After a 45-year hiatus, can a bowhunter return to his roots, or is he just asking for disappointment?
The husky 10-pointer stepped soundlessly from a tangle of briars on the hardwood ridge. "Whoa!" I marveled. "Where did you come from?" There had been no rustle or flicker of gray in the autumn woods. The big deer simply materialized like one of those ghost bucks that haunt all deer hunters' dreams.
But I wasn't dreaming. On this particular early November morning I was, in fact, back "home" amid the forested hills of southern Indiana where I'd launched my bowhunting career in the early 1960s.
Reaching for my bow was out of the question, so I moved only admiring eyes as the alert buck crossed an old logging trail and paused maybe 30 yards beyond the gnarly oak containing my portable stand. Posing, he swiveled his rut-thickened neck as if to better display his handsome headgear. I drank in the buck's every move. My first glimpse had convinced me that if I could somehow manage a good shot, I'd take it. This was a classic no-brainer.
But when the buck finally turned and ambled toward a timbered bench, I fretted that he was walking out of my life forever. So I slowly reached for the deer call dangling across the front of my camo jacket. And just before he disappeared over the ridgeline 60-plus yards away, I gave a single loud grunt. The big deer instantly froze in midstep, jerking his head around to stare my way.
Don't you just love mature bucks? I sure do! Even after a lifetime spent chasing oversized antlers across much of North America, I still get the same adrenaline rush from close encounters with older pot-bellied, Roman-nosed bucks today as when I first left boot tracks in the Indiana deer woods decades ago. Actually, when the 2008 Hoosier bow season opened, my favorite treestand was hanging not many as-the-crow-flies miles from the same reclaimed strip mines and overgrown spoil banks where I arrowed my first Pope and Young Club record book buck in 1963.
It certainly was good to be home again. But, man, how Hoosier State deer hunting has changed!
The state's last native deer was shot in Knox County in 1893, and not until the mid-1930s did stocking programs reintroduce whitetails to a handful of southern counties.
Descendents of the 296 transplanted deer released between 1934 and 1942 soon multiplied and spread. By 1951, the Indiana deer herd was guesstimated at 5,000 animals and a residents-only, any-deer hunting season was held the first three days of November in 17 of the state's 92 counties.
Slug shotguns and archery tackle were the legal weapons du jour; a deer license cost $5.
When the gun smoke had cleared, hunters had checked in 1,590 whitetails, four of every 10 being antlered bucks. Not surprisingly, shotgunners accounted for most of those.
Archers reportedly tagged three deer. The overall success rate for 1951 tallied 13 percent.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, I had donned WWII Army surplus camo and picked up my Colt Huntsman recurve, along with a quiver full of cedar arrows tipped with Bear Razorheads. Deer numbers had increased to perhaps 25,000 statewide, but sightings were still few and far between. Hunting only weekends during the 1962 season, I saw exactly one deer -- a doe that I booted out of a briar jungle.
My deer sightings in 1963 weren't all that much better; however, on the final late-November day of the '63 bow season, I bumped a small "herd" containing several deer.
Trailing them into a brushy creekbottom, I blundered into a rut-goofy buck that wouldn't leave his lady friend. Unbelievably, he watched as I eased within 25 yards of where he'd cornered a doe in a patch of honeysuckle.
Even though I was shaking like an oak leaf on a windy day, I somehow managed to shoot that old buck through the chest when he finally paused broadside in a narrow shooting lane. A scarred, gray-faced survivor of at least a half-dozen hunting seasons, he carried only six points on his wide rack -- but, oh, what antler mass! Each base taped over 61„2 inches with burrs thicker than any of the 591 typical whitetails later listed in the first edition of the Pope and Young Club record book (1975). His inside spread was 193„8 inches, and the length of each main beam measured just a tad under 24 inches. Not a bad buck for a beginner!
As it turned out, that Warrick County whopper was the first six-pointer to qualify for the Pope and Young listings. His official score totaled 1183„8 inches (back in those days the minimum P&Y score was 115, not the 125 inches it is today). And even 45 years and dozens of bigger bucks later, I still consider that 1963 whitetail one of my finest trophies, a true once-in-a-lifetime buck. After all, there's only one first deer. Ever.
Speaking of firsts, when the initial issue of Indiana-based Bowhunter Magazine rolled off a printing press in 1971, the Hoosier State deer population had mushroomed to an estimated 70,000 animals, and the annual archery harvest topped 600. By 1983, when I tagged my largest-ever Indiana whitetail -- a tall-racked Allen County nine-pointer scoring just shy of 150 after 10-plus inches of deductions -- the Hoosier deer population totaled 125,000.
By the way, I shot that big nine-pointer on a 10-acre patch of multiflora rose shrubs, blackberry briars, white pines, and hardwood-lined ravines behind my rural home just southwest of Fort Wayne. And in 1991, two full decades after Bowhunter Magazine's debut, Indiana boasted a deer herd of 340,000-plus, 80,000 bowhunters, and a success rate topping 20 percent. Like most other states, Indiana was enjoying an amazing deer population explosion.
By the early 1990s, I was living in northwestern Montana, and my Hoosier hunts were only fond memories. While I made repeated deer hunting trips back to my native Illinois -- and also tagged whitetails from Michigan to Alabama, Wisconsin to Mississippi, South Dakota to Texas, and numerous states in between -- I didn't hunt Indiana again until after I finally retired from Bowhunter and my wife, Janet, and I had moved back to the Midwest to be closer to family.
In 2007 we bought a small farm in the rolling hills of Perry County, not all that far from where we'd begun married life in 1960. Scenic, secluded, and amply populated with wild turkeys and whitetails, our Indiana farm's rolling acreage contains a good blend of mature hardwoods, brush-clogged ravines, and overgrown fields
where I've since cleared trails and carved out food plots, establishing mineral licks near several reliable water sources.
I didn't hunt my property in 2007. A severe drought and subsequent outbreak of deadly Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) slammed the area's whitetails doubly hard. My trail cams captured haunting images of sickly, emaciated, and dying deer. A neighbor and I followed our noses to the carcasses of seven whitetails that had died on my farm. And the few times I sat in a stand to check on deer movements, the stench of death regularly followed me into and out of the woods. Turkey buzzards and coyotes grew fat on the EHD carnage.
However, the state's forecast for the 2008 archery season was optimistic. Latest available numbers revealed that the previous fall nearly 79,000 Hoosier bowhunters had tagged 27,444 whitetails and enjoyed a success rate of 34 percent. Since an unusually wet spring had washed away the drought threat, regional deer biologists predicted no repeat of high EHD mortality.
I was especially pleased to see lots of healthy, red-coated bucks, does, and fawns as I made daily rounds on the farm early in '08. Greening food plots glistened like emeralds in the summer sunshine. Indeed, all indicators were that 2008 held considerable promise.
I planned to take full advantage of every opportunity to collect a good buck on my own farmland.
Two benefits to retirement are having ample time to prepare for deer season and plenty of hours to spend in the woods. By opening day, October 1, I'd hung enough portable stands and trimmed sufficient shooting lanes to be prepared for any wind direction and deer travel pattern. It had been 45 long years since I'd tagged my first Hoosier whitetail, and I vowed to take a good shooter buck or nothing. Patience and selectivity would be the keys to achieving my goal. And I wasn't about to rush things. I figured if and when I eventually laid eyes on a proper anniversary buck, I'd know him when I saw him. And I did.
Really, buck activity was just picking up by the time that big 10-pointer showed himself.
Almost nightly leading up to that point, fresh rubs and scrapes sprouted like morel mushrooms, and I rarely sat in a morning or evening stand without glimpsing one or more bucks. Most were immature animals, but earlier that same week I'd watched two good bucks browsing near my stand and felt the nearest deer warranted a closer look.
So I began to bleat softly when he was 75 to 80 yards away. His companion soon fed on out of sight, but the buck in question began angling unhurriedly toward me. When he eventually emerged from a small patch of vines and briars, the buck stood only 25 yards away but was still screened by a thick-trunked oak. Unmoving, I waited as he walked directly toward me and finally stepped onto the well-used deer trail behind and below me. €¦eight, nine, ten, I finished counting points as I eased my bow to full draw and settled the top pin low on his ribs as he stood broadside, nine yards away.
He was a nice buck, but not really the anniversary deer I wanted. Like many other area bucks I'd seen, he had okay tine length but his antlers lacked the attention-grabbing spread and mass that most trophy whitetails carry. So I let down and watched him walk away.
Later in the week, when the larger 10-pointer abruptly materialized in the morning sunshine, I was glad I'd been extra choosy. And as I held the grunt tube and watched that buck trying to locate the deer he'd just heard, I liked the looks of him better with each passing moment.
C'mon, I pleaded. You know you heard something. Come check it out.
Finally, when he turned his head to gaze back down the ridge, I gave another loud grunt.
This time he didn't hesitate. He promptly swung around and began walking the ridgeline in the general direction of my tree.
Motionless, heart pounding as he closed the distance, I finally chanced to reach up and lift my bow off the hook when his head passed behind a big red oak 40 yards away. And by the time he was broadside at 30 yards and another oak briefly screened him, I reached full draw and was locked on him when he moved into the clear again.
Twenty-five yards, I judged. Twenty.
I voice-grunted softly. The buck froze in his tracks.
My arrow blurred away, its red and yellow fletching blooming against the big buck's gray side an instant before the hollow thump of a solid hit announced the end of my search for another unforgettable Indiana whitetail.
Who says you can't go home again?