More Than I Expected
Hunting public land is tricky. Especially the areas that are easy to access. There is a very clear cut tradeoff when hunting these lands. Luxury found in easy access comes with unexpected hunting partners, while extra time spent getting into secluded areas comes with just that, seclusion.
I had committed to archery hunting as much as possible this year, but this commitment was proving difficult to keep with limited time available due to my many other obligations. Conveniently accessible public lands can be a busy bow hunter’s friend. However, due to their popularity, I spent the first two weeks of bow season dodging other hunters rather than chasing tails.
Some would argue that the key to hunting success is studying movement patterns. I quickly found this to be true, but not with the movement patterns of deer. Adults who have jobs are usually working on weekdays. Public lands on the weekends can be nightmares. After school on a Monday afternoon, and suddenly, I’ve got the woods to myself.
This was my first year of archery hunting after getting my bow last winter. I was stoked for the season, but having heard much about the difficulties of archery hunting, I had low expectations.
On Thursday, October fifth, I found myself with nothing to do early in the afternoon. I checked the forecast which predicted incoming rain for Friday. Deer movement might spike prior to the inclement weather. Might as well go hunting.
When I reached the gravel turnout of the public land I had been hunting, there were no other vehicles. My weeknight rule was working to perfection. I began walking.
As I approached the state funded plot field I wanted to watch that evening, I noticed two deer were already in the field. When I had played out my sit in my mind I had wanted to circle to the opposite side of the field, but the presence of these deer prohibited my further advancement. I picked a tall pine to crawl to directly between myself and the grazing does, and close to the transition between tall grass and crops. I silently scooted around the trunk and nocked an arrow.
As the sun crept lower to my left, the two does were joined by five more who entered the field near my position. The original pair had alerted me of their approach so I was ready when they appeared. To my disappointment, there were no antlers.
The does continued to get closer and part of me thought about taking a one. I contemplated this idea until I suddenly noticed the deer were at attention, standing erect and glaring; directly at me. I froze, caught off guard with my sudden popularity. How had they discovered me? Then I realized it wasn’t me they were staring at.
Movement amongst stillness easily catches the eye, and is often the reason why hunters are busted. I hadn’t moved, but something behind me had. Three steps and it stopped. I could no longer make it out in my peripheral vision. My eyeballs floated to the extreme left of their limits, straining to catch another glimpse without forcing the rotation of my head.
I waited while my heart throbbed. It pounded so violently I feared the deer could hear it.
There were three more steps and another pause. Each one deliberate, smooth, and silent.
With every long pause I feared I had been busted, but each time I was rewarded with another succession of steps. As the animal entered into a slightly clearer sector of my vision I chanced a tilt of the head to steal a glance.
The old, grey deer stood perfectly still with his heavy, chocolate brown antlers glinting in the setting sun. He was oblivious to my presence as he slowly scanned the edges of the field. While his gaze passed over my head I experienced an eerie sensation that can only be explained by experience alone. Observing such an animal at an incredibly intimate distance is something I will never forget.
Still sitting, I drew my bow while he stepped behind the last large pine between himself and the field. He reappeared looking back over his right shoulder.
The distance looked to be thirty yards. I did my best to keep my shaking nerves under control and hold my tiny red pin on his vitals. A slightly quartering-away shot was presented for a second while the buck checked for danger one last time before he stepped out to expose himself amongst the crops. I slowly touched off the shot. It was a perfect opportunity to deliver a clean and lethal strike.
My execution of the opportunity, however, was less than perfection.
The buck flinched and the shot flew high. It felt like a miss, until I heard the deafening crack of my broadhead connecting.
The deer dropped to the dirt instantly. I sat in shock. Damage to the spine usually causes such paralyzing effects on deer and are best handled with an immediate follow up shot. In hindsight, these exact actions should have been taken. I, however, was incapable of any such speedy mental processing at the time. I sat in silence until I mustered up the sense to call my dad. I answered his questions between gasps of air. The deer was still. We feared my potential approach would push him to spook. The decision was made to back out. Quietly, I crawled away.
We returned late that night. He was gone. My heart sunk and doubt gained a foothold in my mind. The substantial amount of blood we found did little to quell the worry. The trail ran into the dense draw where I knew the deer of the area bedded. We backed out again.
It rained the next morning. The same weather that had got that old, seasoned buck moving early the previous evening now became my downfall. I watched the blood trail get washed away.
Our plan to track the buck directly was thrown out. He was likely in bad condition at the bottom of a draw. Wounded deer typically don’t go uphill. My dad assured me he was down there somewhere as we waited in the drizzling rain for first light. As soon as we could see, we began zigzagging through thick cover.
As I trudged along the bottom of a creek bed my gloomy thoughts dampened the bright reflections of the rising sun on the golden autumn leaves. Hunting is something I love, and being an ethical hunter is something I place extreme value on. I had been confident in my abilities, but I would much rather miss clean than wound a deer that I could never recover. Such situations are a responsible hunter’s nightmare. I pictured our chances of finding this deer falling by the minute from the category of “slim” to “it would be a miracle”.
Then, as if in a direct answer to a prayer, we found him.
I cannot put into words how grateful I am to have access to the great hunting opportunities here in South Dakota, much less to have harvested an animal like this in my first year of archery hunting. Indeed I have been very privileged. This whole experience has been one of learning, growing, and quite frankly a large amount of luck. I have learned valuable lessons that far exceeded my expectations for myself. I cannot wait for what more bow-hunting has in store for me. My only complaint is that rifle season is a month away.