June 05, 2023
Screams echoed through the October sky, their maker circling high overhead, as a red-tailed hawk soared above America’s Heartland. The raptor banked and turned south, its dark silhouette casting a shadow on the field below, while its speckled chest and rust-colored tail stood proud against a backdrop of blue.
Continuing along the treeline, I headed south as well, soon entering the timber and climbing the shingle oak I had chosen for my evening vigil. It was October 19, 2022, and I was on my first bowhunt of the whitetail season in my home state of Iowa. Like a conversation with an old friend, my ascent was easy and effortless, and soon I was staring through golden leaves and rays of sunlight from 20 feet above the forest floor.
Scanning the timber before me, its autumn colors on full display, I hoisted my bow skyward and nocked an arrow. Time passed quickly, filled with woodpeckers and brown creepers intent on searching for insects atop a dead elm tree, while wood ducks whistled through the timber before settling on a secluded pond. A chipmunk scampered past along a fallen hickory, navigating the slippery trunk like an acrobat before disappearing beneath a brushpile. A fox squirrel, his pace and personality on par with a drunken sloth, crawled wearily toward his nest, calling it a day after gorging on fallen acorns.
Just past 5:30 p.m., I looked east and noticed two does filtering into the field, working their way through the food plot before dining on the lush clover. I was watching their backtrail to see if any tall-tined suitors would be joining them, when I caught motion to my left and saw long main beams appear from the thicket. Carrying a rack with character and heavy mass, the buck looked regal as he worked his way through the timber. Ahead of the giant were three trails — all within bow range and leading to the food plot. With ample shooting light remaining and the buck upwind of my position, I took a deep breath and prepared for the shot.
Despite my wishful thinking, the buck would come no closer. Something was amiss, and as the northwest wind gently brushed my face, I knew what it was…
The best bowhunters I know have always said, “The ideal wind to hunt a mature buck is one that is almost wrong for you, and almost right for him.” While this giant could see other deer foraging in the food plot, his nose could not guarantee him safe passage. Trust but verify, as they say, and in this case the wind prohibited the buck from doing just that. The beast turned, scratched his ivory belly with a giant hoof, and then vanished into the thicket from which he came.
I hunted sporadically through late October, focusing my attention on the west side of the farm. On the morning of November 2, I headed to a north-facing slope with a thicket atop its east/west running crest. The forest floor, normally an ocean of dead and dry leaves, was moist with morning dew, softening my footfalls as I approached.
Not long after climbing up to my perch, I heard antler tines ticking together in the early morning light. As if warming up before a wrestling match, two young bucks were locked-up on the ridgeline — their dreams of dominance and breeding rights stoking their fire.
Then I heard grunts and a snort-wheeze emerge from the thicket, just before a wide-racked buck materialized down the ridge. With his lips curled and antlers tilted back, the giant paraded toward the combatants, no doubt ready to teach them a lesson in the rules of engagement.
The buck moved along the edge of the thicket, on a trail rife with honeysuckle and shingle oaks, making a clear shot impossible. I watched as he vanished down the ridge, leaving me with memories and nothing more.
I returned to my truck at midday, where I formulated a plan for the evening hunt. The temperatures were scorching, with near-record highs and steady winds gusting from the south. I changed into a long-sleeved Merino wool shirt and bibs, knowing I needed clothes that would dry quickly and stay warm when wet. I knew by the time I was done sawing shrubs and fine-tuning my stand placement that I would be drenched, and I hoped my attire would perform as advertised.
Now just past 2:30 p.m., sweat and sawdust flew from my brow and blade as I made quick work of the honeysuckle and saplings with my handsaw. Crimson streaks ran down my fingers and forearms as I cleared more brush — the thorns of multiflora rose and prickly ash reminding me to take my time.
Adding insult to injury, a flock of blue jays arrived on the scene, their vocal jeers and jabs berating my efforts like diehard fans at a football game. A pair of gray squirrels, more agile and opinionated than their chestnut-colored cousins, barked from a giant white oak in an attempt to also voice their displeasure at my presence. They knew no bounds, heckling and harassing my every move, and I wondered if the constant commotion and noise would make bowhunting this evening a waste of time. I finally secured my stand in a shingle oak just past 3 p.m., and then sat back to let the warm breeze wash over me.
Although my clothes were soaked and the woodland watchdogs had sounded their alarms, I was more concerned with something else. I knew that if I didn’t clear the brush that veiled my shooting lanes, I wouldn’t have a clear shot and could miss another opportunity. But in doing so, I had left enough ground scent to raise the caution flag of every whitetail in the county. A double-edged sword no doubt, but if there was ever a time to be aggressive, it was November in the whitetail woods.
The hours passed and the temperature cooled as the sun made its descent. Just past 6 p.m., the wind now barely a breeze and the woodlands ablaze with golden hues, I heard antlers raking trees in the thicket.
As the sound of bone shredding bark continued, I picked up my grunt tube and bellowed a series of grunts and growls through the autumn air. Greeted with nothing but silence, I was just starting to put my call away when I heard footsteps in the fallen leaves.
I turned and saw a young buck moving through the timber — his long legs and sleek body befitting his age. Soon the buck was within bow range, moving along the trail I had cleared without a hint of suspicion. Just when I thought that I had dodged a bullet, the buck stopped on a dime, his head bobbing and legs backing up, realizing something was wrong.
I was prepared for snorts and bounding footsteps to follow, but instead my ears picked up the sounds of walking once more. I slowly reached for my bow, watching the buck below me that was now more interested in the approaching sound than the scent I had left behind.
As I attached my release to my D-loop, a sweeping rack and stout shoulders materialized along the trail, moving at a steady gait. I was drawing my bow, when I realized that this buck was also young and south of his prime — a handsome whitetail, but one that I would pass.
I lowered my bow and was watching the two bucks in the fading light, when suddenly they looked toward the thicket. Their ears were on full alert, their bodies tensed and coiled, both staring fearfully into the dark timber. Looking up, I quickly spotted tall tines and a massive body cresting the ridge.
The monarch strode toward me like a gladiator; his bullish frame side-stepping with his head cocked to one side, the wrinkles in his neck unlike anything I had ever seen. A large kicker-point protruded off his left beam like a coat hanger as he continued toward me, now within 10 yards and closing. I was in shock over how fast things were suddenly happening.
Then I recalled the noise I had heard at sunset — that of antlers shredding bark and raking trees — as the big buck marked his territory in the thicket. The grunts and growls I had responded with were too much for him to bear, and he had come forth at last light to face his challenger.
Now at seven yards, the buck stared in my direction as I hugged the shingle oak, praying he wouldn’t see me. He tilted his head skyward, twisted his tines through the branches of an Osage orange tree, and then raked the ground — flinging dark earth and leaves through the fading light.
I came to full draw and settled my pin on a swirl of dark hair nestled behind his shoulder, calming my nerves as I took aim. I was squeezing my release, when suddenly the buck turned and dipped beneath the Osage tree.
I was still at full draw and following the giant step-for-step, when out of nowhere a loud pop echoed through the hardwoods. In my haste to stay on the whitetail, my bow limb had hit a dead branch above me — and in that moment I thought it was over. Filled with anger and rage, the buck seemed not to notice, instead closing the distance to five yards before stopping and turning broadside.
Maybe if the squirrels and blue jays had been more vocal that afternoon, or the young buck had snorted upon discovering my scent along the trail I had cleared, the giant would have known something was wrong. Maybe if the wind had shifted or swirled as he approached, or his eyes and ears had detected something was amiss when I banged my bow against the tree limb, the old warrior would have never come closer. Instead, his senses and surroundings had betrayed him, leaving him to his own devices and the spells of the rut.
My pin hovered in small circles behind the buck’s shoulder once more — and then my arrow was gone.
Striking the buck high near his last rib, I watched him plow toward the thicket as my arrow’s fluorescent wrap and fletching traced his course. In a matter of seconds, the barreling crescendo stopped, a hearty cough erupted from the thicket, and then all went silent.
I listened intently, the woods still graveyard-quiet, before collecting my thoughts and deciding what to do. Thirty minutes later, I crawled down beneath a hazy half-moon that shone through the treetops, slowly making my way down the ridge with plans to return the next morning.
My good friend Mitch and I arrived at the farm just after sunrise the following day. We knew there would be little sign due to the high entry wound and no exit, so we crept along, focused on any clue that would give us direction.
Having no luck, we slowly spread out and took separate trails, confident the buck was before us in the sanctuary he called home. Just when doubt was starting to creep in, I heard Mitch holler, which I knew could only mean one thing.
Rushing toward Mitch’s voice, I then heard him say, “Come and look at your buck, buddy!”
I pushed through the thicket and entered a small clearing, where my Iowa giant lay still. I tipped my hat skyward and knelt beside the fallen buck, admiring his hulking body and cedar-stained rack, so grateful to harvest a whitetail of his caliber. Mitch and I celebrated as the sun crested the eastern horizon, sharing handshakes and hugs, with smiles any bowhunter would appreciate.
Giant whitetails are masters of survival, using their senses and surroundings to thrive against unthinkable odds. Still, there comes a time during every season when their guard is down and they throw caution to the wind. And if a bowhunter is fortunate, he or she will be there to capitalize on this brief advantage.
After all these years, despite new tactics and technology, the principles of bowhunting success remain the same: Play the wind, be precise and prudent with your shot placement, and never forget the power of patience and perseverance. At the end of the day, however, perhaps the best strategy any bowhunter can employ is simply showing up to the dance as often as possible. For no matter the weather or time of year, prior setbacks or success, each hunt offers the possibility of a once-in-a-lifetime moment. And on that warm and windy day in November 2022, I experienced one of mine.
The author is an optometrist, freelance writer, and avid bowhunter. He is the author of the award-winning book “Crimson Arrows: A Bowhunting Odyssey,” available at Amazon and crimsonarrowsmedia.com. He lives in SE Iowa with his wife and children.
My equipment on this hunt included a Bowtech Revolt set at 70 pounds, Gold Tip Pro Hunter shafts, and 100-grain Rage Trypan broadheads. My clothing consisted of a First Lite Merino wool hoodie and Kanab bibs, Muck boots, and a Gray Wolf Woolens vest. Other equipment included a TightSpot quiver, Spot-Hogg Wiseguy release, Black Gold sight, and Vapor Trail arrow rest.