December 22, 2010
The colder the weather, the better some (insane) bowhunters like it -- and for good reason!
This fine young North Dakota buck had his radar on high alert but still ventured within bow range of my makeshift ground blind. I was happy to take him just before Christmas.
GAZING INTO THE WHITEST WHITE known to mankind, I seemed to be searching for my answer in the snow of a sunlit December morning.
Maybe there's a medication or therapy that could cure me, I thought. Surely, something could purge my system of the affliction I've endured for three decades.
I'm stricken with a love for cold-weather bowhunting. Madness!
I'm not referring to wimpy temperatures in the 20's or even the teens. I like single-digits or, better yet, the subzero temps that leave your nose running and your moustache coated in frost!
Now, I may have a slight mental problem, but I'm not crazy, which is why I was snuggled deep into my Heater Body Suit watching my 20-something cameraman, Justin, shiver like a wet Chihuahua. Apparently he thought he was tough enough to handle four degrees and 15 mph northwest winds, because he left the extra suit I brought for him rolled up under his treestand seat. Rookie.
"Aren't you cold?" Justin finally asked an hour after sunrise.
"Nope," I replied smugly. "In fact, my hands are kind of sweaty."
Justin turned away with nary a word of discontent. Fortunately for him, morning hunts in the winter are quite short and no deer were moving through the Illinois woods.
"Are you ready to head in for breakfast?"
"I guess so," Justin replied. "But I need to get some footage of you in the suit. So I'll get down first."
With my bow in hand and a chair strapped to my daypack, I am prepared to hunt wherever I find the best sign. I find this to be a rewarding way to bowhunt.
Impressive. Freezing his hindquarters off, and he still wanted to get work done.
We whipped up a great breakfast of eggs and venison bacon and then kicked back for a nap and contemplation over how to approach the evening. It was the last day of an early December hunt, and since our venison bacon supply was getting low, I decided it was time to acquire a fresh supply. To try to accomplish that, we spent the final evening in a tree at the edge of a harvested bean field.
Just at sundown, as the temperature plummeted toward the zero mark, a large doe and two yearlings entered the field and slowly fed toward us. The instant I decided to take the doe my heart rate increased with every step she took. I was as focused as I would have been on a huge buck. I had to be. A late-season whitetail doe is as wary as any big game animal. One wrong move or the tiniest noise and I would get no shot. It was intense. I loved it.
My well-placed 15-yard shot was, as it should be, anticlimactic to the pre-shot excitement. The thrill of the hunt should always exceed the thrill of the kill.
As we climbed down from the pinkish evening sky, it was no longer so cold. We watched the doe go down, but still followed the crimson spoor left in the snow. I'd be lying if I told you I didn't like the way it looked.
Once the plump doe was tagged and loaded into my truck, it dawned on me: I still have my North Dakota archery tag in my wallet and will soon be heading home!
AFTER THE OBLIGATORY week of catering to my wife's every whim and completing some honey-do projects, I started daydreaming about deer trails in the snow, a runny nose, and a frosted moustache. I know -- it's a terrible affliction.
Once December arrives around home, cornfields are the place to be, and lots of them were still left standing after the wet fall of 2009. I knew of a cornfield bordering some National Grasslands, and was certain the deer would be using it.
Rather than waste a trip scouting, I dressed up in snow camo, grabbed my bow, strapped a blind chair to my pack, and headed out for an evening hunt on public land. I've always enjoyed striking out and letting the deer sign dictate my hunting strategy, and this day reminded me of my very first bowkill back in 1981. I'd watched a doe and her fawn walk out of the corn and past a particular bush two straight evenings leading up to opening day. That first evening found me tucked into the bush when the doe showed up on schedule. An arrow from my Jennings T-Star hit the mark, launching a bowhunting career. The spontaneity of that hunt built a treasured memory, and I hoped to build another on this hunt.
The mature Illinois doe fell to my arrow on a frigid day in early December.
Easing my truck door shut, I noticed the dashboard thermometer -- four degrees below zero. Perfect! A skift of fresh, blindingly white snow blanketed the landscape, and a 10 mph northwest wind felt more like 30 mph. I could clearly understand why a sane human would avoid such conditions. But, then, no one ever said I was sane.
Approaching the edge of the cornfield, I slowed my pace to quiet my footfalls in the squeaky snow. Using binoculars, I scanned ahead, looking for the most-used trail into the corn. As expected, I discovered a spider web of deer trails in the snow leading from the wooded hills of the grasslands to the protein-rich corn.
The situation looked promising, but now came the dilemma: The wind paralleled the edge of the corn, so if I advanced too far and just one deer came out on a trail behind me and cut my wind, the hunt would be snuffed out by a barrage of snorting.
Deciding to gamble, I advanced to the first heavy, freshly used trail, and then started looking for an ambush spot. I didn't want to be too close to the corn because the deer may not show up until dark. Penetrating too deep into the woods, I would risk bumping bedded deer. The need for some kind of cover also had a bearing on my choice of ambush locations.
Finally I found a large, multitrunked box
elder that was close to the trail but far enough away that I could still draw undetected. I could even peek through the forks to watch for oncoming deer, which is good because I hate surprises.
In this open, ground-based situation, I knew I would probably get only one chance and could not be fussy. If more than one or two deer got by me, I would be exposed to detection. Clearly, allowing eight or 10 deer to pass by while I waited for a heavy-antlered buck would be asking too much. Besides, it was December, the holidays were coming, and I was hunting public land. I didn't care whether the first deer to show up was a buck or a doe -- I was hunting for fun.
I always love hunting late because deer sign is easy to read in the snow. This trail leading from public lands to a nearby cornfield in North Dakota proved to be a good place for a quick ground blind setup.
To silence the movement of my heavy, insulated boots, I cleared all the snow and leaves away from the base of the tree. With my blind chair set in place, I screwed my bow holder into the tree so my bow hung within easy reach.
In winter, snow camo is deadly. Deer simply cannot pick you out as long as you do not move. Of course, move even the slightest bit at the wrong moment, and you're toast. I'd have to be extremely careful.
Settled into my chair with about an hour of daylight remaining, I was reminded there's something special about a quiet evening in the wintry woods. Marveling at the black-capped chickadees that kept me company, I wondered how they avoid freezing to death. Why don't their skinny little legs freeze solid on those below-zero nights? Squirrels I understand; tiny birds confuse me.
Who else but a bowhunter enjoys such ponderings?
Thankful for the chemical toe warmers in my boots, I was mostly oblivious to the cold. Plenty of layers trapped body heat, and a muff kept my hands warm. Only my nose was exposed to the sub-zero cold, and a cold nose helped keep me from dozing off.
Fortunately, evening hunts in the winter are short. Deer seldom come out until the last hour of daylight, so it doesn't pay to sit long. If it was going to happen, it would happen soon. And it did.
Two does and three fawns were the first to emerge from the wooded hills, hungry for corn and acting nervous like all December whitetails. They finally committed to a trail taking them well out of bow range and far enough away that they didn't spot me.
A few minutes later a half-dozen more does and fawns filtered from the trees, choosing the same path as their predecessors. It's typical whitetail behavior, and it caused me to think the evening might pass without a shot opportunity.
The breeze died a welcome death, but the weak December sun's descent behind the horizon brought a precipitous drop in air temperature. The temperature was approaching 10 below zero and starting to feel a bit chilly!
Thinking all the deer would go with the flow of traffic, I was surprised when a healthy-looking whitetail veered off course and took the trail angling past my tree. My body tensed as I strained to peer through a fork and identify the deer. It was alone. It had to be a buck.
Huddled close to the tree trunk, I carefully eased my bow off the hook and got my feet right. Another peek at the deer revealed a smallish 4x4 rack, not that it mattered. Just as it was on opening day in 1981, my focus was on this deer and this deer only. Taking him without the advantage of a treestand or pop-up blind was my singular objective.
The buck may have sensed the concentration of a lurking predator, or maybe he just felt a disturbance in The Force, I don't have a clue. I gave him no reason to hesitate, but the buck stopped on the trail at 40 yards and waffled. Something wasn't right. I could read it in his suddenly cautious movements. Things were about to unravel.
With a nervous, halting gate, the buck abandoned the trail and drifted to my left. I would have to abandon my chair. When he hesitated behind a clump of scrub oak, I eased out of the chair and slipped the tip of my arrow through the fork of the tree just as the buck resumed his quest to slip downwind of me.
I cleared the snow and leaves from around the tree, set my chair, hung my bow, and waited for hungry deer to filter out of the trees and into a cornfield.
A quick look through the rangefinder put the distance at 32 yards -- a tough shot in the winter. Stiff muscles, heavy clothing, and the temperamental attitude of a frozen bow setup can add adventure to any shot.
The buck's peripheral vision caught me drawing and he stopped walking just as I reached anchor. Then the arrow was gone.
UNLIKE THE SHOT AT my first doe 30 years earlier, the flight of this arrow was invisible, mostly because my BowTech Admiral pushed the arrow along 100 feet per second faster than my old T-Star did. The shot felt good, but I could not confirm it visually.
The buck sprinted back into the hills, leaving the wintry scene as silent as death and my body trying to sort out whether to shiver from the excitement or the cold. A quick look through binoculars revealed the buck's escape route was sprinkled with the crimson evidence of a good hit. Once again it wasn't so cold anymore.
I strapped my chair to my pack and struck out on what I knew would be the last tracking job of the bowhunting season. The hike was short but immensely rewarding. I'd made a great shot on a wary December buck, and I did it the old-fashioned way -- on public land and on the ground, without the aid of a blind or stand. It was bowhunting as it should be.
As I field-dressed the buck in the waning light, his warmth kept my hands from freezing. I thought about all the bowhunting experiences I've had over the 30 years since that first doe, and it made me smile. Like those before it, this moment, too, would cement itself into my memory.
With the welcome weight of the buck against my drag rope, I leaned toward my truck and trekked through the snow, powered by satisfaction. About halfway back, I noticed that my nose was running and a heavy layer of frost adorned my moustache.
And I pondered -- why would I ever need a cure for such things?
Author's Notes: For the Illinois hunt, I was shooting a Mathews Monster, Carbon Express arrows, Rage broadheads, QAD Ultra-Rest, Scott Release, clothing by Cabela's and Under Armour, and a Heater Body Suit.
In North Dakota I used a BowTech Admiral, GrizzlyStik Alaskan arrows, and 100-grain Samurai broadheads by Alaska Bowhunting Supply. The bow was fitted with an Octane sight and TripWire rest, and I wore Cabela's Seclusion 3D Open Country Winter camouflage.