November 04, 2010
If all deer were made of Styrofoam, this writer would fill a lot more tags.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times and the worst of times." I was watching the flag of a rapidly disappearing whitetail doe as she bounced out of sight.
Twenty yards away, my Razorhead-tipped arrow was buried in the leaf mold of the October forest floor.
Earlier in the day at camp, I'd put three arrows into an empty pint milk carton at that same distance. How could I have missed an entire deer?
The sound of crunching leaves brought my reverie to a screeching halt. Twisting my neck like an owl, I could see another deer, a buck, making his way along the same trail the doe had used. Just before stepping into my shooting lane, he stopped and then circled behind the pine that supported my new climbing treestand.
Pulling my Ben Pearson recurve to full draw, I picked a spot midway down his left shoulder. But before I could release, a shrill voice somewhere deep within my psyche screamed, Too high! Too high! I dropped the point of the broadhead lower and shot -- right between his front legs.
That episode took place in 1970. Two big beautiful whitetails had come within 20 yards, and all I had to show for it were two dull broadheads. On the plus side, my new stand had worked to perfection. In the minus column, I'd made two serious errors: One, I'd failed to concentrate and had aimed at the whole deer. Two, I'd lost confidence in myself as a result of number one. In the span of 15 seconds, I'd committed the two most common sins in bow shooting -- lack of concentration and lack of confidence.
Some years ago, I read in a writer's magazine, "Write what you know best," and during the past 30 years I've tried to adhere to that concept while chronicling my adventures -- and misadventures -- in a dozen different magazines. Yet, not once in all that time have I written about what I truly know best -- my ability to miss the big shot. Here, I am rectifying that.
In fairness to me, I have made some very good shots on game. Unfortunately, I can never fully erase the bad experiences from my mind. They're like Lady Macbeth's trying to wash the imaginary blood from her hands: "Out, damned spot, out!" My own "damned spots" have been less gruesome but every bit as tenacious.
I've killed my share of Styrofoam deer.
One opening day of bear season, I was anxious to get to my strategically placed stand, but I decided to first check for tracks at a pond 200 yards down the mountain. As I stopped to inspect some diggings on the hillside 10 yards from the pond, a big bear stepped up on the opposite bank. Just 30 feet of water separated us.
Now, I had left home with the avowed purpose of slaying a bear with my trusty Howatt Hunter recurve. However, in my mind's-eye view of this event, I sat safely in a tree, not nose to muzzle with the bear. To further complicate things, the bear looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, "Well, well -- breakfast!" The arrow I flung in his general direction only hastened his departure. My own departure was somewhat delayed by a curious condition known as "jelly legs." This was one time a good miss was far preferable to a bad hit.
Failure to control my excitement at the sudden appearance of game has caused me some other memorable misses, one of which literally turned into a wild turkey chase.
From the 1930s to the late '50s, a wild turkey gobbler remained the most sought after trophy in Arkansas. During this period, turkeys were scarce and seasons were short. Garland County, where I lived, was one of the few parts of the state that even had a spring turkey season.
After reading an article in Field & Stream when I was 12 years old, I remained smitten with a severe case of gobbler fever. By 1955, I had already suffered through a couple of unsuccessful seasons toting my grandpa's old double-barrel Remington. This particular spring, the three-day bow season corresponded with Easter break. This gave me two days out of school to pursue the Bearded Ones.
About 8:30 a.m., I set out on foot with my Ben Pearson lemonwood longbow. Cresting a hill, I was surprised to see a large black object about 15 yards away. My experience with turkeys up to this time was limited to fleeting glimpses of fleeing birds at long distances.
It wasn't until this gobbler raised his head and turned, his 10-inch beard swinging in the morning air, that it dawned on me to draw my bow.
Driven with the strength of desperation, my drawing hand touched my anchor point and never slowed down. The resulting overdraw miraculously didn't break the bow, string, or my calloused fingers. Without a doubt, the arrow that flashed toward the gobbler had the flattest trajectory I ever achieved with that bow, and it maintained its speed even after it skipped off the bird's back and disappeared far into the woods. In a flash, the tom raced away down the open roadway.
Shocked by my performance, I threw my bow aside and ran after him! Exactly what I intended to do when I caught him, I have no clue. But the turkey had more motivation than I did, and after 75 yards, I clearly was losing ground. Thankfully, the big bird finally took wing and soared out into the valley below. I stopped and bent over, sucking air, and peeked around to see if anyone was watching. No one was.
As a youth, I was hunting the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, where the milo fields were attracting a lot of deer, some of them heavy-antlered bucks. Upon reaching my chosen tree at 2 p.m., I discovered that the chain for my treestand was missing. As an alternative, I found a stump surrounded by some tall briars that would serve as a ground blind. It sat a little farther from the field than I liked, but still I was optimistic.
Forty-five minutes later, I heard a distinct crackling sound and hesitantly stood to see the gray outline of a deer with its head down, crunching kernels of grain less than 30 yards away. Just then, the animal raised its head and exposed large, 8-point antlers. After he lowered his head again, I drew and released a fiberglass arrow. Low!
Apparently his crackling had masked the sound of the shaft striking near him, as he hadn't even raised his head. Doing a little mental recalibration, I drew and shot again. This arrow sailed over his back. The buck looked up and stared at the arrow sticki
ng in the ground.
With the distance now nicely bracketed, I drew and shot what looked like a perfect hit.
As the buck jumped and bounded back to the edge of the woods, I strained my eyes to see a telltale blood mark low behind the shoulder. There was none.
When he stopped and looked back, I pulled the last arrow from my bow quiver. This time, the shot looked good but produced only a loud thud when the broadhead buried in an oak sapling five yards short of the deer. The buck made two more bounds and then dropped down into super-stealth mode and slipped quietly past me at 15 yards.
So why do I miss? It's not a breakdown in the mechanics of bow shooting. At least not always. One week after the disaster just recited, I put an arrow through the ribs of a 6-point buck in this same field from 31 yards. I've been shooting for close to six decades now, and most days I hover somewhere near average on the form charts. I've killed my share of Styrofoam deer.
The difference comes about when the adrenaline rush kicks in -- "When they're wearing hair and breathing air," as one friend would put it. Sometimes, I pull it together, make a perfect shot, and bring home a trophy. Sometimes, I have only a great day outdoors and a good story to show for my efforts. Which reminds me about the time a coyote stole one of my arrows€¦
When the author isn't poking fun at his own misfortunes, he can be found living new ones near his home in Alexander, Arkansas.