Noble Rewards

To quit spacing-out at critical moments, you must practice hard to stay in the zone.

Regular archery practice put me in the zone, and my reward came on opening morning of the 2008 archery season. With 14 measurable points, this was my first Pope and Young-class buck ever.

Philosophers and kings have long held that patience is a noble virtue. Being a proficient hunter is an art form requiring patience -- especially in today's technologically advanced world of instant gratification.

Living and hunting in east-central Illinois, near the Sangamon River, I have access to some of the nation's most productive agricultural land and high-quality genetics necessary for growing world-class whitetails. In short, I live in a region with a healthy crop of trophy bucks that inspires all serious bowhunters to hunt them -- hard.

December 21, 2007, is a day I won't forget. At 7:03 a.m. I quickly took aim, rushed the shot, and swung my bow arm to the left in time to see a tall and wide-racked buck, known as G3, hunker down and burst out of thick cover, escaping the sting of death. It was one of the most miserable, gut-wrenching, and discouraging moments of my hunting career. I had waited, patiently, 10 years for that moment. And I blew it. So much for patience being a virtue.

To this point, I had killed only one year-and-a-half-old eight-pointer with my bow. Mind you, this wasn't due to a lack of opportunities. Over the years, I had allowed many bucks to walk safely past my stand, unaware of the danger lurking above. I was after a record book buck -- or no buck at all.

From my failed attempt at G3, I knew one thing was missing from my bowhunting arsenal -- staying in the zone, that spontaneous, top-of-the-mind instant when everything comes together naturally, effortlessly, and flawlessly. I concluded that the only way to get -- and stay -- in the zone would be through hours of shooting practice.

I captured this trail-camera photo in August, and I captured the same 10-pointer with my bow later in the season. He was my second P&Y-class buck.

So I committed myself to regular practice sessions that would restore my faith in my shooting ability, and eventually my three-shot groups tightened considerably. My confidence was returning, and so was my intense aspiration to harvest a Pope and Young-class buck. By August, things were coming together.

In September, I made two trips to Two Bears Custom Archery in Springfield, where owner Darin Brauer tuned my bow and recommended new accessories. My last words as I left the archery shop were, "The next time I talk to you, it will be to tell you that I shot a Pope and Young buck." Little did I know how prophetic those words would be come October.

On opening morning I was in my stand an hour before sunrise. I had never hunted this site before, but my expectations were high as I sat there enjoying the silence. In mid-August, I had seen six bucks, three of them definite shooters, in one group traveling through the area, and by mid-September, when I locked my 15-foot ladder stand to an 80-year-old white oak tree, a rub line had sprung up next to a nearby woven-wire cattle fence. With anticipation and confidence, I eagerly awaited the arrival of whitetails.

A few minutes into legal shooting light, two does and two fawns fed by a mere 15 yards away. As I waited with my bow in the ready position and calculated the number of steps to a broadside shot, something in the distance startled the older doe. Quickly pulling her head from the sweet acorns, she began investigating the sound. Before I could react, she bounded away into the dark timber.

I saw this 10-pointer grazing in an alfalfa field frequently enough to know I'd better place a stand there. After 10 years of trophy-hunting frustration, I took two P&Y-class bucks in one season.

To my surprise, I saw a large-bodied buck 60 yards to my left, walking deliberately in my direction. He took several minutes to close the distance to 23 yards, and studying him during this time, I could see his antlers had incredible mass. He was a shooter.

Without thinking or effort, I came to full draw, waiting patiently for him to stop, and when he did, I was as surprised as he was to hear the thump of the arrow against flesh and bone. He bolted in a circle behind my stand, where he stopped for an instant and then dashed into a prairie. There I heard crashing in the tall grass and, a minute later, a single, soft bellow. Then all was quiet.

Twenty minutes later, I could hardly sit still, so I climbed down from my stand. Easily finding my arrow, I began following the copious blood trail, and only 45 yards from my stand I found my first P&Y-class buck, a mainframe eight-point with lots of junk -- 14 measurable points in all -- and incredible mass. I had made a perfect heart shot. The practice had paid off.

Standing there, admiring the fallen monarch, I was elated. Then I called my wife.

"I have good news," I said. "Call McKinney's Taxidermy!"

Two weeks later, while driving home from work at dusk, I spotted a symmetrical 10-pointer grazing in my alfalfa field -- 20 yards from one of my treestands. I had seen this buck several times before in this same field, usually in the company of two eight-pointers. Knowing he frequented this alfalfa field often, I decided I would hunt there the following day.

Settling into my stand the next evening at 4:30 p.m., I was confident that the buck would show up sometime before dark. Forty-five minutes later, I saw four does and a young buck about 300 yards away in an adjacent clover field, grazing in the shade as the sun faded.

Captivated by the deer and distracted by the chill of the breeze on my face, I froze upon hearing a branch snap behind me. Listening intently for clues, and then slowly turning my head in the direction of the sound, I spotted antlers floating above the honeysuckle only 10 yards away.

The buck veered away from me slightly, passing behind and around a cottonwood tree 15 yards to my right. As if he were following the script I had already written in my head, the buck stopped in the middle of my shooting lane. And just as in the script, he looked away from me, giving

me the opportunity to draw my bow undetected. Picking a spot, I took my time. To this day I don't recall squeezing the trigger of my release aid. I was in the zone.

As the arrow struck the buck high in the chest, angling downward, I knew immediately it was a lethal shot. With the sun setting fast, I climbed down and followed the blood trail 85 yards to my second P&Y-class buck of the archery season. My arrow had taken out the top of both lungs. Looking at his antlers, I knew he was the same 10-pointer I'd seen the evening before.

I called Cheryl and told her the good news. Knowing how difficult the previous season had been for me, she was ecstatic to hear my tale of good fortune.

Maybe kings and philosophers are right -- patience is a noble virtue. At least it does have its noble rewards.

The author is on the pro staff at Grim Reaper Broadheads and Midwest Whitetail. He and his wife, Cheryl, live in Mahomet, Illinois.

Author's Notes: For both bucks, I used an AR-32 (made by PSE) set at 60 lbs., Trophy Ridge 350 arrows, 100-grain Grim Reaper broadheads, Fuse stabilizer, and Scott release.

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