May 17, 2022
Leaves fell like golden snow through the October sky, the final leg of a journey that began long ago, when spring rains and warmer weather promised a season of bounty and growth. Now, the sand had run out on that promise, leaving its casualties on the forest floor while the hardwoods prepared for its deep slumber. Although inevitable, the wind had catalyzed these events, blowing from the southeast with blustery gusts that rocked the oak tree I was nestled in like a buoy on the ocean.
It was October 27, 2021, and I was on my own journey of sorts. It had been 30 years since I first climbed an oak tree, nocked an arrow, and settled in for my first season as a bowhunter. Much had changed since then — and some not at all — I thought as I sat back for my evening vigil. Less than an hour before, I’d clambered up the steep ridge I now sat upon, doing all I could to suppress my scent and sound as I approached. The shingle oak I was stationed in abutted an isolated pond; a woodland waterhole barely 30 feet across, its banks littered with rubs, tracks, and trails. Some years, especially the dry ones, this oasis held little but mud and muck, but sporadic squalls over the past month had ensured ample water to quench the thirst of any passersby.
Borne of boot leather and brush-busting attire, I had discovered this stand site while scouting the previous winter. It sat in the heart of this Midwest acreage, along the edge of a forgotten farmstead put out to pasture decades before — now a sanctuary for the local whitetails and other wildlife. As I tore through this thorn-infested thicket, I eventually came upon a small clearing laced with giant rubs and numerous scrapes that painted a portrait of a giant’s lair. While their tortured trunks and twisted branches lay dormant and drab that frigid day, I hoped things would change come fall, and a quick stroll in early October confirmed as much. Autumn had rekindled their colors and reopened their wounds, as numerous cedar trees — their bark now hanging like shredded tapestry — surrounded the stand site, while a large scrape, its dark earth streaked by cloven hooves, lay between two major trails. A narrow ditch — as obscure as a secret passage — led from the thicket to a creekbottom below, where a giant cottonwood served as a marker for my entry point up the ridge.
When I started bowhunting in 1992, it was considered taboo to intrude on a buck’s core area for fear of educating him and cutting your season short. However, as the years passed and my tags went unfilled, it became obvious that going down swinging was better than taking a third strike. To creep into a mature buck’s bedroom, to enter his domain under the right conditions, was not only an underused tactic but one that had produced results for me in years past. I felt the southeast breeze and approaching storm provided me with a golden opportunity to roll the dice, so here I sat on this late-October day.
Now just past 3:30 p.m., the brisk wind felt cool against my cheek as I got settled; its steady current carrying my scent over the bluff behind me. Trails coursed below and behind my ambush, weaving in and out of the thick growth, while a poison ivy vine dangled like a serpent above me; its tendrils long since severed, one of the many challenges this tree posed when I hung the stand a month prior. The pond behind me sat calm and collected; reflecting the trees along its bank like a glass mirror while leaves drifted aimlessly upon its surface. A trio of Osage orange trees, their limbs branching like ghoulish arms, stood before me, now unburdened by the hedgeapples that lay upon the forest floor like lime-green softballs. Ominous thorns jutted from black locust trees scattered along the ridgeline, while swamp and shingle oaks, still young and unassuming, grew sheepishly near the pond. A centuries-old hickory, the elder statesman of this group, took center stage — its plate-sized bark resembling sheetrock laid against its trunk. Even after all this time, I never grew weary of this scene or its participants, and I couldn’t help but smile.
I laid my head back on the shingle oak’s trunk and stared skyward, watching the trees sway and the leaves fall in the blustery conditions. It was hard to fathom that three decades had already passed since my first season with bow in hand. And despite all the changes in my life since then, the sights and sounds of those early years remained steadfast and strong. I zipped my vest higher as the temperature started to cool, my mind confident that I’d made the right decision in pushing the envelope. Entering a mature buck’s bedroom can be a risky proposition at any point in the season, but the wind was ideal, and the approaching front would erase any scent left behind. Neither were small favors, as when it came to bowhunting mature bucks, foreign odors and lingering scents are not easily forgiven. I had no clue what was living within this overgrown farmstead, having not placed any trail cameras near this sanctuary for fear of alarming its occupants. Changes to one’s dwelling are rarely missed, and I didn’t need a camera to tip the scales in the whitetails’ favor, or tell me what the rubs and tracks already had: Something of giant proportions was living on this ridge. Years ago, big tracks and massive rubs were enough to stir my imagination and fuel my dreams, and it was surreal to know that mindset had not changed.
At 4 p.m., I looked to my right and saw two young does working toward my location. The wind was still in my favor and blowing with enough intensity that I knew its allegiance would not falter on this night. I left my bow on its hanger and relaxed, watching the does’ shy but steady approach. The lead doe continued to feed, chewing on a honey locust pod that bobbed with each bite before hanging from her mouth like a cigar. Materializing from the thicket minutes later, a mature doe ambled along, cautiously moving toward the yearlings that preceded her entry. I watched the elder doe slowly quarter toward my position before she turned broadside at 20 yards. I carefully reached for my bow, my hand inching closer each time her head dropped to the forest floor, eventually lifting it off the hanger and preparing for the shot. Despite having an antlerless tag in my pocket, I had no intention of taking this doe and was more interested in what may be following her backtrail.
As I was watching the yearlings meander about, the mature doe, which was walking the same path as the youngsters, suddenly became nervous. She stood on full alert, plunging her head to the ground, then back up again, doing all she could to decipher the foreign odor that had found her nostrils. Like any strategy, this setup had an Achilles’ heel, as there was no way to enter this stand without crossing at least one trail, which unfortunately happened to be the one she was on. I knew once this doe reached her threshold of certainty that a human presence was in her midst, there would be no stopping the barrage of stomping and snorting that was sure to follow, and make me further question whether I should fill my antlerless tag. Taking my chances, I left my bow at brace and grimaced, hoping she would lose interest and make her way down the ridge and out of sight. In time, she did just that, veering to the north and over the ridge as I breathed a sigh of relief. The younger does soon followed; oblivious to any danger and perhaps frustrated at having to leave the honey locust pods they were enjoying behind.
Shortly before 5 p.m., I glanced to my right and saw a tawny hide and subtle movement through a tangle of multiflora rose. In a matter of seconds, the ebony nose and ivory-rimmed eyes of a fourth doe materialized just past the old hickory. Despite my Midwest roots and decades in the Iowa hardwoods, never had I seen a doe of her size and stature. Moving from right to left, she paused perfectly broadside in my shooting lane at 25 yards. I gripped my bow tighter, feeling the tension in my fingers and forearms, contemplating the situation — the antlerless tag whispering in my ear once more. Nevertheless, I ignored this temptation, remembering the shredded saplings and raked cedars that had drawn me here. Although I’d never laid eyes on the buck that made the giant rubs and tracks that encircled this sanctuary, if there was ever a night he would show his hand, this was it, and I had to be patient.
The wind continued to howl through the hardwoods, ripping leaves from their branches with each gust, while darkening clouds promised torrents of rain and rapidly fading daylight. While the wind was still in my favor, the mature doe seemed uneasy, although the trail I had crossed and compromised was still well ahead of this matriarch. Despite having no knowledge of what was following her backtrail — no pictures, proof of life, or previous sightings — I simply knew he was coming. Years of bowhunting had taught me many lessons, some without remorse, and one of which was to trust your instincts and be prepared because second chances can be few and far between. The doe glanced back, crouched down like a scolded puppy, and then crept forward — just as a giant beam and long tines appeared through the thicket.
When I saw his antlers and bullish mass, I clipped my release to my bowstring and squared my shoulders — pivoting on my seat as I tightened the tension on my D-loop. The giant buck stepped between two shingle oaks, their trunks bordering his path like timbered pylons, before he turned left and passed behind a honey locust tree — its thorns resembling daggers in the fading light. I hit my anchor in one fluid motion, watching the buck reappear as my peep centered the sight housing. My fluorescent-green pin followed suit, settling behind the beast’s shoulder when he stopped at 25 yards, his attention on the doe that had seduced him like a siren’s song. I held my aim and exhaled, taking my time — remembering to take my time — knowing that more mistakes are made in this moment than any other. Then my arrow was gone, striking the buck with a solid hit, just before crimson splashed upon the fallen leaves. The giant dashed to the east, dipped under an Osage orange tree — the arrow falling near its gnarly trunk — and then disappeared over the ridge. I sat there in silence with the wind offering no hints or help as to whether the monster had fallen, before tipping my hat skyward in a gesture of gratitude — the first and most important virtue that bowhunting instilled in me all those years ago.
With flashlights in tow, my friend Mitch and I worked our way down the ridgeline three hours later — the trees now cloaked in a starless sky. The blood trail was sparse but steady, and beginning to sow a bit of doubt, when Mitch shined his beam through the hardwoods. Nestled in the leaves along the oak-laden flat, a tall and heavy rack met our gaze. As I knelt beside the buck’s sleek coat and polished tines, I thought back through the years and realized how fortunate I was to still participate in this endeavor — from climbing trees and drawing my bow to sitting for hours on end for just a chance, one chance, to even see an animal of this caliber — much less harvest one. There was much to be grateful for on this night, knowing how rare these moments are and how blessed we are to experience them.
Bowhunting whitetails is a centuries-old tradition, played out in autumn’s arena each fall. It is a season of golden grain, ivory antlers, and the Hunter’s Moon, and of dreams fulfilled and hearts broken. It is the time of year when a bowhunter’s preparation and mental fortitude are put to the test — against both weather and whitetails — with some bowhunters journeying through the gauntlet rewarded and unscathed while others succumb to their mistakes and misfortunes. I have experienced both sides of this coin, but I continue to play the game because that is the nature of bowhunting. No matter how many years we spend in the field, accurate arrows, short blood trails, and long tines lying still are never guaranteed. If they were, bowhunting would cease to be a challenge, and greener pastures would beckon. I have yet to hear their calls and know I never will, because bowhunting won’t allow it. I only hope that when the cold winds blow in October, turning my head and heart toward the timber each fall, that I’m up for the challenge. No matter the outcome, though, come season’s end I’ll be sure to tip my hat skyward and be thankful for the opportunity, for tomorrow is promised to no one. And as any bowhunter will attest — neither is another season of gold.
The author is an optometrist, freelance writer, and avid bowhunter from Southeast Iowa. He is the author of the award-winning book “Crimson Arrows: A Bowhunting Odyssey,” available at Amazon and crimsonarrowsmedia.com. He currently lives in Iowa with his wife and children.
Author’s Note: On this hunt I used a Bowtech Revolt set at 70 pounds, Victory arrows, 100-grain Rage Trypan broadheads, Black Gold sight, Vapor Trail rest, TightSpot quiver, and a Spot Hogg release. My clothing consisted of Sitka outerwear, First Lite Merino wool base layers, and LaCrosse boots.