For a whitetail hunter, the most valuable hunting tool might be unbridled optimism.
"You fully expect to shoot that deer tomorrow, don't you?" my wife, Jamie, teased after I played her a voicemail from Mike, the owner of the woods where I hunt.
Mike had left me a message the morning before opening day of Nebraska's archery season, telling me that a logger clearing the parcel of land next to his had seen a buck with at least seven points on one side. The logger said it was the largest deer he'd ever seen. Mike's message was intended to pump me up. It worked.
And Jamie was right. I did fully expect to shoot that buck the next day -- wild expectations, indeed. It didn't matter that Mike's land covers 300 acres, a lot of land on which to find a specific buck. It didn't matter that opening day was predicted to be warm and windy. It didn't matter that I'd never shot a deer that big in my 15 years of bowhunting. I have the against-all-odds optimism common to most bowhunters. Winston Churchill put it well when he said, "For myself, I am an optimist -- it does not seem to be much use being anything else." Every time I walk into the field I expect great things, and opening day of 2007's bow season would certainly be no different. Mike's message had only put a specific deer in my sights and fueled my wild expectations.
It also gave me insomnia. With my wife's playful sarcasm ringing in my ears, I climbed into bed Friday for what would be a restless night. Finally I fell asleep about 1 a.m. and woke up at 5 a.m., before the alarm went off.
I then drove from my home in Central City, Nebraska, to Lincoln. Mike's property would have to wait. My best friend, Jeff, had just returned from serving in Iraq, and we would spend opening morning together. Jeff had been away from home for 21 months, so just walking into the field together made the hunt special. Jeff saw two does and a small buck, and I saw no deer. That didn't matter because I'd spent meaningful time with Jeff. And I still had an appointment with a big buck at Mike's place.
THAT AFTERNOON I DROVE back to Central City and met Mike at his house. Over a pot of coffee, we discussed strategy and decided Mike would sit in the Intersection Stand and I'd sit in a new location on the back of the property. We programmed our phones to vibrate, prayed together as we always do, and set out on our different paths.
Reaching my stand, a new Summit hang-on I'd secured onto an old hackberry tree, I slowly climbed up. Everything takes longer the first time out. Once harnessed in, I sat back and appreciated the perfection of this opening-day setup. The south wind was blowing only 10 miles per hour, my shooting lanes were clear, a tall cedar tree nearby gave me good cover, and the weather was cooler than predicted. It just felt like a good "deer day." My optimism level rose.
An hour before sundown, as long shadows stretched across the Platte River valley, a 21„2-year-old 8-point buck appeared as he crept along a dry riverbed near my stand. Soon he tucked himself into a thicket of marsh grass about 60 yards from my stand, clearly wanting to remain hidden until sunset. I buzzed Mike on the phone.
"First buck sighting of the year!" I whispered.
Thirty minutes before sundown, the same young buck reappeared and worked his way out of the riverbed and down my game trail. Briefly I thought about picking up my bow but decided to let this youngster grow another year or two. He sauntered by at about 18 yards.
Once he'd passed, I turned to scan the area for other deer and naturally gave special attention to the sandy riverbed where the 8-pointer had first appeared.
I about swallowed my tongue. There he was. Or, I should say, there something was. At first glance, I saw what looked like a large, spindly bush sitting on a brown blob. The buck was standing by the same clump of marsh grass inhabited by the younger buck. As my eyes focused, I could tell that at least one tine on each side was split. Buck fever set in, and I began to shake with anticipation.
The deer walked behind a row of saplings separating the river from the grassy knoll where my stand was located. He stayed behind the bushes for what seemed like an eternity -- probably about five minutes. Various scenarios rolled through my mind. The deer could pop into sight at several places, all of which would reveal him walking away from my stand. All I could do was wait to see which path he would take.
He chose my trail. Quickly I glanced around to check on the young 8-pointer to make sure he wouldn't bust me, and when I looked back, the big buck was standing at the entrance to my lane. That's a moment I will never forget: The buck stood tall on the crest of the hill, surveying the open lane with the dignity of a king. His pride and confidence unnerved me. My knees buckled, and I about fell off my stand.
The majestic deer followed the same path the smaller buck had traveled. He wasn't in a hurry and had no idea a hunter waited, bow in hand, behind the cedar tree to his right. While he was still behind the cedar, I drew my bow and anchored with my knuckle behind my ear.
At that moment, my buck fever vanished. I felt calm and lucid. I also felt well prepared; I'd shot at least 20 practice arrows each day the week prior. The bow felt like an extension of my arm. Everything about the moment seemed calm and smooth.
When he came into the open, I bleated softly with my voice and the deer froze, looking up in my general direction. I touched the trigger of my release aid and the arrow struck five inches below the deer's back line, clipping the spine and exiting low out the opposite side. He went down immediately, and I followed up with an arrow through the lungs.
Finally catching my breath, I examined the buck from my stand, and that's when I began to shake. He had seven points on one side, six on the other. I would later add up a gross score of almost 160 inches, and a net score of 155 nontypical -- my largest buck to date.
Popular Self-Help Author Ralph Charell once said, "Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations." Against my wife's realism, against the laws of probability, even against my own better judgment, I'd had the wild expectation that I would shoot that buck on opening day, and my unbridled optimism led to this incredible moment. As the tip of the Midwestern sun slid below the horizon, I stood in a knobby old hackberry and admired a massive deer lying on the ground 18 yards away. Yes, my expectations had been wild, but I had succeeded well beyond them.
The author is a full-time pastor. He resides in Central City, Nebraska, with his wife and three children.
Author's Notes: I was shooting a BowTech Guardian set at 62 pounds, Gold Tip XT Hunter shafts, and 100-grain NAP Spitfire XP broadheads. My stand of choice for this hunt was a Summit Deer Deck.