Quartering away as he filled his belly with my alfalfa and clover, he had no clue I was turned sideways in my stand at full draw, kisser button pressing at my mouth while the thump-thump of my heart echoed off my sternum loud enough I was certain he would spook in an instant. Draw, aim, release. I watched my orange Luminock find home, heard the satisfying smack of metal on meat, and watched him wheel up and over the crest of the hill, glowing arrow bobbing in the distance.
It was the last I would see of him. No blood, no matter how much I looked, how many leaves I touched, hoping their dusky red was warm and sticky and not just the result of photosynthesis gone wrong. I must have had a tallow shot, and the temper tantrum that ensued at losing my October buck was reminiscent of a petulant child. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t fail well. Thank God I did, or the following story would never have happened.
The deer have been thick as ants on honey all summer and fall. My family farm sits in the middle of 150 acres of timber and pasture, but the hot spot is always right out the back door, eleven acres of rolling hayfield bisected by a five-foot grave marker memoralizing the property homesteaders - hence, the name: The Tombstone Field. Deer and turkey migrate to the Tombstone Field year round, and as you wash dishes from the kitchen sink, you can count furry hides and feathered fans morning and evening. I can be in one of three stands in less than five minutes, and it rarely disappoints a hunter willing to drop a meaty doe or two. On an overcast Halloween afternoon, coming in hot from working later than I wanted, the double stand in the Tombstone Field was my best option to grab a quick evening hunt and clear my head from my abysmal mess just two nights before.
Calm, so calm and still, quiet enough that my growling stomach almost spooked a doe that walked under my stand, so close that had I been eating crackers, she would have wandered away in a halo of crumbs. As the gloaming hour set in, deer migrated to the field, first young bucks to spar and feed, then young does with spring fawns in tow - 23 in total, before the night was through. I sat stonelike as bucks chased and does trotted, nothing worth drawing back on this early in the season. Settling in for the show, I relaxed, leaning on my pack and resolving to enjoy yet another evening perfumed by the scent of an Earth Disk under a crisp fall sunset. And then, I spied with my little eye something unusual.
He came in from the northeast, slowly moving down the fence line as he stopped every 50 yards at a fresh licking branch, nudging and rubbing his way towards me as if he owned the place. Bigger than any of the adolescent bucks that had been chasing females like teenagers at a junior high dance, he moved slowly, sniffing the air for any sign of a female ready for some rut season lovin’. This...this was it. I knew I was going to take this buck, if I could only be patient enough to take the good shot.
He casually walked in my shooting lane at 20 yards, and I stood as he stopped to sniff the ground, healthy rack and meaty neck clearly visible, making my mouth water and hands sweat. “Do a good job, do a good job” I repeated over and over, smoothly drawing my bow and settling on his vitals from 20’ in the air. Squeeze. Pop. Kick. Drop. I watched him crumple like an old newspaper and knew that the biggest buck ever harvested at home was down baby down.
As the leg shakes set in and I began texting my buddies the obligatory “big buck down” message, I could not believe how my luck had turned from 48 hours earlier. A solid shot through the lungs, with no tracking needed - I couldn’t have ordered up a better hunt. I’d have plenty of time to load up my deer and head to the bow shop to celebrate and shake my metaphorical peacock feathers with pride. Plot twist...my night would not go down quite like that. No, not at all.
I had been taught one cardinal rule of hunting was to never leave your bow unloaded, and come to the stand with plenty of “bullets.” As I climbed that night, I had only two arrows, one of which was rib deep in a carcass and the other casually resting in my quiver amid the flotsam and jetsam of my pack. My empty bow laid on my bouncing knee, forgotten until the “snap snap” of something big behind me brought me back to reality. One glance over my shoulder and my pulse skyrocketed; the biggest damn deer of my life was twelve yards behind me, and there I was sitting with an empty bow in my lap and phone in hand like a noob. Silently thanking myself for having the foresight to purchase two either sex tags five weeks previously, I quickly fished my remaining arrow from its tangled nest, nocked it, and fluidly stood and drew as he trotted along the path of the first buck. Desperate to stop him, I called a series of three “merps,” each one louder than the last. Number three caught his attention at 20 yards, and he paused broadside just long enough for me to lay my my pin on his vitals and shoot. Squeeze. Pop. Kick. Drop. Again.
He crumpled the same as the first, an encore performance synchronized to the last detail, just in a different weight class. In the span of ten minutes, I had drawn and dropped on the two biggest bucks of my life, and only the second and third deer I had ever shot with my bow. Within 20 minutes, I was on the ground with them, face to antler with my trophies. I held it together in the stand, cool as a cucumber to get the job done, but as I walked to the house to get my truck, I lost it. No tears or vomiting, no pants-wetting or shaking, just a pure release of pent-up joy from four years of hard work, recounting every detail with each step.
I had to call for help, not just because I physically couldn’t lift my deer into my truck, but also because every good hunt needs an audience, friends that appreciate a worthy harvest and are just as excited as if they were the ones behind the string. For me, those friends were Scott and Angie and their van of kids festooned in Halloween costumes and candy, happy to abandon a night of Trick or Treating to lend a hand. As we bounced through the field, adults in the cab and kids in the bed, cheers of excitement rose with the first glance of headlights off antlers gleaming brightly in the night. Hauling first one, then the next into the bed took a team effort, two to lift and one to photograph, because a story isn’t quite complete without pictures to make it real.
And it doesn’t seem real, not quite yet. Even though I have the pictures, even though I field dressed my deer with a pocket knife under the glaring headlights of my truck, even though I’ve paid the deposit on the taxidermy bill - semi-sneak mounts on both, facing each other - it still doesn’t seem real. But then, does it ever? I’ve watched enough hunting shows to gather you never quite get over the shakes, the adrenaline rush after a conquest concludes. But what I don’t know is the after...after the hunt, after the trophy comes home, after you’ve told the tale. Does it ever hit home that something exceptional really happened to you? Never would I have guessed that I would fill not only one buck tag, but two. Never would I have guessed that I would harvest a mature buck from my family farm, let alone ones scoring in the 140s. Never would I have guessed that I would become a bowhunter and that my heart would belong to the stick and string. But it does, and the two racks I will pick up tomorrow and take to the bow shop for show and tell prove otherwise.