November 04, 2010
The true outcome of a hunt has far more to do with mind than matter.
As I quietly readied my gear in the October morning darkness, the windy conditions concerned me. My best treestand, where I planned to spend the day, overlooks a small pond where the woods meet an agricultural field. It is particularly susceptible to swirling winds. Windy days are part of the game, of course, but so far, the fall in Michigan had been plagued with unsettled weather and record rainfall, resulting in winds that were either gale force or wrong for my best stands -- or both, as they were this morning.
The whole season had been frustrating for me. Certainly, the weather had been poor, but I also had blown an easy shot at a great buck early in the season -- my arrow deflected off a branch -- and that failed opportunity just seemed to symbolize the tough season. As the days wore on and the firearms season drew near, bow season's ticking clock was getting uncomfortably loud.
Bowhunting has been my outdoor passion since high school, and after 20-plus years I still get that great feeling of anticipation as the summer days cool and bow season creeps closer. Nonetheless, this patience-testing season had begun to erode my usual enthusiasm, and I was struggling to maintain a positive attitude.
Then, with the season winding down, I realized that the weather wasn't the problem, nor were the deer -- I was the problem. Instead of focusing on what was wrong, I needed to just hunt -- concentrate on the basics, control what I could, and let all else run its course while enjoying some quiet time in the woods.
With this new goal in mind, I neared my pond stand. The rut was heating up, and I had the entire day to hunt. I planned to sit on stand, relax, and worry about nothing. At least that was the plan, although I did not know that the coming hours would bring a mix of frustration and bowhunting nirvana.
Roughly 20 minutes before shooting light, I had climbed halfway up to my stand when loud rustling in the leaves startled me. It sounded like a bulldozer crashing through the brush. As I clung to the shagbark hickory like a cocklebur on Polarfleece, a deer passed within feet of me. Even in the dim light, I could see this was an enormous animal. His ghostly headgear looked ball-bat thick and symmetrical, but most impressive were the wide spread and long tines. This was a brute, the likes of which I had rarely seen.
The deer bulled his way to the pond, took a few loud sips of water, and continued raucously on his way. This guy was clearly on a mission. Admittedly, the ill-timing of his arrival started to pull me back into a negative mindset, but I gave myself a pep talk: The buck didn't spook, this was an exciting encounter, and he just might come back. I grasped at anything to stem the frustration welling up inside me, and it worked. At least it took the edge off my immediate disappointment.
Still a bit rattled, I settled into my stand as dawn oozed over the landscape. Shortly I heard crunching leaves and saw a doe with a small forky trailing her. The little buck was grunting like crazy, at times with every step. Neither deer came within range, but, I thought, Despite the wind, the rut has the deer moving.
With the rising sun, the wind roared through the treetops, and I added clothing to brace for the all-day sit. As my body warmed, my spirits warmed, too, and soon I was lost in thought, watching reflections of the swaying trees and floating leaves on the pond's surface, totally content.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the noisy, ground-gobbling approach of a nice 8-point roused me from my mental bliss. Quietly I stood and grabbed my bow. Without pausing, the wild-eyed buck continued straight to the pond. Just as he stopped broadside, less than 10 yards away, I reached full draw, and as the arrow struck, the buck raced off but stumbled and fell within 60 yards. I felt unusually calm and focused. Just to be safe, I wanted to give the buck some time, so I sat down and soaked in the sunlight.
Several minutes later, another decent buck appeared, dogging a doe headed to the pond.
As the buck circled and weaved, the doe steered clear of her amorous suitor. With another buck tag to fill, I drew twice but couldn't get the buck to stop. The doe trotted under my stand and headed off, the buck close behind.
I was still pondering this rush of activity when an average-sized, nontypical buck emerged from a tangle of vines. The farmer who owns the property told me he had seen a weird buck -- and here he was, 15 yards away. With strips of velvet hanging from his antlers, he was quite freakish looking. His right antler curved under his chin, and odd points sprouted from both main beams. The buck closed the distance to my stand and stopped broadside, but a three-inch sapling obscured his vitals. With my bow drawn and my sight pin locked onto his chest, I was moments from loosing the arrow, but a nagging thought made me pause. Not yet -- he'll step out any second.
After a short but agonizing wait, the buck finally took that last step, plus a dozen more without one hint of a pause. In a desperate attempt to stop him, I mouth-bleated, but all I could see was that velvet flapping wildly as he raced off.
My heart momentarily sank, but, incredibly, yet another deer was approaching from the direction of my downed buck. Slowly I turned to see a very respectable buck angling toward the pond. Then, he veered away, and when he spotted the expired deer, he stamped a front hoof several times, blew loudly, and then slinked away.
I managed to get in a handful of breaths before a doe and fawn, followed by a young buck with broken antlers, materialized from a nearby cornfield. All three raced to the pond, where the little buck threw his head back and trotted stiff-legged toward the doe.
Not so gracefully, I tried to keep pace with the action without tangling myself in my safety harness. The doe finally ended up directly beneath me, warily eyeing the buck, which now stood on the far side of the pond at 15 yards. When the buck looked briefly back into the woods, I drew my bow, certain the movement would send the doe into orbit, but she was so intent on the annoying buck she never flinched. The arrow sliced through the buck's chest, and he leaped forward a mere 10 yards and stared into the woods as if nothing had happened. Moments later, he swayed and went down, and I slumped in a heap, feeling a bit numb. Not 25 minutes had passed since the first buck had fallen.
Okay, the big one got away. Still, things had come together magically. The deer lying in front of me marked a great change in my luck, but the real turning point had come much earlier when I found my way back to a positive attitude. By focusing on the true reaso
n I hunt -- enjoyment in the woods -- I was prepared, relaxed, and mentally sharp when opportunity knocked. I performed as well as I ever have, and I was generously rewarded with two clean harvests and a very positive attitude.
The author is an English teacher from St. Johns, Michigan.