What no one tells you, dear hunter, is to do the same for your firsts, each and every one.
As an adult, I’m often somewhat shameful of the firsts I have left to experience. A relative newcomer to bowhunting, I’ve been pursuing that magical first for three seasons now, growing more and more impatient with each passing year. My first season was more of a training exercise really, rarely venturing out unaccompanied, clutching my $50 used youth bow and taking terrible shots left and right. Shooting and recovering a deer at that stage would have been a downright miracle, as my “experienced” hindsight tells me now. Season two was far more serious, hunting alone on every free day with upgraded equipment and hundreds of hours of practice under my belt, but this too produced no results other than more money down the drain in lost arrows and a downright comical theme that dogged me all fall and winter of 2016. The day I fled my blind with ground bees in my pants was a particular high point. Thank goodness I was raised to laugh at my misfortunes, or season three might have ended before it even began.
I started counting down the days to October 1 the first day of shed hunting. I had access to a new property rife with bucks the likes of which I had never seen. My family farm has more deer than you can shake a stick at, but decades of “if it’s brown, it’s down” mentality has left us with a distinct lack of mature bucks – it’s a doe haven with a sprinkling of bucks so adolescent I can practically smell the BO and zit cream as they pass by. Each shed at the new place seemed unreal, like a prop from a movie set deposited in the timber in some sort of highly constructed adult Easter egg hunt. I was enthralled, if unbelieving.
Spring led to summer, and summer meant trail camera season. My disbelief at the promise the new farm held was resoundingly shot down as Mother Nature showed off what solid deer genetics can really produce. I watched those velvet nubs grow every week, from good to great and finally to wowza, identifying each big boy by name, learning to distinguish between deer by the angle of the eye guards, the number of kickers, the height of the tines. I have never had so much fun looking at a computer screen in my life, smashing the arrow keys faster and faster so the deer practically moved on the screen. The day I saw the first one shed its velvet on camera, I almost cried.
The off season really has no off button, and between practicing with yet another new bow, sweltering in the summer sun to put in food plots, hanging stands, and traveling to the Heartland Bowhunter Film School, fall was upon me before I knew it. September days grew thin, and flipping the calendar brought such a rush of emotion because this had to be The Year, the one where I finally brought in my first bow kill. It took twenty-three days for my first to fall.
October was hot, sticky and hot, dry and hot, just plain hot. The days I had free to hunt weren’t ideal, but I took what I could get, literally sweating through clothes in a blind that felt more like a tiny sweat lodge rather than a scent-free dome of concealment. Another morning found me in a rickety stand in the rain, fighting motion sickness as the wind blew my tree first this way, then that, and finally in a delightful circular motion that prompted me to send a text to a friend disclosing the location of my secret money stash for his children in the likelihood of my impending doom. I did have one shot on a meaty doe, but from the wrong location as the early evening sun blinded me and left me with a busted broadhead from a shot placed square in the shoulder socket of the poor doe unlucky enough to be in range. Others stayed at 65+ yards, or presented only when it was dark enough that I couldn’t see my pin for the shadows. Maddening would be the word I would use to describe my early season, plain and simple. And I loved every second of it.
I climbed into the stand for one more debacle on a cool and misty Sunday evening, a night I shouldn’t have been out, for I worked the next day and should have been home preparing for a busy week. Carefully, I ascended to my throne for the evening, a site called Charlie’s Stand overlooking a fresh rye food plot complete with some of the biggest scrapes and rubs I had seen all season. Thankful for my decision to invest in new rain gear, I hunkered down and watched vapor turn to drips and then drops, pooling on the leaves of my white oak and beading up on my bow.
Through the light rain, I watched first one doe and then a second leisurely stroll up the trail to my left, entering the field with the “well, what’s for dinner tonight” attitude of a pair of gals out for date night. I stood and raised my bow smoothly, setting the distance on my sight from memory, as I had ranged every blade of grass with all the free time on my hands. My heart gave a solid thump in my ears, and then resumed its normal pace – this part of the show, I had seen before. The story changed as a buck stepped out on the trail, young but definitely male, his antlers at a clear contrast to the decidedly damp landscape. He wasn’t chasing the ladies, and they paid him no attention, grazing and having silent girl talk between them in that telepathic way I assume all animals communicate. In a moment, my decision changed – I knew he was a deer I should not harvest, that I should let grow, but I couldn’t pass the chance for my first bow kill to be on a buck. I shifted my focus and waited.
He took his sweet damn time entering the field, practically sauntering over to a downed branch I knew to be at 33 yards. Presenting me with a beautiful Texas heart shot that I distained to take, I watched his rump as he grazed and groomed, licking first one leg and then another. I stood at attention, release clipped on, ready to pull the second he came even the slightest bit broadside.
I don’t recall drawing my bow back, and I vaguely remember aiming and letting go. I suppose this is what all archers work for, to get to the automatic stage of the draw-aim-shoot cycle. In my case, it was certainly more of an adrenaline black-out, but I clearly saw the arrow smack his side, watching him crouch and then run, my arrow ricocheting from his flank, snapped in half (as I discovered later) by his shoulder blade as he bolted from the spot. It was the best shot I had ever taken on a deer, but I wouldn’t let myself get too worked up until I had recovered my trophy. I’ve been disappointed before, and have learned to not get my hopes up too quickly. To my astonishment, his steps grew unsteady after just a few bounds, and I watched him drop 15 yards from the point of impact. He never moved again, and yet from my stand, I wouldn’t let myself believe.
I had a few more opportunities that evening to harvest another deer, but I let them all pass, first a fawn, then two more does. My eyes alternated between watching the sliver of white rump I could make out in the grass for movement and texting my buddy that, at long last, I thought I had one down. Despite my excitement, I stayed in the stand until dark to give the deer time, climbing down only when I thought I had just enough light to look for blood. I recovered my arrow immediately, and the need to search for a trail was erased when I saw my deer was absolutely, definitely, down. I marched directly over to claim my prize, and it was the sweetest I have ever known.
The rest of the story will be told in future snippets, for I want this one, this first, to be savored, relished, and stand alone as the shining moment that three years worth of work finally paid off. I double-lunged my buck, making a helluva shot that I will always be proud of. I didn’t cry, I didn’t vomit, I didn’t shout from the rooftops. I knelt by my deer, examined the entry wound, and agreed with my friend who, when I started this journey, told me there was nothing else in the world like bowhunting, and I would get hooked on it for life. As much as I hate admitting it, he was so, so right.