If you hang your treestand in can’t-miss-it view of a state highway, you cannot feign surprise and outrage when some jerk in a pickup turns your evening bowhunt into a spectator event with audience participation.
Or so I told myself about 4:45 p.m. in early November while perched 16 feet up a walnut tree overlooking a chopped cornfield in Wisconsin’s Richland County. I’ve never before hunted within 75 yards of State Highway 154, which cuts through my cousins’ farm. But after seeing several deer, including a decent buck, feeding in Cousin Peg’s upper field the previous evening, I scouted its treestand possibilities.
Factoring in southerly winds blasting up the valley, I focused on the outside corner of a walnut grove where it juts into the corn halfway up the field. Then I walked the edge while evaluating trees stout enough to hold my treestand and branchy enough to distort my outline.
I settled on a two-trunked, heavily branched black walnut, figuring that deer entering the field through the grove wouldn’t catch my scent until walking within the 30-yard range I set for my crossbow.
Yep. A crossbow. I had never before used a crossbow during autumn’s deer seasons, but I’ve used them for several herd-control bowhunts the past three winters in Waupaca, Wisconsin. I find compound bows more fun for shooting and hunting, but personal preferences haven’t mattered to my right shoulder the past six weeks.
That’s because I injured more than an ankle when falling in mid-September while packing out elk meat in Idaho. I had ignored the sore shoulder in the weeks since, but pain flashed through the joint the next time I practiced with my compound bow. Rather than give up deer hunting until late November’s gun season, I rigged up the crossbow.
After hanging the treestand after lunch Nov. 2, I flipped down its seat and settled in to check shooting angles, shooting lanes, and blind spots. Meanwhile, cars, vans and pickups zipped along Highway 154 as semi-trailers labored up the hill or hammered their airbrakes coming down it. I could identify the drivers’ gender and shirt colors as they passed, and figured they could easily see me roosting there in the walnut.
I smirked while recalling “A Sand County Almanac” quotation by Aldo Leopold:
“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers.”
Pfft! Forget that, Aldo. When hunting from this treestand, my acts will be ordinarily witnessed by many spectators. But the cornfield was freshly chopped, and attracting hungry does and fawns. The bucks will come, I assured myself. The bucks will come.
Satisfied with the setup, I descended.
I returned at 3 p.m., snapped the tether from my full-body harness to the belt overhead, and hauled up the crossbow. The evening’s first deer, a doe and fawn, crossed the Upper Willow Creek and stepped into the field about 4 p.m. More deer soon followed, including a couple of yearling fork-horned bucks.
About 4:30 p.m. a big-bodied 9-point buck crossed the highway and headed my way, just beyond bow range. It never paused to scrounge for cobs or kernels that the combine missed. Instead, the buck walked into the walnut grove and stopped 40 yards away at the creek to drink.
And drink, and drink and drink.
I assumed it had been scouring the ridges looking for a receptive doe to breed, and needed to rehydrate. I turned my attention to other deer in the field, hoping an adult doe would feed into range. I have four antlerless-deer tags bearing my name, and hope to fill them before New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, passing cars and pickups often slowed to rubberneck at the deer scattered around the cornfield. One friendly guy even waved while coasting by, flashing a thumbs-up before quietly accelerating away southward. I hope he saw my acknowledging nod.
The thirsty buck eventually left the creek and backtracked to the field’s edge. I debated the 25-yard shot it presented, but I’d seen bigger antlers in Peggy’s trail-camera photos, and was focused on a doe feeding left of me at 20 yards. As I started squirming that way to set up a shot, a blue pickup truck stopped on the highway.
The driver, a man in a white T-shirt, inspected the deer from his open window. The deer stared back, ears up and alert. I’d seen similar standoffs the previous half-hour, and expected the guy would soon pull away quietly like every other civilized adult had done.
Instead he punched the pickup’s accelerator. Its tires squealed and the truck lurched forward, startling every deer in the field and sending them fleeing into the woods. Satisfied, the driver continued on. I hoped he saw me flipping him off with heartfelt venom.
Minutes later deer cautiously returned, their gray-brown coats moving through the trees, prickly ash and golden rod. Two does tentatively stepped into the field south of me, and others tiptoed out to the north. I raised my binoculars when spotting movement on an ATV trail back in the woods. The big-bodied 9-pointer and two other bucks were milling about, testing each other’s mood.
The 9-pointer suddenly skittered my way when one of the other bucks quartered toward it, ears flattened. The aggressive buck carried bigger antlers and more attitude. The 9-pointer returned to the creek, this time stopping broadside 15 yards away to drink.
It offered an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. At the shot, the buck leaped from the creek bed and stopped at the field’s edge to look around, seeming wondering, “What was that?” It then backtracked into the woods and died just off the ATV trail 50 yards away.
I lowered the crossbow and descended. After gathering my gear, I set off uphill to Peg’s house, eager to share my success.