Overcoming The Odds: Late-Season Public Land Trophy Buck
January 28, 2011
Despite having reconstructive shoulder surgery months prior, and hunting two days after the Illinois' gun season during a blinding blizzard, this bowhunter punched a tag on a mature buck relying on his instincts and heart to get the job done.
AFTER CLIMBING INTO and out of trees for over 45 years without incident, the whole event seemed unreal as I slipped and fell on a patch of ice while shoveling snow off my driveway. How could a mere slip on the ground do any serious damage? Well, for a young man it might not, but at age 57, I no longer fell into that young category. As I went down face first, turning my right shoulder into the fall, the sound of the muscles and tendons ripping off my shoulder reminded me of the night Joe Theisman's leg snapped under the weight of a Lawrence Taylor tackle.
My shoulder had already got to the point that rotator cuff surgery was inevitable, but now it needed far more invasive surgery. After repairing the rotator cuff with arthroscopic surgery, the doctor opened up the shoulder and inserted four screws to hold the muscles and tendons in place.
Physical therapy went extremely well, but I obviously was not going to pull my 60-pound Mathews Conquest before the Michigan deer opener on October 1. So I contacted Ron Cormier at Mathews and begged him to build me a 30 to 40-pound Conquest with a 60-percent letoff cam suitable for fingers shooting.
Taking pity on me, Ron came through, and my next step was to match the bow with arrows and broadheads that would perform adequately to kill a mature whitetail. To start, I cut and fletched some arrows with a lighter spine with three-inch feathers, and I switched from mechanical broadheads to fixed-blade heads. The new arrows flew like darts out of my new Conquest, and with tremendous accuracy. By the season opener I had worked up to a whopping 35 pounds of draw weight, and my arrows chronographed at over 220 fps, more than enough for a properly placed shot on a whitetail.
Some states receive so much hunting pressure that you'll see very few mature deer unless you hunt on private leases or managed private lands -- which I do not. Living and hunting in Michigan, a state that statistically has the highest hunter densities per square mile, the most licensed bowhunters, and one of the worst licensed-bowhunter-to-Pope-&-Young-entry ratios in the country, I must hunt hard and smart to see mature bucks. Since I frequently write about bowhunting pressured whitetails and don't want to be a hypocrite, I suck it up and hunt heavily pressured deer in Michigan until gun season opens. Then I plan a trip to a state with less hunting pressure where mature bucks come a bit easier due to their sheer numbers and willingness to move during daylight.
Deer had been pawing up bean pods under a honey locust. It looked like a good spot for a stand to me -- and it was, indeed!
After a month and a half of bowhunting in Michigan, I had not seen a buck that would top the 100-inch mark. Needing some venison for the freezer and dying to get one of my arrows dirty, I took a doe in early December. At a mere 15 yards, the arrow passed through both lungs and stuck in the snow beyond her. She ran 30 yards before tipping over within sight. While this was not the test I'd hoped for, my lightweight equipment performed impressively.
HAVING BOUGHT AN ILLINOIS TAG for a December hunt, I called Panther Creek State Park to see if there was any snow on the ground. The previous December, I had taken a nine-point buck there after a heavy snowfall and was hoping to repeat that success. Patterning deer after a fresh snowfall is relatively simple. On December 14, the last day of the Illinois gun season, the extended forecast called for snow, wind, and bitter-cold temperatures.
Hoping that weather would help our cause, my hunting buddy Russ Clark and I took off that night and arrived at 10 a.m. the following morning, and we scouted the rest of that day. To me, scouting is when the chess game is played; the kill is simply the checkmate.
Falling snow had covered the buck before I could climb down from my stand.
We had a huge advantage over the other hunters because we were setting up locations to use our Trophyline Ambush Saddles. With a 2½-pound Saddle and 15 to 20 strap-on steps in my pack, I could prepare several trees with the convenience of not having to carry heavy treestands; and on each setup I'd be able to step around the tree and shoot 360 degrees, leaving no areas for a buck to pass by without a shot opportunity.
Russ and I prepared four locations we felt were adequate -- two in bedding areas that would require entry two hours prior to daylight, one near a honey locust tree where deer had been scraping up and eating the long black bean pods, and a fourth where two well-used runways converged. However, we were not completely comfortable with these locations, so we opted not to hunt the next morning but instead continued scouting and prepped two more locations. Then we cleaned up for the evening's hunt.
Being from northern Michigan, I've hunted in some pretty cold and nasty weather, but this was the most miserable ever. The real temperature was seven degrees, and with a 30-plus-mph wind blowing, the chill factor was nearly intolerable. The snow was not falling, but whipping by sideways. Thank God I was dressed properly and had strategically stuck several chemical warmers onto various parts of my body. Without the body warmers, I could not have stayed on stand until dark.
Perched 28 feet up a maple tree, I was 20 yards from the bean-laden locust tree we'd found that morning. The wind was so strong I rarely pulled my face away from the protection of the tree trunk to look for incoming deer, and at one point I almost got down, figuring there was no way deer would be moving in these conditions.
Other than for my face getting wind burned, the evening was uneventful until just before dark. Then, even in the stiff wind, I heard a twig snap. Turning my face into the wind, I looked down to see three bucks -- a three, a six, and an eight-pointer -- passing below me. I watched as the trio disappeared in the falling snow. Not one of them stopped to feed on the locust beans.
Minutes later, a respectable 10-pointer appeared beneath the locust tree. He didn't eat any beans either, but he did sniff
around as if searching for a receptive doe. I considered taking the shot to get this misery over with but let him pass.
Through the heavy snowfall, I could make out another buck with three does coming directly toward the locust tree. This was unbelievable. I was on state land two days after gun season, and I had now seen five bucks. Even more amazing was that deer were actually on the move in such adverse conditions.
I took this 12-point buck on public land during a blizzard, two days after the gun season -- with a 35-pound bow.
Swinging back to my shooting position, I pulled my hands out of my cozy muff and lifted my bow from its hanger. Within 30 seconds the buck was at 18 yards and slightly quartering to me. When he did not stop to eat beans, I came to full draw and bleated to stop his forward progress, but because of the strong wind he didn't hear me. I bleated louder but got no response. He was now at 14 yards, dead broadside, and still moving. Two more steps would put him behind brush and negate any shot opportunity. Needless to say, my last bleat was loud. The buck heard it, stopped abruptly, and gazed in my direction.
It had been a long season's wait for this one opportunity at an awesome buck. Fortunately, my arrow found its mark behind the buck's shoulder. The buck ran through the timber, and just as he was starting to disappear into the fog of snow he crumpled to the ground. A few months earlier I had questioned whether I would even be able to draw a hunting-weight bow, but that sight eliminated all doubts.
In the few minutes it took me to lower my equipment, snow completely covered the buck. The one antler beam sticking up through the snow had six points, and when I pulled his head up I was delighted to find the other side a perfect match. What an end to a trying year! Hunting pressured whitetails demands endless perseverance, and I could count a dozen points to prove it.
The author has produced a three-volume instructional DVD series titled "Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails" and co-authored the books Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails and Precision Bowhunting with his son Chris. The DVDs and books are available at www.deer-john.net.
Author's Notes: Because of a bad shoulder, on this hunt I used a Mathews Conquest set at 35 lbs. draw weight, and I also used Carbon Express Maxima Hunter arrows, 100-grain G5 Striker broadheads, and a Trophyline USA Ambush Saddle.