Come December

Come December

The Power of Perseverance Produces Positive Late-Season Results.

I first saw this buck in October but never got a shot at him, even during the rut. Come December, things changed. I used to doubt the value of late-season hunting. No more!

Photo by Mike Carney

AS I HALF HEARTEDLY glanced up to study the approaching deer working through the deep December snow, I assumed it was just another doe headed to the corn stubble. In the shadowy dusk light, I could see its silhouette from shoulder to ham, but when its head cleared the distant Osage tree, an electric feeling surged through my veins. It was Him, one of the bucks I'd been after since the start of the season. If he continued on his path, I might finally get a shot at him...

THE PRODUCTIVE DAYS of the rut had come and gone. The carnage of gun season had passed -- hunters had taken lots of big bucks all around my area near Peoria, Illinois. Now the weather was cold and snowy. What had started as such a promising season, with lots of sign and trophy buck sightings, was seemingly evaporating with each passing day in December. It was easy to feel dejected, even sorry for myself.

It seemed like just yesterday when, in early October, I had my sights set on two huge bucks near my property. Enthusiasm reigned supreme, and my confidence soared.

The first buck sighting occurred in early October as I sat on an evening stand in a sycamore tree near a fresh scrape. I always like hunting early scrapes because I believe mature bucks generally make the first scrapes of the season. Rain had just started falling, and I decided to hang my Hoyt recurve on a peg to pull up my hood. As the rain intensified, I began to question my intelligence but resolved to hold out until dark and use the vigil as a reconnaissance effort.

Looking back over my shoulder toward a distant house, I was jolted by the sight of a thick, high-racked buck some 50 yards distant. Staring downhill toward a cornfield, he stood completely motionless. His soaked coat appeared dark brown, and his rack stood out as if freshly polished in white paint. I fumbled meekly for my call and tried both doe bleats and buck grunts, but he wouldn't even give me a head turn. After 10 minutes of staring, he marched confidently downhill, out of sight. At least I knew who was making the scrape, a fact I reconfirmed a few days later on my Stealth Cam.

The next big buck sighting came a week later in a stand close to my home. Due to a change in wind direction, I could not hunt the sycamore stand. Besides, while on an evening hike with my daughter, I had found another series of fresh scrapes near a rub line coming up from a valley, and I needed a good excuse to hunt there. So when the wind turned and started blowing out of the north one morning, ideal for this new area, I grabbed a Summit climber and slipped up into a black oak tree on the edge of the scrape line.

A short hour into my sit, a stunning mainframe 12-point with split brow tines, a kicker off the right G2, and two extra points below the left brow tine walked dead-on toward my tree. I already had tension on the bowstring when, for whatever reason, the 17-point bruiser stopped, facing directly at me, and just froze, for an eternity, as if he just knew something bad was about to happen. He gave me plenty of time for a detailed study of his rack at 12 yards.

In whitetail hunting, perseverance pays, as my friend Ryan Olson proved emphatically once again when he arrowed this buck on a public hunting area -- in January.

Photo by Mike Carney

For five minutes I pled silently for him to move and fought back waves of quivering urges to make something happen. Then my heart sank as the buck cautiously turned and promptly walked back exactly the way he had come. Although shaken to the core, I was confident the buck never made me in the tree nor got my wind. In the coming weeks leading up to and entering the rut, we would meet again.

Unfortunately, neither of "my" bucks gave me a shot opportunity during the rut. I played the game the best I knew how; being assertive when I thought necessary but never over-hunting my areas. Still, the bucks evaded me.

NOW IT WAS EARLY December, and all the second-guessing was eating at me, raising the inevitable question -- have "my" deer made it through the gun seasons?

Unseasonably deep snow provided great intelligence on deer movements, and based on my observations I decided to bow-hunt the last evening of the muzzleloader season. It would give me an additional chance to read sign, and maybe the gun hunters would push deer into my area and even give me a shot opportunity. Thinking shots might be longer than normal with all the leaf cover gone, I grabbed my Hoyt compound and headed to the sycamore stand. The wind was perfect for that location.

I have always listened to seasoned whitetail hunters, and I respect their talk about the joy of bowhunting in December. Many say that bucks are easier to pattern then as the animals visit late-season food sources. As for me, I have always hunted areas with lots of pressure, and the only things I've observed there during late seasons are after-hours deer movement and hyper-alert bucks. Still, I was determined to tough out the season and remain as optimistic as possible.

This particular evening I watched a small parade of does and yearlings leaving the security of the big woods on their way to the picked corn and bean fields. As I observed this movement and contemplated the odds that either of the big October bucks might have lived through the gun seasons -- a few big bucks always survive, don't they? -- I looked up to see that lone deer with its head hidden by the stately Osage. Given the animal's visible dimensions, I was sure it was just another doe following all the others down to the corn and didn't even bother to take my bow off the peg.

When the deer's head cleared the tree, electricity and the warmth of adrenaline surged through my circulatory system. Cautiously I stood and, already quivering, lifted my bow off the peg and clipped the release aid onto the bowstring. The buck's rack, perfectly silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, looked even bigger than it had in early October. I resolved not to look at it further.

The buck walked forward and, cutting the trails of the does that had previously passed, urinated in an old bed and headed toward my stand. As he came by at seven yards, I reached full draw and waited for him to turn broadside. He looked gaunt now, his spine clearly visible

, in stark contrast to the powerful, stately physique he carried in early October.

Then he stopped, quartering to my left, and as he took one more step, the arrow was gone. The hit looked good, and his body language during the mad dash away in the deep snow indicated a fatal shot.

After waiting for 15 minutes, I climbed down to retrieve my arrow and follow what I was sure would be an easy trail. How-ever, I was shocked to find my arrow covered with a mix of frothy blood and intestinal matter. Following the trail for another 30 yards, I found more stomach matter and a little blood on top of the snow. How could I have blown such a slam-dunk shot? I decided to back out and give him the evening to expire.

After a very restless night, I enlisted the help of good friend and bowhunting neighbor John Hayes, and at first light we devised a plan to approach the last sign from opposite directions in case the buck was still alive. Two minutes into our approach, John called out that he had found the buck. I ran as fast as I could in the deep snow to my trophy.

The shot turned out to be right on, puncturing the near side lung and the liver, and then exiting through the stomach. The rack was exactly as I had pictured it in early October: A tall, thick mainframe 10-point with an extra point below the right brow tine.

Unfortunately, the buck had deep puncture wounds from fighting during the rut, and these seethed with pus from the brisket, neck, and shoulders. In addition, coyotes made a meal of the left ham. Still, I was deeply satisfied that I had persevered through the season and had stuck to the goal of harvesting one of the bucks of October.

IN WHITETAIL HUNTING, PERSEVERANCE always pays, and a close hunting friend of mine, Ryan Olson, further proved that point last season. In late October, Ryan had come close to killing a whopper whitetail on public land near Peoria, Illinois. Ryan has taken a good number of big whitetails in both Illinois and at his uncle's farm in Wisconsin, so when he said this was the largest wild buck he had ever seen while hunting, I knew he had encountered a true giant. We were working out at the gym, and as he dejectedly told me the story, I could empathize with his agony over blowing a close-range shot on a massive buck.

In the spring of 2007, my daughter, Lauren, and I found these sheds from the 17-point buck I saw in October 2006. Is it any wonder my spirits and enthusiasm for the 2007 season are higher than ever?

Photo by Mike Carney

It would have been easy for Ryan to throw in the towel, sleep in, and watch football through December and January. But he kept going out every weekend, packing his climbing stand onto public land with the rest of the late-season diehards.

The last Sunday of the season, on a cold January morning, Ryan got his chance at redemption by making a perfect 35-yard shot on beautiful 10-pointer with a gross antler measurement just a hair under 170. That's quite an accomplishment on public land, and it's a strong testament to the power of perseverance.

MY OWN SPIRITS and enthusiasm for 2007 are greater than ever now. This spring, as my daughter and I were out hunting for shed antlers and picking morel mushrooms, we were fortunate enough to find both antlers from the 17-pointer that had stopped short on me last October. Of course, I'm hoping for a second chance at that brute in October 2007, or during the rut, but if it doesn't happen, I won't despair. I've learned the power of perseverance. Come December, I'll be in my treestand, waiting with confidence.

Author's Note: On this hunt I used a Hoyt compound bow, Carbon Express arrows, and Rocky Mountain Ironhead broadheads. Ryan Olson used a Browning bow, PSE Carbon Force arrows, G5 broadheads, and a Summit climbing stand.

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