Not all good things start at the beginning, sometimes they start at the end. Though you could argue that it isn’t possible, that it doesn’t make sense, in this case it’s precisely what happened. For the past few years I’ve bounced back and forth between traditional equipment and modern, always hoping to make the full conversion but needing to see that it was possible to be effective with a longbow, for myself. This year was no different. It was late January and the weather in the Northeast was frigid and in the single digits with winds topping 25 mph. It was cold, and I was hunting public land, and nobody would be out on a day like this, but it was my next to last day to be in the woods and I didn’t want to squander the waning season opportunity. Though we are no stranger to these temperatures in New Jersey, it seems that more and more often I find myself hunting late season in temperatures touching the 50s and even sometimes the 60s. The cold was uncomfortable, but actually a welcome change. With snow on the ground and howling winds it seemed like every bird in the woods wanted to be out and wanted to inspect my ghillie jacket. It is my strong belief that the woods speak in unison, or speak a unified language, because it always seems that when one animal is out, they all are. When you’re seeing birds you’re seeing squirrels, and when you’re seeing squirrels you’re seeing deer, and when you’re seeing deer you’re seeing turkey, and so on. Today felt like an actual winter afternoon hunt.
I was high up a tree in my climbing stand–way high–higher than I had been two days earlier when a doe stepped out in front of me at last light, immediately looked up at me, and trotted away. I froze for a good six hours, only to have a deer within range for less than a second. I realized at this point how ridiculous we must look to deer: aluminum climbing treestand; giant knit hat, several layers of clothing topped with a puffy jacket, shin-high rubber boots and bibs; a backpack lashed to the side of the treestand complete with pee jug hanging out and a quiver full of arrows in it; a swing arm bow holder screwed into the side of a tree; and finally a 60-odd inch bow dangling in the wind. Throw in the occasional text message and I’m certain that deer sometimes see us as dunk-tank clowns suspended in the air by a small platform, hurling our insults to their sense, though they be wordless in this instance. In any event, I chose to combat that spectacle this evening by going higher up in the tree and pulling out the ever-awkward, yet effective, ghillie suit. To solidify my illusion of absence in the woods I turned my cell phone off and avoided the well-wishes of friends prompting me to “Do yourself a favor and not take that longbow out today.”
It was a perfect afternoon, cold and windy, but refreshing. Birds and squirrels were everywhere. I practiced drawing and maneuvering my bow when I settled into my stand to avoid the awkwardness and surprise that sometimes happens when a 62″ bow is in a tangled treestand. It can sometimes match the experience of moving furniture through your front door. The rhythm of the hunt was at a peak, that moment when you finally get settled in and think how lucky you are to be out and hunting without a problem, especially on public land. There is only one other time during an afternoon hunt that my head swivels as much as it did right then, and that is right before dark, of course, and usually out of desperation. Once in a great while something actually shows up in this immediate moment, before you’re truly ready to go, and the mind quickly struggles with the luck of such immediacy vs. the possibility of ending a hunt on a moment’s notice. I’ve never been able to quite identify why an immediate payoff could be less desirable on some occasions. The goal of being out in the woods hunting is, of course, to harvest some type of quarry, yet faced with the possibility of ending the chase and returning to the warmth and comforts of home as a successful hunter, and opting not to, surely waters the unknown roots of our history as humans.
As the peak of immediacy sloped into the trough of enduring, and the cold took effect on muscle and bone, I started to realize that despite being in the woods often I’m relatively knowledge-less when it comes to the objects and life that surrounded me. There were so many different birds and different trees and plants, and I knew very few of them by name. One of these days, I swear, I’m going to bring a guide book out and identify everything I can, sort of a language immersion experience, to unlock some kind of secrets that may be in front of my face that I can’t yet recognize. I feel it’s like being in a foreign country that you love, and not being able to speak the language. Soon the chop of the wind began to take effect on my exposed face and I pulled my wool gaiter up around my nose and ears and buried my face into the collar of my coat. The sun pointed out the folly of my set-up as it arced over my head and began to shine brightly in my eyes. I realized that for the bulk of my afternoon I’d be squinting out the enormous rays that somehow seemed brighter in the chill of the afternoon. The position of the sun at this point, roughly the 2 o’clock position, told me that I had several hours left before dark, which is a mountain of time when hunting highly pressured deer on public land.
Shortly into my coat collar hibernation–could have been 15 minutes, could have been an hour–I glanced up and around at what I swore were footsteps over the restless wind. A little to my right I noticed a short sapling with huge broad leaves shaking unnaturally in what must have been some kind of vortex of wind, or maybe the ghost of a buck attempting a rub. The huge dried leaves sounded exactly like a deer walking, and if I didn’t have more compassion for the woods I’d surely cut it down on my way out to avoid the false alarm qualities of its foliage. I took the opportunity to glance around at my surroundings as the cold felt twice as bitter now that I’d broken the hearth in which I contained myself. It was still very early in the afternoon to be expecting anything, but I trusted my eyes when I saw three deer standing about 50 yards behind me. One, a doe, was fully exposed and I could make out two other sets of legs in the tangle behind me. Some signal in my brain triggered a nerve, which sent a signal to my heart, which increased its rate two-fold. The side effects of this were light shaking in my extremities and butterflies in my stomach. My reaction was to quickly grab my longbow and get ready for a shot, which is exactly what I did.
The lead doe started to walk toward me. She was on the exact trail that I had set up on and I wondered how many of the tracks that I saw imprinted in the mud while scouting belonged to her. She closed the distance, step by step, and the other two deer were not moving behind her. She was 40 yards and then she was 30 yards and I started picking out the point at which I hoped to take a shot based on her path. The world around me was shielded out by blinders that only allowed me to focus on and hear her. I picked out an opening at 15 yards and before I knew it, or even saw it happen, she was standing perfectly still, slightly quartering, in that opening. I glanced back at the other two deer, hoping to identify them and hoping they hadn’t identified me. I briefly wondered if one might be a buck and quickly decided that it didn’t matter. I focused back on the lead doe, let out a light nervous breath, picked my spot and drew. At 53 pounds the weight wasn’t present, unlike the many hours spent shooting at a target in a tee shirt, wondering if I could drop a few pounds off of my draw. I searched for my anchor in the corner of my mouth, underneath the heavy wool face wrap. I settled, picked a spot, relaxed, and released. The arrow flexed away from the bow in some kind of time trap that allowed me to see the rotations of the fletchings, almost individually. In slow motion the feathers looked huge, much bigger than I’m used to, like they were engulfing the deer behind them. A slight duck and then a lurch forward by the deer was what proceeded time returning to its normal speed. In an instant the moment of the shot was sucked into reality and I saw the arrow smash into the ground. The deer exploded out of the leaves and snow, made a leaping arc of a run, and stopped 25 yards to my right. It was a moment of confusion for me and the deer, who was flicking its tail back and forth and looking around questioningly. I was massively let down as I realized that I missed, though I don’t know how I did. I looked back to the arrow and saw it sticking in the ground and the fletchings looked clean. I looked back at the doe who was still standing in the same spot flicking her tail. I saw one of the other deer had exposed herself by taking a few steps forward, yet the second of the two remained concealed in the holly brush. While my focus was on the rear two deer, I heard a light snapping and trotting in what must have been the first doe leaving. I looked back toward her and saw her lightly stumble to her right and then fall, motionless. I was wildly confused. The rear two deer began to walk forward and I was straining my eyes in a violent squint trying to make out what the original doe was doing. I looked back toward the arrow I released and wondered how I missed it the first time. In the snow was the evidence that my shot was good. A large arcing trail of crimson framed against the snow appeared to be blazing at me as brightly as a flame. I was cautious but optimistic as I began to feel that emotion that only hunters know; joy, reverence, and sorrow mixed together to create a feeling that we’ve yet to name. I sat back in my stand to digest the relative disbelief I was in and try to process what this moment represented for me.
In short time I lowered my bow from the stand and climbed down. I didn’t have to walk far as I could see the deer from the base of my tree. The moment was official and I graciously proceeded toward the deer. The feeling upon reaching it was unmatched by any feeling I’ve gathered to this point in a decade and a half of hunting and a lifetime of snapping branches and throwing stones in the woods. The wood and arc of my longbow created some kind of symmetry and naturalness as it lay across the deer and I thought of how unobtrusive it seemed. I sat back to absorb the moment and thank the heavens for placing me there and noticed in the distance two large white tails bounding away.
The last day of the season arrived a few days later and I considered climbing back into my stand for one last go at the season. With the previous memory still fresh in my mind, and a freezer full of meat, I realized that this day didn’t signify an end, but rather a beginning. With a fist full of stumping arrows I headed back to the woods in search of sheds.