October 28, 2010
Twenty hours of grind and gratitude on a whitetail quest
As I fumbled for the shutoff on the alarm clock, my mind was in a jumbled mess. Lying in the darkness, I tried to get my thoughts about me. One thing was certain, I hadn't been asleep for nearly long enough. Staring at the fluorescent dial of the clock, I read 2 a.m. Then groggily I remembered, I had a bowhunt staring me in the face. Okay, now I had a good reason to rise at this indecent hour.
Some of the locations that the author hunts on the prairie don't allow vehicle access across the grasslands. This means there will be plenty of long walks to get to the prime bowhunting action.
Stumbling down the hallway I slipped into my prearranged clothes, then into my old pickup truck, which I pointed northwest out of my Oklahoma home. Rolling down the nearly deserted highway, the miles faded behind me as my mind fantasized about the day yet to come. If everything went as planned, which I knew in hunting it rarely did, I'd be sitting in a tree stand in the prairie of southeastern Kansas as the sun rose on this late-November morning.
Yesterday had been Thanksgiving, and though I'd broken myself away from my hunting for the holiday, the thought of an unfilled tag had haunted me. It seemed that all that I had been able to think about was getting back to the woods. As I'd made small talk with my relatives, visions of large-antlered whitetail bucks had been running through my mind. This mind of a bowhunting junkie is a funny thing.
Two hours into my drive, I pulled from the highway and pointed my truck down a familiar gravel road. Daylight was yet two hours distant, but I felt pressed for time because there was still a lot of ground to cover. Pulling into my usual parking spot, a vast expanse of frost-covered prairie sparkled before me in the light of a full moon. Deep inside, I was very thankful for the full moon. It would make the two-mile walk much easier. Grabbing my carefully arranged backpack, I shouldered the heavy load. Handling my bow, I set out on the long hike ahead.
Out On The Prairie
As I slowly left all signs of civilization, my mind became acutely focused on the solitude around me. Not a sound reached my ears, except for the constant swishing of the frozen grass at my feet. From horizon to horizon, the Milky Way stretched high above. Occasionally, a shooting star graced my path, giving me hope for the fulfillment of a wish that burned deep inside my gut. Clouds of breath billowed ahead of me, as a small trickle of sweat began to form in the crease of my back. Ahhhh, the things we do for love!
Coming upon the lip of a deep creek drainage, I dreaded the commotion that I was about to cause. Here was the realm of the whitetail, the stomping grounds of mighty bucks. Wishing that I could hunt on the side of the drainage where I stood, the north breeze dictated otherwise. Knowing that my crossing would not go unnoticed, I prayed that the commotion would not cost me a chance at my quarry. Slipping into the valley, I made my way carefully to the other side.
The eastern sky was beginning to lighten as I unstrapped the tree stand from the backpack. Finding a likely oak nearby, I climbed quietly up and hung the platform. Pulling my bow and backpack up, I climbed aboard as the gray-light of another day materialized around me.
The author witnessed this gorgeous prairie sunset after a long, hard day in the field. The early rising, driving, and eventual packing out of meat and equipment will take a strain on any hunter but they do little too discourage future hunts.
Pulling insulated clothing out of my pack, I quickly made the change as the excitement of the hunt flooded through me. Would this be the day that I'd hunted all month for? Was I going to stick with my commitment of harvesting only an exceptional buck, or nothing? Or, would my resolve fail me at the sight of a lesser buck? Would I even see a buck at all? Would all this effort be worth it?
Settling back into the seat of my tree stand, I knocked an arrow and hung my bow on a limb. Pulling a couple of granola bars from my pack, I greedily wolfed down the treats. Taking a few chugs from my water bottle, I realized that I'd already been awake for more than five hours, had driven 130 miles, and had hiked two miles; no wonder I was hungry! Pulling a grunt call and some rattling antlers from my pack, I hung the helpmates on nearby limbs, finally settling in for my vigil. Within seconds, the solitude of the area was once again complete.
Laid out before me was a varied landscape of grass, tree and rock. It was easy to trace the different grades of soil as they rose out of the limestone canyons that surrounded me. Mature trees and numerous types of brushy vegetation lined the rich soils of the canyon bottoms. As the hillsides rose, ever terracing on their climb toward the bluestem prairie far above, specific types of vegetation filled their distinct roles in an ecological story as old as time itself. On top, golden grasslands flowed over the gently rolling curvature of the earth for as far as the eye could see. Only 150 years ago, the mighty bison had ruled this land.
Action At Last
As the morning slipped by, my attention was occasionally riveted to the movements of nearby deer, a few does here, a small buck over there. A group of five mature gobblers worked their way across the distant prairie. A jet-black fox squirrel scurried around my (or was it his) red oak tree. As the sun began to warm the landscape, a beautiful early-winter day was unfolding, the kind of day that made it good to be alive. Inside, I had a really good feeling about this hunt.
Toward late-morning, movement on a distant hillside began to materialize into a large group of whitetail deer. Grabbing my bino's, I took a peak. Totaling 15 head, the group consisted of 10 does and five bucks. There were a couple of small bucks that remained on the outskirts of the herd, while two other medium-sized bucks worked the group of does. Slightly above, and separate from all the other deer, was a whopper buck tending a lone doe. The larger buck was clearly a 160- to 170-class 10-point that instantly elevated my heart rate. Inside however, I knew that I was looking at a losing proposition because the deer were 300 yards away, on the other side of a canyon, and the big buck was with a hot doe. Nevertheless, I grabbed my calls and went to work.
Any day spent in pursuit of whitetails is almost always a good one. A day that ends packing out a big buck is even better!
A half-hour later, with nothing to show for my calling efforts, the group of deer had migrated out of my sight. Settling back into my seat, I once again began to survey my surroundings. Shortly, movement in the bottom of the canyon caught my attention. Taking a closer look, I realized that I was looking at one of the two medium-sized bucks that had been in the earlier group. Having evidently split off from the group, he was clearly coming over to my area to check out the sounds of my earlier calling efforts. Realizing that the buck wasn't a bruiser, I hesitated for a few short seconds while deciding whether or not to try for a shot. Everything considered, the decision was short in coming.
Grabbing my grunt call, I quickly attempted to lure the buck within range. Realizing that the eight pointer had taken the bait, I began to get that old, familiar feeling, a strange mix of euphoria and fear. Slowly pulling my bowstring back to my face, I watched as the young buck walked within range. This was it, the culmination of a long, hard, yet wonderful season. On the "kill" mode, I slipped my top sight pin behind the buck's shoulder and set fate into motion. Settling back into my seat, the reality of what I'd just done began to sink in. I'd just harvested a deer, two miles from the nearest road. Now the real work was to begin!
Climbing down, I followed the short blood trail to my trophy. Kneeling, I thanked God for having allowed me to harvest part of His living creation. Pulling a small camera and tripod from my pack, I spent the next hour taking pictures of myself with my trophy. This done, I pulled my lunch from the backpack, settled against a nearby limestone boulder and began to eat. Reflecting on my morning and the day yet to come, I knew that when I finally pulled into home, I would have accomplished a whitetail hunt to remember. The satisfaction that I would feel would be powerful and lasting. I felt very much alive, happy and strong.
The Work Begins
After finishing my lunch, I lay back in the warm sunshine and drifted off into a short nap. Awakening to the howling of a distant pack of coyotes, it seemed that word of the feast to come had already spread. Not wanting to disappoint, I reached into my pack and grabbed my knife, bone saw and some game bags. This was one of the few whitetails that I'd ever harvested that was going to require boning and backpacking to secure. My mind drifted back to the many elk that I'd done this way over the years. A wilderness nut at heart, my spirit thrilled at the opportunity to possess a whitetail in this manner. And by the time that I got this one out, along with all the gear that I'd brought in with me this day, I'd probably swear that I had carried an elk out! Oh well, things weren't going to get done with all my dreaming, it was time to get to it.
Within an hour, I'd reduced the buck to a couple of bags of meat, a cape and a set of antlers. Hiking back to my stand location, I climbed the tree and took down the platform and tree steps. Carefully arranging all my gear into my pack, there was barely enough room to cram the sacks of meat inside. Strapping my treestand to the back, I attempted to shoulder my pack. Whoa! What a stretch, I thought this might be more than I could handle. With evening fast approaching, I did not want to make two trips. Determined to give it my all, grabbing my bow in one hand and deer antlers in the other, I pointed myself toward my distant goal. Knowing that the next hour or two was going to be painful, I tried to convince myself that this was part of the "labor of love" that was involved in the pursuit of my passion. Yeah, right!
The long November day started hours before the sun came up and ended well after dark for the author. The fruits of his labor came in the form of this beautiful Kansas whitetail.
With stuff bulging from every pocket of my pack, and with even more stuff tied on the outside, I strained through the prairie grass. The ravines that I'd crossed in the morning, now seemed like chasms. As the sun dipped below the western horizon, evening's chill began to permeate my sweat-soaked clothing, bringing a welcome reprieve. Just as darkness began to overtake me, the "Man In The Moon" peaked upon the scene, once again providing light for my way; what a perfect day.
As I stumbled to the tailgate of my truck, I flipped the buckle of my pack and cast my burden down. Grabbing a cold soda from the cooler, I savored the drink. Devouring a candy bar also, I looked at the rack of my buck shining in the moonlight. Inside the pack were many pounds of lean meat that would go very well on the grill on my patio. Some of the meat would be ground fine, serving as a compliment to the stew and chili that I'd take on my Coues deer hunt soon to come. Maybe I'd take a nice buck on that trip too? Would I have to pack that buck out on my back also? I welcomed the thought of it all.
Climbing in the cab of my Ford, I pointed her toward home. As the miles faded behind me, I basked in the afterglow of a great day afield. I'd have a 20-hour day behind me when I arrived home, a lot of work, a lot of blessing and a lot of memories. In my spirit, I knew that it simply couldn't get much better than that. The hot shower and soft bed that awaited would heal me quickly. By tomorrow I'd be well into a dream about the next hunt. Man, life was good!