Hunting stories usually convey good news. Even when the big one gets away, wilderness scenery, wildlife encounters, and time afield with friends and family offer plenty of compensation. But I have to acknowledge that my 2006 bow season didn't all work out that way.
I spent the first half of September in Alaska, working on writing assignments involving shotguns and fly rods rather than bows and arrows. No regrets. But by the time I returned to Montana, I was ready for some face time with the local pronghorns and elk. An unseasonable deluge made antelope country inaccessible, and then I lost access to my favorite elk cover. Toward the end of archery season, I developed a nasty infection that required a week of IV antibiotics. By that time, there was nothing left to hunt but deer.
Fortunately, I'd drawn an Iowa tag, so I could look forward to tackling not one, but two whitetail bucks during the November rut. Dick LeBlond, my oldest friend, is now a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, and he and I planned to spend early November with mutual friend Mike Bentler and his family in the southeastern corner of the state.
Mike and I go back a long way; he'd hunted bears with me in Alaska and cougars in Montana, and he and his wife, Sandy, had joined us on safari in Namibia several years earlier. I'd hunted with him at his place once before, and in my dreams I could still hear the sounds of big corn-fed bucks approaching through the fallen oak leaves. Only Iowa's nonresident drawing process kept me from visiting yearly.
I was scheduled to leave for Iowa November 3. Mid-October, Mike called to confirm that he'd seen some great bucks on his property. The thought of visiting Mike, Sandy, and their three delightful teenage daughters Sheena, Shelby, and Shayne was more than enough to rally my spirits.
On the morning of October 15, I arrived home after a morning bird hunt to find my wife, Lori, with a worried look on her face. "Dick left a message on the answering machine," she explained. "He wants you to call. He says it's urgent."
Dick doesn't leave such messages casually, and I felt a sense of foreboding as I dialed his number. He answered on the first ring.
"Sit down," he said, and I did. "Mike Bentler and his family were murdered last night," he announced in a shaken voice.
No one knew much at the time, but details of the tragedy emerged over the national news the next day. Although his guilt has yet to be proven, Mike and Sandra's eldest son has been charged with the crime. According to allegations, he walked into the house early in the morning and shot his mother, father, and three sisters in cold blood.
Mike had a number of friends here in central Montana. During the following week, Rosey and Lisa Roseland, Don Davidson, and I all tried to make sense of this incomprehensible act. We couldn't. At the time of this writing, I can't pretend to understand what happened, and I doubt I ever will. Needless to say, all thoughts of Iowa whitetails evaporated. I cancelled my airline ticket and left that anxiously awaited Iowa tag to gather dust in my desk drawer.
All tragedies eventually demand some kind of closure. Rosey and Lisa eventually joined Lori and me for dinner, and we spent most of the evening reminiscing about the friends we'd lost. Rosey was the one who finally said what needed to be said: "Mike wouldn't want us moping. He'd want us to go hunting."
Fair enough. But I would dedicate the month of November to the Bentlers' memory.
WHITETAIL DEER ARE endlessly fascinating, perhaps more so than any other species we hunt. While scientists and biologists have analyzed whitetail mating behavior to great depths, I've noticed that the whitetail rut always varies in subtle ways from season to season. This year was no different. One early November morning, I took a walk through the coulees around our house and discovered that scrapes had appeared everywhere overnight like mushrooms on a wet lawn. But that burst marked both the beginning and end of the scrape activity last season. Almost none of those scrapes were freshened, and I saw only a few new ones. Go figure.
Then a run of unseasonably warm weather seemed to disrupt the usual whitetail feeding patterns and travel routes. Most of the buck movement was still taking place at night -- long after the imperatives of the rut should have had them traveling during shooting light -- and I was seeing remarkably few does on trails I've studied for years. But I'd seen at least three decent bucks among the usual collection of stunted 4x4's and youngsters, and with ample time off during the best two weeks of the season, I knew it was only a matter of time.
By the middle of the month I'd filled three doe tags. My family lives on wild game, and with no elk in the freezer, I couldn't focus on horns to the exclusion of making venison. I'd also let a number of bucks walk. Every time I rattled an "almost" 4x4 into bow range, I found myself asking, "What would Mike do?" As tempting as some of those shot opportunities looked as the season entered its final week, I knew the answer and acted accordingly.
Finally, the temperature dropped. On the first chilly evening of the season, I walked back to the house after dark and found Lori looking like an excited child as she shucked her safety harness and wool coat. Instinct told me that her shaking had nothing to do with the weather. As I kicked off my boots -- coincidentally, a pair that Mike had given me the last time I'd hunted in Iowa -- I asked to hear the story.
"I was sitting in the Hot Tub stand," she explained. (The name derives from the stand's proximity to our yard, but it's still a great place to kill deer.) "About 4 o'clock, I saw deer enter the lower pasture from the north. I'd forgotten my binoculars, but I could tell by its body language that one of them was a rutting buck.
"Nothing was headed in my direction, so I rattled. By this time, I'd lost sight of the buck behind the hill. Next thing I knew, a gagger was heading for me on a beeline. He wound up broadside 12 yards away!"
"And..." I prompted.
"And I was shaking so hard with excitement that I shot right over the top of his back! I haven't had buck fever like that for so long I'd forgotten what it feels like."
I had to commend her attitude. With a clean arrow confirming her miss, we had no anguish over a wounded deer, and Lori was taking events like a trooper. But I had to debrief her about the deer.
"Big!" was her first response to my request for a description.
"Come on, honey," I replied. "You can do better than that."
"He was just a 4x4," she continued, closing her eyes like a witness trying to recall the details of an accident. "And he wasn't very tall. But he was heavy and wide."
"Wider than that?" I asked, pointing to one of the better racks on the wall.
"Much wider," she replied, placing her hands three inches beyond each of the mounted buck's main beams. Lori is a keen observer, and I knew I'd never seen this deer before. Suddenly, we had a mission.
IN MONTANA, WE SHARE the whitetail rut with rifle hunters, and I have to admit that I winced a bit harder than usual every time I heard a gunshot on the neighboring property. Selfish? Perhaps. But I would have been delighted if someone else in our bowhunting circle killed that buck, especially Lori. And she made it plain that if I killed "her" deer, she'd be delighted, too.
By the last day of the season, I had yet to spot the buck she'd described. I wondered if he'd fallen to a bullet, or if Lori's description had been fueled by excitement rather than objectivity. But I trusted her enough to take her story at face value, and when a small buck walked by me that final afternoon, I felt content to let him go and eat my buck tag. With a big buck somewhere in the woods, that's what Mike would have done.
That's the story of the Bentler Buck, as I decided to name him. Deer stories are supposed to end with the description of a successful blood trail and a hero picture, but it seemed appropriate to forgo all that last year. Somehow, not shooting a buck last season helped me balance the ledger, and I have no regrets.
And I finally saw him tonight, five days after the season's close. I was driving back up the hill after an evening duck hunt when I saw a deer in the upper pasture silhouetted against the sunset. There he stood, just as Lori had described: four points on a side, heavy and wide. Real wide.
Knowing he's still out there makes all the rest a bit easier, just as Mike would have wanted.