“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” -Ernest Hemingway
I’m sitting in our den next to the wood stove in what my wife, Valerie, and I fondly refer to as a “heat coma.” The snow and bitter cold has me holed up so I read and work on a Sunday school lesson. Our cur dog, Tug, is in his usual spot next to the stove, sleeping soundly. I ask him to move so I can feed the fire and he does so reluctantly. Fire sufficiently stoked, and dog back on his rug I go back to my studying. Setting my bible aside for a break I pick up a large, leather photo album and flip slowly through the pages. I come to a photograph of a handsome, young seven point buck and, tilting my head back, I think back to the hunt as I doze off.
My hunt had not started well that damp, chilly October morning. I typically try to be in my hunting spot an hour or so before sunrise, but this morning I was a bit behind schedule. I was caught between rushing to beat daybreak and going slow enough to avoid breaking a sweat. After finally making it to my pre-scouted tree things seemed to be looking up until I realized my climbing treestand cables were too short to go around the tree’s base. I hadn’t picked out an alternate tree so I quickly began searching the skyline for a suitable perch. New site chosen, I was finally elevated and ready–and not a moment too soon. I looked down and was surprised to see a deer standing a few yards away. Obviously neither of us was dialed in, since we ended up a few feet apart without either of us being alerted.
The woods were still fairly dark and the deer blended in with its surroundings. My eyes were struggling to make out details of what I now realized was a buck, when a second deer approached from my left. Another small buck. As the seconds passed and the first buck’s shoulder came into focus, I stayed surprisingly calm. Usually, I am like a piece of Jell-O by this time. I could now see the buck had seven stubby points on his nicely spread rack. I recognized him from several game camera pictures, and knew he was the most mature buck in his little band of brothers, which included two twin six points. Now I was standing, with my bow arm extended, as I waited for the deer to turn slightly and step forward with its near-side leg. Legal shooting time had arrived, and with the buck at less than ten yards I mentally bore down on the shoulder crease and slowly began pulling the string to my cheek.
I open my eyes and the memory fades. The fire needs tended to. I turn my face away as I open the door to the stove and shove in a piece of wood. Nothing heats like seasoned hickory. A shower of sparks pops out at me when I stir the coals. The room is dimly lit and I’m in a nostalgic mood as I return to my recliner and pick up the album again.
On the back of each picture I’ve written the location and date of the hunt. Out of curiosity, I turn to the photograph of the last deer that fell to one of my arrows and remove it to check the date. It was a large doe; my first with traditional equipment and taken on a farm owned by a friend who is no longer with us. It was a special place and I’m thankful for the memories. I flip the picture over, read the date and am surprised. Five years to the day had passed between taking the doe and my encounter with the seven point. It’s hard for me to believe that so much time has gone by. Four hunting seasons with no deer is my longest dry spell since I started bowhunting. It’s not that I stopped hunting during that period. In fact, I was on a quest to take a deer, any deer, the entire time.
After taking the doe with my recurve and shooting a few pigs in more southern climes I was feeling confident and congratulating myself for successfully transitioning to traditional tackle. In bowhunting, as in most things, the difficulty of the hunt is directly proportional to the sense of accomplishment that comes once it’s over. Looking for just such a challenge, I made it my goal to shoot a mature deer with my longbow while hunting on the ground. Each fall for four hunting seasons I made this my goal and each winter for four years I was left with an unfilled tag and an empty freezer.
There were close calls–so many close calls–but I couldn’t put the pieces together. If I set up looking east, the deer approached from the west. I would be set up along a trail, watching a deer approach only to have the wind switch directions. There were house dogs and ATVs and a dozen other intrusions that seemed to conspire against me. There were shots where I only counted coup and one wounding shot that I still haven’t been able to scrub from my memory. Each close encounter was exciting, but as the days and seasons added up so did the frustration. Frustration added more pressure until I got to the point I wasn’t having fun anymore. I needed to take a break from my journey and reset.
I don’t remember releasing the arrow or seeing the impact. I do remember how hard the buck charged off, and seeing my arrow fall to the ground on the entry side. He ran up the hill away from me and then turned right onto an old logging road. He followed this for a short distance then turned right again to head back down the hill and out of sight. I thought I heard a crash but my heart was beating so hard in my ears that I couldn’t be sure.
After the shot I felt like all of the strength in my legs was gone and I had to hang on to the tree to keep my balance. After I regained my composure I climbed down and found my arrow. The Zwickey broadhead was broken off and missing and only half the remaining shaft was bloodied. I had no idea where the arrow had struck and to my dismay, there was no blood trail. I waited half an hour then followed the buck’s path of travel. As I made the final turn down the hill where I had heard the crash, I saw him. He had only gone about a hundred yards. The arrow had been perfect and completely penetrated the chest before lodging in the far shoulder. Kneeling beside the handsome buck I took a few moments to admire him and to enjoy what had just happened.
Personal goals are wonderful, but sometimes we need to take a side trail to enjoy the view before returning to the path to our objective. I compare my long dry spell to a canoe trip I went on with my family. We planned to paddle an eight mile stretch of river with frequent stops along the way for swimming, fishing and photography. Halfway into the trip ominous thunder in the distance warned us of an approaching afternoon storm. Racing the storm we paddled non-stop to our takeout point. We conquered the task but missed out on all the fun along the way. I will still go for a mature deer from the ground with my longbow–I’m more determined than ever–but once in a while I plan to climb a tree and see what walks by.
Flipping the pages of the album I stop on another photo of my oldest son, now nearly thirteen, holding my hand as we walk the range to pull arrows from a target. He may have been five at the time and barely came up past my knee. Time sure does have a way of getting away from us. The weather is supposed to be a bit warmer tomorrow. I think I’ll see if he wants to get out and shoot his bow.