Showdown In Horse Thief Canyon

When The Boss is calling, a bowhunter has no choice but to answer the call.

A warm September breeze rustled the leaves of the old cottonwood as I carefully placed each screw-in step. This would be my third season to use this stand site, and I wanted no early-morning surprises come November. As I hung the lock-on stand, my mind wandered back to the last two seasons and the parade of bucks I'd seen from this perch. Some large enough to take my breath away never offered me a shot. Other very respectable younger bucks had given me shot opportunities, but knowing the potential on my farm, I'd passed on these.

In particular, I knew a giant deer lived on the west end of our farm. I had seen him once, two seasons earlier, on my way home after an evening hunt. And two of my neighbors had seen him, always in the evening twilight, and always heading south across an open pasture to a destination known only to the buck.

Apparently he spent his days deep in the cool, heavy cover of the creekbottom that winds from west to east across the ranch. Most of the creekbottom timber lies at the ends of gently sloping CRP or cropfields, but at the west end the creek snakes through deep ravines, thick with old timber, underbrush, briars, and nettles. Known locally as Horse Thief Canyon, this stretch of creek was a fabled hiding place for a group of bandits who, in the 1880s, robbed a general store and stole the keeper's horses. They then hid in Horse Thief Canyon until they met with their timely demise at the hands of the local sheriff and his posse.

My longtime friend, hunting partner, and sales manager Marc Quenneville loves to hunt this spot and would arrive in mid-November to do just that. While Marc had never seen the big buck that lived there, Marc had named him The Boss. Last season, while tracking a doe he had shot from this very stand, Marc came upon a rub line of gigantic proportions. We both figured this was where The Boss staged during the last few minutes of daylight before heading south. From this spot, if he left the creekbottom on our property, he would come by this stand. If he left on my neighbor's side, we would never see him. Marc and I agreed our best chance at The Boss was to catch him when he was preoccupied with a doe in November.

During mid-October, I was working on our house, desperately trying to finish up before Thanksgiving. But as the days grew shorter and the evening air took on a familiar chill, I had a hard time concentrating on the tasks at hand, and I couldn't shake thoughts of that big cottonwood. Is The Boss walking by it right now? If I were there, what would the shot look like? How would it feel to wrap my hands around those antlers? Will he or Marc or I win this duel of wits and senses in Horse Thief Canyon?

As always, with the heart of archery season fast approaching, I felt the need to tune-up my technique. Although I practice year-round, I feel it takes a few times in the stand to become a true treestand hunter. A trial run or two transforms me from a man in a tree with a bow into a silent observer of God's natural surroundings. Early-season hunts instill confidence in me, and I consider them a vital weapon in the mental arsenal required to ambush a mature buck.

So early one October morning, I carefully negotiated the steep, muddy banks of the creek at the east end of the ranch to a stand of white oak trees. At sunrise, the does would move from the milo fields to feed on a bounty of acorns there on their way into the CRP fields to bed for the day.

Settled into the stand 20 minutes before the first glimmer of day, I soon made out a doe and her yearling approaching the very oak where I was sitting, and as the sky brightened, three more does and two yearlings joined her. They were all feeding so close I could hear them crunching acorns, and I considered shooting. A first-morning doe would put fresh venison on the grill and build my confidence.

Then my conscience reminded me of my to-do list. Did I really have time to spend all morning taking care of the meat?

A young eight-pointer made up my mind for me as he burst onto the scene and chased the does in circles until they tired of his game and bounded over a fence into the CRP, where they disappeared like ghosts. I smiled, looked up to the morning sky, and thanked God for the entertainment. Maybe I could sneak out in the afternoon to take the season's first doe.

Well, that afternoon brought more rain, which picked up speed and intensity as the afternoon gave way to night. Fortunately, by noon the following day the sky cleared and the wind freshened from the west. The fields would be too muddy to work for a few days, and I had just finished the cabinets in the house and hadn't yet geared up for the tile. The perfect groundwork had been laid for an early-evening hunt.

A cool west wind made me think of the big cottonwood in Horse Thief Canyon. I would go there tonight to make sure the stand felt right, and with a little luck I'd be back before dark with a doe. I allowed myself only briefly to dream of an encounter with the monarch of these historic grounds. Surely a mature animal like The Boss would never walk into an ambush weeks before the rut.

Scarcely had I settled into the stand when I saw a young eight-point coming down the ravine from the west. His bone-white, perfectly symmetrical but thin antlers showed promise for future years. For more than an hour he browsed no more than 20 yards away on the hillside, much of the time at eye level with me, forcing me to sit perfectly still.

Every now and then he would check the wind, glance my way, and seem to stare right through me. Eventually he fed away, back to the west. Breathing a sigh of relief and grinning, I stood and stretched.

My wife, Andrea, helped me track The Boss. Judging from the size of this buck, you can see why we gave him that name.

Not a minute later I saw him returning, this time from down in the creekbottom. As he stopped to work an early scrape, I caught glimpses of long tines through the leafy tree limbs behind him and made out a much heavier 10-pointer. As this second deer eventually moved past my stand, I estimated him to be in the 150 P&Y range, a fine trophy in anybody's book. But the season was so early! After all, this was a tune-up hunt, and I was here to take a doe, not fill my buck tag three weeks before the rut. Hoping not to reg

ret the decision come January, I let him pass.

With my heart still pounding and the fine 10-point not 20 yards past my stand, something made me turn and look back up the creek. Could that be a third buck working through the briars?

Instantly I new this was a mature animal, as his neck and shoulders seemed to part the brush instead of slip through. Not even for a fleeting moment did I think of letting this deer pass, early season or not.

My heart caught in my throat when he appeared to head for a trail that would lead him out of range, but he paused only briefly and then started down the trail the other bucks had taken. At that moment I realized that not only was this The Boss, but that he and I were about to have a showdown.

Stepping into the open below the old cottonwood, he was less than 15 yards away and broadside. The last thought I had before instinct took over was, Look at the mass of those antlers!

When I drew the bow, he stopped and turned his head to look straight at me. It took all the will I could muster to focus on a spot behind his shoulder and not his massive rack, but when my 20-yard pin settled on that spot, I touched the release and the arrow was gone.

He kicked once and in three bounds crossed the creekbottom and vanished into the woods on the far side. As stillness cloaked the canyon again I looked down where the tall-racked buck had stood and saw my arrow stabbed into the trail. With its once white fletching now crimson, I knew the showdown in Horse Thief Canyon was all but over.

The next morning at first light, my wife and I picked up the short blood trail that led to the buck. After admiring his 180-inch antlers and thanking God for giving me one of his most beautiful creations, I thought of the call I would make to Marc later that morning.

The showdown was over, but the legend of Horse Thief Canyon had only grown.

The author proudly hunts and resides at his ranch just outside Tipton, Kansas.

Author's Notes: For this hunt I used a Mathews Q2 Bow at 70 lbs. draw weight, Easton A/C/C arrows, Rage three-blade broadheads, Trophy Taker rest, Sitka clothing, and Bushnell 1000 ARC laser rangefinder.

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