A Story As Old As Time: A Failed Hunt
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
I waited to write this story until I knew for sure it was over, at least for this year. On October 30th, I bought a Pennsylvania archery hunting license at 4:32 with the intention of hunting a mature whitetail buck, and at 6:05, I was looking through my peep sight at one of the biggest bucks I’ve ever seen while hunting, on a random chunk of state land I had never been to before. I had a string of good luck in New York this season. I’ve been seeing deer almost every time I’ve gone out, had a few close calls, and successfully filled both my bow tags and my freezer by October 26th. I was happy to have a full freezer but torn about what to do next. Hunting the pre-rut and rut are my favorite times of year, particularly the pre-rut, when things really start to turn on and deer start reacting to calls. I live less than fifteen minutes from the PA border, and realized there was a solution to my problem: buy an out of state license, and see how far this good luck streak would go. I sat with it for a couple days before running it by my partner. I asked if she would leave me if I extended my season a bit and kept the obsession going a little bit longer. She smiled over an apprehensive look, and said, “No, I don’t think so.” And the next day I was headed over the border.
I picked up my license and headed to the nearest chunk of state land. I’ve come to realize I have pretty good instincts about figuring out where good bucks, and deer in general, like to live. I passed a few pull-offs before my instincts starting checking the boxes: apple trees, a water source, lots of oak trees, and a pretty good sized mountain, (by Pennsylvania standards). I suited up, grabbed my bow, and headed up the hill. I left my climber in the truck, not having time to set it up anyway, and figured this trip would be a little exploratory mission for future hunts. Maybe I would get lucky and find a good spot to hunt the next few weeks.
Right off the road, I found a heavily used deer trail through a thicket. There were quite a few small rubs, most definitely made by a spike, with small punctures on tiny saplings; trees a bigger buck would have ripped out of the ground or completely leveled. I kept following the trail as it zig-zagged up the hill and began finding quite a few small scrapes of cleared dirt and some larger, fresher rubs that seemed like they were probably made by a slightly older buck, maybe a 2.5 year old forky or a small basket six. Either way, I was feeling pretty good as I headed up the hill. There were certainly plenty of deer here. Then, I saw what I was looking for: a massive rub on a cedar tree about 8 inches thick. There were many puncture wounds and large chunks of bark falling off the tree, ranging from a foot off the ground to a little higher than three feet. Some pieces of bark were laying on top of the leaves.
This tree had been torn up by a big, pissed off buck and very recently. This could have been hours or maybe minutes ago. I checked the time, 5:30. Legal shooting light was until 6:13 that day. I set up a mock scrape right near the rub and found a fallen down tree butted up against a tall, thick oak that overlooked the nearby deer trails beneath me. I don’t usually hunt from the ground with a bow, but I had a perfect view, and it was a pretty good vantage point overall. My back was only partially hidden, and the wind was blowing uphill. If something came from the false summit behind me, I was busted, but I had a feeling or a hope that the deer would come from below. Forty minutes pass as I listen to squirrels, birds, crows, and the sound of the leaves falling from the trees in the wind. I heard a doe blow beneath me about 50 yards off, between the sound of chaotic, frenzied running. I knew immediately there was something chasing it, either a coyote or a buck.
A few seconds later, I saw the two does and a great, mature 8 with a thick, wide rack and a huge body-- about as mature as you could want and exactly what I was looking for. I can’t believe it as he walks into a shooting lane broadside at 40 yards and stopped. I got to my knees and drew. He was alert. He knew something was up but couldn’t tell what just yet. I slowed my breathing as I held my 40 yard pin in that sweet spot a few inches behind and up from his front leg. I had just watched some videos of deer ducking shots, especially over 30 yards. A friend of mine I had shot a deer with a few weeks ago told me that my bow is pretty loud, certainly louder than I would think. I knew in my gut this deer was going to react to the sound of the bow string and the arrow flying towards it. I must have had five minutes of shootable light left, and I figured this would be my only chance at a deer like this. I lowered the pin to the white of his belly. I couldn’t bring myself to aim any lower; if he didn’t duck the arrow, it would go beneath him. It must have been close to ten seconds at full draw, all of this racing through my head, when I finally shot.
In slow motion, I watched the lighted red nock fly towards him as his body flattened, down and back. The arrow hit him and he turn and ran. I could see the arrow in him, but it seemed like it was sticking out too far; something didn’t seem right. I stood up and watched him run downhill and away from me around the bend of the mountain, the does still blowing.
I waited awhile before I tried to track him, not sure what the situation was. A whitetail’s front shoulder bone is notoriously hard and only a few inches from the kill zone. Some people call it the dream crusher. I walked back to the truck, still in disbelief that my lucky streak had continued. An hour later, I started tracking, by now in complete darkness, and couldn’t find much blood. I tied a pink trail marker to the tree near the impact of the arrow, and marked every spot I found blood from there forward. I headed towards where I had seen him run, and at about sixty yards, I saw the arrow as it glowed red. I could not make out the body of the deer, but I figured he must be down. I sat in the total darkness for at least 20 minutes before I approached slowly, just in case.
When I got close, I found it was just half of the arrow. There was blood on most of it, and I figured he could be piled up just below. I found a few more drops of blood and marked those spots with a trail marker, too, then lost the trail as it opened up into a clearing. He could have gone in any direction. I looked for hours, came back the next day and looked sunup to sundown, and came back the day after that with my dad and his German Shorthair Pointer, Forrest, who is just as good at finding dead animals as he is living ones, all of which turned up nothing.
I was pretty devastated. I felt sick over it. Had he run onto the nearby private property? Had he died slowly and suffered? If he lived, would he ever return to this area? Even if I did find him, would the meat be wasted by now? I mulled over this idea of the meat being wasted for a few days before realizing the humor in this very human-centered notion. If he was dead, the meat would not be wasted; it would be consumed by other creatures from as small as bacteria, to maggots, to foxes, to coyotes, vultures, and crows, before returning slowly into the ground as biomass to the land on which he lived, bones slowly being gnawed away by squirrels, mice, and chipmunks.
A week later, still wrapping my head around the idea that I likely missed a perfect kill shot by a matter of 2 or 3 inches, I headed back to the same area in the predawn hours. I figured he may still be in the area or another mature buck would have come in and replaced him, after the does that were about to go into heat. As I hiked back up the same hill, I found the broadhead half of my arrow, sticking up right off the same deer trail about 20 yards below where I had shot the previous week. No blood, just some hair, and the broadhead wasn’t damaged, confirming it was a shoulder shot. He was alive and well and still frequenting the very same area. I couldn’t believe it, as I shimmied up a tree about forty yards away from where I had shot the week before.
I sat for a few hours in the tree as I replayed the previous week’s events in my head over and over. It was just after 9 o’clock, when I heard the familiar sound of does blowing and deer running up the trail and towards me. I turned to look and saw him: the same buck, as he ran full speed behind two does and right towards me. I knew what was going to have to try to stop this deer in some way, and as soon as he got into bow range, I began making a doe bleat sound with my mouth, louder and louder, as he got closer. By the time he was at ten yards, I was nearly screaming. I drew quickly and shot – a shot I shouldn’t have even taken and won’t take again, as they ran by me. He didn’t even slow down, a true testament to the focus these animals have on breeding this time of year. I climbed down and found the arrow. It was a miss. I followed his tracks in the snow for awhile before confirming the arrow had missed its mark. I had seen him again and I didn’t get a good shot. This deer would have been dead with a rifle. The idea of quitting bowhunting all together entered my mind for the first time as I walked back to gather my treestand and headed home.
I got something to eat, felt a bit better, and decided this story wouldn’t end with me throwing my bow into the Susquehanna. I hunted the area a bit more in the following few days and saw only a young spike and some yearlings, a sign the rut had peaked, the does were in estrus and were being bred, that a mature buck would no longer make a careless mistake. With the last day of Pennsylvania bow season approaching, I decided to remove the pink markers I had used to mark the blood trail. I didn’t want to litter, and I didn’t want to give any gun hunters any clues either. I knew I didn’t need them; I had spent so many hours in this area, a place I didn’t know existed some two weeks prior, that I was sure I wouldn’t forget where to go for next bow season.
As I removed each marker, I had found some evidence of other hunters I hadn’t noticed before: several different colored tacks in trees, an old piece of cotton wick tied to a low-hanging branch. I wondered about these other hunters. Had they seen this deer before? Is this animal someone’s obsession, sharing trail cam photos, forming strategies, and many hours scouting this steep mountain? Had they done something similar to what I had in years prior and are now haunted by this animal as I am?
It began to snow. I worked backwards from the last blood I had found, to the place where I found the arrow, to the tree where I had shot, and replayed the events of the last few weeks, moving backwards through time. I untied the last marker from a tree, I looked up towards the mountain and wondered how many stories like mine had taken place here, the names and animals different. In that moment, I realized fully that I was just one hunter after one animal, a story as old as time, each variation of the tale as different as the falling snowflakes. I wondered about when and why it was decided to sequester this mountain as state land, as a public resource. I moved through time in my mind, saw last year’s hunters march into and out of this spot in the dark year after year, as the decades peeled away. I pictured hunters a hundred years ago, wearing plaid and trapper hats, hunters who knew how to move silently and play the wind, who knew nothing of scent-lok clothing and compound bows.
I thought about the first European eyes to see this mountain, and the foolish notion of discovery he likely felt, same as I did, as he looked at the heavily used game trails and fresh sign for the first time, unaware that this place been hunted by the Delaware, the Susquehannock, the Shawnee for centuries prior. I moved backwards further and further, before these tribes were little more than small bands of early humans, when the snow here never melted. I wadded the last piece of marker in my hand, and stuck it in my pocket. As I stared back up the mountain one last time until next year, on the horizon, I thought I saw a Clovis hunter, dressed in furs, slipping through the trees.