep breath.

"I'll be there in 10 minutes," he said and hung up.

Five minutes later I heard his truck park at the road, and he walked down the hill with a family friend. I did my best to recreate where the buck ran after being hit, but it still amazes me how hard it can be to get that right. We formed a skirmish line and slowly worked into the thick brush where the buck had fled. It wasn't long until we found him piled up at the bottom of a tree, about 100 yards from the point of impact. His rack was beautiful; he had nine points with graceful tines and two additional kicker points. It was, by far, the biggest deer I'd killed, and I felt truly blessed.

As we stood admiring him, my uncle said, "He's not the biggest one here. There's another buck that makes this one look small." I just smiled at him and shook my head. I thought about telling him again that I didn't care, that I would have shot a much smaller buck if given the legal chance, and that I thought this deer made a lot of others look small. But I didn't. Instead, I let the moment pass and we started dragging the buck toward the road. Halfway there my uncle stopped and looked at me. In a low voice, he said with a smile, "Don't think for a minute I would have passed this one up, either."

The author is our "Survival" columnist. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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