Updated: Dec 16, 2021
It has been more than a decade since I last harvested a whitetail with traditional archery gear. Our farm has moved, our business and children have grown and I have been heavily involved in coaching hockey. However, for the last two hunting seasons all of that has been in the background, or as in the case of coaching, non-existent. The Fall of 2020 and 2021 however has been more or less dedicated to reconnecting with bowhunting whitetails.
Last season I sat, bow in hand, 32 times and ended the season with 2 complete misses. One of those misses was another 'buck of a lifetime' (I should maybe stop using that phrase now) at 12 yards or so. The other miss was from a great ground blind set up, at a doe who was also within that same yardage. Both, I remember, were completely frustrating at the time. I chalked up the miss on the buck to a folded wool mitt that somehow I hadn't noticed was elevating the arrow off of the bow shelf. I didn't discover that issue until the following day when I dressed exactly as I was the night of the hunt and took some practice shots with similar high shooting arrow results.
Looking back at my Instagram post from the last evening of the 2020 season though, I was in good spirits. I remember being completely happy with the outcome. I even wrote an article for Traditional Bowhunter Magazine titled "The Success of Failing". It was an online article so I doubt it is still available there. I'll repost it here on the blog for everyone to read. My point with the article was that despite the failure of harvest that season, I was never in doubt that I was getting closer and closer to my goal of reentering the world of traditional bowhunting success. Every minute spent in the woods bowhunting, was a minute closer to a special hunting encounter.
"I could hear him breathing and he had no clue that I was 12 feet above him."
My favourite bow right now is a 1957/58 Bear Kodiak recurve. I bought this bow off of ebay maybe 10 years ago or so for around $100. I have shot it on and off over the years, but never hunted seriously with it. It was time for this bow to add to it's story, and I was determined to make that happen. It is a great little bow with a draw weight of 48 pounds, which is perfect for my ageing shoulders. I paired it up with some matching arrows from Stumpstalker Archery Blayne even gave them a 50's theme crest and fletch job! They're great arrows.
Again this Fall I've been diligent with using the old Bear bow, although I have spent more time than ever with the rifle too. Our rifle season opens here on November 1st, but back in bush camp where we film many From the Wild episodes, it is open in September. Kevin Kossowan and I spent 6 days rifle hunting whitetails there in October, and again in November during the rattling season. I didn't have any luck then, but I did manage to take a target animal, a beautiful fawn, in mid-November on our family farm not far from where I live.
In total, I spent 17 days sitting in a stand or ground blind chasing whitetails with the recurve.
The 17th sit was on November 24th. This evening would be special.
I was cold, late in the afternoon, in an uncomfortably thin and twisted Aspen tree on the edge of a large woodlot that is well populated with Whitetails. This was only the second time in this particular stand. I had spent previous hunts on the property in ground blinds within a brushy fencerow that now extended to the west of me. This fencerow separates two harvested barley fields, covered in deep snow. The stand was uncomfortable, at a rakish angle. The tree I used was far from perfect, but it was perfect in it's location. I knew this was the tree that I had to be in.
There was a heavily used trail 12 yards from this tree that led from the barley field, deep into the willow swamp and aspen bedding area. All season long I had seen deer using this trail to enter the barley field from their bedding area back in the bush. Far to the west of my location were open agricultural fields and pasture. Even further away was another prime woodlot. I had been seeing large bucks travelling from one woodlot to the other during the rut, back and forth like clockwork they travelled every evening for the past three hunts. I had a plan to intercept them the following afternoon in the low willow area that acted as a strong travel funnel. I was already focused on that move, contemplating where exactly I should be positioned in the willows, when a dark moving form in the field just to the north of there caught my eye. A huge buck was covering ground quickly towards me. He was 400 yards away when I saw his chunky silhouette against the glowing sky in the west. It's funny but when he jumped the fence into the barley field at about 300 yards, I knew we were going to encounter each other. I could clearly see his massive antlers even at those distances.
He had options in his travels, but intuition and experience with the property told me where he was headed. I was going to shoot this buck, and somehow I knew it.
After the fence crossing he turned 90 degrees south, now at the familiar fencerow he turned hard east in my direction at a steady pace. He stopped to work a scrape at the field's edge, 150 yards away now. Satisfied with his work at the scrape that was maybe 5 yards from my previously used ground blind, he again started in my direction. Now my heart was really pounding. Directly towards me. 50 yards away he had an itch of some sort and swung his head back and forth. The weight of his antlers carried momentum that made his head shake slower and beyond where he intended to stop. Unlike a dog or cat head shake, more like a longhorn steer trying to control the weight of unnaturally long and heavy horns. The march towards me continued. Straight towards me! I got as ready as I could, not knowing which side of the tree he would offer the shot.
Unwavering from his path, straight at me he continued. The huge buck stopped at a scrape that was only a few yards from the base of my tree. I could hear him breathing and snuffling and he had no clue that I was 12 feet above him in the vibrating Aspen. The buck actually made a few steps further towards me and at one point was sniffing my boot prints at the base of my tree. I was literally 12 feet away from a world class whitetail buck! My heart had steadied and my mind was working frantically trying to anticipate his next move along with the many different possible shooting scenarios. So far he had only been directly head-on and was about to be directly facing away if he continued on his trajectory. Not good. Suddenly though, he quit the boot print sniffing and turned away from my tree and headed towards the aforementioned trail.
This was it! He entered my shooting lane quickly and I grunted at him twice, he wouldn't stop. Instinctively, and seeing my shooting opportunity slipping away, I stooped low and came to full draw. He was walking quartering away down the main trail as I released the arrow from the old bow.
Everything slowed to a crawl, like a game winning goal in a critical playoff game. The arrow seemingly creeped towards the grand buck. There was the "shiippp" sound of the arrow entering his side. He jumped a step or two and then immediately went to a head down slow walk. I could see my arrow in his side and suspected by his reaction that I had hit vital organs. The shot was further back, but at a perfect height on his body. The arrow was angling forward and had what I thought was sufficient penetration to be lethal. It took him minutes to slowly walk 50 yards, out of view, back into the heavy cover of the bush. He was almost staggering when I last saw him rounding the bend in the trail, but he didn't go down. I stayed quiet. He wasn't panicked and I now had a critical decision to make.
I quietly packed up my gear, slipped out of the tree and made the long walk back to the Vitara parked in the farmyard. I replayed what had just happened in my mind the whole way back. I needed to focus on the details of these recent events so I could make a good decision for recovery. I also recorded the events for the podcast on my field recorder. I was so excited and adrenaline spent. It is fun to listen to now. You can hear the angst in my voice.
Years of guiding bowhunters in the bowzone came back to mind as I sat in the truck and I remember calling Kevin to tell him the news and saying to him that if a client got into my truck and told me this story it would be zero hesitation to make the decision to leave the deer overnight and attempt the recovery in the morning. Pushing a wounded deer too early, when he still has energy could lead to him running for miles and never seeing him again. Giving him time and space, he would bed and die not far from the shot.
With that in mind Kevin made the decision to spend the night on our couch here at the farm. We had freezing rain warnings for the morning, and didn't want a vehicle accident to add to the drama. We spent a nervous evening and a sleepless night fretting over the situation, but we were confident because I had recalled the events carefully and we thought that it might be a quick recovery.
Not long after first light, we were at the stand and following the well used game trail. The blood trail was almost instantly evident and easy to follow in the brilliant snow. Within 50 yards we found a bed and then another. The blood was good and gave us great confidence that we would find him, the arrow was certainly lethal in its placement. Another 50 yards, more beds, deeper into the willow thickets of the bedding area. The blood still steady. Suddenly Kevin and I saw him at the same time, bedded, just ahead of us. He was still alive! The drama wasn't over, but he was too weak to get up. Two more arrows into his chest and he was dispatched. It was startling to walk up to him alive, and Kevin's footage of these events don't betray the intensity.
Although it wasn't perfect, we had recovered the buck and there was no waste of any of the meat to scavengers. It is hard to think of things I'd do differently. The shot was off by a few inches. That gives me greater incentive to keep pushing my archery accuracy and shoulder strength and recovery. But in hunting, shots are sometimes just 'off'. Very often the instance of the shot isn't a controlled situation. It is the same for rifle or compound bow hunting. I limit my shots to under 25 yards with the implement I choose to hunt with, so that helps with my lethality. And to be honest, waiting for encounters within those yardage constraints hasn't hindered my opportunity rate on a seasonal basis.
Beyond those desires for improvement, Kevin and I made all the right calls on this animal after the shot. We recovered him successfully, with reasonable ease. The decisions made immediately after the shot to mentally document what had just happened, along with resisting the urge to immediately go after him, made the difference between a happy outcome and a horrible one. So let that be the big take away from my experience this fall. I can think of several animal recovery outcomes that have been easier. I can also think of complete failures. I am sure that is simply part of the hunting journey for most everyone who slips quietly through the woods in search of prey. The attention to details during adrenaline pulsing moments, and the sheer determination to make the right decisions in critical times should never betray you.