Late October, on a cold and shivery afternoon, I was in my tree stand at a good location with a perfect wind. Our family farmland, where I have hunted for 30 years, has produced many nice bucks and has filled freezers consistently over the decades. I was set up near “Buck Corner”, a spot on our property where, for a reason that only the whitetails know, the bucks tend to hang out in the pre-rut days. It is a proven niche in the land that, if hunted properly and with reservation, always gives me a good chance at something interesting occurring. I had hunted out of this tree on two other occasions since the beginning of September and both times I was in the game as far as whitetail bucks were concerned.
During the first sit in this particular poplar tree, the leaves were amber and pale green, fluttering gently in the warm fall breeze. This tree grew along the edge of an abandoned farm field that our family has always called “The Ten Acres”. To the north, and where my attention was now focused, was thick parkland forest, typical of the agricultural area of north-central Alberta near Edmonton. This was the bedding area. Exactly where I had expected to hear deer movement begin as they meandered their way to the south, into the harvested oat field where the feeding activity was heavy. I still couldn’t see any movement, but the sound of a large animal moving in the undergrowth was growing louder. Then, there he was, a beautiful mature whitetail buck, headed right to me. My heart pounding, he walked to within 18 yards of my stand, but on the other side of That Damned Spruce Tree. A shot was never offered.
On the second sit in this special tree, the leaves were almost completely gone, large and heavy snow flakes coated me and my bow within moments of brushing them off. This was the first significant snowfall of the season and it was mid-October. I quickly turned into the best camouflage ever, melting into my grey surroundings with accumulating snow, my beard and clothing layered in snow and frozen breath. Once again, after settling into the tree, it didn’t take long to see a buck. This time however, he had entered The Ten Acres from a trail more to the east. He worked across the small field to the south, well out of bow range. He was eagerly on the trail of a doe that had, earlier in the afternoon, crossed to the feed. No amount of grunting would coax him toward me. That was a beautiful hunt.
The third hunt in the poplar brings me to the wintery afternoon mentioned early in the story. It was cold. Colder than usual; and the rut had yet to begin in earnest. From the beginning, this afternoon hunt was full of activity. I had barely pulled my bow from the frozen white ground, when, at full alert, the unmistakable sound of a branch breaking reached my ears. It was a big animal and I rushed to organized myself to be ready for a shot. Soon I saw something dark and big slowly moving in the distance, it was a moose. My deep exhale quickly froze onto my face and joined the growing icicles on my beard while I settled down to focus. I was doing some calling by this time in the season and had just finished a series of buck and doe grunts when movement and cracking brush grabbed my focus to the west. I saw movement of deer, brown and heavy, crossing the abandoned gas lease road 60 yards away. There was more than one deer here, a group of three, and then I saw antlers moving through the bare undergrowth. I am sure I gasped: the lead buck was simply huge. Already I knew this was the buck of a lifetime and the trio steadily headed my direction. There was no hesitation in their movements and within a minute or so they were within bow range. Three bucks, now on the edge of the old field, snaking their way through the scraggly poplar saplings that were offspring of the special tree I was perched in. Soon, the lead buck, a massive 5×5, dark and thick, was at 20 yards. Then 15 yards, and now he turned to his left and crossed shooting lanes until he stopped and was at 13 yards looking away from me toward the moose. All the while that the buck moved into the clearing, my Bear Kodiak was at full draw, ready to spring the cedar arrow toward his deep chest. I was calm, heart beating heavily, but calm. Focused. All my years of bowhunting experience and preparation was about to pay off. My fingers relaxed and the jolt of the string and the blur of the steel tipped dart speeding away made me blink. I remember vividly, my last impression of the arrow blasting immediately over his back. I had missed. Completely. Utterly. Devastatingly. Missed.
The scrutiny of what went wrong when we make mistakes is always greater than what we did right when an arrow finds its mark in the field. That is why I value my mistakes over the years. It is why I don’t get upset about the misses on trophy animals. I am not going to lie; it does sting to put in the time and effort and practice and preparation and then ultimately have the shot go wrong. But what makes it manageable for me, alone in the dark in my bed, is to acknowledge the successes that made the shot possible in the first place, and then to analyze what happened that made me miss. It is almost like a forensic examination.
The day after my epic miss on the whitetail buck of a lifetime, I got dressed in my exact same hunting clothing. The same jacket and toque and mittens, everything was recreated. I climbed up onto my highest extension ladder and took a few shots. My first arrow zoomed 1” over the target’s back. Same with the second arrow. I had been shooting so well all summer long! I was shooting as well as I ever had. My head was spinning and my confidence was shaken hard.
I went to retrieve the arrows, dejected, frustrated and confused. Climbing back up onto the ladder I was resolved to start from scratch, to do whatever it took to get back into form. I nocked an arrow and focused on the target. This shot however, at full draw, I looked down at the arrow…it was levitating 1/4” off the shelf! I looked down a touch farther and there it was, the source of the most important miss of my bowhunting life, my wool mitten.
With the fingers exposed and the flap of wool folded back on the backside of my hand, there was a fold of wool. Right at my knuckle. It was acting as its own arrow rest and of course was never present in my usual practice sessions. I know what everyone is thinking right now, you should be shooting with your hunting gear on, and you’re right, and I do. But quite often, with these particular mitts in the days before my hunt, I would shoot with the flap closed over my fingers. In this way, the wool crease wasn’t present and the arrows flew true.
It was a harsh reminder for me about the importance of test shooting as the weather conditions change, and layers of clothing and accessories are added or removed. To pay attention to the little details and experiment during practice sessions. Lesson learned. Again.
Photo by Kevin Kossowan.