Hope and a Prayer

After making a bad hit, an archer asks for divine intervention.

Like many of you, I enjoy capturing game cam images of my local whitetails. It’s a great way to “hunt” deer during summer and form a game plan for fall.

My cams revealed a handful of mature bucks traveling within a mile-long South Dakota river-bottom during summer 2012, and I would’ve been happy tying my tag to any of them. Of course, my daydreams had me posing in photos with the biggest buck, but I’ve been through enough archery seasons—35 and counting—to set realistic goals.

As always, I planned to be choosy regarding when I’d take a shot. I’ve never believed in the saying, “Don’t pass a buck on the first day that you’d shoot on the last day.” That’s crap. I bowhunt because I enjoy the pursuit—day after day, week after week—and I go through withdrawals after I kill a deer and my season ends (the bag limit for my South Dakota license is one buck).

Based on scouting cam pics, there were three big bucks I’d shoot “early,” meaning September through November. If these specific deer eluded me, then I’d lower my expectations and try to shoot any mature buck during December.

The biggest buck captured on camera was one that exploded in terms of antler size from the previous year. As a 2½-year-old during fall 2011, this buck was a 115-class mainframe 5x5 with a forked G2 tine on his left side, making him a handsome, but young, 6x5. I remember seeing him a couple of times that season, but he was safe because of his youth and compact rack. Although my wife (she’s also a diehard bowhunter) and I often name bucks with special antler characteristics, this one wasn’t on our radar.

When the same buck showed up on scouting cams in 2012, it was my wife who put the puzzle pieces together: Our no-name buck had put on 40-50 inches of antler in a single year, not the usual 15-20 inches.

We have a 160-class, double-forked buck living on our ground, and he’s only 3½? My brain had trouble accepting what I was seeing via scouting cams.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS The archery season began fast and furious; my first morning I watched two 125-class 4x4s slowly walk through my shooting lane, broadside at 12 yards. I just couldn’t bring myself to end the season so soon.

As weekend after weekend passed, I had close encounters with many decentsized 2½-year-old bucks, but the older ones were steering clear of my stands. Scouting cams indicated the 160-class These two scouting cam pics are from the same scrape location (check out the crooked tree in the background) on consecutive years. During 2011, the 2½-year-old 6x5 buck had a forked left-side G2, and a distinctive blade on his right-side G2. By 2012, the same buck had gained at least 40 inches of antler, while keeping the same rack characteristics of the previous year. buck—Double-Fork for short—was still in the area, but would I get a crack at him? So far, he’d been a ghost.

Fast-forward to November 16 (day No. 9 of an 11-day hunt-’til-you-drop vacation), and I decided to switch things up and try decoying on a seldom- hunted part of the river-bottom. The area set up well for morning-only hunts because there was no way to enter the cottonwood flat without alerting bedded deer during daylight hours.

I didn’t have any treestands or ground blinds in the area, so I chose to hunt turkey-style, meaning sitting butt on the ground with my back to a tree. Any bowhunter knows that getting drawn on a whitetail under such conditions is very difficult, so I carried a Flambeau Boss Babe decoy with me. I thought if a rutting buck had his attention focused on the doe decoy, I’d be able to slowly draw my bow undetected, even though I’d have only sparse cover between me and the buck.

GOING IN BLIND Walking into a new area in the dark is never easy, and trying to find an ambush location for decoying was doubly difficult.

Will bucks be able to see my decoy here? Will I be able to shoot to my decoy if I sit in front of that stump? My mind raced as I tried to set up an ambush without making too much noise, all the while trying to limit my use of a headlamp.

A half-hour later, as the sky lightened in the east, I could see immediately that my ambush setup was good, but not great. I expected deer to come from high ground to my right. Several hundred yards away, out of sight, was a picked corn field that I knew was the No. 1 after-dark feeding spot. Deer returning to bed in the bottom should have little trouble spotting my doe decoy.

However, what I didn’t like about my butt-on-the-ground setup was the amount of low-growing brush covering this flat. I’d have to be very careful picking and choosing where to shoot, otherwise my arrow would deflect.

Just as legal hunting time arrived, a doe and a couple of fawns came down from the hill to my right; they spotted the decoy and then circled 30 yards behind me. Even though they were downwind, they didn’t “blow,” so I was still in the game.

Moments later a young doe appeared 50 yards to my left; she, too, took interest in the decoy and thankfully didn’t stomp or blow. As I watched her, I heard chasing to my right. Turning my head slowly, I saw a mature buck hounding a big doe on the hillside.

She fled the scene and went behind me, and I was sure the buck would follow.

But as he approached a five-strand barbed-wire fence that the big doe had jumped seconds earlier, he took notice of my decoy and the young doe. I’d put a large amount of doe-in-heat scent on the decoy’s hind legs, and I think he smelled it because from a distance of 30 yards, I could actually see him lick his lips while scent-checking the air.

Draw your bow if he jumps the fence. I tried to remain calm while thinking through how this scenario might unfold. I figured that while the buck was airborne his attention would be focused on the decoy and clearing the barbed-wire; he might not see me draw.

It was at that very moment I realized the buck was Double-Fork. Not only was I seeing him on the hoof for the first time, but I might get a shot.

Remember to breathe.

Soon his tall tines were flying through the sky as he cleared the top wire, and as he quickly walked toward the decoy, I was already at full-draw trying desperately to float my 20-yard pin on his moving chest.

But I couldn’t shoot—the ground cover was too tall. A few seconds later he passed broadside beyond my 18-yard decoy, and when he hit a clearing, I shot.

Disaster! I remember seeing the buck turning toward the decoy as my arrow was in flight, and it struck the buck in his left hindquarter, a full 2½ feet farther back than where I was aiming.

I felt like vomiting as I watched Double-Fork hobble straight away. Injuring an animal is always horrible, but somehow it seemed even worse because I’d done it to this buck.

Hope! The buck stopped after 60 yards, looked back at the decoy, then bedded. Oh my God—maybe I got lucky and my broadhead hit an artery. I’d read about bowhunters killing deer this way, but it had never happened to me.

Please die. Please . . . just die. I could see the buck clearly through my binocular, and I’m sure I gasped when he struggled to his feet and began walking. But soon he bedded again. Please die.

This walk/bed sequence happened twice more, and I finally decided my best option was to stand and then walk straight away from the buck. He’d see me for sure, but because he was now bedded in fairly thick cover, I gambled that his response would be “hide” rather than “flee.”

As I walked away, I didn’t even consider looking over my shoulder at the buck. I didn’t hear him run off, but I couldn’t be sure. And when I was more than 200 yards away and out of his sight, I made a big semicircle and began stalking back toward the buck, keeping a hill between us.

I moved slowly, checking frost-covered leaves for blood. Seeing none, I hoped the buck was still bedded.

A few minutes later I could see my decoy 100 yards away. The buck had to be just out of sight at the base of this hill, but where? Did he have the energy to run? Was he dead? My thoughts raced as I tip-toed down the forested hillside, ready to shoot if given the chance.

Antlers! The buck was bedded 15 yards below me—still alive. Thankfully, I had a clear view to his chest, and I shot immediately.

As the buck’s head dropped into the cottonwood leaves, I fell to my knees and said a silent prayer: God, thank you for this beautiful morning, and this buck. Thank you for the gift of being a hunter.

Approaching the buck moments later, I simply shook my head in disbelief at the rack size and number of points. “Sorry buddy,” I said aloud. “You deserved better than this.”

Double-Fork’s antlers now hang in my living room, and hardly a day goes by when I don’t stare at the European mount and remember that intense river-bottom encounter. My gamble to hunt the area, butt on the ground, with a decoy ended with my biggest buck, but I’m smart enough to know I have to do better—much better—next time.

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