Big Buck Throwback
This fall, hunting season started out with me taking one of the best naps I’ve ever taken, in my tree stand!! I look forward to fall hunting as much as I look forward to first ice. Nothing compares to the quiet of the woods. Nobody knows you’re there. The critters don’t know you’re there and go about their business as usual. You’re away from real life, blending in seamlessly with the woods while Mother Nature blesses you with her purity.
I started putting corn out for the deer a little earlier than usual this year in the hopes that the bachelor groups in the area would find it a little sooner and I could hopefully wrap up bow season with a nice buck early. With as many hunting and fishing opportunities that this side of North Dakota offers us, it’s nice to not monopolize all of your time outdoors on just the one. That’s the hope anyways. You can plan all you want, Mother Nature dictates. Being it was bow opener, I was going to sit regardless if there was anything on camera or not. I walked out to my stand about 4 hours early. It was hot and the wind was whipping from the wrong direction making my tree sway just so. It was the perfect lullaby. I was sending Shannon texts using adjectives that only poets use trying to describe the peacefulness I was feeling at that exact moment. I spent the next hour being rocked to sleep without a care in the world. It was perfect.
THEY say that hunting isn’t about the kill.
It’s about the hunt itself. It’s about your time in the field taking in all of the sights and sounds. Watching a fawn mill around without a care in the world while mom is nervously on the lookout for danger, or a couple young bucks playfully spar in practicing for when it’s their turn to rule the woods. Watching the dogs work when you’re flushing pheasants or swim out on that long water retrieve when you reach out and get that duck a split second before it’s out of range. It’s about your buddies, the laughs, the old stories and the new memories you’re making with them. Maybe if you’re lucky enough you’ll get to take a kid out and get them hooked on the outdoors like I have with my daughter. THEY are correct.
I had been out sitting a lot of evenings after work and weekends throughout September and early October without much sign of buck activity. The bucks that I had been getting pictures of were mostly nocturnal with the occasional daylight picture and those weren’t frequent enough to pattern. It was getting a little frustrating and I was slowing down on my time in the trees. After coming home from a great long weekend out west pheasant hunting with the boys, it put me back in the right mindset to get back out into my tree stand to see if I could get a BBD with the old stick and string. I had been seeing doe and fawn activity most nights and there were a few smaller bucks around, but no sign of a mature buck ready for the taking. With my mind back to right, and the rutting activity starting up, I decide that it’s time for me to lose the attitude and get back in the stand. The wind was perfect and I started seeing deer moving right away. As the evening wains on, over to my right I see a young basket 6 step out of the trees and into the cut beans. He’s looking back into the trees a little too much so I shift my focus to where he’s watching. Out steps a mature 8 point buck that I have no pictures of. I throw him a grunt and he starts walking directly towards me. My heart instantly starts racing! I’m trying to focus on my breathing, not moving, and getting ready all at the same time! He does everything that he is supposed to do in order for me to get a shot. The 6 pointer follows him most of the way into me and does everything he is supposed to do to bust me. I swear they were tag teaming me! While the 8 is walking directly towards my stand looking my direction the whole way, the 6 decided to veer off into my corn, 30 yards out, and feeds facing me. I can’t move. As I paid more attention to the smaller buck, the old guy starts filtering out in front of me. Slowly. The smaller buck finally turns away from me and is looking out over the field, the target buck has made his way out to 20 yards quartering away. This is my chance. I slowly stand up and draw. Neither of them notices. I need this guy to turn a little more towards me to get a clean through shot. He does. I target and squeeze. I’ve not experienced a harder pill to swallow in hunting than I did at that moment as I watched the green knock of my arrow pass less than an inch over the back of this buck. I just blew the one chance I was going to get at a mature buck that I had worked 3 months and spent hundreds of dollars chasing. Both deer high tail it out of the area. I didn’t spend more than 15 seconds looking for my arrow before I did the same. A week or so later, gun season opened up here and a half hour into it, I got a picture of a BBD from the land owner. The one I missed. He was taken 300 yards from my stand. My mind instantly relives the missed shot. I decide that I had my chance to hunt a really good buck; I’m now looking for a doe. Or so I thought.
My friend Shawn opted to apply for a mule deer this year out in the southwestern corner North Dakota. He was drawn in the lottery for his second choice of an antlerless mulie. 3 days before his hunt he called me up and asked if I would like to join him on this trip. DUH!!….just let me clear it at home first! I get the green light, pack up my bow and we are off on the 7 hour journey! He had months to prepare and an area that he had scouted the year before already in his mind on where he wanted to start looking. We make the half hour trek from the hotel to this area. Holy scenery! Once the sun started coming up over the hills I was treated to a view I had never been privileged to hunt before. It was beautiful. We make the turn onto the gravel road looking for the public land that we’re going to start hunting on. Ten minutes in we spot a young buck pushing a doe. Public land. Doe down. Its 8 a.m. on our first day and his rifle is tagged out. He also has a bow tag. Time to spot and stalk a Mulie buck! A first for both of us! We start seeing deer everywhere. Bucks alone, bucks with doe, 4 or 5 really nice bucks with 5-8 doe! Nothing on public land. We spent a majority of the day scouting without any opportunity to try a stalk. With 2 hours of daylight left we decide on an area with a lot of elevation change with scrub brush and trees and we head separate directions hoping to have a good sit. A mile into my walk I pick a spot with some sign of activity and anxiously wait. Neither of us sees anything and when the sun went down IT GOT COLD! Back to the hotel for a hot shower and burger and time to plan tomorrow’s excursion.
Day 2 started out with a new game plan. Be the first ones to a really nice piece of public land next to a ranch where we spotted some Big bucks. We get a half mile from our spot, both excited to start this 9 mile adventure. Life throws you curve balls sometimes. Flat tire on the truck. Two trucks full of rifle hunters pass us as we’re changing the tire. Once we get the tire squared away we continue on our plan only to find that they were walking the area where we were headed to and even had extra trucks patrolling the road. Disappointed, we move on. As we are driving through all of the public land we spot a giant buck with a doe bedding down on a hillside. We continue around out of sight and talk about a stalk. I head out on the half mile or so trek to get above these 2 deer and I’m pumped. My first legit spot and stalk and it is on a MONSTER of a deer! As I get closer, my feet get slower, my heart gets faster, and my mind races with all of the scenarios that could possibly play out. I get to where I can get a good peek at these deer before I back off and get into position. I see the doe and back off. If the buck hasn’t moved, I know exactly where I can come out and get a good shot at less than 30 yards. I get into position to look. Neither of them is there. I look around in wonder and see them sauntering around the brush that I was using as additional cover. He’s at 60 yards broadside and he’s staring at me!! She spooks and hops off over the hill, he follows suit. 60 yards is not a comfortable shot for me so I watch the direction they’re heading just in case they give us another opportunity. I walk back to the truck, not dejected, but pumped that I got that close to a giant deer on my first ever attempt at a stalk! I tell Shawn all about it like a kid telling his dad his favorite story ever. We take off in the general direction the deer ran and sure enough, there they are! We decide on a game plan, but BOTH of us are going this time. We walk a huge ravine a couple of miles looking to get out in front of these deer and use the wind to our advantage. As it so happened to be, those two laid down in the exact spot where we saw them and that damn doe busted us at about 80 yards! This time neither of us saw where they headed. You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes and I’m eating it up! We start scouting our way back to town through the Little Missouri River Valley. All the hills, bluffs, cliffs, trees and habitat and not a single sign of critter activity, but it’s breathtaking!! During our scout, I get ahold of a friend that has hunted these deer for years. He gives me some really good insight. Simple but good. Mule deer can be stubborn and unlike whitetail, sometimes they’ll fight before flight. Especially during the rut. Mental note made. Let’s grab lunch.
As we close in on town to fill our bellies and regroup, we spot a VERY nice buck chasing a doe out in the field. We do the customary check for posted signs only to find the land is a no-go. Ugh! Turning around to grab a bite, we spot ANOTHER Big buck off in the distance with 4 doe lying up against the back side of a hill. Public land, the wind is right, let’s do this!! We duck out of sight, I grab my bow and off I go! I slowly start creeping up the back side of the hill. Again my heart starts racing and I’m feeling lucky! I crest the hill only to see him walking away with one of the doe. DAMMIT! I watch for a minute and notice they really aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. At that moment the advice I had received an hour earlier clicks into my head. They’re already out of comfortable shooting range for me. If I start walking towards them, what’s the worst that can happen? They stay out of range? My mind is made up and I throw caution to the wind and start walking towards him. I am in plain view, bright orange vest and hat on full display slowly walking directly towards these 2 deer. Neither of them runs. They stop what they are doing and watch me. I’ve witnessed hand fed cattle more skittish than these 2 deer. I press on. All of a sudden the doe starts walking towards ME now! I’m thinking “OH MY GOD THIS IS WORKING!” The buck turns broadside and starts slowly walking back towards where he had come from, which is getting closer to me! I can’t believe what is happening! I have just walked up on a very large mule deer buck and I’m standing 20 yards away from him! I draw my bow. He does a weird high step and stops walking, completely broadside and not at all nervous. I take aim and let the arrow fly. I hit him square through the lungs and instantly start shaking while I watch him run off and lay down behind a tree. I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT JUST HAPPENED!! I walked up and looked for my arrow, which I found easily and full of blood. I give him a minute or two to expire and start heading his way. When I walked up on him, his body and rack grew exponentially! I think we’ve all experience “ground shrinkage”. I’ve never experienced the deer being much bigger in my hands than I thought he would be. I flagged Shawn down to grab the truck so we could take a couple of pictures and get this deer home! He’s the one that finally talked me into buying a bow 3 years ago. I can’t thank him enough for the invite to head out to western North Dakota to hunt a species of animal I had never hunted before, to help with a successful harvest, and to share the experience firsthand with me of the biggest animal I have ever hunted. My season was one for the ages. It started with a nap in a tree, included multiple learning opportunities, and ended with the coolest and strangest hunting story I could ever hope to experience! It is one that I won’t soon forget. Now bring on the ice fishing season!