The Weight of the Wait

Big bucks don't come easy whether you're talking about greenbacks or whitetails.

If the word “whitetail” is one that commonly falls from the lips of you and your closest like-minded hunting buddies, then I’m guessing the word “Iowa” is one that comes up quite often in casual conversation, too. And if not, take my suggestion and expand your vocabulary.

In terms of far-reaching vistas and soul-moving sunsets, Iowa doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of western Montana or Hawaii, respectively. But as a whitetail hunter, those things don’t matter much, anyway. To us— you and me alike—our eyes water and our souls move at the sight of a whitetail that most only talk about over beer and bonfires at hunting camp. And for that, my fellow whitetail junkies, Iowa holds a pretty big stick.

This realization didn’t come easy for me, either. As a resident of a neighboring state, I’ve got more unpleasant tongue-in-cheek acronyms for IOWA than I do firearms in my safe … and I’ve got a big safe. For example, “Idiots out wandering around” comes to mind pretty quickly. Heard that one? Well, I thought it was pretty funny until I had to call every one of my relatives and sincerely apologize once I realized Iowa has a pile of giant whitetails “out wandering around,” too.

So my wait began. For nonresidents, Iowa doesn’t just hand out tags annually. It takes a few greenbacks to chase whitetails there—though the ROI is astronomical. But whipping out the wallet is the easy part, believe it or not: Waiting the 3 years it took to pull the tag was tearing me up.

The AA mantra reads “one day at a time,” and that’s exactly how I lived for 3 years waiting for my Iowa tag to validate. That’s 1,095 days, 36 page turns of my wall calendar, and three full seasons worth of disappointment from the Vikings on the football field. So when Iowa’s opening day sunrise finally breached the horizon, the anticipation that pierced through me was almost surreal, and sitting still took a pile more effort than it normally does.

And with that came the weight of the wait. For 3 years I’d waited for my chance to hunt Iowa’s whitetails—for my chance to sit behind one of those megabucks that everyone but me seemed to be getting—but I was suddenly terrified of failing. I know as well as any deer hunter who’s had blood under their fingernails that not filling a tag certainly doesn’t equate to a fail, but the subliminal pressure of my burning desire to notch that little piece of paper had suddenly become unbearably heavy.

At 7:43 a.m., less than 2 hours into opening morning, I watched the ivory tips of a wide-racked 8-pointer dance into view through the stubble of a picked corn field as the buck fed its way over a hill in my direction. Even at 350 yards, I could instantly tell this buck was better than most I’d killed, and my heart shifted into marathon speed.

With tingling fingers, I tried to judge the buck through a shaky binocular and put a score to him. Mike Mattly, the property owner/whitetail shepherd and long-time friend, had casually mentioned the word “Booner” in more than one of our conversations leading up this hunt—that magical 170 number—but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t tag more than 135 inches to this deer.

Still, I ultimately decided that this buck would get a copper telegram if he cut his current distance in half. Three years in the making and I badly wanted to score. But luckily for that 8-pointer, and for me perhaps, a dense fog rolled in, limiting my visibility to less than 20 yards. As Bill Engvall would say: “Here’s your sign.”

Back in his kitchen, Mike pointed out the window, toward his backyard, and reminded me of what we were really waiting for. For the past week, starting right after the culmination of the first slug season, a big buck had showed up in Mike’s “backyard”—I’d seen him myself the evening prior with a binocular while leaning up against Mike’s garage. I watched the buck feed 300 yards away, within 30 feet of one of Mike’s elevated blinds.

The kicker: The buck was heavily favoring his front left leg and walked with a severe limp. Thus, Mike and I called him “Limpy.” Whatever caused the injury, likely a very ill-placed slug the week prior, had put Limpy on an extremely predictable pattern of bedding, feeding and watering at the exact same time every day. This brute had been living his entire life within a 200- yard circle for the past week.

All I needed was for the ridiculous southeast wind to migrate to the northwest like it was supposed to be doing that time of year, and I’d be waiting in that shooting house with a neighborly introduction. Waiting on a whitetail. Waiting on the wind. It was like holding a handful of pennies at a quarter arcade.

And just like that, at approximately 10 a.m. on the third day of my 5-day Iowa “deercation,” the wind jogged around to the northwest. Multiple forecasts called for and unanimously confirmed that the wind would hold steady through the end of the day, but after that it was a crap shoot. It wasn’t a big window with which to work, but it was big enough to see clearly through. It would have to do.

It seems like all farmers have that God-given knack for taking something unusual and worthless and turning it into something unusual and worthwhile. So at a little after noon—a full 5 hours before Limpy was “scheduled” to make his dinner arrival in that field, I slipped into the plastic tool shed that Mike had converted into an elevated blind. And for the next handful of hours, I would patiently watch over the whitetails Mike had been cultivating.

I suppose it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say I “slipped” into that blind, because as I approached, six does and fawns blew out the north end of the field. Awful as it was, there was no way around it. Great. Did Limpy see that? I know he’s close.

Within 20 minutes, those six antlerless deer were back … and they were apparently very popular in their social circles because they brought friends. Lots of ’em. It seemed every deer in the county wanted a post-rut snack from that field—every deer that was too small to even entertain the thought of shooting.

Sit tight. Sit still. Limpy will come.

And then, a little after 4 p.m., a young and studly 130-inch 10-pointer fed onto the field and immediately into range. I looked at my slug gun leaning in the corner, and then I looked back at the deer. Gun. Deer. Gun. Deer.

For the next 2 hours, that youngster teased me in every fashion possible. I had more collective minutes of broadside shot opportunities—at both of that buck’s broad sides—than I’ve had at all other deer combined. That buck went so far as to bed down in that field for more than a half-hour to let me stew on the idea of shooting him. Gun. Deer. Gun. Deer.

With less than 10 minutes left before darkness closed the curtain on my window of golden wind direction, the buck had fed to within 40 yards of my hide and was staring back toward the direction of Mike’s house (I have no doubt that buck caught Mike sneaking around the back of his garage to watch the action). I didn’t dare grab my gun “just in case” because I knew that would end up just like it does when someone goes to look at puppies—no one ever goes to look at puppies without buying one.

I was staring at my imaginary aiming spot on the shoulder of that athletic 10-pointer when I caught movement in the tree line behind him. It was Limpy, pausing in the shadows before entering the field. My heart hit marathon speed again. And without a second of hesitation, that young 10-point bristled up and headed toward him.

Now, on a good day, Limpy would’ve walloped the tarsal stink out of that snotty little 10-pointer. He had him licked in everything from antler size to tail length. But, given his condition, Limpy cowered as the younger deer approached, and they both faded out of view.

Livid, I flicked the safety and put my cross-hairs at the base of that little buck’s neck as he re-approached the blind … alone. The thought of a vindication kill was the only thing on my mind.

But I couldn’t do it. As unfavorable as the wind was forecasted to be, I had 5 minutes left in this evening and 2 days left in the hunt. And I was in Iowa: the land with “fields of dreams,” as they say.

And then, on the far side of the field, my dream deer appeared once more. I checked my watch and my rangefinder nearly simultaneously. I had 3 minutes of legal shooting light and 133 yards of air to cover. I used the second circle in the BDC reticle and tickled the trigger.

Although that buck walked with a severe limp, he ran like a member of the U.S. Olympic Track Team. Limpy covered 75 yards of open field in a few brief seconds, with his tail high and looking as healthy as the day he was born, and hopped a fence like he’d just pounded a can of Red Bull. Beyond the fence, it looked like a bag of marshmallows exploded as every deer in the field headed for cover.

Recoil from a slug is never pretty, and because of it I had no idea how that deer initially reacted at the shot. I looked back at my TV producer and he shrugged. But a TV producer always has a camera, so we rolled back the footage on the 4-inch monitor right there in the tool shed. And by the fourth replay the truth became obvious by the tuft of dirt that lit up just over Limpy’s back. I’d shot too high.

Back at Mike’s kitchen table, I stirred away tears as they dripped into my chili.

“Let’s see that footage,” Mike said. I couldn’t bear to watch.

“Hmm,” he added, after watching the premiere. “Run it again.”

Upon hearing the smallest glimmer of hope in his voice, I watch this time, too. And there in the kitchen, an hour after the initial adrenaline had worn off, I saw what Mike saw: There was no conclusive evidence that I missed. But what was that tuft of dirt I thought I saw?

“Grab your boots.”

Mike and I started at the fence— which was the last spot I had visual contact with Limpy—and hit our flashlights. We knew that, if the deer was bleeding, we would find blood either where the buck pre-loaded to jump the fence, or where he landed.

And there it was, just a few drops, on the far side of the five strands of barbed wire. Mike and I picked our way through the darkness on the broken blood trail for 50 yards before calling it quits for the night. There simply wasn’t enough blood to justify the risk of pushing the buck.

If you’ve ever shot a deer and made the wise—but excruciating—decision to wait until morning to follow up, you know what kind of hell those hours of darkness are. All I could think about was that Limpy had a gunshot wound to go with his busted-up foot, and it was all my fault. I felt horrible.

It wasn’t until 9 a.m. that I fed a few slugs to my gun, and Mike and I went back out to finish what we started. We crawled up to the toilet paper we’d hung in a tree to mark last blood, and picked apart the grass between our fingers to hopefully find some more.

With the sun shining brightly, I looked up—forward—and saw a bunch of grass “painted” red. Lots of red. Mike was so focused on the inches in front of him that he jumped when I grabbed his shoulder and pointed.

Refusing to allow myself to smile, I belly-crawled alongside Mike up to the bloody grass. We inspected the blood, looked up … and there he was, stone dead.

I don’t really remember what happened next, to be quite honest, but I’m pretty sure I involuntarily kissed the top of Mike’s head as we stood over Limpy. I do, however, remember bending over and inspecting the hole from the well-placed slug high behind the buck’s shoulder. Limpy was dead before I ever crawled out of the blind the evening before.

I smiled as I pulled the Iowa whitetail tag from my pocket and wrapped it around the massive base of Limpy’s right antler. I also shook Mike’s hand and promised right then and there—to him and to myself—that I would purge my vocabulary of every naughty Iowa acronym I knew.