If you're foolish enough to talk smack around whitetails, you could be in for a serious beating.
Never before had I had so much success with rattling antlers.
Maybe, I mused while watching a confused buck walk away, there was something to the theory that real antlers are more effective than imitations. I never believed a deer could discern the difference, or even care, and I'm still skeptical. But after several days of watching Kansas bucks come running to the clashing of antlers, my resolve was weakening. I could have tested the theory by switching to a rattling bag, but even I'm not dumb enough to quit doing something that's working.
Despite the effectiveness of the antlers, it still didn't seem to be enough to bust a whitetail hunting jinx that hung over me like a cloud of radioactivity. I'd just left Missouri without a buck, or even a shot opportunity, so evidently the Geiger counter was still clicking.
The frustration started in 2007 when I had my best year ever, taking nine animals including my personal best black bear, mule deer, and pronghorn. I was feeling invincible.
Deep down, however, I knew it couldn't last, and in November, I hit the wall. Whitetail hunts in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska were all busts, and 2008 wasn't much better. I took a fair buck in North Dakota, but hunts in Minnesota and Missouri, where I battled rain and relatively warm weather, produced nothing.
My stretch of bad luck contained one constant -- cameraman Ross Farro. Ross is one of our best, but I was beginning to think he was bad luck. Then again, he was probably looking at me with the same discerning eye, wondering if I had a clue about whitetails. I wasn't so sure myself, but negativity never works. Once again, it was time to think positive.
Maybe Wes Atkinson of Atkinson Expeditions could help me get back on track by introducing me to a Kansas buck. When we pulled into the beautiful lakeside lodge, Utah bowhunter Shawn Monsen had already taken a tremendous 150-class whitetail by spot-and-stalk. Good sign! After stowing our gear and settling in, Ross and I were determined to bust our jinx. We had to get it done.
On the first morning, we occupied treestands between a grainfield and a thick, dry creekbottom, just the kind of place a big, rutting buck would cruise. When that didn't happen during the first hour of daylight, I pulled out my rattling antlers. It was a nice change for me. When flying to hunts, I carry a rattling bag because it's easier to pack.
Driving to this hunt, I brought real antlers.
After just a short burst of rattling, we were stunned to see a buck running toward us! That always gets the heart pumping, but alas, my luck was holding true. He was a 100-incher, not big enough to make me reach for my bow. After the confused buck wandered off, I continued to rattle, and that same buck came back twice more. He was really confused!
After a break for lunch and a short nap to combat travel weariness, we headed for a new stand for the evening hunt. A giant oak hanging over a small creek provided outstanding cover for Ross and me, an important factor since I'm 6' 5'' and 210 pounds, and Ross is 6' 3'' and on the high side of 300 pounds. We're two large doses of humanity to hide.
The creek had steep banks, and the field edge was within bow range of the treestand, the perfect bottleneck. A row of small cedars, rubbed raw by passing bucks, also gave us hope.
After clanging my antlers together, I was only mildly surprised when a buck, a gorgeous 5X5 with nicely formed antlers a bit larger than his young age would suggest, came running from the south. With great potential, he was exactly the kind of deer that should be left to walk, and we were content to watch him strut around in the sun looking for the fight. Okay, maybe content isn't the right word. I was wishing those antlers had another 40 inches of bone.
Over the first three days, we sat in six different treestands and one ground blind at the edge of a beanfield. I love having options that allow me to adjust for wind direction, time of day, and other variables. Making two-stand sets for hunter and cameraman is no easy task. Wes and our guide, Scott Engstrom, went far beyond the call of duty to keep us hunting fresh places.
Throughout those first few days we rattled-in bucks at every location. When I rattled from the ground blind, two small bucks ran into the beanfield in front of our blind. This was a lot of fun, but we couldn't get a mature buck to show up. I tried everything in my bag of tricks, but we were up against "lockdown," the period when dominant bucks have hot does squirreled away somewhere and won't move until the does submit. All we could do was keep hunting.
After the fourth morning's hunt, which produced no action, Wes and another client, Anthony Dixon, picked us up. While driving back to the lodge, we spotted a perfect example of lockdown. A good buck had a doe sequestered in a tiny patch of brush along a field edge. We watched through binoculars until both deer bedded in the tall grass.
Anthony, an avowed spot-and-stalk hunter from Utah, wanted a break from treestand hunting and took on the challenge.
It's always fun to watch a stalk unfold from a distance, and this one did not disappoint.
Anthony used a small draw as cover to slip within bow range of the two deer. When a smaller buck came by uninvited, the big buck stood, and Anthony made the shot. The show was great, and the result was a beautiful 4X4 in the 140 class.
Late that afternoon, Ross and I perched high in a giant tree along a powerline cut. A small creek trickled behind us, cardinals flitted around the trees below, and a warm setting sun made the nearly silent evening one for the memory banks.
Just before sundown I finally spotted movement along the edge of some red willows, but it disappeared into the brush before I could identify the deer. When it emerged from the other end of the willow patch I could see it was yet another average buck!
Frustration hung over the two of us like a dense fog. We all need some kind of a break or nugget of fortune during a hunt, but our jinx was just too strong, too deep.
As I was pondering retirement from whitetail hunting and, instead, chasing a little white ball
across a pasture, I heard the unmistakable sound of a deer moving through crisp leaves. It was heading toward the willows, and when I finally caught a glimpse through my binoculars I saw tall G-2 tines. That's all I needed to see. Wes and Scott had spotted this buck the previous day, so we knew he qualified as a jinx breaker.
I grabbed my grunt call and sent a series of tending grunts in the buck's direction. He was already close to the smaller buck, but I couldn't see what they were doing. At the sound of my call the larger buck turned and started weaving through some young poplars straight toward us. His antlers were narrow but tall, and his body was muscular and swelled with testosterone. I reached for my bow and prepared for the shot.
Instead of walking into a shooting lane, the buck was zeroed in on the location of the grunting he'd heard and was about to ricochet off our tree if he didn't turn one way or the other. Finally, he went left and passed by at eight yards, giving me a clear shot.
At the sound of my bow, the deer jumped into the creek and up the opposite bank. He slowed to a stop in the brush and stood within view for at least a minute. Then he walked to the north out of sight. That was bad. If the arrow had collapsed both lungs, the buck would have dropped within that first excruciating 60 seconds. Instead, I saw nothing.
Then I heard some crashing in the brush.
Was my buck dead? Was the jinx?
Ross and I waited for dark, climbed down as quietly as possible, and hiked out to the road to meet Scott and another client, Gene Wensel. The video showed a good hit, but I was concerned about the steep angle. We were high in the tree and the buck was close, a bad combination. Still, we decided to take up the trail in the darkness.
The blood trail was ample, and I was feeling better about the situation. Then Gene heard something take off running. That was bad. We found a bed with blood in it. That was worse. The word jinx crept into my skull. We followed sparse blood until late into the night. Finally, the specks disappeared in an open expanse of prairie grass. It was time to wait for daylight.
This is where I'm supposed to say I had a sleepless night, but that wasn't the case. I slept like a rock. To be honest, I was worn out. Jinx busting is hard work.
Shortly after daylight, Wes, Scott, and a couple more guides helped us take up the trail where we left off. Still nothing -- even in bright sunlight. It was time to anticipate. I looked ahead and, taking into account the buck's general direction of travel, I struck out across the prairie toward a line of trees in a small draw 600 yards distant, checking every patch of cover on the way. I found nothing.
Once at the edge of the trees I examined every entrance point, every trail, no matter how faint. Within 15 minutes I found a bed with blood in it.
Immediately I called the rest of the guys over, and we found six more beds within 75 yards. Then Wes yelled. He'd found my buck!
The deer was missing a hindquarter, courtesy of the local coyote population, but at least we had recovered him. The Rage broadhead had left a fist-sized hole right behind the shoulder, but my shot placement had been too low from such a height and range. Even with the huge chest wound, the buck had traveled nearly a mile! The more I hunt big game, the more I respect the toughness of whitetail bucks.
Tough is also a good word to describe the jinx that had haunted us for nearly two full whitetail seasons. Many things had gone wrong -- or failed to go right -- during those seasons. Even this tall-tined buck had made every effort to keep the jinx alive, but in the end we had prevailed.
Make no mistake, I'm not foolish enough to proclaim the jinx has been dealt a fatal blow.After all, only a fool talks smack around whitetails.