Close Call With an Illinois Whitetail

By Justin ZarrDecember 8, 20086 Comments

LAST UPDATED: May 8th, 2015

For those of you who may have been following along in my blog this season, you know it's been a trying year for me.  It started off promising enough with a successful doe harvest on my third sit of the year and peaked around November 9th with one of the most exciting mornings I've ever had in the woods.  As Mike and I counted nearly a dozen bucks running around that morning, chasing does like crazy, I was feeling pretty good about my season.  Little did I know it was going to take a turn for the worse.

After we returned home to Northern Illinois from that trip, my spirits were still high and I was hoping to ambush one of the many bucks I had gotten trail camera pictures of all summer and fall.  Unfortunately for me over the course of the next month not only would I not see any of those bucks, but in over a dozen trips to stand I would only see 11 total deer, only one of which was within shooting range.  The year and a half old spike just wasn't what I was looking for, so I elected to contently watch him from my elevated perch as darkness fell on yet another Illinos bowhunt.

This is what a cold, unhappy bowhunter looks like during a frigid December bowhunt in Illinois.

With the late season upon us and rutting activity for all intents and purposes over, my focus turned once again to food sources.  I knew the deer would be concentrating on them now, and with the cold weather we've had and several inches of snow on the ground I figured now was a good time to try and capitalize on their hunger.  My plan was relatively simple – I knew the deer liked to feed in a hay field on the farm I hunt during the late season.  The past two years we've had numerous encounters with does headed to this field before dark but for some reason never any good bucks.  After analyzing the situation I figured that we were hunting too close to the field and only catching the deer who were brave enough, or dumb enough, to show themselves before dark.  The bigger bucks that we are after were probably hanging back in the woods a few hundred yards and waiting for night to fall before entering the fields.  So I hung a stand about 300-400 yards off the field, adjacent to the nearest heavy cover that we know serves as a late season bedding area.

Sunday December 7th brought temperatures in the teens with a slight South wind, which was nearly perfect for my new setup.  I snuck into my stand ever so quietly over the snow covered ground, slipped into my bibs and heavy coat at the base of my tree, climbed up and got settled for the night.  If you're like me and don't like hunting the cold because your feet get frozen quickly, I highly recommend checking out the ThermalFeet boot warmers.  I've been wearing them for the past three seasons and LOVE these things.  You put a disposable hand warmer into the pocket on the ThermalFeet cover, then slip it over the outside of your boot and they keep your toes toasty warm all night.  I hunted for nearly three hours and my toes never even came close to getting cold.  Love these things!!!  Check them out right here at Bowhunting.com, they make great stocking stuffers and we're giving away a free set of hand warmers with every purchase.

ThermalFeet – the greatest things ever when it comes to cold weather hunting!!

In any case, I got settled into my stand around 2:30 and began the wait.  Around 3:45 I spotted my first deer making its way through the woods toward my stand.  At first glance it appeared to be a doe, but after futher inspection I found it to be a young buck with 2" spikes.  Although he would quality as an antlerless deer since his antlers were under 3" long, I elected to let him walk and took some photos of him as he passed by, right through my shooting lanes as I had hoped.

This 1 1/2 year old buck made his way right by my stand, just as I had hoped.  Too bad he wasn't bigger!

Shortly after the small buck left the first of 9 does that I would spot that evening showed up directly downwind of me.  The three does were headed the opposite direction that I thought they would come, and although they could smell me and knew something was wrong they never spooked.  In fact, they hung out about 40 yards in front of my stand pretty much all night.  Later on 4 more does approached from the South and were headed towards my stand, down a path that would lead them to my right.  I grabbed my bow off the hook, clipped my release on, and waited for them to head my way. 

As fate would have it, the 4 does hung up about 18 yards behind my stand, milling around and generally just teasing me because I couldn't shoot them.  As darkness approached my hands started to grow cold so I moved my body entirely around and was able to sandwich my bow between myself and the tree, so I could put my hands in my pockets to warm them up for a minute.  About this time I heard something directly behind me in the woods.  I thought perhaps the three does that were to the North of me finally made their way into the woods so I turned my head around only to see the big 10 pointer I have been chasing all year standing only 8 yards way, in my shoting lane, broadside, feeding on some underbrush!

I couldn't believe it.  All night I had been so careful to not let any deer sneak up behind me in the snow but my preoccupation with these does had gotten the best of me and there he was, right in the open!  With my bow in my hand and my release already clipped on all I had to do was turn around to get a clear shot at him.  As I made my rotation in my stand, once again Murphy's Law struck and somehow, someway I managed to rub the cable on my treestand the wrong way which made the slightest "twang", which was enough to send my dreams of this buck's rack on my wall up in smoke.  The 3 1/2 year old buck looked straight up at me, skylined against the sky, bobbed his head once to get a better angle, and headed back the way he had come with another buck in tow.

The buck that got away – I call this guy "The Sheriff".  Much like the Sherrif of Nottingham was Robin Hood's arch nemesis, he is now mine! By the way – this photo was taken about 80 yards from where I had my encounter with this buck.  It was taken shortly after darkness fell, which lead me to belive the buck was bedding nearby and exiting the safety of his bedroom after dark.  I hoped the cold weather would bring him out during daylight, which it did.  I just couldn't capitalize on his mistake.

My spirits sunk and I seriously was about 1/2 second away from tossing my bow right out of the tree and calling it quits for the year.  I had let my guard down for a minute to worry about shooting a doe, and the one buck I had set out for that night got close enough to me that I could've spit on his back, all without me knowing it.  Even as I type this my bowhunting heart breaks just thinking about it.  So close!

The view from my stand in the direction the buck approached.  As you can see, I can see for quite a ways which means he was probably there for quite awhile without me ever realizing it!!  When I finally saw the buck he was at the very bottom of this photo, in the small clearing in front of the tree you can see I had cut down two weeks earlier.  That close!!

So with all of that said, despite my awful season persistance finally paid off with a great night in stand and an encounter with a buck that I will no doubt continue to hunt for this year, and into next year if I have to.  Unfortunately I have some committments during January that are going to keep me out of the woods after the New Year which means I have exactly three weekends left to seal the deal on a buck or it's tag soup for this guy!  This coming weekend I'll be heading back down to our lease in Brown County to try and connect on one of the bucks I saw during our November trip, then I'll be home for a weekend before one last ditch effort after Christmas back at the lease.  I'm pretty much done relying on luck at this point, since I apparently have none of it!  So it's going to be some good old-fashioned scouting and deer hunting know-how that's going to get it done for me if I'm going to be successful.  Screw luck anyways!

Justin Zarr
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General Manager at Bowhunting.com
Justin has been bowhunting for more than 30 years and co-hosting the popular bowhunting show Bowhunt or Die since 2010.  He lives in the NW suburbs of Chicago with his wife, 3 children, and semi-smelly dog.
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