I’ve enjoyed every one of my birthdays. But turning 12, the magic age in Montana, was the birthday I had been waiting for. I was now old enough to hunt alongside my dad. I was now old enough to be a shooter!
Like Dad, I chose to hunt big game with a bow and arrow. After completing the weeklong bowhunter education course and shooting lots of arrows, I was ready to go.
The 2008 archery deer season opened in early September. We decided to hunt whitetail deer in our favorite spot along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. Having tagged along on many previous hunts, I knew the location well. This year would be a little different though, because I would be the one shooting.
Unlike previous years, we didn’t have much luck hunting September in Dad’s Primos Double Bull ground blinds. Deer numbers were down, and we always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We even tried a couple of nights together in a two-man ladder stand without seeing a deer.
My First Solo Hunt
Searching for more deer sign in early October, we found a heavily used trail — complete with fresh rubs and scrapes — connecting some thick bedding cover to an alfalfa field where the deer often fed. My dad and one of his buddies had already placed a 15-foot ladder stand against a large cottonwood tree overlooking the trail.
I was nervous as we grabbed my gear and headed into the woods for my first solo hunt. Helping me into my safety harness and wishing me good luck, Dad watched as I climbed into the stand by myself. We practiced briefly with our two-way radios before he headed back to the truck.
Watching two fox squirrels play in the branches above me, I was just beginning to relax when the first deer stepped out of the woods. The forkhorn buck briefly sniffed around in a small clearing before disappearing back into the cover. As he left, two more bucks of similar size emerged from the brush on a different trail. They chased each other around until the original forkie reappeared. The three little bucks then walked right beside my stand, following the trail to the alfalfa field. Slowly raising my bow as they passed, I considered taking the shot. But, choosing instead to let them grow another year, I held off.
Hoping I had made the right decision, I scanned the woods for the next hour as the setting sun disappeared behind the treetops. Finally catching a glimpse of antlers among the growing shadows, I figured the forkies had returned. When the deer stepped out, however, my eyes grew huge as I realized this was no small buck. Passing before me, point blank, was the buck I had been waiting for!
I quietly drew my bow as the deer paused and glanced back along the trail. Focusing on a spot just behind his left shoulder, I slowly squeezed the trigger on my release. Exploding off the rest, the arrow reached its target quickly as the deer stumbled and crashed off through the Russian olive trees! Listening intently for a couple minutes, I couldn’t be sure if he’d gone down or not.
“We get to follow a blood trail!” I whispered excitedly as Dad returned at last light.
“Awesome!” he said. “How well did you hit him?”
“The arrow placement looked perfect,” I replied, “but I’m not sure about penetration.”
“We’d better give him a little time,” Dad responded. “We don’t want to bump him from his bed.”
Retrieving our tracking lights back at camp, I described the encounter in more detail over a bowl of hot elk chili. “The shot sounds a little low,” Dad thought, “but you might have gotten the heart.”
‘We Couldn’t Wait Much Longer’
After hearing the evening weather forecast for rain changing to snow, we knew we couldn’t wait much longer. Two hours had already passed since the shot. Following a quick phone call to Mom, we grabbed our flashlights and knives and headed back into the woods.
Stumbling around in the dark, we eventually found the ladder stand. “I think the deer was standing by that bush when I shot,” I said, motioning with the flashlight’s beam. The blood trail started at the point of impact. The broken, bloody, fletched end of my arrow wasn’t far behind. Crawling and crouching for another 50 yards, we were well into the thick bedding cover when I pointed my flashlight ahead and saw my buck.
“There he is!” I shouted as I spotted his bright white underbelly. It didn’t take long for Dad to see him too.
After some hugs and high fives and a quick prayer, we examined my trophy more closely. It was a beautiful 10-point whitetail buck with a huge body. As Dad had guessed, the arrow had pierced the heart, lodging in the opposite front leg. My shot could not have been better!
We called Mom again on our cell phone, and before long she arrived with my little brother and a couple buddies to help drag the deer from the woods. It was one o’clock in the morning before we finished taking pictures and cleaning my deer. We were exhausted as we crawled into bed that night.
I realized my good fortune as I awoke the next morning. I had scored early in my career as a big-game hunter, with meat for the table and antlers for the wall. I was lucky to share the adventure with family and friends and would certainly never forget the experience. Best of all, I was totally hooked on bowhunting and couldn’t wait to do it all again next year!