After a short four hours of sleep, I walked in under the grey light of a Friday morning. Halfway around the hill I froze, as I could hear antlers clicking together as a couple of young bucks sized each other up. I wanted to see them, so I slowly continued around the waist of the hillside. All I could see were two bounding whitetails fleeing up the hill: turns out they saw me first.
I knew from satellite imagery that the hillside offered a ridge sparse with trees big enough for a climb, but it’s where I wanted to be. As I made my way through the bit of cover between the grassy hillside and the ridge, there stood one red oak, a black walnut, and a rather broad trunked red cedar. I thought to climb the oak, but its many lower limbs wouldn’t offer the shooting I needed for this spot. The walnut, on the other hand was nearly a bare stalk, much like the crooked man, from the film The Conjuring 2, offering all the shooting in the world, but no cover.
The author’s view of the valley with the “crooked man” walnut tree in it.
While pondering which tree to ascend, I spotted movement, maybe 500 yards away, on a flat across the fence from me. There were six deer running circles, dare I say, chasing. I knew now that I wouldn’t be climbing at all, for sake of less movement and noise. If there were that many deer in the wide open, how many were in the cover of the canopy around me? I opted to drop my pack and tree stand behind the trunk of the cedar, quietly sweep away the leaves from the ground, and kneel in front of it. This would have to do.
My decision to sit tight on the ridge allowed me the opportunity to count many deer on the opposite ridge across the small valley. In groups of two to six, I watched 22 deer walk the ridge; feeding, playing, and seemingly teaching some of the young to stay alert.
The final group of the morning made their way back to the south and fed and played outside of a point of timber for an hour. There was enough distance between us that I could occasionally stand and let my legs wake back up after long periods of squatting and kneeling.
After enough fun in the sun, the lead doe made up her mind to go and follow the south fence line to the west. From my position, once they drifted into the bottom of the valley, I could no longer see them. The junction to the west fence line that separated me from all of the action was a mere 200 yards below me, down the ridge.
I thought to myself, “If they do on this ridge what they did on that ridge, they’re going to end up in your lap.” The way I saw it, they had two choices at the bottom of the valley floor: leave the private land and move west through the oak bottom, or leave the private land and climb north to visit me.
Ten minutes or so had passed and I’d seen no sign of the doe group that I hoped would be working up the ridge toward me. I told myself I’d give it 30 minutes and then I’d slip back through the saplings and brush to the west side of the tree line. From there I could quietly descend the ridge through the tallgrass and try to see if they had gone through the oak bottom.
I eased up to stretch my legs again and, while peering down the ridge, I caught a shimmer of sunlight reflecting off of something, maybe 60 yards down. I thought at first it was a turkey, for as shiny as it was, but then I saw her head and ears lift out of the grass. “They’re gonna do it! She’s coming right at you.”
I dropped slowly back to my knees and put tension on the bowstring. As she closed the distance between us, I noted her mood every time she’d lift her head from taking a bite. She was calm, content even. Each time she looked ahead I wondered if she’d pick me off, remembering that I was wearing my solid green Henley for warmth, with no camo or plaid as an outer layer. Then I thought of how many animals I’d had in front of me that never picked me off because of my lack of hunting fashion. Confidence level: 10.
The walnut tree that I’d earlier pondered climbing was situated directly between her and me now. I told myself that the deer trail I’d used to get through the brushy edge of the ridge was probably the trail she was going to use, but doubt crept in and told me she might continue her side hill ascent and walk past me on my left side. This wouldn’t be an issue: I was kneeling with my right side toward the cedar in anticipation of a shot to the trail, but I always practice twisting at the waist to shoot behind me, so I was prepared for either angle of approach.
She was finally on top of the ledge, still walking toward me, stopping to eat, looking around, with that walnut tree still between us. All I could think was, “Left or right, left or right, come on, left or right!” I started my breathing regimen to slow my heart rate, four seconds inhaling through the nose, four seconds holding my breath, four seconds exhaling through the mouth, repeat… She looked up and held steady, staring with intent toward me. “Don’t breathe, don’t breathe, don’t breathe…” she was content again.
She angled back and forth for a few steps, left, right, left again, right again, finally two steps to her left, my right, onto the trail. “She’s going to smell your ground scent,” nose down, steps forward, nibbles something, vegetation, maybe an acorn, steps forward, looks over her left shoulder. I’m already at full draw. She stood still, eating, and I asked myself, “Are you ready?” I was not. I was on autopilot, with zero control. In a split second I told myself, “Setup’s done, aim, what’s this mess?, line up, okay final job, focus on tension.” The shot breaks.
The white and wild turkey shield-cut fletch was off in a beautiful streak from the bow. Traditional bowhunters and archers become obsessed with traditional archery by way of the beauty of watching a well-tuned arrow fly. The shot was a mere 12 yards, but in the moment it could have been 30, watching the slow-motion flight of that cedar arrow until it hit its mark.
My mind’s eye told me the shot was right behind the elbow, low, double lung. The arrow was clean through, evident of the hole in her ribcage. She jumped twice, looked around in a slight panic, and simply walked the trail out toward the tallgrass.
After sitting for a few minutes, I slipped over to look at the shot site and look for the arrow. It was there, broadhead buried in the ground, a beautiful crimson flag in the sun. I looked at the trail and saw just a tiny drop of blood, with splash lines pointing toward the tallgrass, and I wondered what the rest of the track was going to look like.
I couldn’t wait much longer…
The shot replayed in my head, low double lung, behind the elbow. Her reaction, exiting at a walking pace, no exaggerated gait, maybe a slight confusion as to what happened, but certainly not overly alarmed.
I raised the arrow to my nose, no gut, no bile, just blood, clean blood with small bubbles, indicating a lung hit. With no reason to doubt myself and what I expected to be the end result, I made the decision to track her.
I moved slowly to the trail to look for sign. There, another drop of blood, a few yards from the impact site. Fresh tracks pointing west that I’d not seen before led me to more blood. Again, a very small droplet.
Then she entered the tallgrass. The grass wasn’t overly tall, but it was dry, so the old trick of following altered or disturbed vegetation wasn’t working. Blood was becoming extremely difficult to find, and that which I did find was more of the previous sort, small droplets. I kept asking myself, “Why is she not bleeding much?”
From the position of the last blood found, she would’ve had three choices for direction of travel: west along the hillside, northwest up the hill, or southeast down the hill. The other members of her group were seen and heard entering the timber below me after the shot, so my instinct was to go southeast toward the oak bottom. The problem was that the sign, or lack of sign, wasn’t telling me to go southeast. I can be stubborn and hard to move without reason.
I stuck an arrow into the ground at last blood and started up the hill. I found nothing within five yards to indicate that she’d gone this direction, so I returned to last blood. Now, to confirm or rule out due west travel along the hillside. Out to five yards: nothing.
My phone buzzed in my pocket: Aaron had made it to the area from where he was hunting and wanted to know if it was safe to walk in along the top of the hill to my location (we share real-time locations with each other via Google maps). I told him I didn’t think she went that direction, so if she’s alive, there shouldn’t be a risk of jumping her up along the top.
Several minutes passed. I was still slightly fanning out from last blood when I heard Aaron approaching on top of the hill, then I saw him. He stood up there, panned over the hillside, raised his arm, pointing, and said “She’s right there.” The grass was just tall enough that from halfway down the hill, I couldn’t see her. I walked forward a bit, and yes indeed, there she lay, maybe 60 yards from where she was hit.
My instincts had told me she would have gone in that direction, but I needed visual reasoning to trust it. I’m working on this with myself, in my daily life: trusting my instincts, believing what I can’t readily see. Instinct/ Faith: same difference.
I slowly approached her and it was evident by her position that she peacefully walked there, bedded down, and expired.
We talked it over, and decided it would be a good idea to pack her out so we wouldn’t have to give up the evening hunt, working on her in camp. After I filled out my tag and attached it to her leg, we moved her into the shade and I draped my Henley over her to keep my scent on her (to deter coyotes) while we took my stand back to the truck. It was a short hike to this spot, so making two trips wasn’t a big deal, otherwise I would have elected to take the meat and the stand in one haul.
I’ll save the details of breaking her down to pack, but we figured out why she hadn’t bled well on the trail. I recalled the shot placement as being tight to the onside leg, just behind the elbow, and her standing what I thought was perfect broadside. In reality, the entrance was just in front of the third rib from the back and the exit was exactly where I thought the entrance was on the opposite side. She must have been slightly quartering away when I shot. Maybe she had her leg back when I shot and my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. The broadhead clipped the front of the stomach on the way in and the grain and grass from the stomach clogged the entrance and exit holes severely.
All in all, it was a great experience, and one that I’ll never forget, marking the end of a drought for harvests since 2017 for me. Thanks for the help in handling this one Aaron.
“How many deer have you counted twice? Would you just shoot one already?”
“Uhm… buzz off. I’m pretty sure I just low double lunged a doe.”
A hunt and conversation I won’t soon forget.