When I first picked up his movement, the buck was still at least 50 yards away, yet he was already crab-walking sideways with his ears pinned back. That was a good sign.
But I instantly had three reasons to get nervous. One, the buck's disjointed shuffle was not taking him toward my two decoys. Instead, he appeared to be circling from right to left.
Two, the decoys were now directly between the buck and the burr oak in which cameraman Bill Owens and I were trying to become invisible. The buck's line of sight was aimed directly at us. We would have to be as still as manikins.
And three, this was the buck known only by the less-than-creative name of "Mr. Ten." He was the buck we were after, and one of the biggest I've ever had close to me. Cue the racing cardiovascular system and frenzied decision-making process.
Fortunately, there was also substantial relief hidden within the shards of anxiety. This buck was not "Baby Booner."
This story really started almost a decade ago when I first hunted with Miles Willhite of Walnut Creek Outfitters in southeastern Kansas. We've hit it off over the years for two reasons.
One, Miles takes everything personal. If your hunt gets rained out, he feels responsible.
I have to keep after him for apologizing for the weather, something that's completely out of his control, but it shows he cares that his clients have a good hunting experience.
The second reason I like to hunt with Miles is he usually just cuts me loose, allowing me to do my own thing, hanging stands and hunting at my own pace. I can hunt dark to dark, or break for lunch and change locations — whatever the conditions call for. I enjoy that kind of freedom.
Then Miles moved back to his home ground around El Dorado and my Kansas deer hunts also made the transition. Miles keeps close track of the deer on his properties, and on the eve of my 2012 hunt, he made a request.
"On the property you'll be hunting, there's a very young deer with tremendous potential," Miles said. "He's pushing 130 with no mass, and I think he is going to be somebody someday, which is why I call him Baby Booner. I'd like you to let him walk."
That young buck didn't show up until late in the hunt. I was on the move and spotted a mature buck rubbing a tree in a draw. When it quit bullying the sapling, the buck started moving south into the bottom of the draw, so my cameraman and I made a looping, intercepting run on the high ground and carefully dropped into the draw.
We barely got set up behind a large boulder when a different buck showed up — Baby Booner, a spindly 5x5 with exceptional length throughout his rack. I grunted him in to 32 yards but let him walk. Such potential definitely needed more "seasoning."
To some that may sound like odd logic, since I had no idea if I would ever hunt that draw again. Why would I care about letting that buck grow?
Well, it's analogous to catch-and-release fishing. I love to bass fish, but I never keep one. All are released to grow bigger and fight another day. Maybe someone else will catch and keep them, but that's okay with me.
The same goes for Baby Booner. Not all whitetail bucks can grow a special set of antlers. Some die of old age, carrying little more than a scraggly rack.
This deer was special, and if I put an arrow through him he would never reach his potential.
On the other hand, if Baby Booner becomes "Mature Booner," and another bowhunter has the great fortune to tag their buck of a lifetime, I would feel quite proud that I let him live when he was just an average deer. Wouldn't you?
Over that next summer, Miles kept me fired up by sending me trail camera images of some good bucks — two in particular. Baby Booner showed up in velvet, and later with a polished rack.
He had taken another leap towards exceptional, with symmetry and length beyond his years, but his young age remained evident in his lack of mass.
Still, given a clear slam-dunk shot opportunity, any bowhunter would need serious discipline to let him walk. For that reason, I really didn't want to meet up with Baby Booner in November.
Fortunately, there was another buck, a mature 10-pointer, that was easily capable of taking my mind off Baby Booner. He was wide, clean, and bigger than any buck I had ever arrowed. Miles called him "Mr. Ten," and I would consider it great fortune if this buck were to walk by me.
Flash forward to the first day of my 2013 hunt as Bill and I hiked into a draw in the morning darkness. Miles had set a new stand that covered a small opening where a finger draw broke off to the northeast.
When we stood under it, I paused for a couple quiet moments to ponder the situation. The wind was a little flaky for that spot, so I cut left and picked my way toward my usual stand farther up the draw. We climbed up, got settled in, and soaked in some of my favorite moments in all of bowhunting — those priceless, tranquil minutes just before dawn.
Once camera light reached the bottom of the draw, the time for tranquility was supplanted by the need for total awareness. A couple of small bucks ghosted through the draw, the soft rustling of fallen oak leaves giving them away.
And, because deer can come from any direction on the Kansas prairie, my head was swiveling like a caffeinated owl as I scanned my environment for those first glimpses of movement. I feel it's imperative that I spot a deer, any deer, at the earliest possible moment, so I have maximum time to plan my reaction, if any.
Within minutes, I caught the flash of an antler about 70 yards down the draw on the trail we had just walked in on. The buck was moving to my left and heading up the finger draw. When he got into the open, my 10X Zeiss binoculars revealed it was Baby Booner!
He had just walked right in front of the stand that I had turned away from in the dark. Although it was good to see him again, I couldn't decide whether to feel relief or disappointment that we weren't in that stand.
It was November 13, prime rut in Kansas, so we sat until noon. With little action, we decided to slip out before a forecasted change in wind direction occurred. For the afternoon, we switched to a ground blind in a picked cornfield where I employed my favorite whitetail hunting technique — setting up two decoys.
We had one young buck stand amongst the decoys for 20 minutes, but that was it. The next morning's wind was forecasted to be out of the northwest, which was good for that new stand in the draw, so the plan was set.
With a decoy under each arm and my bow strapped to my pack, we stalked quietly through the darkness to the new stand. I set up the decoys in a small clearing for good visibility, and sprayed them down with my secret spray — Tink's B-Tech Scent Eliminator.
Don't ask me what this spray does, but it has dramatically increased the effectiveness of my decoys. I can't explain it, and I know this sounds like a sales pitch, but I do not make such claims frivolously. Even does get kissing close, and that never happened before I started using that spray.
With lunch stuffed in our packs and no cell signal to power the distraction of our smartphones, we settled into another morning of tranquility. The temperature was in the 20s, and it was calm. It couldn't be more perfect, I thought.
I was wrong. It could be more perfect€¦
Just before the draw was to be flooded with sunlight, I heard a deer walking in the leaves. Within seconds Mr. Ten crossed the dry creek into the open.
His sideways walk seemed to carry him almost involuntarily, like a stumbling drunk, to the left and away from the decoys. But he held a death stare on the two fake deer and his ears were laid back, so I knew he was hooked.
I made the decision to come to full draw immediately, while the buck was still 40 yards out. It was a good decision that nearly turned out to be a bad one.
The buck finally angled toward the decoys and was coming straight on. I feared he would pick us off, but his attention was laser-focused on the decoys. At one point he hesitated and did a sort of dance as he tried to decide which decoy to assault first, the buck or the doe.
One thing he wasn't doing was offering me a decent angle for a shot. And the bowstring was getting extremely heavy.
It's during these moments when a bowhunter's consciousness slows to a crawl. There's no sound, both animal and hunter seem to move in slow motion, and fine details tend to fly through one's mind without sticking in the memory banks.
This ethereal reality is precisely why we practice so diligently. When this predatory haze comes over us, our every move must be an automatic, unconscious action. We can't think about how we're anchoring the bowstring to our face.
There's no time to wonder about how we grip the bow, or if the peep sight will be in perfect position. Those things must simply happen because of repetition, which is the definition of practice.
Any sort of glitch in the process can mean a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is lost.
Turn. Turn. Turn, I chanted to myself while Mr. Ten was becoming Mr. Indecision. He turned toward the doe, then back toward the buck. I feared he would suddenly ram the buck and spook off into the timber without ever offering a shot.
All I could do was squeeze my back muscles and try to deflect the physical and mental strain of being fully drawn on a huge buck with a camera rolling over my shoulder.
Evidently Mr. Ten decided he had to address the buck decoy first, and as he turned that direction, the broadside shot was there. My arrow covered the 19 yards in a flash. The buck trotted back the way he came, pulled up after only 20 yards, wobbled against a tree, then did a face-plant into the ground.
The video showed death occurred in 13 seconds. I'm not sure precisely what specific anatomical part of the lungs my arrow sliced through, but I wish I could hit that spot every time, on every animal I shoot at.
For the second year in a row I had killed my best whitetail buck, and I was ecstatic. Mr. Ten was about 10 inches larger than the 10-pointer I shot in Iowa in 2012. He was over 21 inches wide, and would later gross-score around 162. More importantly, it was the one buck I really wanted to walk by, before a certain young stud showed up to tempt me.
And, once again, my two-decoy setup worked. I can't say for sure, but my guess is Mr. Ten would have walked on by if he hadn't spotted my decoys. I might have lured him in with a grunt call, but nothing is as consistently effective as a two-decoy setup.
If Baby Booner manages to avoid EHD, vehicles, coyotes and other hunters, he'll get to meet my two decoys this fall. And, like Mr. Ten, he'll quickly learn that three's a crowd.
Author's Notes: I used a Mathews Chill-R, Easton Injexion arrows, Rage Hypodermic broadheads, Spot-Hogg sight, Zeiss 10x45 rangefinding binoculars, Scott release, Cabela's clothing, and Ozonics.
If you would like to hunt with Miles at Walnut Creek Outfitters, you can contact him at (316) 648-3601 or email@example.com.