Every October I dedicate a week’s worth of vacation to hunting with my father behind my grandfather’s hunting cabin. I usually schedule this for mid-October but a friend’s wedding on opening day forced me to hunt that week rather than make two trips. I’ve never enjoyed hunting opening week of deer season. The weather is notoriously bad. It is either raining every single day or far too warm for whitetails to move until after dark. With little hope of seeing deer, I wasn’t ecstatic about the situation. Dad shared my sentiments but thought we could overcome our situation with a lot of luck and a little bit of corn. Michigan had recently lifted the baiting ban and hunting was now an entirely new ballgame. I’ve never been a proponent of baiting but made an exception since land and time were limited. We wanted to see deer and if a bucket of fermented apples and a couple bags of corn could help…so be it.
I spent Monday and Tuesday hunting out of my new treestand and enjoyed it. I had never hunted out of one before and appreciated the added vision it provided. Contrarily, it felt redundant and a bit limiting to be committed to one particular place. I found myself wanting to climb down and rove around on several occasions and eventually did so Wednesday morning. I’d had enough after two days of nothing but squirrels and birds. I would have been more patient had there been more time or sign but nothing was hitting my bait and I was heading home on Friday. I needed to change spots but having only one stand meant I’d be hunting on the ground the remainder of the trip. There was nothing wrong with that but I didn’t know where to go. There were several ground blinds in the area but either one of them was a total shot in the dark at this point.
Fortunately, Dad’s spot on the bank of a small pond was every bit as hot as mine was icy cold. He watched the same deer every morning: a pair of twin does with dark coats and a slightly larger doe with big hips and long ovular ears. He named them “Frick n’ Frack” and “Big Ears” to make them easier to reference. They would wander in from the opposite bank at first light, disappear for an hour or so, and return to wipe his bait out at around 9:15.
An opportunity for a shot had yet to present itself despite the close proximity of our bait to his blind. He’d already been busted on two occasions with very little movement. The deer were skittish and always seemed to be looking at him from a frontal position. We had a hunch their anxiety might be predator related. Dad spotted a coyote roaming around the area at 9:30 a.m. and we received a frantic text from my mother stating the neighbors spotted a yote in their yard a bit earlier. Encounters of this nature are very odd. You always hear coyotes in the area but you hardly ever see them. We could only guess it was hunger forcing them to act against their nature. This didn’t improve our hunting any.
We decided our chances would be better if we hunted the pond as a team; so we grabbed our longbows, tuned up a bit in the yard, and headed into the woods at around three to rebait and get situated. It was a beautiful night to be in the woods: sunny and cool with a stiff northern wind licking our faces. My doubts subsided as everything seemed to be falling into place. It was going to be a great hunt, whether I shot anything or not.
We crossed the pond to the opposite bank and entered the ridge via a break in the treeline. It was the only well-defined to access the ridge and was obviously the designated path for all things four-legged. It was proceeded by an old trail – overgrown and forgotten – yet still slashing through the woods like a wound refusing to close. What used to be matted earth was now caked with fallen leaves and various forms of vegetation; a combination I found extremely hard to move quietly through but would be obsolete once we found cover.
The trail climbed up and over the crest of the ridge, which was littered with juniper bushes and small firs collectively thick enough to form a wall in some places. “I think you want to be in one of those bushes,” Dad whispered. “You could thin one of them out, cut a shooting lane overlooking the pond, and have a great shot at anything going to or coming from the bait pile. They always leave through that opening!” It all made sense to me so we went to work immediately on a large bush amidst a grove of small firs. The latter of which would hide me completely from game approaching from the rear and right flank and disguise my silhouette from game approaching head on from the bait. The lack of cover in front of me would also allow me to maneuver my longbow uninhibited. By working with natural cover we had created an ideal bowhunting situation in approximately 20 minutes.
With little left to do, I sent Dad on his way and spent a few minutes drawing my bow to get comfortable. I’d brought the shortest bow in my stable: my 61″ Hollenbeck hybrid with Selway quiver. I’d had a hunch I’d need the most compact rig possible and was pleased I followed my gut. As much as I prefer them, longer bows are not always conducive to hunting from natural cover. I find bows between 60-62″ perfect for situations such as these and my Hollenbeck fills the need beautifully. As hard as it was to leave my brand new 64″ Bama Expedition in the sock, I felt I made the right call for this hunt.
An hour passed and that familiar state of comfortable alertness washed over me – the noises and voices of the woods with it. It was a beautiful night. The serenity of the wind rustling through the trees made it far too easy to daydream and the sun seemed to hang a bit lower each time awoke. It was now 6:30 but looked a whole lot later beneath the canopy of the forest. If I was going to see a deer, it would be within the next 45 minutes.
Leaves crunched to my left and the hair on the back of my neck began to rise. My heartrate quickened. I shot a glance through the branches over my shoulder, fully expecting to find a squirrel chattering at me, but there was nothing there. Another leaf crinkled. Something was definitely coming and it was too quiet to be a squirrel. I cautiously slipped an arrow from my Selway and nocked it, making sure to keep my thumb behind the nock and string to dull the snap. I looked again, this time lingering long enough to catch a pair of does eek passed my blind at less than 15 yards. They were the weirdest whitetails I’d ever seen; chocolate brown coats, circular ears, short snouts, and droopy tails. They were identical in every way with the exception of their weight as the lead doe was a bit larger. She was also bolder, wasting no time heading to water while the other lingered by the corner of my blind.
“So this is Frick and Frack,” I thought. “In the fur!”
I was so distracted by their appearance, I barely noticed a third and slightly larger deer slip out of the woods behind them. She was beautiful and drastically different from the other two with a lighter coat, bigger hips, and large ovular ears sticking straight out the sides of her head. This had to be “Big Ears”. I was sure of it. I readied my bow and drew a slow albeit jagged breath to calm down. They would be around the firs within moments and the lunacy would begin.
Frick appeared first, stopping broadside at 15 yards to root around the foliage with her snout. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity but wanted a better look at Big Ears. I waited for what couldn’t have been more than a minute or two but felt like an eternity. The walls of my blind flexed in front of me. There was a deer within feet of my bow. I deduced it was Frack, leaving Big Ears the only unanswered part of the equation and she was the deer I wanted to shoot. Where was she?
I was growing more impatient by the second. Frick was milling around the vegetation in front of me; Frack was at the side of my blind; and Big Ears could be anywhere. I was borderline frantic. Another minute or two passed. The week was nearly over and my hunting opportunities were limited. I really wanted to fill one of my tags before heading back to Grand Rapids. I decided to give it one more minute. If Big Ears didn’t show, I was would shoot Frick – plain and simple. I lowered my left knee to shoot and the cool dampness of the freshly scraped earth seemed to have a calming effect. I let exactly one minute pass, counting every second.
“Times up.” I was ready to fill my freezer.
Suddenly Big Ears emerged on the bank approximately 25 yards away! She had stayed within my blind spot, walking directly to the pond instead of milling around with the other two. It was apparent that water and corn were her first priority and she didn’t have time to be cautious. Besides, what could she possibly have been afraid of? She’d been practicing the same routine for days, maybe weeks, with no ill-effects. I found her nonchalantness both intriguing and ironic as it probably saved her life by guiding her halfway to Dad’s blind and out of my comfort zone. She was safe…at least from my arrow. Her life was now in the hands of my father which were probably on his bow and looking to end it quickly. We would know within moments.
I had pressing matters of my own. Frick had finished with whatever hors d’oeuvres she was munching on and was ready for the main course. I had little idea as to where Frack was. I lost sight (and sound) of her at the re-emergence of Big Ears. They were both extremely skittish. Twitchy. A single shot would send them both bounding into the next county. It wouldn’t matter how quiet my longbow was. I would have one shot and would have to make it count. I picked a spot behind her left shoulder and slowly raised my bow. She walked forward, glancing towards the pond. I had a feeling she was leaving. It was now or never. I drew, anchored, and let the arrow fly.
My hopes were high but the arrow was higher. Frick was as quick as she was skittish. She dug in with her haunches, ducked the arrow, and catapulted 180 degrees in one frantic motion. The insanity that ensued was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Frack exploded to my right, nearly taking that back corner of my blind with her, and the twins disappeared into the forest. I sank to the floor to assess the situation and get my bearings. I missed. I did everything right and missed.
It is hard to describe that feeling – like flying out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the tying run on third. The kind of hit that is hard and deep enough to be a grand slam but short enough for the outfielder to rob you at the fence. From hero to zero. Heartbreaking. Totally and completely awesome to observe; but heartbreaking nonetheless. I felt like crying but wound up laughing instead. I couldn’t wait to tell Dad and eventually all of you.
But the story wasn’t over.
A clamor arose to my left followed by a series of loud thumps. “Hooves on moss!” I thought. There was a deer on my left flank. Maybe two. I nocked my second arrow and waited. At that moment a streak of brown bolted from the pond, climbed the ridge to my right, and disappeared before I could comprehend what was going on. The suddenness of the encounter startled me to the point of jerking my arrow completely off the rest and into the bushes. Simultaneously, a shadowy hump lurched from a tangle to my left and bounded out of site. There had been a deer there after all.
“Well that figures.” I said aloud.
And then it hit me; Dad must have shot (or shot at) Big Ears. There was no other explanation; no reason for her to act the way she did, especially considering how calm a deer she was. I noticed Dad emerge from the opposite bank as I finished gathering my things. He looked excited. I wouldn’t have to wait long for my answer.
“There was another deer!” He whispered as we walked out. “I think it was a buck! Something scared the hell out of her and it wasn’t me! I never got a shot.”
Daylight faded by the time we hit the trail back to the cabin. My miss was the prevailing topic of conversation. We were both happy I missed Frick. I didn’t really want to kill her. She wasn’t a bad deer per say but not my first choice. She simply wasn’t my deer. I felt ashamed for letting anxiety force me into a shot I didn’t want to take. I would have enjoyed the accomplishment; I would have enjoyed the meat; but I wouldn’t have been proud of the kill. Better to let a young doe like that live if not for anything but the promise of more deer in the area. But that’s the decision every hunter is faced with at one point or another. A 115 pound doe or button buck is a real trophy for some bowhunters, while others won’t even consider anything smaller than an eight point. I fall somewhere in between. The kill has to feel right for an arrow to leave my bow. I made this pact early on and I’m sticking to it; even if I need reminding from time to time.
I am confident Juniper Junction will produce for us before the season is through. I would like to see my father experience his first traditional kill there. I know it would mean a lot to him. And even if he doesn’t, he’ll enjoy a season’s worth of memories trying. Few could ask for better.