Frequently, in the world of bowhunting, good things come to those who wait -- and wait, and wait€¦
On this particular evening, it seemed like God was turning down the dimmer switch from daylight to darkness -- in a hurry. I'm certain the dingy gray December skies and the dense evergreen forest I was hunting had something to do with the daylight fading faster than normal. But mostly, the cautious crunching of an unseen whitetail buck ghosting his way over the frozen landscape at a snail's pace was what really convinced me that darkness would arrive before he did. I had to be patient.
With just a few minutes of legal shooting light left, I saw movement, and finally the boxy shape of the buck's rack appeared against the snow-covered forest floor. My pulse quickened. This was the mature 4x6 with the broken right eyeguard I'd seen in many trail camera photos for nearly a month. In person, after more than 70 hours on stand, I'd caught a glimpse of him just once before.
Here was my chance -- or was it? The buck twitched, shuddered, and jumped like a kid at a scary movie. One of the local does had been "crying wolf" for the last half-hour, causing the other deer to scatter despite the lack of apparent danger.
With agonizingly slow progress, the buck warily walked into my shooting lane. As soon as his chest cleared the pine boughs, I drew my bow as slowly as possible. Despite my caution, in the cold stillness the buck must have heard the slight rustle of my heavy clothes. Instantly, he turned and walked back the direction from which he'd come. I continued to draw, but just as I got my sight pin on him, he stopped behind a snow-laden fir bough.
Still at full draw, I searched for a hole in the branches to shoot through. Leaning to my right, I found a tennis ball-sized gap in the branches that lined up with his chest. He was only 17 yards away, and I'd made shots like this before. All I had to do was sneak the arrow through the branches and my perseverance would pay off.
I chose to stick it out.
My hunting partner Ted Chapman knows the value of perseverance. This stand has produced several good bucks for us in recent years. The expansive conifer forests where we hunt have few natural food sources, so we establish feeding stations, a legal practice in Washington. Here, Ted Chapman pours out whole kernel corn laced with C'mere Deer powder.
Instead of hearing the distinct thwack of my broadhead zipping through the deer's chest, however, I heard the disappointing sound of my arrow ricocheting off branches, followed by the thud of the arrow smacking into the frozen ground. The buck danced away into the darkening forest, unscathed.
My excitement and adrenalin evaporated quicker than the buck had vanished. Now I felt nothing but numbness and disappointment.
Climbing down from my treestand with a heavy heart, I trudged back through the silent, snowy darkness to the truck. At this point, I had only two days left to hunt in Washington State's '07 late season. I'd already spent at least a few hours in the tree on 16 days. The shortest vigil had been three hours, the longest 11 hours. With temperatures plunging below 20 degrees, I had a big decision to make. Since I'd spooked that buck, should I cut my losses and throw in the towel? Or should I persevere and see this hunt through to the end?
On the second to last day of the season, I was up, on the road, and in my treestand before daylight. I was in the tree no more than a few minutes before the first deer showed up. The forest was still dark enough that my Cuddeback trail camera flashed as the "dorky forky" walked by.
I had seen this 6½-year-old 4x6 buck numerous times on my trail camera. To put him on the ground during the final 10 minutes of Washington's late archery season, I applied good old-fashioned, bullheaded perseverence.
That reminded me just how much my trail camera photos had bolstered my confidence. I had photos of at least a half-dozen Pope and Young-class bucks, albeit most of them at night. Regardless, just the thought of the bucks in my photos seemed to inject warmth into this bowhunter's soul.
From studying thousands of trail cam photos, I've learned that a mature buck can show up at any time, day or night, during the tail end of the rut. The last half-hour before dark seemed my best bet to see a shooter buck.
The area I hunt not far from my home in Spokane, Washington, is steep mountain terrain covered with conifer trees. The nearest agricultural fields are at least 10 miles away. In this environment, the deer can sleep, eat, and drink just about anywhere. Finding travel funnels between distinct bedding areas and obvious feeding grounds is nearly impossible. So, hunting over a manmade food source is the most consistent way to see deer, and it's perfectly legal.
With all my hours on stand, and having seen many deer each day, I had witnessed numerous times just how critical stand placement is in relation to wind direction and thermals. Therefore, I almost always place my stands north and east of my feeding stations because the prevailing wind in my locale blows from the southwest.
This gives me the best chance to keep my scent away from the food source, under most normal weather patterns. To make it even harder for deer to catch my scent, I place my stands 24 to 30 feet above the ground. Of course, this still doesn't guarantee the thermals won't betray me, but every little advantage helps.
At the very end of one 11-hour vigil, a dandy 5x7 buck guardedly approached my feeding station. From my Cuddeback photos I instantly recognized his tall, honey-colored antlers -- he was one of the two largest bucks in the area. Even though several other deer were quietly feeding, this mature buck was ever so cautious as he approached with slow, measured steps.
Although the wind was dead calm, the cold mountain thermals had caused my scent to pool around the base of my stand tree. And, since my location was slightly uphill from the food, the terrain and the downslope thermal drifted my scent right to the big buck. He stopped a scant eight yards from the base of my tree, raised his nose straight up, took one good whiff, and briskly walked back into the thicket. I never saw that buck again.
But my buddy Ted and I had both killed Pope and Young-class bucks from this same treestand the previous season, and from the high volume of deer sightings, it seemed our spot should work well again this season.
My trail camera confirmed the presence of several mature bucks. It also confirmed that they were feeding at night.
One blustery Sunday morning, during a bout of high winds and heavy snowfall, I sat in the same spot as before and watched deer after deer come in to feed. None of the does or small bucks picked up the slightest hint of my presence. About 9:30, three small bucks were feeding so intently that they even ignored the approach of the square-racked buck mentioned in the beginning of this story. As I readied for a shot, excitement welled up into my throat. This was the first time in two weeks I'd seen this buck in person.
The gusting wind seemed to make him very anxious, and I patiently waited for him to walk closer. When he was just a few feet short of my shooting lane, another gust of wind tumbled my scent right to the big fellow. Now even more on edge than before, he eased back the same way he'd come and disappeared into the thick brush.
I drew, put my pin on the base of his neck, and waited for him to take one more step. Another foot or two and I'd have a clear shot at his vitals. Just then a big wind gust swirled through the trees and sent the mature buck dashing away. As it turned out, that square-racked buck would not show himself again to the trail camera or to me for the next 11 days. Not until the missed shot described at the beginning of this story did I see that buck again.
In spite of those two wind/thermal blunders, I stuck with that stand location for three reasons. One, I didn't want to disturb my well-established feeding area. Two, we'd killed two good bucks from there the previous year. Three, even though two mature bucks had sensed my presence, most of the deer had no clue I was around.
Then, late in the season a near disaster forced me to move my stand -- the buckle strap securing my stand to the huge ponderosa pine snapped, sending my treestand and bow plummeting to the ground. Fortunately, as always, I was wearing a Summit Seat-O-The Pants full-body safety harness, which allowed me to fall only a few feet. Otherwise, I would have fallen to serious injury -- or death.
After gathering my wits I climbed down, and once safely on the ground I shot a couple of practice arrows to make sure my bow was still zeroed-in. Amazingly, it showed no ill effects from the fall.
Maybe it was time for a change. For several days I'd been eyeing another tree where cooling thermals would be less likely to carry my pooled scent to feeding deer. At this point, disturbing the area seemed like a necessary risk, so I spent the next five hours hanging another stand.
Then I let the area rest for a couple of days, only to discover from trail cam photos that a small buck had come in to feed just 20 minutes after I'd finished banging and clanging around. Further, just a few days after I'd relocated the stand, Ted killed a dandy 4x4 there that I'd passed up earlier in the season. It seemed the new stand location worked just fine!
Trail camera photos revealed that the square-racked buck and a couple of other nice bucks were still feeding every night. Now, all I had to do was get a mature buck to show up during daylight hours.
To that end, I dramatically cut back the amount of food, a mixture of whole kernel corn laced with C'Mere Deer powder, I was putting out. As I reduced the ration to only 10 pounds per night, bucks could not feed all night. They were forced either to abandon the food source or to compete with the does and small bucks during daylight hours. Since I hunted nearly every day, the bucks still got their "fix" and continued to visit my site, but they started coming in earlier so they wouldn't miss out. My plan was working.
With just one day left in the season, I decided it was all or nothing. I had a freezer full of elk meat from a hunt earlier that fall, so I didn't need to shoot a deer for meat. I was going to shoot a mature buck or eat my tag.
That last morning, I almost succumbed to temptation. I had drawn and aimed at several does and could've easily filled my tag and ended this long, cold deer season on a high note. But my Cuddeback had shown photos of the square-racked buck. He had come back to feed less than an hour after I'd climbed down the night before! I resolved to persevere to the very end.
In the waning moments of the final day, deer started filtering in for an evening snack. I waited and watched. After I'd spent more than 80 hours on stand during the season, and with less than 10 minutes left in the entire season, the square-racked buck sauntered up, scattering eight other deer like a spooked covey of quail.
Unfortunately, he came in facing me. There he was, 18 yards away, feeding calmly and offering no shot whatsoever. Mentally, I coached myself, Be patient. Wait for him to make a mistake. Don't force it. I was tingling all over and could barely control my emotions.
Once again, the dimmer switch between daylight and darkness seemed to be moving way too fast. Then, with only a few minutes of legal shooting light remaining, the mature buck turned. I drew my bow in one slow, smooth motion. The buck stopped, quartering away. Twenty-eight years of bowhunting had taught me the discipline not to rush. I kept aiming and aiming until the shot went off with a surprise.
This time I heard the unmistakable thwack and saw the buck's back legs kick out like a bucking bronco. After several minutes of shaking with excitement, I crawled down and gathered my gear.
Under the bluish-white glow of my LED headlamp, I followed an easy blood trail through the snow for a mere 48 paces before reaching my downed prize. Laying my hands on that buck, I felt a huge sense of relief. Finally, I did it! And then I was overcome with a sense of extreme satisfaction. Perseverance certainly paid gratifying dividends on this long, cold, late-season hunt.
The author is a regular Contributor from Spokane, Washington.