Everybody loses a deer sooner or later. It’s how you bounce back that really counts.
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you could taste it? I’d bowhunted west-central Illinois for three straight years without filling a buck tag, and I desperately wanted to dine on venison instead of tag soup. I wouldn’t have minded a trip to the taxidermist, either.
To whet my appetite in 2009, my friend and Illinois host Daryl Sidwell e-mailed me in early September. When I opened the attachment, it was a trail camera photo of a monstrous 8-pointer. The heavyweight’s rack sported wide, sweeping beams with long tines, and we nicknamed him The Great 8. Daryl told me that it was one of the bucks I’d be hunting, and I was pumped.
Prior to last season, Illinois hadn’t been very good to me. I’d spent countless hours bowhunting in near-zero temperatures through rain, snow, ice, wind and a combination of them all. It was during that time when I met two local diehard deer hunters: Daryl Sidwell and Kerry Foxall.
All trophies in life aren’t adorned by long beams and tall tines, and I soon established two of my greatest friendships ever.
On Nov. 6, 2009, I was back in Colchester, Ill., hunting private land with Daryl and Kerry.
We saw a lot of young bucks and does during the first day and a half, but no shooters. Daryl and I suspected they were moving just before dark. We talked about moving closer to the bedding area, and he told me of another treestand on the edge of a creek separating two CRP fields within 70 yards of a deer sanctuary. He said it contained thick willows and flooded timber, and it sounded like the place to be.
When I first climbed into the stand, I was pleased about how much territory I could see. It was a scene that included deer trails that crisscrossed all around me.
As the afternoon progressed, I saw a few small bucks and a single doe. Then, when the sun began to set, I stood to get a better view and to be ready.
Just when I assumed the hunt was over, I heard a distinct “Urrrrrp!” Then it came again: “Urrrrp!”
Expecting another young buck, I slowly reached into my vest for my deer calls. While still unable to pinpoint the maker of the sound, I offered a couple of short grunts, followed by a bleat. As I listened, the grunts became louder and closer. I could hear twigs snapping and brush rustling, and I thought, “It’s coming!”
I grabbed my bow and prepared for a shot. As my eyes strained to see movement, my ears were focused on what sounded like someone rolling a wheelbarrow through the small thicket below me.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally spotted the buck — it was The Great 8! The majestic buck’s wide rack twisted and turned as it wove through the brush, which was the source of all the noise.
I drew my bow before he stepped into the clearing in front of me at 8 yards and carefully centered my pin on his chest.
Upon impact, the buck let out a “ROARRRR!” spun 180 degrees and bolted. He went about 100 yards before slowing and then faded into the diminishing light.
“YES!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t believe it. I’d dreamed about The Great 8 for months and had taken him only two days into the hunt. Was I dreaming? Did that really happen? It was too good to be true.
Confident the buck was down, I stayed in the stand until full dark.
When I returned to the farmhouse, Daryl and Kerry were assembling a two-man ladder stand.
“Well, how’d ya do?” Daryl asked.
“It was pretty slow,” I stammered. “I saw only a few small bucks and one doe. But just as the sun began to fade, I lost an arrow!”
With a priceless look on his face, Daryl looked up and said, “You shot one?”
“Yeah baby,” I responded. “The Great 8 is on the ground!”
Although my arrow had struck the buck hard in the chest, it didn’t completely pass through. We waited an hour or so before heading back to my stand, flashlights in hand. After covering only 30 yards, we located the back half of my arrow, but only two small drops of blood lay beneath it. Unfortunately, that’s where the blood trail ended.
With no further sign, we added a tracking dog to our team, but not even the dog could detect the trail. So, after an exhausting couple of hours, we agreed to continue our search the following morning.
That night, I lay in bed staring into the darkness, replaying the shot over and over in my head: “I drilled that buck through the center of his chest. It was a gimme shot, and I nailed him. How could the arrow have missed the vitals? That buck should’ve dropped within sight.”
Around 7 a.m., five of us combed the CRP fields on foot. We also checked every hardwood draw, ridge, creek bed, ditch and thicket in the vicinity. We later borrowed a front-end loader. Riding the bucket from one end of the CRP field to the other, we peered down into the tall grass from the elevated position.
By 2 p.m., we’d exhausted all possible search efforts. Although I was down in spirit, my plan was simple: Just keep hunting.
From that point on, I went through the motions of rising early and hunting until dark. With every setting sun, my hopes dwindled as I watched and listened for crows, buzzards, coyotes or anything else that might indicate The Great 8’s location.
One afternoon hunt exemplified how badly I was suffering from deer-hunting depression. Shortly after climbing into my stand, I had three shooter bucks trailing a doe in the food plot in front of me. What did I do? Nothing. I didn’t stand, pick up my bow or call to them. I simply sat there, numb.
With only one afternoon hunt remaining, the local weather radar was covered in Christmas green. The forecast was dismal, calling for more cold weather accompanied by heavy rain and 20-mph winds.
Exhausted, negative thoughts flooded my mind. “I had my chance. I might as well quit,” I thought. “It’s cold and rainy; why not just pack up and go home?”
But Daryl encouraged me with the old adage, “Weather that’s good for the hunter usually isn’t good for deer movement. Conversely, weather that’s good for deer is usually bad for the hunter.” We geared up for one last confrontation with Mother Nature.
Around 2 p.m., the weatherman’s predictions came true. It was cold and windy, and the rain was falling by buckets.
As a last-ditch effort to change my luck, I decided to try a new location.
Situated in a pocket at the base of a long, timbered ridge, two hardwood fingers flanked each side of my vantage point. The fingers helped funnel deer traveling from the timber to feed in a cut bean field behind me.
The wind continued to increase, and the rain changed from falling vertically to horizontally. I stood with my back to the bitter onslaught and raised the hood of my jacket.
By 4:20, I was completely soaked. I glanced to my left just in time to see a large silhouette run out of the hardwoods about 100 yards away. I raised my binoculars.
Expecting a doe with a buck in tow, I was surprised to see a shooter buck. I quickly grabbed my rattling antlers from the hanger. After hitting and grinding them together for less than 10 seconds, I was stunned to see the tall-tined buck coming fast.
In no time, he was at 30 yards, running full-tilt. With my left hand, I laid the antlers in the seat behind me and grabbed my bow. While bleating to stop the buck, I began turning to my right in anticipation of a shot. But as the buck passed directly beneath the stand, I heard the sound of antlers — not his.
“Oh no!” I thought, “Don’t f-a-l-l!”
Just then, I heard a loud “Clang!, Crack!, Bing!” as my rattling antlers fell off the seat. I’d placed them on top of my safety harness rope, and when the rope went taut, they clattered to the base of my climber.
At the unfamiliar sound, the buck skidded to a stop six yards behind my tree. He stood motionless for a few seconds before circling to my right. But having already turned, my safety rope kept me from rotating any farther in that direction. In a panic, I swung back to the left while bleating to stop the buck.
I drew my bow just as the buck stopped at 15 yards.
“It’s too thick. I still can’t shoot!”
While I hoped another opportunity would present itself, the buck began to run. Out of despair, I let out another loud “Mehhh, meahhh!”
Having done a complete circle around the stand, the buck stopped perfectly broadside at 18 yards.
I sent an arrow through the buck’s vitals. He spun and ran only 70 yards before falling to the ground within sight.
“YES!” I said, while raising my bow and fist-pumping in victory.
I was still in my stand at dark when Daryl walked out of the timber, unaware that I’d taken a buck. While he unhooked my bow from the pull rope, I said, “Hey, man, don’t fool with that right now. Why don’t you walk over there and see if you can find my arrow?”
Looking up with a huge grin, he asked, “You stuck one?”
“Heck yeah!” I responded. “But it all happened so quickly, I don’t know exactly what he is, but he’s got long tines! And the best part of it is we don’t have to track. He fell between here and the truck!”
The next morning, I faced the long 15-hour drive back to Alabama from Illinois, and I had a lot time reflect on that hunt. With antlers rising above the truck bed walls, I had a permanent grin as I received many honks and thumbs-ups from other drivers.
I still think about The Great 8 and wish we had found that awesome buck, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that we did everything we could. As a hunter, if you prepare, practice and make your best effort, that’s all you can really ask for.
Things in life don’t always go the way we want and sometimes bring us to our knees. But you have to get back up and keep fighting. It helps to have a few good friends to share the experiences, both the good and the bad. Daryl and Kerry encouraged me through my darkest hour of hunting and helped turn it into one of my best memories afield ever.
Remember, when the hunting gets tough, just keep hunting.
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