If taking a trophy buck didn't really matter to me, why did it matter so much when I did?
"This year, I'll bet Dad gets that wall-hanger buck that he has been wishing for all these years," my son-in-law Matt declared enthusiastically to my son, Chris, as they pointed their pickup truck toward North Dakota to meet me and my other son-in law, Nate, for a whitetail bowhunt.
My North Dakota buck fulfilled a dream, but even more meaningful was spending time with some very special men in my life. Pictured from left to right are my son, Chris; me; and my sons-in-law Nate Rivinius and Matt Hager.
I had no idea Matt had made that comment, and if I had, I would have simply smiled and said "You know, that doesn't really matter to me."
Admittedly, like nearly every serious bowhunter, I often dream of arrowing a Pope and Young buck. But, alas, I am not a very dedicated trophy hunter. Once I am out in the woods, my desire for fresh venison usually overwhelms the patience necessary to take the big buck of my dreams. As a result, I have filled my share of deer tags with does and small bucks, and I've ended many hunting seasons with a smile on my face and no regrets.
This year, taking a big buck held even less importance for me because I was focused on fulfilling another aspect of the hunt that I had been dreaming about. For the last several years, I had been trying to pull together a hunt with my son and two sons-in-law in southwestern North Dakota, where we all grew up and cut our hunting teeth.
It was a daunting task. Trying to coordinate four busy lifestyles was hard enough. To complicate the issue, my son is a pastor in Alaska, and both my sons-in-law serve in the military. Numerous relocations and multiple deployments to Iraq had put the hunt on the back burner for three straight seasons.
Finally, last season, all three boys ended up in the Lower 48 at the same time. Amazingly, all the other scheduling details fell into place and our dream hunt was actually going to happen.
My pop-up camper, set up next to a small creek on the prairie, served as hunt headquarters. The mind-numbing worry and noise of war had been replaced with the haunting howls of coyotes and the eerie hooting of a great horned owl. This hunt was about rejuvenation and attitude readjustments. We ate like kings, shared thoughts and feelings that had long been suppressed, and went out of our way to have fun.
But we also hunted hard, perching in stands long before first light and returning to camp only after the Dakota sun had disappeared. By the end of the third day, we each had passed up shots at does and spikes, hoping for something bigger and not wanting to end the hunt too quickly. Each night we would gather around the lantern to pencil out maps and formulate strategies for the next day -- always hopeful that the other three would be the first to score.
On the afternoon of day four, I had been hunkered in a makeshift ground blind next to a heavily used deer trail for about 30 minutes when, on a sudden hunch, I decided to slip out to the riverbank 20 yards away to glass a willow flat to see if any deer might be feeding out in the open.
Peering through the brush on the edge of the river, I nearly choked on my own breath as I spotted a stunning, heavy-racked 4x4 buck feeding just a short distance away. Despite the jolt to my nerves, I managed to hold a quivering rangefinder in front of my eye long enough to read 28 yards. Holy cow! This buck is in range! I thought, as I used a handful of thumbs to wrestle an arrow out of my quiver. I am going to get a shot at the biggest buck of my life!
The breath that I had just sucked in became lost somewhere in my lungs, and I found myself trembling like a newborn calf. Somehow, despite the trembling, I got my bow to full draw and settled my 30-yard pin on the buck's ribs. He was quartering away slightly when my peep and pin came into alignment. I touched the release and heard a resounding thwack as the Muzzy-tipped arrow struck home.
I watched the buck for several long minutes, praying fervently that he'd topple over before my eyes, but to my utter dismay, the deer began to slowly walk off into the willows.
Although I thought the arrow had hit exactly on the mark, I could see too much arrow protruding from the buck's rib cage as he tore off through the willows. He ran about 30 yards before he stopped abruptly and stood with his head lowered. I watched the buck for several long minutes, praying fervently that he'd topple over before my eyes, but to my utter dismay, the deer began to slowly walk off into the willows. He made it about 10 yards before stopping once again, head hanging. I watched only briefly before backing off to get Chris.
Thirty minutes later, with daylight fading fast, we were standing on the edge of the willow flat. The buck was nowhere in sight. Desperately I wanted assurance that I had made a killing shot and needed to start the search, but an aggravating voice of reason told me that it was best simply to slip away and wait until morning.
Back at camp, the boys listened closely as I described the shot and the deer's response. They were ecstatic and absolutely convinced we would find the buck in the willows the next morning. I wasn't so sure. The image of that arrow protruding from his chest was vivid in my mind, and I spent an agonizingly long, sleepless night replaying the shot and worrying that I was going to lose the first big buck I had ever shot.
At sunrise, we stood in the spot where I had last seen the buck, and the news was not good. We immediately found the back half of my arrow, and with dried blood on only part of its length, what little optimism I'd had now faded rapidly. Worse, we found only a drop or two of blood on the ground where the deer had stood, and a meticulous 30-minute search failed to produce so much as another speck.
My boys remained undaunted, however, and we continued searching by walking four abreast in swaths through the willows. The willows were not tall, but they were so thick we were forced to stay within arms length of each other to avoid walking past the deer. For more than an hour, we tediously combed those willows, and I was almost ready to accept defeat when Matt shouted in triumph, "Here he is, Dad! You got him!"
With tears of relief in my eyes, I knelt with my sons to put my hands on my first true trophy buck. He was actually a 4x5, with a unique nontypical three-inch point angling forward from the left main beam, just above the brow tine. My shot had been on the money, and even though there wa
s very little external bleeding, it had taken out the liver and one lung. The buck had traveled no more than 200 yards from where he'd been hit.
Ten days later, on opening morning of archery deer season in my home state of South Dakota, I was perched in my stand in a ponderosa pine tree with a magnificent, wide-racked 4x4 whitetail buck within bow range. I had originally intended on spending most of this season bowhunting for mule deer on the prairie, but that hunt wasn't scheduled for another week, and I simply could not let opening morning go by without at least climbing into a treestand.
Now, unbelievably, I had a whitetail buck beneath my stand that was even bigger than the one I had taken in North Dakota. He had first appeared 30 minutes earlier, in a clearing 100 yards up the ridge from my stand. As he slowly browsed his way down toward my ambush, he kept getting bigger and more impressive. As I watched, the big buck suddenly stopped feeding and marched down the hill, only to stop smack dab below my stand.
When this fine South Dakota buck walked directly under my stand, who was I to pass up the shot? After 30 years of "trophy-less" bowhunting, I had taken two trophies in 10 days.
Looking down on the buck, I could clearly see that he was wider than the big 4x5 I had taken just 10 days earlier. As an added incentive, this buck had brow tines that appeared to be more than eight inches long. This was incredible! It had taken me more than 30 years of bowhunting to tag my first wall-hanger buck, and now, just a few days later, I was debating whether I should shoot at an even bigger buck. Trust me, I didn't have to think about it very long. If the Lord saw fit to bless me with a chance at another great whitetail buck, who was I to turn it down? The mule deer could wait.
For a full minute the buck stood motionless beneath my stand before beginning to amble down the trail away from me. When he was 15 yards out, I drew and made a soft grunt with my voice. When the buck paused, I triggered my release and watched the arrow bury to the fletching, high on his rib cage. The deer dashed off through the trees, and as I craned my neck, trying desperately to follow his line of flight, he suddenly turned in a tight circle and piled up less then 70 yards from my stand.
My legs and arms instantly turned to jelly, and I needed to sit back in my stand for several minutes before even attempting to climb down. Once on the ground, I hustled over to where the buck had fallen to assure myself that what had just taken place was not a dream.
Approaching the downed buck, I could see I had by no means misjudged his size, and in an instant I was kneeling beside my second trophy whitetail of the season. Some nontypical points made his rack a 4x7, and amazingly, one of those points was a unique three-inch point that angled forward from the left main beam above the brow tine -- just as on the buck I had taken in North Dakota.
When Matt had said, "This year, I'll bet Dad gets that wall-hanger buck that he has been wishing for all these years," even he could not have imagined how prophetic his words would be. After more than 30 years of bowhunting, I had fulfilled a lifelong dream not once, but twice. The fact that the bucks both carried a similar nontypical point gave them a unique connection. But the sweetest connection was having my three boys involved.
At that, I had to smile. No, I'm not a serious trophy hunter. But I suppose taking these two grand bucks mattered to me just a little. Author's Note: My equipment on this hunt included a PSE Mach 7 set at 62 pounds and a 28-inch draw, Cabela's Stalker Extreme carbon arrows, 100-grain Muzzy broadheads, Bushnell rangefinder, and clothing in Advantage and Mossy Oak camouflage. The author is a resident of Rapid City, South Dakota.