The darkening grayness of the overcast sunset hour crept down from the buttes along the small valley formed by the feeder creek and river where my bow stand rests, near their junction. The rising north winds carried flurries into my eyes, which I blinked away. I looked down at the frosted the outlines of the zipper and pockets on my camo jacket and gently lifted the grunt call resting on my shoulder up to my lips. I licked them two or three times before pulling the chin of my facemask down to feel the sting of the zero-degree wind chill around my mouth.
For the last two hours, I sat in the open, watching the light gray skies grow dark with the clouds of the minor snow squall and the remaining flocks of snow and Canada geese hightailing it for warmer climates. On the half hour, I issued a collection of long, slow doe bleats, surrounded by the excited and guttural grunts of a tending buck, ready to defend his mate. With one last cadence prepared for the final stretch of the sit, I sent out a series of “urp, urp, urrrrrrps” into the evening air, gently turning the soundpiece to distribute the message with the growing breezes.
“Urp…urrrrp,” was the faint reply from the trees on the far side of the cut field.
The hair on my neck stood up and I turned, squinting against the snow to locate the source, but there was nothing in the growing dimness of the approaching evening. With the deepening cold stealing the heat from even the handwarmers clenched tightly in my pockets, and the wind swaying my bow which hung from the gear hook above me, I began to think the conditions were starting to get to me. Staring into the dark tangle of elms beyond the tall grass behind the fenceline some 70 yards away, I saw nothing, but chanced the cold one more time with my lightly gloved hand bringing the call back to my mouth.
“Urp, Urp, URP,” I replied, with more tension in each staccato grunt, figuring if there was a buck coming down through the trees, he’d better be as serious as I was.
“URP!” came the one-note response, and I glanced back to my left.
He had materialized behind the fence, white antlers towering eight inches up over his ears, with the main beams curling outside of each one. He stared in my direction across the hay field, trying to identify his opponent, and slammed his forefoot and back leg in alternating fashion, like a boxer shuffling his feet and shaking loose before entering the ring. He lowered his head after a moment and began moving down the fenceline, as if he had suddenly changed his mind about engaging the imaginary adversary I had created for him.
His departure appearing imminent, adrenaline pushed the lump of panic from my stomach up to my jawline. I fumbled for the grunt call before I hurriedly pressed it to my lips and with that pent-up energy in my throat I shouted at him: “URP! URP!”
In one amazing motion, buck jumped up in the air in reaction to the call, turned 90 degrees while elevated and cleared the three-string barb wire fence as if he was hopping up a simple curb onto the sidewalk. He flew across the snow-dappled field on a frozen rope, with a purpose I had never seen before, and certainly never from a buck this big and mature, getting closer and closer with every millisecond, as if bending the time and space before him with his fury.
From that point I was lost. My whole body shook so hard with buck fever it took the remaining ounce of composure I had to grab my bow off the hook and clip my release on. By the time I did so, he was in range, so close I could see his antlers, his eyes and the gray hair on his muzzle. I pegged his path at 30 yards as he closed the last of the distance between us in a heartbeat and watched the green and yellow pins of my sight spin wildly around his front shoulder as he slowed to a walk. I took a deep breath, steadied, and mouthed a doe bleat which stopped him dead in his tracks, broadside, directly in front of my stand. I clicked the release.
“SWISH!” Snow exploded in a white spray on the gray backdrop behind him as the arrow zipped over his back, just above where his shoulder met his spine. Audibly, I hissed an expletive as I immediately realized my mistake. Simultaneously, the buck bounded for cover on the dampened twang of my bowstring. He hung on the edge of the brush at about 50 yards, staring down the curse-laden tree that had attacked him. Despite the certainty he’d never come back, I turned the doe call a couple of times to stall him and watched the white outline around his dark tail and his ivory antlers fade off into the dimness of the evening woods.
“That was more like 20 yards,” I thought in frustration as I reviewed the shot and looked at the natural distance markers in front of my stand; it was all I could do to laugh and replay by far the most exciting five minutes I had experienced in the outdoors all year.
With a little daylight left, I descended. I found the deer’s prints in the light snow, exactly 22 yards from my perch. Retracing the flight line, I found the arrow’s impact at 33 yards from my stand and the shaft some 20 yards further down field. Checking the broadhead and the fletchings, I returned it to my bow-mounted quiver to serve as a practice arrow and a reminder.
In eight years of bow hunting, I had never loosed an arrow at a deer until last night. Part of that was a function of my previous hunting jurisdictions and the other part due to my pickiness, but that’s not to say I haven’t had the opportunity or felt a similar rush. I have clipped on a number of times, drawn back once on a quality buck that held behind my stand’s cover tree for what felt like an eternity, but never gave me the chance to fire. In the summers in between, I had sent thousands of arrows into foam blocks and deer silhouettes in my backyard and at the range. I thought of those eight seasons and hundreds of practice sessions leading up to the evening’s five-minute stretch, and how none of it prepared me for the rush with which I had grappled and succumbed to. As I walked in the falling snow, I tried to get comfortable with the fact I had missed my first shot in the field. It was like chewing on tinfoil.
“Getting closer,” I whispered into the evening air with a deep, frustrated steaming exhale expelling the last bit of endorphins from my lungs. The bitter tang of defeat tempered what was otherwise the most enthralling experience I have had on stand, and even with the lingering sting, it still provided one of the most enjoyable hunts in recent memory. With the ambivalence still not settled in my mind, the lesson learned from the evening hunt was not lost, even if the opportunity for my first bow buck was: a bit of space remains — like the gap between my arrow and the deer — from where I am and where I want to be…in our outdoors.