I enjoy “freestyle” bowhunting. Several years ago I got tired of being tethered to specific stand locations and lock-on stands over food plots, funnels, and the like. I purchased a high quality, lightweight climbing treestand. There’s a certain comfort in knowing exactly where you will be hunting on a given afternoon, and being able to sneak in and climb right up into your stand. But the freedom to wander the woods searching for hot locations, and being able to climb just about any tree based on wind direction and the fickle habits of whitetail deer is very attractive to me.
I also do not use trail cameras. I’m somewhat electronically challenged, but the main reason is that I like surprises. Knowing exactly which deer will appear at what time would take away some of the fun of the hunt, the enjoyment of the chess match. One of my most memorable hunts involved a surprise.
It was a beautiful late autumn afternoon. I hiked into a remote corner of my favorite public hunting area and waded a river only to find that the white oak trees, which had been traditionally productive deer magnets, were not dropping acorns. I stood scratching my head and gazing at the nearby bluffs, looking for a spot to salvage my afternoon hunt, when I glimpsed a small seam in the topography on the bluff about three hundred yards up-slope from my position.
“Maybe there’s a trail up there,” I mused.
I cinched my backpack, shouldered my treestand and climbed the steep slope. Sure enough, there was a narrow terrace, a well-worn deer trail, and a big white oak that was dropping acorns. The ground had been scuffed up by deer and turkeys, and there was a tall straight poplar tree perfectly located to serve as an ambush tree. I hung a scent wick fifteen yards in front of me, strapped my stand on the poplar’s trunk and shimmied up to a good vantage point to watch the afternoon’s performance.
An hour before dark, a buck noisily chased a doe down the trail. Despite the sexiest bleats I could muster, I couldn’t get him to stop for a shot. A half hour before dusk I heard a deer walking in the river bottom below me, and with every other step I could hear a distinctive uurp. It sounded like a mature buck.
I picked up my can call and bleated. The deer stopped. I bleated again, and he came toward me like he was on a string. Every time he uurped I bleated.
I slowly stood up and made ready to shoot. The buck came closer and closer. Finally, “he” popped out of the honeysuckle. I was astonished to see that “he” was a big doe. She grunted once more and walked to the scent wick. She turned broadside and I shot her.
The shot looked good, and I thought I heard her crash in the brush. I gathered up my gear and started down the tree. Then I heard a deer snort from the direction my deer had run. Rather than risk bumping a wounded deer, I quietly descended the tree, hiked back down the slope and waded the river in the dark. The rocks were slippery, and my flashlight reflected off of the black water, hiding its depth. I used my bow as a walking stick to avoid an unwanted swim. The long hike back to my truck was eerie; I was re-playing the shot in my head while watching the surrounding forest for those night creatures that lurk just behind the knowledge that nothing out there will grab me. The temperature was already starting to drop and I could see my breath. I knew that the deer wouldn’t spoil if I found it early enough in the morning.
The sun’s rays were just peeking over the horizon as I waded back across the river. I climbed the bluff, carrying a canvas internal frame pack that I have used to haul big game quarters for a quarter century. Except for four nylon game bags, a meat saw, knives, and a knife sharpener, it was empty. I hoped it would be full on the return hike.
I topped the slope and walked straight to the scent wick. Just beyond it I found my broken arrow, matted slick with dried blood. I walked in the direction of the deer’s crash and found the doe fifty yards further, piled up against a big tree. The snort I heard must have come from another deer.
I quartered her and put the meat into the game bags and into my pack. The meat was still warm, but smelled sweet. I hurried, gathering my gear, pulling on my pack and picking my way down the slope, tacking from to tree to tree, hanging on to low limbs to give me stability. I reached the bottom and scurried across a hundred yards of forest to the river. I quickly slipped out of my pack, unloaded it, and lowered the bags into the cold stream. I tied them to a big log, and they slowly moved in the current like a raft of decoys. I sat down on a big rock, knowing that it wouldn’t take long for the meat to chill.
The mist was just burning off of the river. The underbrush along the shore and the river birch were brownish pewter. The hardwoods on the surrounding hills looked like woodsmoke–a misty grey. The air was cool and smelled like fresh cut hickory and damp earth.
This little valley is isolated from the adjacent farmland by the topography, and I felt like I was in Alaska or a mountain wilderness. I listened, and the only sound was the rustle of brown leaves in the breeze, water running over river stones, and a distant crow.
I thought about how the doe had completely surprised me. I had several doe tags, and I love venison. I pondered whether a buck would have made this a better hunt. No, I don’t think so. This was really an exceptional hunt. The surprise made the hunt more enjoyable.
As I sat there on that rock, smoking the cigar I save for special occasions, I thought to myself, “This hunt was way too cool!”
I’m in my early sixties, but I sometimes think and act like a kid: probably the result of being around my three children, who are now in their late twenties and early thirties. Sometimes I regress and say “cool” or “dude”. So, I thought again, “This hunt was way too cool!” I even said it out loud.
Things don’t always go as planned. As hunters, particularly those who compromise our chances to kill animals by using traditional equipment, we almost expect to go home and eat tag soup. But it sure is nice to have a game plan that actually works. To enjoy a pleasant surprise is a bonus–icing on the cake.
I took an outdoor recreation class when I was in college. One of the interesting things I learned was how to objectively evaluate outdoor recreation experiences. The criteria I have developed for my personal hunting adventures are: remote environment, landscape beauty, challenge, wildlife encounters, and having the opportunity to achieve my harvest goals. This hunt was nearly perfect–a nine in my book, and there are very few tens.
I lifted the dripping game bags from the stream and hung them from a limb to drain and chill in the breeze. I sat back down and re-lit my cigar. This was one of those celebrations I look forward to. I was in a beautiful place, an isolated location, with a challenging hike, and a deer in the backpack. Despite the deer’s mistaken identity, the hunt was memorable. Cool!
The author: Bill Carman shot his first whitetail in 1967 with a Pearson Colt, and has hunted big game across North America. He is the Regional Director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Equipment: The author used a 55 lb. Black Widow takedown recurve, Three Rivers arrows, and Zwickey Eskimo broadheads.