Hunter in the Headlights

Photo courtesy of JD Stiles

This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of Crossbow Magazine.

I don’t know how in the world the buck got by me. By the time I spotted him, the doe he was following was just about to jump the fence onto the neighbor’s property. And he wasn’t far behind.

I was hunting a new property, one that I’d only had permission on for a couple of months, and one that I’d had very little time to scout. I had been helping unload my brother’s moving truck in the dog days of summer when the guy who was on the other end of the chest of drawers we were carrying asked me where I was from. When I told him, he casually mentioned that he had a farm just north of my house. Hunting permission on that property was secured not long after and a month or two later, my brother and I finally got around to walking it out. Bordered on the north by the red and winding Cimarron River, a tributary of the Arkansas, the quarter section of farmland looked to be ideal wildlife habitat. Two thirds of it was sown in rye and the other third was hardwood timber. And best of all, it was only a ten minute drive from my house. Never in my life have I had access to a hunting property so close to home, and I looked forward to making the most of the opportunity. My brother and I hastily hung a ladder stand overlooking the rye and popped up a ground blind on what looked to be a food-to-bed travel corridor through the timber, telling ourselves that there’d be plenty of time for a more thorough scouting after the season ended.

Evidently, we picked the right spot to pop up that ground blind, though, because from it, I had seen deer nearly every sit of the season. The decoy I had staked out between the blind and the fence had already lured one buck within shooting range. The little guy had come in on a string, all swole up and spoiling for a fight, but he stopped short the moment he figured out that my decoy would outweigh him by fifty pounds. The young buck threw on the brakes then. He skirted my setup and eventually eased off into the woods. My trigger finger twitched as I watched him disappear into the tree line. He wasn’t a shooter, not for a few years yet, but the next deer I shot with my crossbow would be my first so I wasn’t going to be terribly picky. Any mature deer would do.

Like most young hunters in Oklahoma, I cut my deer hunting teeth on a centerfire rifle, a Remington Model 788, chambered in .243 in my case. I picked up a muzzle loader a few years later but only got serious about bowhunting fifteen years ago or so when one of my trail cameras started capturing daily pictures of a velvet antlered giant. I wasn’t sure that buck would hang around long enough for a firearms season to open so I bought a new-to-me bow to give myself every opportunity to catch up with him. That buck wound up giving me the slip, but the extra time I got to spend in the woods that fall, thanks to Oklahoma’s three and a half month long archery season, hooked me for life. I haven’t missed a bow season since. Two years ago, I found a Browning crossbow on clearance and decided that I couldn’t live without it, but I hadn’t really carried it much until this year. So, between hunting a new property and hunting with a new weapon, the season was shaping up to be an exciting one.

Half an hour after that little buck backed down from my decoy, I heard a rustling in the leaves behind me and thought maybe he’d worked up his courage and was coming back for more, but when nothing stepped out, I just assumed I’d heard a squirrel. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a hunter confused one for the other. Shooting light was fading fast when I spotted that doe at the fence. I guessed she was probably the deer I’d heard milling around behind me earlier and was trying to figure out how the doe had snuck past me when I noticed that she was looking over her shoulder. I followed her gaze, and when I did, I was shocked to see a barrel-chested buck behind her. 

I immediately reached for my crossbow but then thought better of it and grabbed my rangefinder instead. The buck was quartering to me at 57 yards, and he was big enough that I briefly considered taking the shot. I’d been flinging bolts at that distance and longer all summer long, preparing for an early season elk hunt in Oklahoma’s panhandle, so I wasn’t put off by the range. But as the buck was staring daggers at my decoy, I thought there was a decent chance he’d come closer and made the decision to wait him out. 

The buck was trying to decide whether he was a lover or a fighter. My grunt tube made up his mind for him. As soon as he heard me grunt, the buck took one last, longing look at his doe, then he laid back his ears and started my way. I settled my crossbow onto the shooting sticks and watched him come. His slow, stiff-legged gait gave me ample time to look him over. The buck was clearly mature, as evidenced by his blocky head and deep chest. His frame was plenty impressive, too, not particularly wide, but tall and with solid mass. I did notice, though, that there weren’t a whole lot of points on his rack. Still, the sight of a mature buck should be enough to set any hunter’s heart to racing, and as postured up as this one was, my composure didn’t stand a chance. I shook with every step he took.

Cutting the distance between us in half and closing fast on my decoy, the big bruiser inclined and then lowered his head, bracing for impact. That impact came, but not at all where he expected it. My bolt hit the buck just behind the shoulder, a little low, maybe, but still lethal. He bounded once and threw the bolt back out. He bounded again and was carried into the woods and out of my sight.

I found blood at the point of impact, but there wasn’t enough of it to track. Another drop just inside the wood line showed me the general direction the buck had run, but as I was losing light and didn’t have a real blood trail to follow, I made the decision to back out. There are few more difficult decisions in life that having to work out whether to continue on a weak blood trail or leave it lay till the next morning. Discretion proved the better part of valor in this case. I hung my hat on a limb above where I’d found that last drop of blood and backed out.

Walking back to where my Jeep was parked at the gate, I replayed the hunt in my head. Doe at the fence. Big buck behind her. Get a range. Give him a grunt. Get ready for a shot. With the bucks vitals fixed in my mind’s eye, I slowed the tape in my head until I was processing through the shot sequence frame by frame. In one frame, I watched my bolt fly in. In the next, I watched it fly right back out. Flipping back and forth between those frames, there was no denying the fact that I hadn’t gotten much penetration, maybe only five or six inches, and I started second guessing my decision to shoot mechanical broad heads.

Long before I bought a crossbow, back when I first started shooting a compound, I read as many articles as I could find weighing in on the debate between fixed blades and mechanicals. Every other one of them arrived at a different conclusion. I finally settled on shooting mechanicals in my compound after I read in one of those articles that there was little to no aerodynamic drag on a mechanical broad head tipped bolt. If, as the manufacturers claimed, those broad heads flew as true as my field points did, that was good enough for me. When I bought the Browning, I assumed the same principle applied from compounds to crossbows and again bought mechanicals. But now I wasn’t so sure. I drove back to the ground blind, dismantled my decoy and stuffed it into the back seat of the Jeep. Then I got out of the area as quietly as I could.

Following the two-track back towards the gate and wondering whether I ought to organize a grid search or call in a buddy with a tracking dog, I came around a bend in the trail and nearly ran over my buck. He was down, but he wasn’t dead. Not by a long shot. Never has the phrase ‘deer in the headlights’ been more fitting. Except that it applied to me, not the buck. I slammed on the brakes, yanked on the parking brake and jumped out of the Jeep. Then I jumped right back in to grab my crossbow. With one eye on the buck, I fished the cocking rope out of my backpack and was dismayed to see that there were about a dozen knots in it. I swear, the first company that comes up with a cocking rope that won’t tangle will make a million dollars. I finally unraveled the last knot, loaded a bolt, and squeezed off a shot. That one got much better penetration, but it still didn’t end the fight. It took the last bolt in my quiver and another fifteen minutes before the bruiser threw in the towel. 

I field dressed the deer by means of high beams and then took a seat at his side to look him over. I’d made the decision to forego the use of trail cameras this year. I made that decision because I wanted to spend a season being surprised by whatever stepped out in front of me and to be completely happy with whatever I shot, without having to compare it to the picture of some random, nocturnal buck that just happened to be passing through. So, when I saw the buck in the field, I was seeing him for the first time. And I’ve spent enough time in the deer woods to know that it’s never a good idea to spend too much time studying a whitetail’s rack while he’s walking in. Now, though, I had all the time in the world. The buck was mature. He was majestic. And he was mine. What the deer lacked in points, he more than made up for in character. There was a notch taken out of his right ear and a maze of scars on his muzzle, including one that cut straight across the bridge of his nose. Each and every one of those scars told its own individual story of a fierce battle with a rival, of a hot doe won or lost. The old buck was a warrior, for sure, and if I’d noticed those features in the field, that notch and those scars, I wouldn’t have had to wonder whether he was a lover or a fighter. 

But my admiration of this deer stretched well beyond his physical features. Every hunt that ends with a field dressing is memorable, but this was truly one for the ages. The buck I was holding was not only the first deer taken on a new property, he was also my first kill with a crossbow. Those kinds of things have always been special to me, but they’re becoming more and more so with each passing season. I’m at an age where life doesn’t have just a whole lot more firsts to offer, not the kind that I’m looking forward to, at least, so when I am fortunate enough to experience another of life’s fleeting firsts, I want to make sure I milk it for all it’s worth. That wasn’t going to be hard to do with this buck.

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