The Keys to Late-Season Hunting
I first became acquainted with an Ohio buck I named Curfew following the 2014 season, when he showed up on one of my trail cameras in mid-January. I had no previous photos or sightings of the buck, but he hung around throughout the winter and I was able to find one of his sheds in March. As a 3-year-old he was a good buck, but I didn't really think about him much during the off-season and I assumed he would return to where he came from by fall.
Curfew earned his name by showing up so late the previous season, and when I didn't get my first photo of him during the 2015/2016 season until Oct. 30, his moniker seemed even more appropriate. This time, however, he was a head turner. Although he still sported just an 8-point rack, he added a lot of mass and grew a set of impressive brow tines that I would obsess over for the next few months as I began strategizing how I could get close to him.
Admittedly, Curfew wasn't my original target buck. Heading into fall, I was focused on a deer I had been after for the last three seasons whose rack scored an estimated 170 inches. I had two sightings of the 5-year-old buck, which I thought was an accomplishment in itself, but after one close call and having him just 25 yards away in early November, he disappeared. No more sightings. No more trail-camera photos. Just like that, he was gone, and I was forced to adjust my game plan.
Curfew seemed to run with a little different crowd than my original target buck, and because of that I really didn't have a stand set in an area that gave me confidence. Still, I managed one daylight sighting of him on Nov. 11, but he saw me too, and the outcome of that encounter is easy to predict. I left two days later for a mule deer hunt with my dad in South Dakota, and I knew my best chance to shoot the buck before gun season opened was now behind me.
I was able to hunt a couple more times before Thanksgiving, but other than getting a couple nighttime photos of Curfew and seeing a few decent bucks, there was really no excitement to speak of. When firearms season arrived, I chose a location that would allow me a reasonable opportunity to see him, while also limiting the chances that I would chase him off the property and into harm's way. The season came and went without any sightings, but when I checked my trail cameras I saw that the buck walked within 20 yards of one of my stands on opening morning during the first half-hour of daylight. Yep, another near miss.
I grew very concerned when none of my cameras captured a photo of Curfew after opening day, and I was left to assume that he either got shot or left the property. After another full week without a photo, I finally got a grainy image of a big buck at the very edge of the camera's range. I felt confident it was him, but I couldn't be certain. Then, on Dec. 20, I got a beautiful picture of the deer that left no doubt that my pursuit of Curfew was far from over. In fact, round two was just about to begin.
Curfew survived a special, two-day gun season in late December and also the four-day muzzleloader season in early January. Mother Nature did her part to help by blasting the region with the nastiest winter weather all year, which really limited opportunities for black-powder enthusiasts. I was able to spend time in a ground blind where I was lucky enough to observe Curfew from a distance and learn even more about his wintering area.
My work schedule gets really busy during January, so I was only able to find about five days on the calendar when I could hunt before archery season ended. At one point, I thought it would be best to give up and focus on finding Curfew's sheds in the spring, but I knew I would regret it all summer if I didn't give it one last shot.
On Jan. 14, I loaded up a couple of stands and headed out to place them in locations I felt gave me a reasonable chance. If the wind was wrong for one stand I would simply choose the other, as they were about 300 yards apart. I laughed to myself as I assumed I was probably the only person still hanging stands that time of year, but at least I would know I gave it everything I had even if I came up empty-handed.
Despite my enthusiasm the day before, it was all I could do to get myself out of bed the next morning. In fact, I lingered at my house and ended up not getting to the farm as early as I should have. I checked the wind when I arrived and chose my stand accordingly. I spooked several deer on my way in, and it was already shooting light when I finally pulled my bow up. I scolded myself for being so sloppy, especially when I was trying to pull off what seemed like the impossible.
It was a busy morning in the deer woods, as I saw several does and even watched a couple of yearling bucks sparring about 100 yards to my north. It wasn't terribly cold, and the snow was actually starting to melt as the sun rose over the hillside. Regardless of the outcome, I was glad I pushed myself out the door.
About 150 yards beyond the sparring bucks I noticed a single deer feeding in an opening. Looking through my binoculars there was no mistaking that it was Curfew. I watched him make his way slowly in my direction before disappearing in a ravine. He didn't immediately come out, so I assumed he would bed there for the day. Just seeing him sharpened my focus, and I could feel my enthusiasm level rising.
I saw several does moving through the area and most kept their distance until two adults decided they would follow my boot prints directly below my stand. An honest estimate of the odds of my hunt continuing without being detected and called out by the old nannies would be about 10 percent, at best.
Maybe it was all the hard work I had put in and I was being rewarded for not giving up, but luck was on my side in more ways than one. Shortly after those does passed without spooking, Curfew emerged from the ravine and headed in my direction.
The old buck moved slowly toward the shooting lane I had predicted, and I tried to calm my nerves as I realized that this was really going to happen. He stopped perfectly at 35 yards and I slowly lowered my sight pin to his chest. As I touched off the shot, I was horrified, as I knew I wasn't quite set. I watched in disbelief as the arrow sailed over his back and stuck harmlessly in the ground.
The now-alerted buck took two big leaps and then stopped to assess the situation. Clearly, he didn't know where the noise came from, so he wasn't sure what his best course of action should be. My emotion went from heartbreak to a renewed sense of hope as Curfew calmed down and began feeding toward me. I slowly pulled another arrow from my quiver and got prepared for a potential second opportunity.
As he made his way closer, I ranged an area ahead of him where it looked like I had enough of an opening to slip my arrow through. Again the distance was 35 yards. This time my nerves were replaced by adrenaline, and there was no way I was going to miss twice. I couldn't wait to redeem myself. It seemed like it took him an hour to cover just a few yards, but he finally continued into the opening with his vitals in full view.
This time I settled my pin calmly behind his shoulder and released the arrow. It seemed like slow motion as I watched it bury deep into Curfew's chest cavity. Like a bolt of lightning, he erupted into a dead sprint through the woods, without care for the obstacles in his way. After a few seconds, there was complete silence. I never heard him fall, but I could follow a massive blood trail in the snow with my binoculars to where he went out of sight.
I collapsed onto the seat of my stand and just sat there while the adrenaline eased out of my body. I replayed the journey that brought me to that point in my mind. It's that feeling only an archery hunter understands, but it seemed ten times as intense given the circumstances.
Not wanting to take anything for granted, I called my friend Zac and asked him to assist me with the trail. He arrived about an hour later and we quickly followed the trail to my downed buck. I hit my knees in both exhaustion and appreciation for the relationship I had with Curfew, and I stared from a distance before finally putting my hands on him.
I have had many proud moments as a bowhunter over the years, but nothing tops the feeling I had when I finally ran my hand along Curfew's side. I spent months pursuing this deer and had an incredible respect for his ability to elude me and many other hunters. It took everything I had to finally catch up with him, and even then it took a lot of luck to finally reach the top of the mountain. It was the ultimate challenge, and I proved a lot to myself in the process.
Ohio bowhunter Nick Pinizzotto is president of the National Deer Alliance, an organization dedicated to wild deer conservation and protecting America's deer-hunting heritage. Click here for more information on the NDA, or to register for a free alliance membership.