A little simple math can make you more than just another guy in a tree.
When iconic California rapper Tupac Shakur coined the phrase, "The west side is the best side," he was comparing the East Coast vs. West Coast rap game. And, while I probably can't lay down a wicked freestyle as Pac could, I do love the West.
That's not to say my Western homeland is better so much as to say I'm most comfortable in the Western mountains. I know what to expect there, and I prepare accordingly -- to hunt hard for days on end. Pushing harder than other hunters is my edge. Take away my edge and I feel very ordinary. That is what has always spooked me about whitetail hunting. Without my physical edge and high misery threshold, I've always thought, I'd be just another guy in a tree.
Thanks to an invitation from my friends Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo of Archer's Choice Media, I would get a chance to test my theory at Aaron Volkmar's Tales of the Hunt in Iowa. Other than feeling unsure about my whitetail bowhunting abilities, I was pumped. Who wouldn't be? I mean, Iowa whitetails! Never one to back down from a new challenge, I was ready.
We were scheduled to hunt November 6-11, prime time for big bucks to be chasing hot does. The weather was sure to be cold, so I packed all my best brave the elements gear.
And because I must have a mental edge, real or perceived, going into any hunt, I told myself my advantage, in lieu of shear physical output, would be time. In short, I vowed to sit from dark to dark if that's what it would take to kill a buck. While sitting in a tree for 12 hours a day, day after day, might not be as tough as, say, running 100 miles in the mountains, it is grueling in its own way. And I was determined to do it.
In my mind, it all came down to math: By sitting 12 hours a day during a six day hunt, I could add three days to my hunt. That is, most guys sit four hours in the morning, four in the evening, for a total of eight hours a day. If I were to sit 12 hours a day, the four additional hours a day for six days would equate to 24 hours of hunting time -- or three additional full days of hunting compared to the eight-hours-a-day guy. Essentially, my six day hunt just became a nine day hunt. That was my primary edge.
My secondary edge would be my shooting. As I have written in my column, "Bleed," I practice every single day of the year to be ready for my one chance in the field. If terrain and vegetation would allow, I would feel comfortable extending my shooting range from the treestand out to 50 yards in every direction. In my mind, covering a 100-yard swath in big buck country, for 12 hours a day, during peak rut, would give me the edge I needed.
Maybe I wouldn't be just another guy in a tree after all?
During the first days of the hunt, midday temperatures were pushing 80 degrees, the wind was blowing, and deer were not super active. Fortunately, Archer's Choice videographer Bill "Mr. Sweet November" Jackson, had bought into my dark-to-dark program, showing great patience through the heat wave.
As it was, the biggest buck we saw during the first three days, an eight-point in the 135-inch P&Y class, chased a doe 18 yards from our stands at 11 a.m. the first morning. And on the second evening and third morning of the hunt, I brought in seven different bucks on seven consecutive rattling sequences. However, because we were all holding out for bucks in the 140-plus category, none of these qualified as shooters. After three 12-hour days in the stand, I questioned my decision to pass up that big buck the first morning. But I couldn't go to Iowa and shoot a buck that size on the first day. I still had my edge and would give it my best effort.
On day four, the weather cooled a bit and things started picking up. We saw a 150-ish eight-point. Man, he looked huge to me, and I really wanted him as he chased a doe all over our hill. He came by the stand at 50 yards but never offered me a shot.
To help pass the time, I photographed little bucks with my phone and posted them real time on Facebook. And I texted buddies to get University of Oregon football updates.
Still, 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. hurts. It might not be 100 miles in the mountains, but it's still painful.
Finally, at 4:30, after 11 hours into our sit, we got a break when Bill whispered, "There's a doe with a good buck right behind her."
Swiveling Bill's direction, I looked through my binoculars and saw the doe -- and a big, white-antlered buck dogging her, 80 yards out. Crunch time!
Quietly I lifted my bow and readied for a shot. As the doe slowly fed closer, the rutty buck watched her every move. The wind was good. This was perfect. How could anything mess this up?
Just then I spotted movement to my right as a 10-point buck trotted toward the doe. He'd come from downwind. It seemed impossible that he would not have smelled us.
Apparently our daily scent-elimination spray-downs with Scent Killer were still working for us.
When the big buck saw him, he immediately ran the 10-point out to the edge of the timber. Now the shooter buck was out of bow range again. Dang!
The doe was still only 40 yards away, though, so I figured we were still in business. That dominant buck would come back for her. But it took forever. He stood and stared-down the 10 for a long time, and then he moved slowly toward the doe, posturing the entire time, tearing up a tree, bristling up a bit.
After about 15 minutes of this, he was back within 35 yards, but I had no shot because of brush. And being the pessimist I am at times, I kept thinking that the longer those deer stayed in the red zone, the greater the chance that something would go wrong. So I wanted to act as soon as possible.
When the doe fed by a tree I'd ranged at 27 yards, I planned to take the buck there as he followed. But his painfully slow travel had my nerves on the ragged edge. Finally he came within 30 yards, and when he stopped, quartering away, I found a basketball-sized opening through the tree limbs between the buck and me and decided now was the time. I felt confident that my daily shooting regimen would give me the needed edge to make this shot.
As the cool November wind knocked dead leaves to the ground and kept our scent at bay, I slowly drew my bow and
put my green 30-yard pin on the big buck's heart. Figuring he would drop at the shot, I intentionally held low. At the release, he dropped right into my arrow, and it hit him in the pocket, a seemingly perfect shot.
After we'd completed some follow-up video, I got down from the tree and found good blood. Problem was, it continued on for more than 300 yards into a riverbottom. At that point, I decided we needed to back out and give him some time.
After two hours of anxious waiting, we picked up the trail again and quickly recovered my trophy. A wave of relief washed over me. Whether you're hunting the East, West, or in between, some things never change.
My Iowa trophy won't put up a great Pope and Young score, but man, the character of his rack rocks. Given a new challenge -- one I had great reservations about -- I consider this buck one of my best all-time bowhunting memories.
I do believe those dark-to-dark marathons gave me the edge, and not just because of added time on stand. I'm quite sure the buck I killed, and his doe, were bedded near the travel path we would have taken to get back to the truck. Had we got down for lunch, we probably would have blown them out. Sitting all day gave us a double edge.
On the last morning, before heading to the Des Moines airport, I went out for a quick doe hunt to help manage Iowa's deer herd. Also, I could donate any meat harvested to the Iowa DNR's HUSH (Help Us Stop Hunger) program, which donates venison to the homeless and other people in need. Those are great causes, and when a doe fed into bow range, I was happy to play a role in their success.
My first Midwestern whitetail hunt turned out to be a great experience. That doesn't mean Tupac Shakur's line doesn't still ring true with me, because I'm still most comfortable in the mountains. However, I'm convinced that the edge I've learned there has value anywhere, and I'm pretty sure it made me more than just another guy in a tree, after all.
Author's Notes: To take my Iowa buck, I used a Hoyt Maxxis at 80 lbs. draw weight, Easton FMJ 400 shafts with Bohning Blazer Vanes, G5 Montec broadheads, Winner's Choice strings, Nikon binos and rangefinder, Scott release, Spot-Hogg sight, Under Armour clothing, Badlands pack, LaCrosse rubber boots, and Wildlife Research scent-control products.