When all your best-laid whitetail plans go awry, simply try toughing it out.
With only one day left to hunt, I called my wife, Arlys, to tell her I'd be coming home a day early. Such a call is very uncharacteristic of me, and I thought Arlys would see it as a pleasant surprise. So her response caught me way off guard.
"Bill," she said, "do you mean to tell me that you're quitting?"
"Quitting?" I shot back. "You can't call a guy who's hunted for 20 straight days a quitter!"
"Sorry Bill," she replied. "But if you're telling me you're leaving a day early when you haven't filled your tag, that's throwing in the towel. The bucks win, and you lose! The kids and I miss you, but everything's fine here, and I know you'll end up regretting it if you don't stick it out."
How many bowhunters have wives who would say something like that after three weeks apart -- and handling the family business on their own? A wife like that is hard to come by. Arlys knew that I'd kick myself later if I left Iowa without hunting that last day, and she knew exactly what to say to me to get me back on stand. Let's face it -- without her strong comments, I would not have much of a story to tell.
Several years ago, on my first whitetail bowhunt to Iowa, I met a DNR officer named Craig Cutts. Craig had stopped to check my hunting license, and we just hit it off. I'd been having a tough time on that first trip, and he was quick to provide guidance. His advice proved to be valuable, and before long I was admiring my first Hawkeye State buck. Since then, Craig and I have become great friends, and now we hunt together as often as possible.
After observing one of the largest whitetail bucks I've ever seen in the field, I got aggressive by employing this bedded doe decoy. Later that day, the giant buck came within 12 yards of the decoy -- and then broke my heart by heading straight away and never offering me a shot.
In July 2007, I called to let Craig know that I'd drawn an Iowa tag and that I'd be returning to his neck of the woods come November. Shortly thereafter, Craig posted scouting cameras and for the next three months tormented me with photos of trophy bucks. All the while, I worked my tail off back home in Colorado to ensure that I would be able to spend as much time hunting as possible.
By the time November arrived I was foaming at the mouth, and my hard work back home had paid off -- I would have three full weeks to hunt in Iowa.
"For the first two weeks I'll do my best to hold out for a monster," I told Craig. "If that doesn't pay off, I'll fill my tag with whatever buck I can."
Conditions were fantastic when I arrived, and the first week passed quickly. I'd spotted a couple of exceptional bucks, both on the far edge of a large turnip field where I'd been concentrating my efforts. That far side seemed to be the hotspot, but it presented a dilemma: Thick brush bordered that side, and there were no trees suitable for hanging a stand. After kicking some ideas around with Craig, I decided to try hunting from a Primos Double Bull ground blind. On many occasions I had hunted turkeys from blinds, but I'd never tried hunting whitetails from them. I had some lessons to learn.
The following day I carried a blind to the field and was dismayed to find that the brush had lots of thorns and was nearly impenetrable. Cutting a two-foot-wide swath some 15 yards into the brush, I took every precaution to avoid contaminating the area with human scent. At the end of the swath, I cleared an area just big enough to accommodate the blind.
I eagerly shot this doe to fill my freezer and do my part in deer management. Minutes after shooting the doe, I spotted the monster buck approaching my decoy. The image of that buck still haunts me -- and draws me back to try again!
With the blind in place, I stepped back out into the field to take a look at my new ambush point. It looked fantastic. The blind was nearly invisible unless I looked straight down the narrow shooting lane. I felt good about it and couldn't wait to ambush one of the big bucks that had been working this edge of the field.
The next morning I sat in my blind for the first time, and after a couple of hours I had my first whitetail encounter from a ground blind as a yearling buck came strolling into my shooting lane. In my experience, bucks of this age class usually are not terribly difficult to fool. So you can imagine my surprise when the buck immediately swung his head in my direction, stomped his foot, and exploded out of the field.
What the heck? I wondered. I didn't move a muscle, and the wind is perfect! He just seemed to know that something wasn't right, and once he got a glimpse of that blind, he certainly didn't like it.
That afternoon and the next morning I sat in my treestand on the other side of the field and watched in amazement as almost every deer that walked up the other side of the turnips looked right down that shooting lane at my blind and nearly came out of their skins. I couldn't believe how badly they reacted. After a while I'd seen enough and thought, To heck with that ground blind!
Over the next few days I hunted other positions and passed up shots at several quality bucks, still intent on holding out for just the right one. I also had a doe tag that was starting to burn a hole in my pocket. I love shooting does. It's great for both the deer herd and for my freezer. By then I was itching to put my Mathews to good use anyhow, so I began looking for a good chance to take a doe.
Eventually I returned to my treestand overlooking the turnip field. I was curious to see how the deer would be reacting to the blind after a week, and before long I had an answer. Several sets of does strolled right past the blind as if it weren't there. Later a young eight-point fed for several minutes directly in front of the blind, looking right at it several times without concern. Apparently, they had adjusted to its presence.
My friend Craig Cutts had placed
several scouting cameras in the field prior to my hunt, and one of his cameras captured this heavy-beamed eight-pointer -- the same buck I'm smiling over here.
Then it happened. A branch cracked behind my stand, and I turned to see a lone doe feeding broadside at 20 yards. Quietly I drew my bow and made a perfect shot. The deer dashed into the cover behind my stand, and even though I heard her crash, I waited 20 minutes. Then, just as I was getting ready to climb down, I glanced up to see one of the biggest whitetail bucks I've ever seen. He was posing perfectly in front of the shooting lane to my ground blind!
The adrenaline hit me like a train as I quickly grabbed my grunt call and pleaded with the behemoth to come my way. He didn't.
That night, after returning from the butcher shop, I excitedly told Craig about my doe and the giant buck in front of my blind.
"From now on, it's either that buck or nothing," I told Craig.
The monster never showed in the open field over the next few days, so I decided to get a little more aggressive by using a decoy. I figured if that big buck was out looking for love, he might come readily to a doe decoy.
My success proves that good things come to those who wait, as I shot this mid-140s Iowa eight-pointer during the last five minutes of a three-week-long bowhunt. I can thank my wife, Arlys, for this happy moment.
The following morning I set up a bedded doe decoy below my treestand. Following a brief wait, the monster appeared on the far side of the field and walked right in front of my vacant ground blind. Once again, I grabbed my call and belted out a loud grunt. That caught his attention, and immediately he locked onto the doe decoy.
Seconds later I was at full draw with an Iowa giant facing me at 12 yards. You're mine, I thought. All he had to do was take a step or two in either direction. Suddenly, the buck swapped ends and ran directly away from me, and I watched helplessly as he disappeared into the brush on the other side of the turnip field.
I'd now hunted 2½ weeks, spending nine to 10 hours on stand every day. I'd passed on bucks I'd never dream of letting walk anywhere else. Then, just when my patience finally seemed to be paying off, I'd come out empty-handed. At the last moment the colossal Hawkeye buck had sensed something wrong. All I'd needed was a moment's pause -- a split second!
The next few days I prayed for another shot that would never come. I was deflated and, suddenly, quite homesick. Thanksgiving was coming up that Thursday, and I had initially planned to leave the morning before in order to make it home for the holiday. Now I was thinking of leaving a bit earlier.
So, on Monday night, I made that call to Arlys, fully prepared to jump in the truck and drive home on Tuesday morning. But after the call, I fumed, Quitting? Who's quitting!
The following morning, Craig said, "Last day, Bill. What do you think?"
"No tag soup for me, Buddy! If it's a buck, it had better duck," I quipped.
As I headed out that morning, the weather could not have been worse. The forecast was calling for hot and muggy weather -- not what I wanted on the last day of a whitetail hunt.
After an uneventful morning, I chose to sit in my blind on the turnip field for my final afternoon. Nothing seemed to be moving, and I was beginning to accept my defeat. It had been a fantastic trip. I had encountered more deer than ever before, while enjoying a stress-free time with one of my best friends, doing what we love to do. A defeat it might have been, but a failure it was not.
Then, suddenly, as if Someone Above decided I deserved one last chance, a heavy-beamed, mature buck appeared and paused broadside at the end of my narrow shooting lane. It happened in an instant, just long enough for me to draw, aim, and trigger my release. I couldn't believe it!
Later that evening, Craig helped me retrieve my fantastic Iowa trophy, a beautiful eight-point that had appeared in several of Craig's game camera photos. I've never been prouder of a buck.
I do still dream of that Iowa giant, though, the buck that broke my heart as he dashed away across the turnip field. It's a memory that will undoubtedly draw me back to the Hawkeye State. And when I return, you can bet that Arlys' words will still be ringing in my head -- and I won't be leaving one minute early!
Bill Pellegrino is a seven-time world champion archer. He owns Bill Pellegrino's Archery Hut pro shop in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Author's Notes: For my Iowa buck, I used a Mathews Drenalin LD set at 65 lbs. draw weight; Carbon Express Maxima Hunter arrows; Trophy Ridge 3-blade Meat Seeker broadheads; and a Primos Double Bull Matrix ground blind.