The alarm had been going off for some time when I finally reached around to hit the snooze button. I should have been bouncing out of bed. It was the second week of November, and for a bowhunter, this is the time of year dreamt about during those other 50 weeks. The whitetail rut was in full swing, a cold front had finally brought the temperatures in Oklahoma to a tolerable level, and I still had one buck tag left to fill. But instead of rushing to the shower, I crept out to the living room to check on our dog, Neiran. It had been a rough night. The cancer had entered his lungs weeks before, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get comfortable enough to sleep. Jen and I had spent most of the night by his side, uncertain if this would be our last with him. I was grateful that he was still sleeping peacefully, even if it was only for a short time.
I felt a sigh of relief as cold rain bounced off the walkway when I stepped onto the back porch with my first cup of coffee. Mother nature had made the decision for me, and for the second time that morning, I was grateful. It was just easier to blame the weather for staying in.
I lit a small bundle of kindling in the fireplace, and soon had a nice little fire to help take off the early morning chill. Nieran slowly made his way over to the other dog bed beside my favorite chair. I petted my old friend until he finally got comfortable enough to close his eyes again, feeling the speed of his shallow breaths against my hands as I stared into the dancing flames. The heaviness of what lay ahead overtook my thoughts.
Jen joined us an hour later. “How is he doing?” she asked.
“He got a little rest,” I said.
“How about you?” she continued.
“I’m a bit too restless,” I said. Jen stepped out the back door to check on the chickens. When she came back in, I asked her if it was still raining.
“No, it is clearing up,” she replied. “Are you going to head out to the woods for a bit?” I just sipped my coffee. “I think it would be good for you,” she said. “I can text you if anything changes. I’ll be here all day.” As usual, she was right. When things are weighing on me, I need to retreat to the woods. It’s always been that way. Reluctantly, I got myself together, strung my hickory flatbow, and told them both I would be back in a few hours.
The walk down our road and onto the old power line felt bitter sweet. The air still carried a slight chill, and I found two new rubs along the logging trail near my stand. On almost any other occasion I would have found a level of excitement in all of this, but not that day. Regardless, I climbed into my stand and did my best to try and engage my instincts. The rustling of the sparse leaves left hanging on the trees brought me some relief. I nestled against the old oak as if it were a rough-barked security blanket and waited.
Thirty minutes later, I heard a low grunt in the distance. I gave out a few soft bleats, and like a moth to the flame, a small 6-pointer made his way within 20 yards of my position, continuing to grunt and rake his antlers on a few small saplings along the way. I’d been fortunate enough to take a similar size buck a couple of weeks prior, and with only one buck tag left, I decided to let this youngster walk on over the hill. I never even lifted my bow from its holder, but it was enough excitement to engage my senses fully and clear my mind. I was hunting now.
As the day progressed I watched multiple bucks along the ridge, all moving steadily behind some unresponsive does. It was the height of the rut cycle, and I was in a natural bottleneck. I was beginning to feel the excitement. With 16 years of marriage to draw on, it was clear that Jen had been right—again.
Then I caught movement in a nearby thicket. I couldn’t tell if it was a buck, but I could tell by its size that it was a mature deer. I made another soft bleat. The deer paused for nearly a minute, then started slowly moving along. I made another bleat, this time longer and more enticing. The deer paused again and then gently turned in my direction and started heading down the ridge. The hickory bow found its way off the hanger and into my hands this time as I got into position.
At about 60 yards, the deer stepped out of the thicket and into the oak flat. Two things became glaringly obvious at that moment. First, this deer had no antlers on its head. Second, it was walking with a bad limp. As the deer took a few more strenuous steps, I could see a carbon shaft and three small fletchings protruding from her left hip, scarcely more than an inch from her spine. From the angle of what arrow I could see, I guessed that it had most likely penetrated her paunch. The death that awaited such a beautiful animal would be bad, even by Mother Nature’s standards.
She slowly worked her way across the flat, staying on the edge of the thicket. Her route brought her to an area where three trails cross and would provide me with the only real shot opportunity-—sort of. You see, the doe presented herself broadside at nearly 30 yards. With a guy holding a hickory self-bow and some self-nocked arrows, that’s a pretty good stretch. It was time to make some hard decisions, and I only had a few seconds to make them.
This was certainly not the first time I have had to make some hard decisions with bow in hand. In fact, there have been numerous times over the years. It started with my very first deer, a small spike, on our family farm. Unfortunately, the spike had walked almost directly under my stand. Not having practiced such a shot, my arrow struck high, hitting the buck in the spine and paralyzing his back legs. He was standing on the edge of a hill and instantly fell and slid several feet, settling under a canopy of limbs that I simply couldn’t feed an arrow through. I had to climb down the tree with my rickety Baker climber—a slow and arduous process made worse by the bellowing sounds less than 20 yards from my tree. I had to hit the ground, catch my breath, try to gain some semblance of composure while my young, hormonal body was under attack by a barrage of emotions (some of which would take a few years to understand), and then steady myself enough to make a finishing shot. I wasn’t even old enough to drive, but as the buck drew its final breath after the fatal second arrow and I knelt down beside him, I reached a new level of maturity that fewer and fewer young people are able to find these days. I understood, as I pulled the Schrade knife from its sheath with one hand and wiped tears with the other, that the choices I make can and will bring serious consequences.
My father had told me it was important to practice those vertical shots, but I had failed to do so because I could barely imagine a deer being within 20 yards of me, let alone walking directly under my tree. Because I chose not to practice that particular shot, a marvelous animal suffered unnecessarily. The second shot had been nearly perfect, and I saw how quickly a sharp, well-placed broadhead could do the job. I realized the seriousness of being a bowhunter and that I needed to be as close to perfect as I could be with a bow. So, I worked very hard at shooting in all kinds of situations, understanding the anatomy of animals, and where to aim depending on their position. I became very confident in my shooting ability. And even with all this dedication, as the years progressed, I realized that there would still be hard choices to make.
My good friend, Allen Schnopp, used to say that bowhunting is a rare science in which, try as we might, we can never account for all the variables in the small window of time we are allotted. Those damn variables—a small twig, a deer’s reaction to the slap of a bowstring, swirling winds, and a host of others that if you spend enough time in the woods you will eventually come to know. All of these can lead to long, arduous nights with headlamps and good friends slowly turning over leaves and searching for the smallest drop of crimson. Sometimes those nights end in moments of exhilaration and relief, but sometimes, they end in a long, solemn walk back to the truck. Making the call to end the search is not a choice that ever comes easily or quickly.
And there I was, once again faced with a difficult choice. In retrospect, the choice should have been an easy one. It was a legal deer, and although under normal circumstances I wouldn’t take a shot that far with my primitive equipment, the truth was that the doe was going to die with or without my help. But my own selfishness and ego brought on thoughts such as “You only have a couple of days to hunt,” “A good buck could come by any moment,” and “It’s not your responsibility.” But even as the thoughts passed by, I knew that was crap. I took a deep breath, picked a spot behind the doe’s shoulder, and watched as the broadhead struck nary an inch from where I was aiming. The doe barely made it 40 yards before expiring.
For a moment, I considered staying in my stand for a couple of more hours in case a buck should come by. But, as I thought about Nieran and the chore that lay ahead of me, I decided two deer to get back to the house and butcher in one evening was probably not a wise thing to do. So, I made my way over to the fallen deer and went to work, being extremely careful of the broadhead I would find somewhere inside.
After getting the doe back to the house and onto the butchering table, it was clear that a considerable amount of meat would be lost due to leakage from the wound. Still, I was able to save a portion of one hind quarter, backstraps, ribs, neck, and shoulder meat. As I cut and wrapped, Jen came in with Nieran, who quickly enjoyed the remains of a front leg with small strips of venison that the knife had missed. “He had some rough spots today,” Jen said. “We’re glad you’re home.” It was good to see Nieran enjoying himself and eating again.
In the following days, my work schedule got in the way of more days on stand. A part of me was frustrated about it, but another part was grateful that I was able to end the suffering of such a beautiful creature. The entire episode was a good reminder of what the important things are about why we hunt. The day I lose mercy as part of my outdoor experience will be the day I hang up my bow. And less than a week after that lesson, I had to show another beautiful creature the same merciful gesture. Nieran let us know it was time. It wasn’t a dramatic display. It was a simple look and a gentle paw on his mother’s face. We understood.
As I write this, I am preparing for my 30th fall with my bow since the day that small spike forever changed my understanding of the world and my place in it. There have been many hard choices to make during that time, but I am so grateful for the lessons that came with each one. It’s the hard choices that we learn from. It’s the hard choices that test us. It’s the hard choices that shape our understanding. But most of all, making the hard choice prepares us for the next hard choice…like using your tag on a wounded animal, saying goodbye to an old friend, or bringing home a new puppy to a grieving wife. Because in the end, the hard choices may be the only ones that ever really mattered.
Equipment Note: On the hunt described, Chad was carrying a 62# hickory flatbow, Sitka spruce arrows, and 160-gr. Ace broadheads.