November 11, 2010
Never underestimate the power of bowhunting memories, especially when a bowhunter cannot be in the field.
During my recon missions in Iraq, I can't help but daydream about my whitetail recon missions back home in Kansas.
IT IS LATE AT NIGHT as I sit in a dusty briefing room, sifting through stacks of preflight planning products and orders, getting ready for tomorrow's combat mission over Baghdad. The acrid smell of Iraqi oil smoke drifts through the office, reminding me of the day's earlier attacks. As I shuffle through documents, I can't help but notice my desk calendar -- November. As I think about autumns past, my heart slowly creeps into my throat.
Dates in a war zone sometimes lose their meaning. The days are relegated merely to numbers that serve as a countdown to a distant homecoming. November. The thought of missing yet another hunting season stirs my conscience, and I begin to write. Tapping my thoughts into a computer screen and daydreaming, the smell of war and constant noise of generators and rotor blades is replaced with the odors of fresh earth underfoot, the rustling of cornstalks and oak leaves, as I remember where I was less than a year ago'¦
IT WAS LATE NOVEMBER 2008, about 35 degrees and blustery. A front was coming in, and a magical Kansas rut was in full swing. I'd seen literally hundreds of bucks. November in the Sunflower State has a way of consuming a whitetail hunter's thoughts and dreams. I hadn't expected to get out of class at the Command and General Staff College this early, and as I dodged through the crowd to get to the parking lot, I ran a planning sequence through my mind: It's 2:30 p.m. It gets too dark to shoot around 5 p.m. Do I have enough time?
It was the first season in three years that I wasn't 7,000 miles away in Iraq, doing a different kind of hunting. During the falls of 2006 and 2007, previous deployment for the "surge" campaign in Iraq denied me the ability to hunt whitetails -- two years in a row. During this time, I would have given a finger or an ear for 2½ hours on stand in prime deer country. I wouldn't miss this short opportunity for the world. A lot could happen in two hours on stand, I thought. I wanted to make every second count, as the inevitability of future deployment was likely to keep me out of the woods in 2009.
At this point, I'd spent well over 200 hours on stand in northeast Kansas, as well as countless sessions of preseason scouting, checking trail cameras, and hanging stands in the summer heat. The predictability and freedom associated with being in a school environment afforded me the hours I needed to maximize my access to the woods. I took advantage of every minute, often showing up to class with muddy boots and a big grin on my face. The monster whitetails that materialized seemingly every week on trail cameras during the summer or just out of bow range in the early archery season had revved my motor and carried me through most of the fall to this point. I knew my time would eventually come. I had contributed the time and done the homework. I just needed a little luck to fall my way.
To save time, I drove my truck to within 300 yards of the ambush site, and at 3 p.m. I was finally slinking to my stand on the outskirts of town. I'd hung my stand along a hardwood ridge in a thin strip of timber wedged between two CRP fields. The wooded corridor was a little over 60 yards in width, so I felt confident that I could cover its entirety if any deer happened through. A relatively weak mast season worked to my advantage here, as a few precious oaks yielded a meager crop of acorns within shooting range. These small drops served as popular stopping points or staging areas for deer as they ambled toward fields in the evening.
Memories of successful hunts like this one in 2008 fire my passion for bowhunting while I serve my country overseas.
As my foot crunched into the oak leaves, a pod of does unexpectedly burst from under my stand. Ouch! Not what I had planned, but I remained confident, as I'd seen a 150-class buck dogging a similar group of does a couple days earlier. I waited for the group of does to stomp and snort off, and then I excitedly ascended to my perch.
The wind ripped through me like a piece of rice paper, and I tightened my fleece facemask to keep my eyes from watering. Questioning my sanity, I grabbed the branch above me to stabilize the swaying of my bow. Frozen fingers transitioned between my release and the controls on my video camera. It would be dark in an hour and a half, and I wanted to be ready. I just had to settle in and concentrate.
Just as I sat back against my tree, a steady tempo of skittering feet broke through the staccato noise of windblown oaks. Turkeys!
I just happened to have a fall turkey tag in my pocket. Thanksgiving was in a few days -- it all just seemed to fit together. As the flock of gobblers passed within 30 yards, I steadied the camera and came to full draw. My top pin sat firmly at the wing joint. At the release, my arrow kicked out of trim, plucking feathers from the old tom's chest as he putted away. A small twig had intervened, ending my chances for a televised Thanksgiving dinner'¦
Or had it? As I huffed under my breath in disappointment, I noticed that a small group of birds had reassembled after the commotion caused by the shot. I ranged them at 42 yards, reloaded, and settled the pin. My arrow found its mark in the vitals of the trailing bird -- instant Thanksgiving dinner!
NOW ONLY AN HOUR remained until dusk. What were the chances of my bagging a bird and a buck in one short trip? I wondered.
My thoughts suddenly slammed to a halt. My good friend's wife had invited me to dinner at their house! In my rush to get out of school and into the woods, the invitation had completely slipped my mind. I dug through my daypack for my phone, and after placing half the contents of my pack on the seat of my stand, I found the phone and began a text message of contrition to my friend and his wife. I really had no excuse -- they had been out-prioritized by my "seasonal sickness."
As I was begging their forgiveness, I caught an unmistakable flash out of the corner of my eye. A tall-beamed 10-point buck was boring a hole through me. I was busted. Or so I thought.
An icy gale swayed my tree a foot in several directions. The buck broke his stare, pausing to mark his property line on the ground beneath him. As deftly as a tree-stranded rhinoceros, I spun awkwardly under my harness to grab for my bow while also punching the record button on my camera. The buck's radar-like s
enses again shot back at me, his battle-scarred nose scanning the thermals. Inexplicably, he resumed his course at a quartering angle behind my tree.
I strained to get the camera arm around the oak, find him in the viewfinder, lift my bow from the holder, and clip the release onto the bowstring. Too many moving parts, I thought. Something had to give. This was the biggest buck I'd had an opportunity to take. The brawny ridge-runner froze like a statue 12 yards from the base of my wind-bucking oak. Directly downwind, his nose struck into the air -- air running directly from my Scent-Loked form to his olfactory glands.
I tried to be still, but his front legs began to quiver. He looked like a coiled spring ready to explode. With adrenaline pouring through my veins and my own legs violently quaking, I made the split-second decision to forget the camera and shoot the buck. I had worked very hard all season to document my adventures on tape, but at the crucial moment, and without a cameraman, I decided to be a hunter first.
It was automatic. I don't remember drawing. I don't recall the shot, just the vision of the Kansas monster plowing through underbrush and fallen trees and then running out of sight as my lighted nock traced his last run. I strained for the camera to capture his retreat.
After several seconds of chaos, things fell eerily silent. The wind stopped. The sun fell behind the trees. All was quiet, save the honking of some Canada geese on a night flight south.
I was stupefied by these events. I loved it. Fear, anxiety, hopelessness, anticipation, focus, distraction, elation, and peace -- all rolled into a moment etched in my memory forever. This is truly why I hunt'¦
AS I SNAP BACK to reality, the sirens outside are wailing, warning of outgoing artillery. With the passing of another season without setting foot in the woods, I continue to reminisce about my memories of times afield, whether searching for shed antlers and early spring gobblers, or pursuing giant whitetails in the oak draws and pastures of Kansas. These memories sustain me, no matter what situation or faraway place I find myself. I do miss home and the amenities afforded by our great nation, but nothing quite lights a fire within my soul like a day afield with stick and string. As the seemingly endless string of days to homecoming slowly tick down, the promise of another season fuels my anticipation and passion for the woods and the freedom that only outdoorsmen know -- a hunter's freedom.
I sit now on a midnight watch in a dusty command post, once again grappling between my two passions in life. I am convinced that leading America's finest soldiers in combat -- your sons and daughters -- is perhaps the most awesome responsibility any person can have. The dangerous and historic actions that unfold every day here demand extreme focus on the mission and attention to detail.
But with the archery season and whitetail rut starting back home, I am hard pressed not to daydream, just a little, about the crunch of hooves on oak leaves and frozen anticipation as I wait for crowned kings of the whitetail woods. I guess there's always next year'¦
The author currently serves as the Operations Chief for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade stationed at Camp Taji, Iraq. He has served four tours of duty between Afghanistan and Iraq. He hopes to be home in time for spring turkey season.
Author's Notes: My equipment included a Mathews DXT bow set at 70 lbs., Carbon Express Maxima 350 arrows, Rage 2-blade broadheads, G5 sight, Trophy Taker rest, Leica rangefinder, and Burris 10x42 binoculars. When I'm hunting in Iraq, I shoot an AH-64D Longbow Apache.