When all the deer passing your stand become a blur, maybe it's time to resharpen your focus.
Perched high in a tree in my climbing stand on an early November morning, I was pondering the week's solemn events. My grandmother had died three days earlier, and I would be attending her funeral this afternoon.
The sun had finally overtaken the low-lying cloud cover, and raindrops that had settled on the colorful autumn foliage overnight were dropping steadily to the forest floor under the sun's first rays.
A button buck, a six-pointer, and a coyote had meandered past in the first hour-and-a-half after dawn. Distracted by my thoughts, and lulled by the cadence of water dripping off the leaves, I was briefly unaware of my surroundings.
Suddenly, a ruckus behind me brought me back to full focus. Slowly I turned to look and saw two bucks, 50 yards away, chasing a reluctant doe in circles on the wooded hillside.
The night's rain had dampened the leaf-strewn ridge, and I had failed to hear the deer until they were almost upon me. In the confusion, the doe managed to distance herself from her pursuers and trotted over the crest of the ridge, out of their sight. In their excitement, the two bucks had failed to notice her departure.
The dominant of the pair was a rather rotund buck I called Old Red. His coat resembled a red summer coat, yet he retained it year round, a distinguishing characteristic that set him apart from all the other deer in the area. Old Red was a seasoned fighter I'd seen bullying bucks late in 2007. He must have carried on the fighting tradition in 2008, as he now sported only one heavy antler. The other apparently had been broken off in a fight.
This rub indicates the presence of a very large buck on the property I was hunting. I'd gone there looking for him, but opted to take a buck for my grandmother instead.
His opponent in this matchup was a heavy-bodied eight-pointer. Both had thick, rut-swollen necks. Old Red circled the subordinate eight-pointer, grunting and snort-wheezing. Every hair on both bucks' bodies bristled as they faced off like boxers in a ring. With heads lowered, mouths agape, and chests heaving in unison, both exhaled large plumes of mist with each rapid breath. While their attention was focused on one another, I stood and prepared for a possible shot.
After a brief standoff, the vanquished eight-pointer began a cautious descent down the hill with nothing more than his pride bruised. Perhaps he concluded that the situation was about to escalate and wanted no part of it. Old Red followed close behind.
Raising the grunt call that hung around my neck, I emitted a deep, guttural grunt. The bucks froze in midstride, scanning their surroundings for the intruder. When I grunted a second time, the eight-pointer started across the hillside toward my stand. Old Red didn't move.
The hillside was littered with mossy limestone outcroppings, as well as multiple treetops from a logging operation two years before. It would be a miracle for him to weave his way through that maze to my position. Still, I figured if he stayed on course, he might pass through an opening about 30 yards below my stand.
Glimpses of his rack convinced me he was a buck I would not pass up. He would take a few steps, hesitate for a few moments to survey the area, and then repeat the sequence once again. Mentally I blocked his rack from my sight, focusing only on his vitals. When he finally hit that 30-yard mark, his vision obstructed by a large tree, I drew my bow and anchored€¦
That morning of Friday, November 7, 2008, was different from most Friday mornings for me. Instead of standing in the noisy, dust-laden limestone mill where I work, I was sitting in a quiet treestand on 40 acres owned by my father and younger brother at the edge of the city limits.
I'm attaching my favorite API climbing stand to the tree from which I shot the buck for my grandmother.
In almost 13 years, I hadn't missed a day's work, and I never take time off from work to hunt. While hunting only on weekends and weekday evenings, I've been very fortunate to take some really great bucks. I've killed a couple of 150-class bucks with shotgun slugs and a nice 128-inch P&Y buck, as well as quite a few other beautiful bucks.
The reason for my unusual absence from work that day was that my paternal grandmother had passed away three days earlier at the age of 91, and her funeral was scheduled for early that afternoon. She was a WWII Navy WAVES veteran, and I'm sure that she'd prepared quite a few meals of venison in her younger days to feed her husband and five sons. Although she'd spent the last few years in a nursing home and had lost many of her memories to the ravages of old age, her love for the Lord never diminished.
Waking up at 5:30 a.m. that Friday morning, I decided to drive the 11 miles to my family's property to make another attempt at a 150-class buck I'd seen one time earlier in the season. Family members had seen the buck again November 4, Election Day, and their sighting again sparked my desire to hunt this particular buck.
I'd already taken three does there with my new BowTech 82nd Airborne in the past month, providing my father and brother, and their wives, with plenty of quality meat for the winter. Now I was focused on getting a trophy buck. During the 2006 and 2007 seasons, I'd passed up 17 and 19 different bucks, respectively, and I'd already let three bucks walk during the 2008 early archery season.
Today I really wanted to take a buck in honor of my grandmother. Thirteen years earlier, I had taken my first whitetail deer on my very first hunt ever. At that time, I had not the slightest inkling of trophy hunting in my blood. I remember walking into the check-in station, chest puffed up, proudly proclaiming to the sales clerk that I had harvested a doe, even though I was 27 years old at the time.
Gradually during the procession of years, I'd undergone a metamorphosis, transforming myself from deer hunter into trophy hunter. Deer that I used to harvest enthusiastically were now relegated to the "maybe in a few years" category. The seemingly endless parade of deer past my stands was beginning to blur.
When Indiana passed a law in 2002 that restricted hunters to only one buck per year total, instead of one with bow and one with gun, I became even more selective. Bucks that I'd previously considered trophies with a bow I now considered off limits, as they just weren't quite large enough. I imposed upon myself a minimum antler score of 125 inches, and, suddenly, I was harvesting does each archery season and taking my bucks during firearms season.
But now, on November 7, 2008, I had a trophy eight-point buck in my bowsights, and after I'd held at full draw for what seemed an eternity, the eight-pointer took a few steps into the open.
As he stopped broadside with his head behind a large tree, I was surprised to see the Lumenok streaking on its way. The arrow struck the buck's spine with a resounding crack, and the buck collapsed immediately. Quickly I finished him with a second arrow.
Old Red watched from afar, probably secretly approving of his rival's downfall, and even as I was descending the tree, he just loitered around before casually walking away.
Approaching the fallen monarch, I was surprised by the "ground shrinkage" that occurred, and I will ashamedly admit to feeling more than a twinge of resentment as I realized my serious error in judgment. He was somewhat smaller than my self-imposed standard.
Worst of all, over the years people had come to expect me to drag big-antlered deer out of the woods, and this one was definitely one of my smaller offerings -- comparable to my first few bucks from over a decade earlier. I was almost embarrassed to seek my brother's help in hauling him out of the woods, fearing he would question why I'd shot this buck instead of holding out for the 150-class buck we both knew inhabited these parts.
Unusual circumstances put me in the woods at the right moment to take this beautiful eight-pointer. Later events made me realize I did not need a measuring tape to measure the value of this buck.
After taking a few photos, field-dressing the buck, driving to the check station, and delivering the deer to the processor's shop, I hurried home to shower, and then I arrived at my grandmother's funeral with a little over a half-hour to spare. Around the room were numerous photos, several of her in her military uniform. After a beautiful memorial service, she was taken to her final resting place in a country cemetery beside the church she had attended most of her life.
Two days after laying my grandmother to rest, my wife and I were attending the Sunday morning service at our church. Since it was two days before Veteran's Day, the pastor dedicated the service to the brave men and women who have served our great nation. All branches of military service were represented, and as we sang "The Star Spangled Banner," I felt something stirring within me -- something like the miraculous enlightenment of Dr. Seuss' Grinch.
From our meager births, our days are finite, and they will come to an abrupt end -- sometimes sooner than later. In three months' time, I'd lost both of my grandmothers, as well as a cousin who was only three weeks my senior. We often take our health and blessings for granted, as though we are somehow entitled to them.
If it weren't for my grandmother's passing, I wouldn't even have been in the woods that morning. Indirectly, she'd played an important part in that successful hunt. Even more important, if it weren't for the sacrifices that she and all the other servicemen and servicewomen have made, we probably wouldn't even have the freedom to pursue deer and other game.
Ironically, while wanting to take a buck that November 7 in honor of my grandmother, I'd felt ashamed at the size of buck I'd taken for her. In the stirring moments of that church service, I realized that in hunting I was attempting to live up to the expectations of others, and it was robbing me of many of life's great joys.
I'd desensitized myself to the fact that the deer I harvest were at one time living, breathing creatures, and that I should be honored just to harvest one. I had quit giving them the respect they so richly deserve. I'd stopped sitting back to soak in the moment after the kill. All the deer had just become a blur.
In this era, some TV shows, DVDs, and magazines fallaciously lead hunters to believe that a deer means nothing if it doesn't qualify for some record book. I now realized that only one book really counts, and that's The Book Of Life. All others will pale in comparison one day.
Yes, deer hunting involves more than huge antlers. It's really about enjoying God's creation and cherishing every day to the fullest. I thank God for giving me the great outdoors to enjoy. I thank people like my grandmother who have preserved my privilege of enjoying it. And from now on, when I go deer hunting, I'm leaving the measuring tape at home.
The author lives in rural Springville, Indiana, along with his wife, Kelley. When not working in the limestone industry, he'll be pursuing deer -- and enjoying every moment.
Author's Notes: Field-dressed, my buck tipped the butcher's scale at 170 pounds even. I hunted with a BowTech 82nd Airborne set at 53 lbs., Victory Archery V-Force HV V1 arrows tipped with Rage 2-blade heads and fletched with Bohning Blazer vanes, Burt Coyote Lumenoks, Octane quiver, HHA Sports OL-5000 sight, Vapor Trail Limb Driver rest, Vibracheck stabilizer, T.R.U. Ball release, Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC laser rangefinder, Primos calls, and an API Grand Slam Lite climbing treestand. I wore clothing from Cabela's and Scent-Lok in Mossy Oak Break-Up camo.