When hot weather and a full moon promise to sabotage the opener, who cares?
Temperatures in the 80's coupled with a full moon influenced a lot of bowhunters to stay home during opening week of Nebraska's 2008 archery season. This old familiar face, shot on September 17, makes me happy that I was not among them.
While a lot of bowhunters don't get too fired up about the initial week of bow season -- especially when bow season opens in mid-September -- don't count me among them.
Opening day finds me not only in the field, but also with a big grin on my face. After waiting many long months, I'm just excited to get back into the woods with bow in hand.
Perhaps more to the point, I believe that the first few days of the season can be an ideal time to lower the boom on a mature buck -- if you go about it right. That means careful scouting via long-distance glassing and trail cameras instead of frequent forays into the woods to check things up close. It also means suppressing the temptation to trim shooting lanes or hang new stands just prior to the opener. You want those early-season bucks fat and sassy -- and totally oblivious that the game is on.
For the 2008 season, I was cautiously optimistic. Late-winter CamTrakker photos had revealed two bucks that had survived through the 2007 season. Plus, I'd found sheds of two other pretty fair bucks. All of these would be worthy of one of my arrows -- if I were fortunate enough to meet up with one of the bucks in the field.
One of the shed antlers I'd found came from a buck that had become a familiar face to me. I had seen him off and on during the 2007 season and actually had had a golden opportunity to let the air out of him the morning of December 31, the last day of the Nebraska season. While dropping a nice buck on the last day of the season would have been icing on any cake, it was a tough call. In the end, I talked myself out of sending an arrow his way.
When I found his right-side shed a few months later -- as well as the same side from the season before that -- I was glad I'd let him walk. I definitely had been a little exuberant in penciling him in as a 125-inch P&Y deer, as the shed antler indicated he would have been in the 113-inch neighborhood during the 2007 season. The bitter cold on that final morning must have inflated my judgment! At the same time, I figured he'd be a definite keeper for the 2008 season -- if I could just get another look at him.
Even with this background, I felt a little unprepared. During the summer of 2008, I'd probably done the least amount of preseason scouting I'd done in more than two decades.
This 2007 CamTrakker photo clearly shows the buck a year prior to harvest. I found his right-side shed antlers from two consecutive seasons, which helped me document the deer's antler growth.
Gas prices were part of the equation, but more importantly, I had decided to maximize family time with my young daughters and more or less rely on past trends to guide my hunting. So, while I was a bit in the dark about immediate conditions, I did have those sheds and trail camera photos to bolster my confidence. And I had 17 seasons of experience on the same piece of Platte River ground to fall back on.
In addition, I had 15 stands discreetly placed on the property, about half of which I'd set carefully on or near the edges of cover to minimize my own impact while coming and going. My whole goal, especially for the season opener, was to foster the illusion -- at least in the minds of the local deer -- that nothing had changed and that all was well.
For a week in early September, temperatures were abnormally cool, and archers across the state were stoked. Unfortunately, that was just a mirage, and by the September 15 opener, the mercury had risen back into the 80's, and the calendar showed a full moon.
Many archers stayed home. I did not. The season was open, and I would be in the field.
All of this led up to September 17, two days into the season. On this particular evening, I opted for a two-person ladder stand near the edge of an agricultural field. I'd put this stand here specifically for hunting with my daughters, ages five and seven, who love the outdoors. In this location, they could get into and out of the stand easily and with little disturbance. To make things even easier for them, I'd used only two of the three ladder segments, so the platform sat no more than eight feet above the ground.
Because of the easy and quiet access, this seemed an ideal place for me to hunt that September evening. Plus, I would be able to recover any well-hit deer without disturbing things deeper in the woods. My hope was to shoot a doe.
With the oppressive heat, I was starting to question why I'd made the trip on this day.
Just after sunset, a pair of great horned owls landed nearby and commenced making quite a racket. I shot some great video footage of them and counted that as reward enough for the evening and was starting to gather my gear for a quiet exit when I saw a deer in the tall grass and heavy weeds bordering a nearby slough.
Already the deer was almost within range of my Pronghorn takedown longbow. Looking through my binoculars, I could see it was a 4x4 buck with exceptionally long tines, and he was heading toward a clear shooting lane.
When he walked behind a cedar, blocking his view, I leaned into the opening and began to increase tension on the string. He was now only 10 yards away, and because this stand sat so low to the ground, the high-racked buck appeared very close indeed.
As he carefully advanced toward a nearby cornfield, he paused on cue at a clipped cedar bough I had purposely placed on the opposite side of the trail to stop deer. At the release, my Woodsman-tipped arrow sliced through his vitals, and he charged back the way he'd come, quickly disappearing into the heavy cover. When I heard a loud crash and a bit of thrashing, I knew the 2008 season had just started with a bang.
The heart-shot buck lay at the end of a 65-yard blood trail. As I admired him under my headlamp, he suddenly looked a little bit familiar. Could it be?
That question would have to wait as I had a major task at hand, albeit under a glorious full moon. With the extreme temperatures, time was of the essence in preserving the venison, so I immediately set to work with the field photos
, field dressing, dragging, and loading. By the time I got him checked in (state law in Nebraska), caped out, and broken down into pieces to cool, I was looking at the kind of hours I kept during my perfume-chasing days of a half lifetime ago. But those sojourns were rarely eventful, paling in contrast to this evening's wonderful early-season encounter.
I was ready to hit the sack for a few hours before work, when I remembered to check out a hunch. Digging through the pile of antlers in my den, I found the two right-side sheds from the buck I'd let walk the last day of the 2007 season. Without question, this was the same deer.
While I'm not particularly score-conscious, I am captivated with antler development. So I quickly ran a tape over my latest buck's rack, and then did the same with his sheds. This particular Cornhusker buck had progressed from approximately 96 inches gross as a 2½-year-old to 113 inches the following year. Then he made a quantum leap to 139 inches as the fresh-out-of-velvet, prickly-beamed 4½-year-old stud I had just arrowed.
In the heady days that followed my success, I enjoyed the incredulous comments from acquaintances who shook their heads at my taking of such a buck on the third day of the season -- with the thermometer reading 83 degrees, and a full moon, no less. I've always figured the bucks have to be somewhere, and as long as I'm in the field, good things can happen. Besides, you never know when you might see an old familiar face.
The author and his family live in Fremont, Nebraska. He teaches at the local high school and writes a weekly outdoor column for the Fremont Tribune.
Author's Notes: My equipment included a 64-inch Pronghorn takedown longbow at 55 lbs. draw weight, Easton XX75 Classic shafts, and Wensel Woodsman broadheads My clothing was from Sitka Gear, and my binoculars were Zeiss Conquest 8x30s.