Just as bowhunters sometimes head to wide open spaces, gunners should consider trying thickets.
Even before leaving Alabama for Pawnee City, Neb., I was torn between hunting the edge of an alfalfa field with 400-yard views in two directions or the little pocket I’d bowhunted almost yearly for 10 years. By no stretch of imagination is the latter a rifle stand.
Given the same options, every rifle hunter I know would’ve chosen the alfalfa field over the ladder affording 30- to 50-yard views at only 180 degrees. But I knew that stand sat between two major trails. I’d taken two book bucks with my bow there, missed a third, and had seen at least three or four others that would’ve topped 150 inches.
In the end, I chose to spend opening day of Nebraska’s 2012 rifle season atop that familiar ladder.
My second wakeup call Sunday morning, the one a couple of hours after my roomie’s iPhone rooster crowed, came when I fastened my safety harness to the tree. I bumped the little umbrella I’d left attached there overnight, causing tiny slivers of ice to rain into my open collar.
I inhaled so sharply that my tether tightened, snapping against the umbrella again, and another shotload of ice peppered me.
I’d spent half the previous (opening) day bare-chested beneath my safety vest. The temperature on Saturday had climbed into the 70s, and I was facing the sun.
It was a brisk 28 degrees when I returned to my favorite stand the next morning, the wind chill a single digit.
When dawn broke 20 minutes later, just about the time my internal furnace had cooled from the 70-yard uphill hike from road to ridgetop, I fished my gloves out of my pocket. I slid my left hand into one, but before I could sheath the other, I saw a deer crossing right to left about 30 yards in front of me.
I’d missed a 150-inch 8-pointer in that exact spot in 2010, when my arrow clipped an unseen sapling and sailed in front of the clueless buck.
Like the studly 4x4, this one also was big-bodied, but it was moving too fast for me to get a good look at it in the scope. My only hope was the buck would veer slightly left and pass through a yard-wide gap in the trees – rather than enter the cedar thicket known as Doe Central on that piece of ground.
I shouldered my rifle and waited, absolutely certain that it wasn’t going to happen. But the deer god who’s usually pulling strings on my watch must’ve taken a vacation. The buck not only veered into that opening, but it also stopped there and peered directly at me.
I had one, maybe two seconds to be impressed enough to shoot.
It didn’t take that long. Although I had no idea how many points its rack carried – pretty sure it had at least eight – those antlers looked a foot and a half tall, which meant 10-inch P2s.
A moment later, the buck blazed a new trail through the cedars, the crack and pop of sheared limbs as loud as three-for-one fireworks four days into July.
I might not have seen much of a reaction from the centerpunched buck, but the shearing of limbs told me everything I needed to know. I’d heard the same thing, from that same homemade ladder, a decade earlier, when I arrowed my first (and still largest) record book buck. That deer ran out of gas in only 20 yards. This one, hit in the same spot, managed to go 75.
Fifteen minutes later, I wiggled my right hand into the glove I’d tucked under my vest’s top buckle when interrupted. About that time, a long-faced doe slipped out of the cedars to my left. She left half-heartedly, literally, and took a nap about 40 yards in front of me.
A half-hour later, after following the red highway to my buck, I called my friend, Tim Puhalla.
“I’m tagged out,” I said.
“You’re what?” he asked.
“I’m done. We’ll need the cart for my 10-pointer, and I’ll drag the doe to the road,” I told him.
“Man, every time I think about moving that stand, when I think it has run its course, you come down and prove otherwise,” he told me during a break from pulling the buck-laden cart uphill.
Other graying writers might take this opportunity to smugly suggest that they merely employed a long-used tactic to collect yet another piece of wall art and venison, a trick they’ll share with less enlightened beings who might never have considered such a plan. In fact, while the top of this story sat on my computer desktop, I read an article in a competing magazine about how to “Rifle Hunt Your Bow Stand.”
I might have been chasing whitetails for 43 years, but I still do not consider myself an expert when it comes to hunting them. Like you, I learn from trial and error. I depend on luck and logic.
It’s one thing to read, believe and employ something you’ve read in a magazine; quite another to arrive at a plan inspired by your gut.
It’s difficult to shake visions of deer hunts past. And since I mostly bowhunt, my ghosts are legion. I’ve lost count of the shooter bucks I’ve seen just beyond bow range, the ones that refused to come closer, as well as the ones I’ve inadvertently spooked. The way they haunt my dreams are Dickens-esque.
This is why, when I traded my bow for my bolt-action, I chose the thick woods over wide open spaces. I kept imagining all the shooters I could’ve toppled if only I’d had bullets instead of broadheads.
I consider this hunt a wakeup call, and a much better one than a rooster’s cellular crow or a shirt full of tiny ice cubes. I listened to my ghosts, and they were right.
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This article was published in the October 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.