Bowhunting is detective work. If you’re like me you have many different stand sites set up across numerous different properties covering a handful of different regions of your home state - sometimes over several states. Taking clues that are left behind by deer, revisiting past sightings and experiences, all the while trying to piece together the big picture to make that next move on where the buck you’re looking for will be hiding. Sometimes you guess wrong and sometimes you guess right.
On Monday, November 14th, I guessed right.
For weeks leading up to that Monday I had been grimacing at all the bucks falling to friends of mine across the country. Not in jealousy mind you, but in regret that the days I was pleading to take off from work would be too late into November and past the peak of the rut throughout northern Illinois.
My decision to take the 14th-17th off was based on this year’s poor crop of what I call shooter whitetail. Older deer just never seemed to start expanding their home ranges till after Veterans Day. That’s what I was looking for on that Monday - a buck searching for love far from where he typically calls home.
For weeks, my good friend Justin Zarr and I had been capturing nothing but younger deer on our Stealthcams. Together, we have nearly twenty of them, scattered over four different farms, covering a hundred miles in between. Going into the 2011 season we only had one buck that either of us really wanted to take on camera. Justin would end up the lucky hunter on Halloween weekend, with me behind camera, and a buck called “Hitch”. Two weeks had gone by and we still had nothing else to chase.
All three of my mock scrapes were flourishing with whitetail activity. The problem was all three of them had a regular onslaught of 100 - 120 inch bucks calling them their own. For Justin and me, once “Hitch” was taken, there seemed to be a major gap between age groups.
Although not the quality of buck I was hoping for, pictures like this are testimonials of a well planned mock scrape. Here, a young buck stands on his back legs to work the above licking branches.
My only chance was to await the days I believed older bucks would begin to stretch their home range, and this is why I chose the 14th -17th of November. Figuring if I failed to find a buck during this time frame, the following week yielded more days off for the Thanksgiving holiday and yet another chance to find a cruiser buck that Justin and I hoped existed. It was a shot in the dark.
Sunday night, November 13th, found me staring at the Scoutlook Weather website for what seemed like eternity, finally making the decision to sit my favorite mock scrape all day beginning the following morning. I shut off my computer and went to bed.
I awoke the next morning especially early. I wanted plenty of time to make and pack a solid lunch for the more than 10 hour sit that I was already dreading. Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, no less than thirty carrot sticks, a large bag of animal crackers, an apple, and nearly 50 ounces of water were going to be my only sources of comfort for the remainder of the day.
The drive in was uneventful, a far cry from the morning before when no less than four different deer nearly ended up on the hood of my truck. A couple days past full moon, I was hoping the deer were returning to late morning movement again. The past several days had deer on their feet just after legal shooting light, something every deer hunter loathes to witness - myself especially.
Once dressed, I made the trek to my treestand. The moon was so bright I never turned on my headlamp that morning. I could easily make out the woods as it lay before me. When I hit the pond, which is what I used to creep into this set-up undetected, I noticed the water had risen several inches after the recent rainfall. Several steps later and I found myself in too deep – literally! After a false step, a small amount of water had gotten over the top of my 18 inch rubber boots, enough to soak my feet and cause me to curse in the dark! I stepped back a few feet and ended up getting out of the water forty yards short of where I normally step out from. I decided the pond was too dangerous to navigate in the dark, fearing a fall would send me and my video camera into the drink. A fall I surely could have lived with, but my camera may not have made it through. With my camera dangling around my neck I took another way in, trouncing through a section of tall grass that skirted the pond. With each step I took, the frosted stems sounded like firecrackers in the once soundless woods.
Once in stand I readied myself for the day. I hung my bow, my pack, and set up the camera for the self-filming session I was sure to receive as the day waned on. Not ten minutes into my sit and I heard the dreadful footsteps of deer in the dark. I turned and looked in the direction they were coming from, and made out what appeared to be two deer in the loud grasses I had just walked in from. No doubt as I peered at their faint images, they had heard me walking in. Immediately I thought my day was already beginning badly. These two deer were surely going to bust me! And – I thought, if they heard me walk in, they were already in an area deer don’t typically show up in until about an hour after shooting light. The full moon had foiled me again – I thought!
After a few moments, the two deer ran away to the other side of the woods. I couldn’t tell if their tails were up, but I knew they had cut my trail in. I looked up into the starry sky wondering if my decision to not walk the pond all the way in would cost me the entire day’s sit.
The remainder of my sit in the dark anticipating the sunrise was silent. Only a far off cry of an owl could faintly be heard.
I turned my video camera’s power on just at shooting light, something I’ve done for much of the season so I wouldn’t have to fumble for it once the moment of truth arrived at first light. Standing up now, I faced the direction of my mock scrape. It laid just over twenty yards from me. It was not uncommon to hear the deer at the scrape before seeing them. The soft ground surrounding the scrape often made deer nearly impossible to detect if not for the fact that they would often stop to hit the licking branches which strung out from every which angle above it. The overcast sky kept the earth dim as I anticipated the hours ahead.
Just before sunrise I heard loud, drawn out doe bleats coming from the direction I had seen the two does run to about 45 minutes before. I reached for my grunt tube immediately as experience has taught me that when deer are vocal – you are vocal. I quickly threw out four or five short grunts and then stopped, wondering what I was thinking. I didn’t want to scare the potential bait away, and began to bleat loudly and drawn out, just as I had heard. I did this six or seven times, then silenced my grunt, shoving it back into my pocket from where it came.
I heard the running of a deer in the marsh behind me and turned my entire body to make out a buck advancing quickly on me. Without even throwing up my optics I saw that it was a good buck, at least 130-class! As soon as I recognized who the buck was I heard a very faint stick snap from the direction I was previously looking – over toward my scrape. I turned my head and came eye to eye with a shooter buck not more than twelve yards away and peering into the cattails waiting to see what all the commotion was about.
I believe the buck who was approaching from the marsh was this handsome 3 year old I called "Larry Bird". Here "Larry" works my mock scrapes licking branch.
With his eyes fixated on the bog, I turned back quickly and grabbed my bow, even glancing into the camera screen at the same time to see if the buck was in frame. All I saw was the weak outlines of the trees as the image was still too dark – camera light had not yet begun. I forgot about filming and drew!
With the buck slightly quartering in, I found my pin and settled it on his shoulder. Within moments I released! The buck took off through the timber but didn’t make it far, crashing a short distance away. The sounds of the surrounding woods quickly hushed once again. I could see two does in the distance, their tails showing white. The buck in the marsh slopped through the water traveling further and further out of earshot. I calmed myself, waiting for the earth to return to silence.
I could see a small section of my arrow, bloody and broken, laying where the buck once stood. Reaching for my phone I called my wife and daughter to tell them the news – Daddy is done!
A special thanks to Bowhunting.Com president Todd Graf for coming out to take these great pictures.
I would wait another twenty minutes before getting down from the tree to pick up the blood trail. Figuring the buck had made it into the cattails which surrounded my stand I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I was quiet, calm, and ready to put a second shot in him if need be. I took just three steps from where our encounter began, looked up and could see his body just off in the distance. I approached slowly, eyeing the buck up and down to make certain he was expired, and all the time grinning from ear to ear.
On the first day of my four day hunting vacation, within just a few minutes of light, my season was over. I knelt down beside the buck and looked to the sky once more.
My smile says it all! The buck from unknown origin showed up at my mock scrape the same day I did - ending my 2011 deer season.