By M. R. James, Founder/Editor Emeritus
A LATECOMER TO DEER HUNTING, I didn't tag my first whitetail until I was 22. For one thing, my dad never hunted anything but small game and waterfowl. For another, deer were about as rare as turkey teeth in Wabash County, Illinois, during the '40s and '50s. So I grew up there following my father's boot tracks, hunting Corn Belt farmlands for cottontails and quail, and area riverbottoms for fox and gray squirrels. Deer hunting? That was something I only read about in the various hook 'n' bullet magazines littering my bedroom. But read I did. And dream.
"One of these days I'm going deer huntin'," I promised myself. "One of these days..."
Those adolescent daydreams eventually became reality - in October of 1962, to be exact. That's when I caught my terminal case of whitetail fever, often cutting college classes to head for the nearby woodlands, alone or with some bowhunting buddy. It didn't matter. Neither did the fact that I saw mostly snowy white flags waving goodbye. Nor did the fact that I never got close enough to release an arrow. I was deer hunting. Finally!
Today, four-plus decades later, I'm still suffering from opening day delirium and post-season withdrawal. October never arrives quite soon enough; February always comes far too fast. But I can't complain, because I've been truly blessed beyond any boyhood dreams. Thanks to Bowhunter, for over 40 years now I've bowhunted bucks across most of North America - and gotten paid to do it. Few deer hunters are so fortunate.
And now that my beard has turned the color of a big buck's backside, more and more readers ask me which deer hunts - and whitetails - were my most memorable. Tough questions. But after considerable rumination and reflection, I've come up with a handful of personal favorites. Here then are seven of the most unforgettable bucks I've met. And why I consider them so very special.
First Whitetail - November 1963
I COULDN'T BELIEVE IT. Less than 25 yards away stood the biggest buck I'd seen all year, and he was staring right at me. I could feel his laser-beam eyes burning twin holes in my army surplus camo jacket. My hopes sank under his continued scrutiny - and the sight of those heavy antlers jutting above the naked, creekside brush. There was simply no way I could raise my recurve bow for the shot. He'd caught me slipping quietly along the sandy creekbed. The jig was up and we both knew it.
Really, this final afternoon of the '63 Indiana deer season had been a disaster from the get-go. After enduring tedious morning classes, I'd left campus behind and raced down dusty rural roadways toward a favorite Warrick County hunting spot. But another 11th-hour deer hunter already had staked claim to a large oak tree I'd intended to climb for my evening's vigil. And when I hotfooted toward another spot, I bumped smack into a bevy of does that whooshed and bounced away like stampeding elephants over a carpet of dead leaves. Disgusted with my carelessness, I angled back toward my truck and promptly spooked a small herd of deer that exploded into a July 4th rocket burst of bobbing rumps and flagging tails. Thoroughly dispirited but with nothing better to do, I half-heartedly trailed after them - and soon walked head into the big buck that fixed me with his haughty what-the-heck-do-you-think-you're-doing look. It simply was one of those days...
But then, unaccountably, that buck did a very strange thing. Instead of whirling and bounding away, he simply turned and moved deeper into the brushy jungle, grunting softly as he walked. Stunned, I eased closer, frantically searching for a shooting lane amid the twigs and branches. Then an opening appeared and my arrow was gone and the buck was crashing blindly away, leaving a gape-mouthed novice bowhunter standing among lengthening evening shadows. It wasn't until I finally moved into the brush and kicked out an unseen doe that I understood this rutting buck's strange behavior.
Unable to find my arrow or proof of a hit, I headed home at dark and spent the longest, most worrisome night of my young hunting life. Back in the woods at first light, a college friend and I began a careful search, and soon we spotted my buck piled up not 100 yards away. That moment officially launched my deer hunting career.
Note: No deer hunter ever forgets his first buck, and I certainly am no exception. To add icing to my initial celebratory cake, this big 6-point qualified for the Pope and Young record book - the first 3x3 to earn such recognition.
Rainy Day Buck - October 1964
RAIN DRUMMIMNG on our blue umbrella tent muted the alarm's tinny wake-up tinkle. Grumbling in the predawn darkness, my buddy and I quickly agreed this was no morning to be scaling the steep Illinois ridge to our stands behind camp. So we simply snuggled deeper into our sleeping bags and dozed while waiting for the early fall storm to pass.
I later awakened to bright sunshine and the sound of water droplets plopping from overhead oak limbs. Dressing quickly, I yanked on my boots, picked up my recurve, and left my pal snoring in the tent as I stepped outside and breathed in cool country air tinged with the scent of wet leaves and humus. Moments later I was walking noiselessly along a grassy two-track toward a small field of rain-flattened rye glistening through the trees ahead.
Somehow the 8-point buck feeding in the shadows near the back edge of the field didn't see or hear me as I approached and paused to survey the opening. Jarred by the sight of the deer, I still managed to fumble an arrow onto the string and raise my bow.
There was no range estimation. No sight pin. Only concentration on the broadside buck's chest. And a well-founded confidence based on countless practice shots and weekend NFAA competition at dozens of midwestern field archery courses. Instinctive shooting at its best.
My arrow caught the 8-pointer perfectly behind his left shoulder, the two-blade head burying deep. He spun and bounded away into the brush. After hanging a single sheet of toilet paper on the nearest bush, I turned and headed back toward camp. Smiling all the way. Thinking of how to break the good news to my partner still slumbering away the best part of any fall day in deer camp.
Note: While bowhunting for deer is most often a solitary undertaking, sharing a hunting camp - and the thrills of each day's adventures - with a friend or family member, makes each outing even more extraordinary.
Farm Country Whitetail - November 1970
PATCHES OF DIRTY SNOW. A moving gray sky the same hue as a honker's belly. Trees silhouetted against t
he morning grayness. It is early November, just past dawn in the lower Michigan deer woods. I am kneeling beside a crumbling stump partly hidden within a brushy jungle near a fenceline that marks the boundary of the farm.
I hear the deer before I see it. Hooves ticking in frozen leaves. Then a shadowy shape is approaching, walking parallel to the fence. I detect a small smudge of white moving above the brush. Antlers. My heart begins to drum inside my camo jacket. I raise the laminated recurve.
The buck is broadside now, still moving. I whistle softly and draw as the buck stops. The bow jumps in my gloved hand and the heavy arrow arcs away. The muted thump of my bowstring causes the buck to begin to turn away, but it is too late. I hear the meaty sound of arrow impact, and the deer is racing away, tail tucked, my fiberglass shaft buried in his side.
I force myself to wait long minutes until my heartbeat slows before rising and moving to the fenceline. Cut, dark hair is lying where the buck had stood. There are small drops of crimson across a patch of crusty snow. I wait longer still, then move slowly in the same direction the buck has taken.
He is down maybe 70 yards away, sprawled in the frozen leaves just beyond a waist-high briar tangle. I lift his head, counting the short points on his diminutive rack. ...8...9...10. He will not make the record book, but he has made my book. And that is all that really matters. I stroke his neck, feeling the fading warmth while giving thanks to God for this day, this gift. Finally, laying the bow aside, I shrug out of my jacket, roll up my sleeves, and reach for my folding knife.
Note: A photograph of this small whitetail graced the cover of the very first issue of Bowhunter, which appeared in August of 1971. The mount still hangs in my office, a constant reminder of a special day, a very special magazine, and the long hunter's path I've traveled since.
Suburban Buck - November 1984
IT WASN'T MUCH to look at, really, just a modest brick house on 10 overgrown acres near Aboite Creek, a short drive southwest of Fort Wayne. But near the small house was a hardwood ravine and luxuriant jungle of multiflora rose with dense clusters of blackberry briars. Off to the west, behind a storage shed, stood a meager grove of white pines. A neighbor's house and woodlot were to the north, facing the same blacktop road that wound in front of our respective homes. Close as it was to the skyline of Indiana's second largest city, this acreage was a virtual wildlife haven. Coons. Foxes. Possums. Squirrels. Cottontails. And some of the biggest whitetail bucks I've seen anywhere in Hoosierland.
Early on I'd hung a treestand in a sturdy pine tree near a fenceline at the back of my property, and in due time I'd ambushed more than one buck there as the deer drifted between my wooded ravine and the neighboring woodlot. That's also where I first saw the buck one cold November day, trailing a slender doe. But he was on the go, and I couldn't bring myself to risk a shot. I saw him briefly twice more under similar iffy circumstances; however, neither shooting opportunity felt right, so I simply watched the rutting buck and doe acting out their ancient mating ritual. With patience I might yet get the perfect shot.
Hunting suburban bucks is a different kind of whitetail hunting. From my treestand perch I could see my neighbor's grandkids at backyard play. And just across the rear fence I could hear another neighbor's garage door open and close as his car left for and returned from work. These were all good people, and the last thing I wanted was a dying buck collapsing near a neighbor's front porch or tangling itself in a kiddies' backyard swing set. From the outset I'd vowed to take an ideal shot or none at all.
And one chilly gray evening the huge buck and sleek doe materialized silently again, finally standing directly beneath me. Jolted by the unexpected, I forced myself to avoid looking at the buck's tall, upswept rack, and carefully concentrated on the shot. Still I shot high. Luckily, my arrow broke the great buck's back, dropping him in his tracks, and a follow-up shot ended his flailings. Short seconds later I was kneeling beside one of my best whitetails ever.
Note: There is something magical about tagging a buck on property you own, large or small. This is especially true when a stand is literally in your own backyard. Today many responsible bowhunters are enjoying deer hunting in the 'burbs. I, for one, love it.
Texas Treetop Trophy - December 1997
I FELT KINDA DUMB, roosted there in the upper branches of that scraggly Kennedy County live oak. True, the holidays weren't all that far away, but my 200-pound, camouflaged carcass was a pathetic substitute for a dainty tree-topping angel, sparkling spire, or gleaming Christmas star. Honestly, I felt as inconspicuous as a placard-carrying PETA member at a Pope and Young Club convention.
On this, the final morning of my annual 5-day King Ranch bowhunt, I was overlooking a well-used deer trail leading to a waterhole just behind my treestand. While I'd seen and passed up shots at a dozen or more decent bucks, I had stubbornly held out for a true muy grande whitetail - namely, a 10-point brute whose wide rack was said to span a full 24 inches. He was known to hang out in this area of the legendary ranch.
Earlier I'd filled one of my three Lone Star buck tags during a videotaping session with Ronnie "Cuz" Strickland, anchoring a 9-pointer from ground level with one well-placed arrow. Cuz's footage was destined for Mossy Oak's popular Hunting the Country television show. And with my video obligations wrapped up, I could devote the balance of my time to hunting a true book buck, one on one. Unfortunately, time was fast running out, and I began to wonder if Mr. Big was flesh and blood or some ranch hand's fiction.
Then a movement snagged my attention. A deer was crossing a sandy sendero 40 yards from my tree, angling slowly my way. As the whitetail entered a sunlit opening, I could see he was "only" an 8-pointer. I relaxed but immediately glimpsed a second buck. And one glance at those wide-flaring antlers was enough. It was him!
As the first deer finally moved under my tree, I concentrated on getting the perfect shot. But the big-racked buck was quartering toward me, browsing as he walked closer. And closer. Finally he turned broadside, just off to my right. When his head passed behind a screening limb, I slowly raised my compound bow to draw. Instantly his head jerked erect. Our eyes locked for a second before he spun, snorted, and bounded gracefully away. I found him in my sight window but dared not risk a running shot. So I simply gazed after him, disappointed but elated at the same time. Even though I'd blown the pointblank shooting opportunity, seeing such a magnificent buck was...
Then the flagging buck stopped at perhaps 35 yards, turned, and stared back my way. Possibly he was trying to figure out exactly what that strange brown-and-green blob was. Centering his chest between my 30 and 40-yard pins, I remember thinking this Texas buck was going to be
one of my best Christmas gifts. Ever!
Note: As a bonus, my son Dave James arrowed a whopper 8-point whitetail on this same Texas hunt. Taking a fine buck and sharing bowhunting adventures with family or friends make good times even better. Believe me, I know.
A Wednesday Whopper - Montana 1998
OUR PLACE ON A BLUFF overlooking the Flathead River was nearly 200 acres of deer hunting heaven. My favorite treestand was situated along a riverbottom fenceline. To my left was a clover field and to my right, beyond the dense brush and trees, the Flathead was an audible, moving presence. Fifteen yards away the top two strands of barbed wire had been freed from two wooden posts and weighted with a heavy limb. Most of the deer traveling to and from a favorite bedding area on my neighbor's property would rather step through the manmade opening than jump the fence elsewhere.
I recall it was a Wednesday, because each Wednesday my wife, Janet, volunteers at the regional hospital in Kalispell. I also remember it was mid-November, my favorite prerut time to carry the rattling antlers afield. But I'd left the cedar house late, about the same time Janet headed for town. The morning was cold and overcast with an icy breeze slicing off the river; stretches of crusted snow lay in the deeper shadows cast by cottonwood and spruce. Yet it was deer season, and I was in the woods.
I finished my first 90-second rattling sequence and hung the horns on a limb beside my bow. Mere seconds later I saw the top of a sapling whipping back and forth just beyond the logging trail that wound between my stand and the river. Seconds later I saw a doe moving my way along the fenceline; trailing her was a big-bodied, wide-racked 5x4 buck I'd not seen on my place before. But one look caused me to reach for my bow.
As the doe stepped through the fence opening below, the buck paused long enough to shred another luckless sapling. When he finally turned to follow the doe, I softly voice-grunted. Only once. He froze, turned, and walked stiff-legged toward my tree, ears laid back, neck hair erect.
I shot him through both lungs and saw him go down near the corner of the clover field maybe 35 yards away. His live weight nudged 300 pounds. It was all I could do to wrestle him across the rear of my ATV for the short drive to the skinning shed beside our blufftop stables. Before midmorning he was field-dressed, skinned, washed, and hanging. And when Janet finally returned home I was wearing a goofy grin. There may be better ways to spend a November morning, but I can't think of a single one.
Note: Rattling and calling whitetails are two of my favorite pastimes, especially during the period leading up to the peak of the rut. Calling-in and taking a fine buck on your own property makes a special event that much better.
Last Minute Trophy - Michigan 2002
THE TWO BUCKS feeding past my treestand suddenly lifted their heads, instantly alert. I hadn't moved, and the November breeze was still quartering into my camo-streaked face. But something had grabbed their attention. All I could do was pray it wasn't Tom heading back to the lodge after arrowing an 11th-hour buck of his own. Darkness was less than 2 hours away, and unless I could somehow get a shot at the tense 10-pointer standing 15 yards away, my hunt was going to end with only great memories and several hours of videotaped whitetail action.
Hunting buddy Tom Nelson and I were in north central Michigan, taping a television segment for Bowhunter Magazine's American Archer. We were headquartered at the Arrowhead Lodge hunting camp, home area to an unbelievable assortment of whitetails. Our host, Gary Bogner, current Safari Club president and only the fifth bowhunter to harvest all 29 North American big game species recognized by the Pope and Young Club, had taken time from his hectic schedule to join us and was hunting elsewhere on his property. Both Tom and I had had a great time but had taken no shots. Yet...
Turning my head slightly, I could see several does and fawns feeding just beyond a nearby two-track winding among the trees. The nearer buck, a small-antlered 3-pointer, stepped ahead, still eyeing the little herd. But the larger buck, a husky 10-pointer, dropped his head to nose the leaves.
Pushing the record button on my digital video camera, I eased my compound to full draw. And when the big buck took a half step forward, fully exposing his rib cage, I released. As the carbon shaft zipped through his thick chest, both deer instantly lunged away, sending the nearby does into a frantic tail-waving departure.
I was just reaching down to shut off the camera when a sudden crashing caused me to look up. My buck was circling back, heading for the cedar swamp off to my left. But piling up 35 yards away, he never made it. And by simply raising my camera, I captured the finale on tape. From the instant of arrow impact until the 240-pound 10-pointer was down took maybe 10 seconds, testimony to the effectiveness of a honed broadhead and double-lung hit.
It was nearly dark by the time I had re-enacted the shot for the camera, taped the easy recovery process, and recorded my heartfelt feelings at tagging such a good buck on the last evening of our hunt. I was sitting at roadside when Tom finally drove up wearing a big smile and with an 11th-hour buck of his own in the back of the vehicle. Honestly, we couldn't have scripted a more perfect ending to an unforgettable hunt we'd soon be sharing with a television audience of fellow whitetail enthusiasts.
Note: Videotaping hunting footage, alone or with a pro cameraman, makes bowhunting doubly difficult. But when everything falls into place, sharing these taped adventures with others always makes the effort worthwhile and the success all that much sweeter.