May 18, 2023
I was shaking so much, there were bubbles in my bowsight’s level. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My hands were already freezing as I gripped my bow and clipped on my release. You have got to be kidding me! I thought to myself.
I'd sat more than I had in the past 2½ seasons, and after having the worst luck the entire time, I doubted whether an opportunity like this would ever come again. I knew it was incredibly rare and I'd better not mess it up this time. The biggest buck we had on camera all year, one we drooled over and never thought we’d get a shot at, was walking right toward me!
Two days before, I got him on camera lip-curling at a spot where a hot doe had just left her mark. I had many heartbreaking opportunities with different deer the last couple years, but this time was different. This season, while on stand, I'd been thinking a lot about “Old Man Glodrey,” my 74-year-old friend who had recently passed. We used to spend a lot of time together down at the VFW, talking smack and telling hunting stories. If you knew Glodrey, then you knew his stories could be quite embellished at times. But now he wasn't there to listen to my stories anymore.
For the past seven years, my oldest brother, Jeramy, and I have been going to West River South Dakota to hunt (we live east of the Missouri River). We have never been home for the rut, which is what I’ve been waiting for ever since I started hunting seven years ago.
Instead of West River, this year we went with my boyfriend, Chad Sandbo, to his buddy’s hunting shack in eastern Minnesota to rifle hunt. We had a great time and tagged out four days early, so we got to come home in the middle of the rut to bowhunt — finally!
We arrived home from Minnesota, only to experience a substantial ice storm that kept us out of the field the first day. The next day, Chad and I went out to sit in our stands, but trees were falling all around us from the weight of the ice and it wasn’t safe to be there.
While we were there, we also noticed many of the deer trails that went right by our stands were blocked by fallen trees. We knew we had to do something, so instead of hunting the next day, we took a chainsaw out to the woods to clear the fallen timber.
We drove our truck across the field, right up to the treeline. Every blade of grass was encapsulated in a thick coating of ice, which made a lot of noise as it crunched under our tires. We got the trees cut up and moved, and we even had time to set up a blind that I didn’t really think we would hunt out of. While brushing in the blind, Chad noticed that there was potential for a nice shooting lane over to the far left, if we just cleared it out a little.
The next morning, it was in the teens and windy, so I sat in the new blind to protect me from the wind, while Chad sat in his stand about 400 yards away. We sat morning and evening — nothing. Same thing the next day.
The following morning, we had a hard time getting out of bed. We failed to charge our heated-vest batteries, my electric-sock batteries were low, Chad lost his lucky shirt, I didn’t have clean pants to wear…a number of other things just weren’t right.
We hem-hawed around until we had only 20 minutes left before we had to leave. Then I checked all three of my weather apps, and all three indicated a switch in the wind direction — in a positive way for us! So, Chad and I hustled to get our clothes and gear together, and away we went! I sat in the blind to stay warmer and try my luck with a different wind.
I own a sign and vehicle wrap shop in Britton, South Dakota, called Off The Wall Signs, where I design, print, and install signs and vehicle wraps, including on my own car in orange, gray, and black camo to match my bowstring! While trying not to think of all the work I had waiting for me, I did my usual scan and spotted a good-sized doe off to my left, about 20 yards away. Sneaky girl, I thought to myself. How come I didn’t hear you?
The doe was fixated on something behind her. Sure enough, it was a buck! At first, I didn’t realize how big he was. It took me a minute to assess his rack — especially his brow tines — at which point my eyes went blurry and I began to shake, because I just knew I was going to shoot him if he let me.
The pair kept grazing closer and closer, and I felt confident they would eventually come to where I wanted them to. But wait…
After the buck took two steps into the woods, he suddenly appeared uneasy and backed out of the timber as a result. He then continued to move along the edge of the field. For a split-second, I was afraid I had missed my chance, but then I remembered the shooting lane Chad had pointed out when we set up my blind.
A couple steps later, and the buck was almost perfectly broadside at about 15 yards. “You have got to be kidding me,” I whispered under my breath. Just one more step is all I needed him to take!
It seemed like forever yet super-fast at the same time, but the buck finally moved his leg forward to expose his vitals. “Breathe, Melissa,” I whispered to myself, as I tried to level my bow while shaking uncontrollably.
I almost didn’t take the shot, because of the self-doubt from the previous 2 ½ years of messing up multiple opportunities at big bucks. I even contemplated giving up bowhunting because of my previous mistakes, but I loved the sport too much to just throw in the towel. I knew I was a great shot, and I knew in my heart it was just a streak of bad luck that I was determined to break. Still, the thoughts of prior screw-ups clouded my mind. But this was my chance to change all of that, and I focused harder on the task at hand than ever before.
The buck began moving forward again, and at the very last millisecond, I exhaled all the doubt and released my arrow. I saw my arrow hit, then watched the buck run off and disappear into the brush.
I listened but couldn’t tell whether the sound I heard was the buck crashing to the ground or another deer running around and making a racket in the ice-covered woods. I knew it was a good shot, but after all the horrible heartbreaks I'd endured the previous two years, I wasn’t celebrating quite yet.
Little did I know at the time, that the reason I didn’t hear the deer approaching while I was in the blind before the shot was because they were walking in our truck’s tracks from the day before, eating the corn that we'd exposed for them by smashing the ice off. If we hadn’t gone out there and made a ruckus the day before, who knows if they would have come toward me that day?
I texted Chad that I'd shot a big buck, and he asked if I'd seen enough of his rack to identify which buck it was from our camera pics.
“All I saw were brow tines,” I responded, and Chad knew immediately which deer it was.
We had to wait an hour to start tracking my buck, because I had deer on top of me the whole time. It killed me to have to wait so long, but I knew that was the right thing to do.
After all the deer went away, I got out of the blind and discovered the best blood trail I’d seen in my past three years of bowhunting! I was jumping up and down and crying happy tears when Chad got to me, as I was now confident we would find the buck.
Ample blood sign made for easy tracking at first. But then the blood trail got thin a couple of times, but that wasn’t anything new to me after a couple years of bad luck.
I kept leading us down the edge of the field, and soon we saw the blood trail turn into the brush, where we found the buck lying dead a few steps later. We’d tracked him about 75 yards.
I had to check out the entrance/exit wounds while I was dressing him. My field autopsy showed my arrow was just a tad back but still got both lungs.
I rested my hand on the buck’s body and thanked him many times for giving up his life to further enrich mine. I cried out all of the stress and all of the feelings of defeat and failure that had built up inside of me over the past 2½ seasons. I also cried tears of joy, because this was the first deer I'd killed with the love of my life beside me (Chad was in his stand 400 yards away when I shot the deer, but he was there to track and retrieve with me). I cried because Glodrey was there too, and he watched it happen right along with me.
It was all so meaningful and empowering. The gratitude I felt and the pride I earned for never giving up, even when packs of coyotes sang to me as I hiked in every morning for the past 2½ seasons. Tears would freeze to my face and the overwhelming feeling of defeat reminding me of all of my failures. No matter what happened though, I never gave up.
This is yet another lesson for me that all the pain, suffering, and work that led up to this day had to happen so that this chain of events could fall into place the way it did. I’m grateful for the struggle. I’m glad it’s not easy, because anything in life that's worthwhile never is.
The author lives in Britton, South Dakota, with her boyfriend of 13 years, Chad Sandbo, and her dog, Harvey 2 Face.
My equipment included a Mathews Reezen bow, Winner’s Choice Competition strings, Easton Full Metal Jacket arrows fletched with Bohning Blazer Vanes and sporting Nockturnal lighted nocks, and Rage Hypodermic broadheads. My buck's estimated live weight was well over 300 lbs.