A bit melodramatic, yes, but with the good also comes the bad; for every boat, there is a buck. I was hoping I wouldn't have to share this story as the main illustration of my deer season, but when January 16th came and I found myself empty handed (yet again), the tale of the one that got away was bound to come up.
Saturday, November 13th was a great day to hunt in West Central Illinois. The night before, I had laid out my gear and planned the morning down to the last detail: leave the house by 5:30 am, lucky apple in hand as I head for the farm. I had picked The Southie as the stand for the morning--the rut was in, and I had steered clear of it for the most part since putting it up a few weeks earlier because, as they say, if you think it's a good place, then don't hunt it often.
The silent walk to the stand is my favorite part of a morning hunt. The excitement builds with every step, and treading silently in the dark is a race against the sun as stars dim and color begins seeping onto the horizon. I trailed estrous scent behind me for the last 100 yards, soaking the spent seed head of a wild carrot weed for good measure. Waving at my trail cam, I ducked my head and carefully wove my way through honeysuckle bushes to my stand, strapped myself in place, and settled in to wait.
I had a good feeling about this day. Clear and crisp, but not brutally cold, the blacks and greys of early morning slowly gave way to violet, green, and gold as the sun rose over the eastern tree line. I watched my frosty footprints fade, erasing all visible evidence of my early morning disturbance. I was so distracted by watching the world awaken that I almost missed him.
Nose to the ground, he came in quick along the field edge below me, tracing my scent trail like it was going out of style. I didn't even have enough time to get the jitters; I drew as he hit the clearing, called to get him stopped as I looked down my sight, and released just as he quartered slightly away, directly in front of my trail cam. In disbelief, I watched my arrow strike home halfway between back and belly, lodging itself deeply in his hide as he turned and bounded away, stopping once to look back in my direction before he drifted into the ravine to my west. I listened to him crash around through the brush, and with every clumsy sound he made, my heart finally remembered how to beat until the thudding in my ears drowned out any noise he could have possibly made.
I knew well enough to wait before I went after him, but after an hour, I couldn't take it anymore. I climbed down and immediately picked up a blood trail, strong enough that I didn't need to leave any markers to find it later, for even in my excitement I remembered that I should wait a few more hours before going to retrieve my deer. Happily, I pulled my trail cam card and headed to the house for breakfast and farm chores.
Later in the afternoon, I returned with a friend to track my buck. I had already sent the poor guy on several goose chases that turned up nothing, so I tried to contain my excitement, keeping the horse in front of the cart as best as I could. Bright red blood, foamy and plentiful, brought a smile to his face and boosted my spirits. I learned more about tracking that morning than I had before under the benefit of full sunlight: how to tell that I had hit both lung and liver, where to anticipate the buck's movements, how to look far in advance for a trail, when to look high instead of low for the next blood sign. My arrow was still in the deer, and we could see where his movements became more erratic as he crossed first one way over the fence line, and then back again. Large pools of blood and streaks of tissue were scattered amidst the leaf litter. That deer was mine.
Until suddenly, he wasn't. We emerged into a field and immediately, abruptly, lost the blood trail. We looked for a full hour in one small area, combing the ground for any stray drop. After three hours and 400 yards of tracking, my deer was lost on a neighbor's property. We called it quits for the day, but I just couldn't leave and sat for a good long while, alone with bow in hand, hoping the clouds would part and a shine a spotlight from above on my buck. My first archery deer.
I called the neighbor and got permission to search more extensively the next day after the morning hunt. I worked my way through draws and ravines, snaked my way under thorny thickets and around overgrown trees. I searched for water, hoping my deer worked his way to the bank of an abandoned farm pond to lie down and die. Nothing, nada, zero. I politely called the landowner back when I gave up the ghost, asking her to keep her eyes peeled for a carcass with an arrow still stuck deep, two pink and one white fletching marking my kill so I could at least recover my skull.
As January marches on, I still hold out hope that one day, that rack will be mine. Maybe spring shed hunts will uncover the nice symmetrical rack that I would have given my left ear to find about eight weeks ago. The time is coming to trade in my bow, and I do it reluctantly, thinking about the fact that I will part ways with it without an official kill and recovery, almost like waving the white flag of defeat. But then again, I know I hit my deer. I know I can track him. I know he is out there, somewhere. And as I checked my trail cam card later that night, licking my wounds, I found an image that both soothes the burn and fuels the fire for next year: a beautiful broadside photo of the one that got away, seconds before I released my arrow on an (almost) perfect morning.