The reasons for switching from a compound bow to a traditional bow had been stacking up in my mind. Little did I know that only a few years into the traditional journey I’d have the most memorable whitetail adventure of my life.
It was Halloween night and I had raced out of work to a piece of public land I couldn’t wait to get back into. It had been a month and a half since I had scored my first ever double there on the Wisconsin bow opener. This new area came to light during one of my summer scouting sessions, which my daughter and I both enjoy. We routinely spotted deer coming out of a large block of public timber to feed in a private bean field. Not only did these scouting trips produce a successful opening day, but they would be the gateway to a future hunt I could never have imagined.
Time was limited that afternoon so my plan was to still hunt my way to a back ridge I had never hunted before, assess the layout and hopefully find a promising area to hang a stand the following day. My hunting partner, Craig, who lives a few hours to the north, had come down to hunt this area with me and he was already fifteen feet up in a white oak when my boots hit the leaves. A few hundred yards in I dropped in over the back side of the ridge and caught a glimpse of three does running up and out of the bowl about 150 yards north of me. I slowly made my way down onto a little bench that ran along the upper third of the ridge where the deer had disappeared.
My hope was that a buck would cut their trail and follow that same path out of the valley. I slowly eased my way in that direction, taking a few steps then stopping to look and listen. The woods were dead silent with no wind to speak of on the leeward side of the ridge. The leaves were so crisp that I felt like every creeping step, no matter how slowly set down, announced my presence to the entire forest. Three steps, stop, listen. Three steps, stop, listen. Three steps, stop, crunch…crunch…crunch…crunch. The telltale saunter of a lone buck topping the ridge above me. As my knees dropped to the soil, my heart leapt to my throat.
The crunch of the leaves grew louder until the sound of hooves met the body of a large deer. His pace was steady, as if he had in mind a destination but was in no real hurry to get there. Sweeping his head back and forth while never breaking stride, he scanned the thermals for that first receptive doe. I was hoping he’d continue down alongside me and offer a broadside shot, but his meandering nose was now leading him straight toward me. I drew my bow the moment his left antler appeared from behind the last tree separating us. From eight yards at eye level I knew if I didn’t take him the moment his vitals cleared the tree, he’d spot this odd creature crouched down just a few steps ahead of him and come unglued. His chest cleared the big white oak and the arrow hit him in the crease where his shoulder met the brisket. At that angle, from ground level, I was sure the arrow would bury into his lungs. He jumped, the arrow snapped and he trotted off 25 yards, turned and looked back trying to figure out what had just run into him from right under his nose. I considered nocking another arrow, but with him scanning the tree trunks in my direction I didn’t want to see him blow out of there if he caught my movement.
After a few hour-long seconds he limped away flicking his tail low as he slowly disappeared over a small hump along the ridge side. A few minutes passed, and with him out of view I slipped over to inspect my arrow. Lying there on the shriveled hardwood leaves was my arrow shaft minus seven inches off the business end. With no blood to speak of near the arrow, and the suspicion that he was still relatively close by, I decided to back out the way I had come.
I reached the field edge as the sun was not yet submerged in the distant haze. As darkness closed in I waited for Craig to appear down the field edge. I couldn’t make out a clear emotion. Thoughts of a dead buck laying feet from where I left him tossed about with worry of a wounded animal that would never be found. That night we scrutinized every angle of my shot, sizing the broken arrow shaft with a deer decoy and countless anatomy charts trying to justify a mortal hit. After a sleepless night we beat the sun to the ridge top. The first beams of light lit up a splash of blood where the buck last stood the night before.
“Blood!” I called to Craig as the early morning caffeine and adrenaline simultaneously kicked in. We followed the red drizzle down the valley with high hopes that we’d find him quickly and have Craig back in his tree by late morning. To our dismay, after only seventy-five yards the blood trail dried up like an old well, and we were forced to start following our gut instincts.
We combed the valley bottom for a few hundred yards until the woods opened up to a CRP field. A heavy deer trail at the end of the valley was easy to spot. There on the right side of the parted grass was a single smudge of blood on a tip of Timothy grass. We spent close to an hour searching every deer trail, hoping to come across another small grassy paintbrush tipped with blood. Even in the sea of grass and crisscrossing deer trails, Craig was somehow able to find a few more specks of blood leading east across a few hundred yards of field. Pushing ahead, I came across another hunter while circling a pond at the end of the CRP field. He was heading out from his morning sit and kindly offered to help us search, but by this point I’d have felt sorry for wasting his time on what looked to be a futile effort. Looping back toward the last blood, which was a few hundred yards back, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There was a huge splash of blood coming out of the grass leading up the next ridge.
The buck had headed toward a block of private land so I went up to the nearby house and fortunately was granted permission to continue tracking. The excitement of fresh blood was short lived and soon we were back to tracking smears of blood on saplings, clumps of hair on a barbed wire fence and eventually overturned leaves where he must have been struggling to change elevation.
After six hours of meticulous tracking we found ourselves in a standing soybean field, following blood only visible on the top of the stalks. We couldn’t help but chuckle a bit, when after all that time spent hiking through the bluffs, the blood trail lead us literally within feet of where my car was parked. It was midday and the crisp morning had transformed into a rather balmy first day of November. We dropped Craig’s bow off, lost some layers of clothing and turned my car upside down for anything else to drink.
A phone call to another landowner across the road and more access granted meant we weren’t giving up yet. The blood trail was real spotty even in the tall grass but at least the worn trails gave us somewhere to fall back to. It was Craig’s turn to loop ahead from the last pin drop of blood I found. Our depressive mental state was flipped on its head when the buck exploded out of the grass no more than ten yards from Craig. The brown bruiser splashed through a drainage ditch and bounded away. If we hadn’t been so dehydrated, that buck may have spooked the last bit of fluid right out of us. After an entire day of following what seemed to be a ghost we’d never see in the flesh, we were in awe that there actually was an animal at the end of this trail. Instead of bidding us adieu and flying across the open field, the buck slowed to a hobble and turned north into the thick cover of the marsh. He had to have been hurting badly. I found a spot to jump the ditch and Craig directed me to where we could last see him with binoculars. Between the water and the adrenaline dump, the blood again started to flow from his wound. Now knowing he was being tailed the old buck abandoned the heavy deer trails and lead us down a tiny ditch line toward a log jam. From here on out I took the lead with an arrow nocked and at the ready. We were about to climb through the tangle of toppled willows when the buck rose up once again. As he tried to escape his short-lived hiding place, his tines bashed the heavy dead limbs and wouldn’t allow a clean exit. This slowed him just long enough for me to do what Craig was so adamantly yelling for me to do. “Shoot! Shoot!” I sent an arrow his way from about twenty yards as he angled up to higher ground. He stopped on a slight rise and looked back at us panting like an overworked bird dog, then walked off out of view.
We ran to follow his blood trail up out of the marsh and over the corner of a cut cornfield and that’s where we found my second arrow, covered in blood. Somehow my running shot had connected. We peeked back down into the marsh and there he lay, still alive with his chin on the ground looking up at us hoping we’d pass him by. I drew my bow but before I could find a clear shot he was off again, crashing back down into the swamp. We waited for a minute, watching him in our binoculars, hoping he’d fall. He stopped in some tall Canary grass trying to catch his breath. Then a light breeze kissed the back of our necks and sunk right down to him. That sent him off again heading into the center of the swamp, so off again we ran.
Craig went up to my left to try and keep him from crossing onto a different property as I chugged after the sound of the crashing deer. I heard a huge splash, and just ahead of me found a pond full of rippling waves. I raced around the pond and there he was, piled up on a small creek bank. He hadn’t yet expired but he had conceded the race. With a final arrow to the vitals it was all over. I yelled out to Craig, “We got him!” The reality of our physical and mental exhaustion finally hit us as we sat on that creek bank. Admiring an amazing animal, there wasn’t much more jubilance than a handshake and a few whispers of “Wow.” Many seasoned hunters admit the whitetail’s will to live is second to none. After this experience I couldn’t agree more. We had been on his track for eight hours and traversed a mile of rocky bluffs and half mile of marsh.
Upon further inspection we found out that the first arrow had never penetrated the brisket but instead deflected back and had run along the armpit severing enough muscle to cause the humerus bone to snap under his weight. The second arrow, which I never would have taken if he hadn’t been badly injured already, had caught him in the back leg adding to the blood loss. After an exhausting drag, wading the rocky creek back to the road, I apologized to my friend for stealing his entire day of hunting to track my deer. He wasn’t upset at all. I’m sure he had felt in some way he also had gotten a deer that day.
As we headed for home we saw a pheasant hunter walking the tall grass right where we had jumped the buck an hour earlier. When we returned the next morning looking to get Craig a deer, the standing beans which had saved our final stretch of blood had all been harvested. We had been so close to losing that buck by pheasant hunter or farmer if they had come through any earlier.
I learned more about shot placement, tracking, and a deer’s will to survive in those two days than I had known in all my years of hunting. As hunters, we always strive for a clean kill on the animals we pursue. Sometimes through bad luck, or even poor judgement by the hunter, the animal does not go down easily. It’s in these times a hunter’s heart is tested. Although my experience ended with a recovered animal, the lessons learned will remain with me far longer than the meat will. I can honestly say I would have never found that buck if Craig hadn’t been trudging that ground beside me. To me that buck was as much his as it was mine.
First-time contributor Brian Sadler lives near Baraboo, Wisconsin with his wife and two young children. He works in the land conservation field. He sold his compound to purchase a longbow and hasn’t regretted it for a second.
Equipment Notes: On this hunt the author carried a reflex/deflex longbow, carbon arrows with 100-gr brass inserts and 125-gr Magnus two-blade broadheads.