Growing up crazy in Pennsylvania, I was destined to become a whitetail fanatic.
Hunting with my Uncle Randy fulfilled a childhood dream. This PA buck, taken last November, is my biggest whitetail ever.
My family tree is rooted in the rich soil of southwestern Pennsylvania. And in the branches somewhere, about 20 feet up, you'll find a treestand.
I was in a stand like that one drizzly November morning before light, charged with anticipation, when I found myself pondering my growing obsession with bowhunting for whitetails. It all had started with a chance hunt with family but grew into an all-year pursuit. I smiled in the dark because the individuals responsible for my growing obsession made my obsession look like casual interest.
My uncles, Randy and Tim, my hunting idols from childhood, introduced me to archery. One year, at the age of five, I was lucky enough to be visiting them on the opening morning of archery season. Randy crept into the house just after sunrise, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, smiling through green face paint at my excited expression, and plucked me right out of bed. He carried me outside and set me on the tailgate of his pickup truck, next to a young whitetail buck he had arrowed that morning. He talked me through the whole scenario, and I listened with fascination while running my hands over the hide and antlers.
I was in awe of this guy who could creep within spitting distance of a deer and tag it with one shot from his bow. I think at that moment, deep in my brain, some mysterious wiring was connected, and I would forever be drawn to hunting that way. Over the next couple of years, I shot Randy's old aluminum arrows out of a sapling bow, and re-read Tim's letters about his hunts as if they were scripture. I was intent on following my uncles into the woods as soon as I was of legal age to hunt.
However, when I was still young, my family moved to Idaho. When it came to learning about bows and how to shoot them, I had to take care of myself, and I cut my teeth chasing mule deer and elk in the mountains instead of whitetails in the dense hardwoods. Through the years, I kept in touch with uncles Randy and Tim, but, as hindsight always proves, not enough.
My Uncle Tim was an accomplished bowhunter. He died before we could ever hunt together, but I still consider him one of my whitetail bowhunting mentors.
And my hindsight came into acute focus one day when my parents called to say that Tim had terminal cancer. I was devastated and sat for a long time, remembering rushed telephone conversations at Christmas when Tim, Randy, and I had talked about hunting together, the three of us -- someday.
At the funeral, Tim's best friend from college, Bob Gray, introduced himself. Tim had held Bob in the highest regard as a bowhunter, and it was obvious from Bob's first words that he was cut from the same cloth as my uncles. He encouraged me to renew my bonds with Pennsylvania and my family, so I called Randy one night a few months later and asked if I could tag along with him that fall.
My call apparently caught him off guard. Following a long pause, he said, "If you come back here, I'll take you hunting. Just be ready." He was warning me, of course, that my hunt would not be a casual, one-season visit back home.
When Randy picked me up at the airport, the weather was damp and gray. We went right to the house and unloaded. I had only a vintage bow but no scent-reducing clothing, no rubber boots, no treestand experience, and little understanding of whitetail behavior. After looking over my gear and asking me a few questions, Randy took a deep breath, as if to say, Let's get started, and motioned me into his workshop. He not only went to work on my equipment, he went to work on my mind -- imparting the wisdom only a diehard whitetail bow-hunter could gain in 40 years.
The next day, he strapped a climber stand to a tree for me and stood below as I ascended, all the time telling me exactly where the deer would appear and what it would do, walking me through the shot.
Bob Gray, my Uncle Tim's closest friend, took the place of my departed uncle for me. Bob is an avid taxidermist and, as this 140-class buck shows, a first-rate bowhunter.
Is he serious? I wondered. To my amazement, however, a deer seemed to have heard everything Randy said and walked right by my stand. When I managed to blow the shot, I don't know who was more heartbroken -- the teacher or the pupil. I ended that trip three days later with a last-minute connection on a wide-racked buck that had everyone, me included, believing in beginner's luck. But I was hooked.
After immersing myself in every whitetail publication available, I came back the next year, armed with better equipment and a deeper understanding of whitetail behavior. This time, Randy watched what I did, critiquing here and there.
"Higher!" he whispered, as I climbed the stand into the tree on my last day. As I turned to pull up my bow, he motioned me to the right, as if hanging a picture. I scooted the stand around slightly. Perfect, he gestured with thumbs up.
He pointed silently at the trail and at me, acting-out how the deer would approach, smiling before he turned to leave. He's nuts, I thought.
But, again, he was right. A few hours later, a huge buck came walking past without breaking stride, and I could not get a shot. The small buck that followed was not so lucky, and just as the year before, I had success on my last day of a four-day hunt. I'd overcome beginner's luck, and I was already plotting the next season, trying to imagine where that big buck might have gone. I couldn't get him off my mind.
The months of anticipation were torturous. I called Randy every couple of weeks to discuss the latest pictures from his trail cameras, the forage growth, and the whereabouts of big bucks. I even had the chance to visit Randy once during the spring, when he and I scouted our spots and cleared a few trees for stands.
Upon my arrival again in mid-November, the weather was gray and chilly, but Randy and I were both so charged up, we scarcely noticed. To make the hunt even more special, Bob Gray came down to hunt with me. He was an incarnation of Tim, and I felt as if I'd k
nown him for years. He'd been along on many adventures with both my uncles, and we talked long into the night.
"It's in your blood," he said to me before we turned in, and I was starting to believe it. I felt fortunate to be part of such a legacy.
Early the next morning, Randy glanced at my preparations without comment and thumped me on the shoulder, seeming to say, You know the rest. With that, he was gone. I then tramped over familiar ground to a stand location I knew well, climbed up, strapped in, and readied myself for the day.
That is where I began contemplating my upbringing, the stories of the night before, and my good fortune to have this opportunity. Then the sound of light rain pattering on the still-hanging leaves focused my attention back to the moment. It was a good day to be in the deer woods.
Even with my eyes plastered on the thick underbrush, the big buck and his lone doe seemed to materialize out of thin air. Instantly I picked out a shooting lane and slowly came to full draw.
As he stepped through the oak trees, I waited, concentrating on making a good shot, despite the pounding of my heart. When he stepped into the open lane, I took one deep, deliberate breath and started putting pressure on the release trigger.
The arrow entered right behind the shoulder. At the impact, he jumped, took a few quick steps, and stopped to look around. He then took a few more steps and collapsed into a shallow ravine.
My Uncle Randy has taken countless whitetails over the years; these are three of the bigger bucks he has taken in Pennsylvania. Through his obsession for bowhunting and an uncanny knowledge of deer behavior, he has helped fuel my obsession for whitetail hunting — and my success.
I knew he was big, but as I approached him on the ground, his size still surprised me. When Randy and Bob arrived, we all shared hugs and admired the beautiful antlers. I felt as if I'd rediscovered not only my extended family, but also the thrill of hunting with them, just as I'd dreamed as a kid. All seemed right in the world.
"You gotta come back again," Randy said with a serious tone. Bob nodded. I smiled. There was no choice now.
After muscling the deer out of the ravine and up toward the house, I turned to take a last look at the woods, and I'll swear I saw Uncle Tim standing inside the trees, waving.
I must be crazy, I thought. Then, again, I hear it's in the blood.
Author's Notes: For this hunt, I used a PSE bow at 60 pounds draw weight, Gold Tip Hunter XT arrows with Slick Trick broadheads, Whisker Biscuit rest, and Cabela's fleece clothing.
John Solomon also writes Bowhunter's Survival column that appears regularly in the magazine.