You Just Never Know
This is a story that almost didn’t happen. A few days ago, while hunting with my brother and my dad at our family cabin, I shot the first buck ever taken there since the cabin was built over 25 years ago. There aren’t many bucks in the area, and this deer had a recognizably huge body with a very small rack. I believe I have been seeing this deer on and around our property this time of year for at least three years, the first encounter being in October 2016. It was a beautiful fall day during bow season, warm, leaves changing, a nice breeze very similar to the weather Wednesday. I had a ton of work to get done for grad school and couldn’t hunt, so I sat on the picnic table on the front porch of the cabin, my work to my right, and my bow and a grunt call to my left. About once an hour, I’d do a grunt and look around for a bit to see if anything showed up, to see if maybe I could get lucky.
After a few hours, I heard the distinctive crunch-crunch of a deer stepping on leaves, about 50 yards away on the dirt road leading to the cabin. I grabbed my bow and crept towards where I heard the sound, using my truck to conceal myself a bit. I peered cautiously around my truck and saw a spike with a huge body, the body of a much older deer, standing at the curve in the road looking at me. In an effort to grow more mature bucks and increase herd numbers in the zone, there is an antler restriction, meaning that a buck must have at least three points on one side in order to shoot it. We both stood watching each other for about a minute before it bounded off into the woods.
I didn’t have any encounters with him in 2017. I’m not even sure if I hunted at the cabin more than once. I had a hunting spot downstate that I called the deer circus and for good reason, which was occupying most of my time. I would estimate there’s a deer herd of well over 50 cohabitated deer in a small, maybe ten acre chunk of pocket woods that seemingly no one else hunts, wedged between a farm on one side, and some houses on surrounding it. My friends, my brother, and I took quite a few deer out of there that season, including two mature 8s, one for me and one for my brother. I moved upstate two years ago, the landowner decided he no longer wanted people hunting his land, and I lost that spot.
In 2017, I bought a house that needed more work than I thought, work that carried over well into 2018, and I didn’t do much scouting in the off-season. In March 2018, I set up a trail camera at the cabin, hoping to see any kind of buck on the property. There’s been a small herd of does there for as long as I can remember, and I got quite a few pictures of them. It wasn’t until about July that I got several pictures of this same buck, huge body and a small rack. I was excited to see what would be the only legal shooter buck on the property. He vanished from the camera after August. I never got another picture of him, but there were some scrapes rubs on the road made very close to where I had seen this deer two years ago that showed up some time in October. I was at the cabin for opening day of rifle and with every shot from a nearby property, some very close to ours, a feeling in my gut told me that buck was more than likely dead. I didn’t take a buck last year and shot two does, one being at the cabin late in the season.
This year, I have been focusing more on other areas and only hunted the cabin once. My trail cam at the cabin broke, so I didn’t have any real data about deer in the area, but I figured those does were still around as they always are. I think about them as a kind of insurance policy for rifle season if I don’t do well during bow, always feeling confident I could harvest at least one doe without harming the herd.
I wasn’t even going to hunt on Wednesday. My brother and my dad were at our cabin, but I had to meet an electrician to get an estimate for some expensive work to be done on my house around 4 o’clock. I texted them and told them I couldn’t come but maybe next time. The electrician came and went, and the estimate was even more expensive than I thought. Overall as well, I was having a not so good day, but the three of us aren’t together very often anymore, so I decided to go just meet up with them just on that fact, texted them that on second thought, I was going to come, and got in my truck and started to drive.
I got there at 5 pm; sundown was at 6:13. If I hunt a spot in the evening, I usually like to be set up at least 3 hours before sunset, knowing that I’ll probably see the most movement in the last hour of daylight. Getting in to the woods at this time is often too late, or a good way to spook some deer. Hoping not to spook anything on the way in, I crept up the hilly dirt road to the cabin towards one of the two ladder stands we have set up on the property. On the way up, there was a fresh scrape on the ground at the exact spot I saw this buck three years earlier, and about 20 yards from the scrape on the we saw last year. The ground was still wet from the previous night’s rain, and I was able to sneak into the ladder stand hardly making a sound. I checked the time: 5:13, and texted my brother and said I was set up. He was set up in a stand about 40 yards away said he didn’t even hear me.
A few minutes passed before I heard my dad begin using a predator call in the valley below us, trying to call in one of the massive coyotes that have been munching on yearling deer and turkeys here in the last year or so. Doing this would be good for the deer in the long term, but probably not so good for hunting deer in the short term. I figured this, coupled with my late entry, was the nail in the coffin. We wouldn’t be seeing any deer this evening. The weather was nice, and I decided just to enjoy the night out in the woods. I sent my brother a text to that effect and enjoyed the sit outside.
Pre-rut is heating up here in New York, and about a half hour later I decided to do a few short grunt calls hoping to get lucky. I began scanning to my right and up the hill a bit, where I thought a deer may come down from on the well-used trail. Within a minute, I hear the unmistakable sound of my brother’s bow shooting and a deer running. He hunts with a longbow he has made himself and needs a very close shot to even consider shooting. I looked to my left and see a buck with a huge body trotting off. I was immediately shaking and full of adrenaline. As I watched him, he stopped for a few seconds and looks back to see what the hell that was that just whizzed by him - a telltale sign of a missed shot. I stood up in the stand to prepare to shoot and tried to steady my breathing as I put my release on the bow string. He was about 50 yards away, with many branches and trees in the way of a shot. I do well shooting targets at 40 yards, but I really try to wait for a shot under 30 yards or less, which come often enough.
I messed with the trigger on the release, almost certain that this deer is about to take off running up the hill, but instead he turned, put his head down and started walking right towards me. He was walking the deer trail that for all we know has been there since before people have populated this small mountain, a trail that will give me a perfect broadside shot at 20 yards in a few seconds if he keeps walking at this pace. He kept getting closer. I stood up and get ready to draw, but he stops behind a tree branches right before walking into that lane. His ears and body seemed alert. His head moved around slightly as if he was looking for something. Can he tell something’s up? Can he smell me? See me? Or is he just scanning? He stood still for a few seconds before he relaxed again. He must be looking for whatever other buck made that grunt, looking for a fight with the buck that’s in his turf this close to the rut.
He put his head back down, turned to my left, and began walking directly towards my stand. I can see his body is huge and the antlers are small, and something is off about one side of the rack, and all at once I remember the pictures on the trail cam, the grunt call on the porch. He was facing me, less than 20 yards away, walking closer and closer towards me, but I needed him to turn broadside for a shot. There is now nothing obstructing his view of me in the stand, no branches, no brush, nothing for me to wait for him to get behind to draw.
At this range, its easy to get busted by a deer. A small movement of the foot or hand, a blink, a breath exhaled out the mouth, an accidental cough, and all he has to do is look up or get a whiff of me and it’s over. He is now less than 10 yards away as he turns sideways to continue down the hill behind me. If he gets behind me, I don’t have a clear shot. It has to be now. I’m sure I’ll get spotted when I draw, but I have no choice. I hold my breath and draw. He doesn’t see me. His head is still down. I think “Keep calm and pick a spot,” over and over, my mantra for this year, as I do exactly that. I aimed a few inches behind his front leg, hoping for a double lung and a heart shot. I pulled the trigger on the release and watch the arrow with a lighted nock fly straight through the deer as the sound of this reaches my ear. The shot hit further back than I wanted, but I can see from the stand the arrow is completely covered in blood. I know I hit him, but I immediately am worried it was too far back for a lung shot.
I nocked another arrow as I watched him run down the hill towards the road. He got to about 20 yards away, and began to slow down. He turned and looked back towards the stand. My heart sank in my chest as this seems to confirm my initial thought, that the shot was too far back. A bad shot can be a nightmare, hours of tracking full of guilt and shame, knowing that whatever amount of hours you put into practicing in the off-season just wasn’t enough, that you couldn’t keep calm under pressure, that the animal is suffering needlessly, that even if you do find it, the meat may be ruined, that you caused all this, that you blew it. I think and feel all of this in an instant as he turned his head back towards the road. I thought I saw his legs get weak beneath him. He stumbled as his body began to fail, and he fell over, dead. Only a lung or heart shot stops them this quickly, and I know with certainty now I hit lungs. Relief, excitement, and adrenaline washed over me as I finally breathe a little and smile. I get out my phone and text ‘buck down’ to the group chat my dad and brother are in. My brother had texted me that he missed and to “get ‘em!!” I check the timestamps. From the time he had first seen the buck to the time it was laying dead had happened less than two minutes, and I had been in woods for 39 minutes.
The three of us meet at the deer, celebrated a bit and took some photos. I can now see the buck is missing his G2 and has a small, gnarled left antler, likely due to some kind of injury he faced while still in velvet, and possibly during a fight. Jeff was eager to try out a new knife in his collection and gutted the deer for me. I could see from the entry and exit wound that I hit both lungs and the liver, and there was a ton of blood inside the animal. My dad sat back and enjoyed not having to do any of the work, and within a few minutes, the deer was in the back of my truck.
We went out to eat to celebrate, and I brought the deer home. I butchered him myself and ended up taking 93 lbs of meat off him. I brought about 15 lbs of that to a specialty butcher in Pennsylvania to be turned into some things that are too difficult for me to make at home, salami, kielbasa, hot dogs, and summer sausage. With the added fat used to make these things, I will receive about 35 lbs of processed meat back, bringing the total amount of meat this deer supplied being about 113 lbs, which is roughly what I eat during an entire year; the average American eats about 210 lbs of meat per year.
As I stuffed my freezer full of a year’s worth of fresh, organic meat, I thought about how all of this almost did not happen. My freezer was almost 113 lbs emptier than it is now. I never would have gotten a shot if my brother didn’t miss. The buck almost walked away from Jeff’s shot and walked right by an empty tree stand, never knowing how close he was to death. Instead of celebration, this story would have been one filled with regret, a story you use as motivation to get out into the stand even if you don’t want to, a story that years later still makes you shake your head and wonder what would have happened if you had been there. This was almost a story about bad luck, about missing something that somehow seemed pre-destined, another story that you can’t believe is true about a buck you almost shot. I thought about how you can plan and plan while hunting white tails, have a ton of data, trail cam photos, and hunting logs. You can examine the weather, map out what seem like patterns, predict what you think an animal will do at a certain time, and put together strategies and rules about hunting based on what you think of these things, but the truth is this: just never know when it’s all going to come together, but when it does, you have to be out there to take the shot.