Recently, I met Conrad Evarts, a conservationist, hunter, and producer of “Petersen’s Hunting Adventures.” He had just gotten back from a 3-day deep back country Elk hunt in Montana. Three days of hiking, climbing, in the snow and in the rain and he came back with “nothing.” Nothing that is, except, the memories of an incredible hunt, albeit one that ended without a kill. He did not regret the hunt at all, quite the opposite in fact. He said that some of his best hunts ended with “nothing.”
I figured that would be a fitting introduction to a two-day bowhunting trip to Maryland. For several years now, a good friend of mine has invited me to come hunt with him on private land in Maryland. Unfortunately, each year he invited me “something” (usually work-related) made attending untenable. This year, however, when he invited me, I said “yes” without hesitation. No matter what, I’d get the days and come hunting. If you want to read about a hunt that culminates with a harvest of a 12-point buck, read no further. That said, this was definitely my best experience bowhunting or deer hunting, period.
Arriving a bit earlier to the property than my hunting buddies, I took the opportunity to test the zero on my Z7 and compare the point of impact with my practice broadheads,(Rage 2-blade, for the curious).
Hitting roughly an inch apart at 24 yards, both in the vitals, I was “good to go.” Soon thereafter, my friends arrived, checked the wind, and looked at satellite photos to decide from which stands we would hunt. Since I’ve never taken a whitetail with a bow, I was very flexible on buck or doe, so I went for a high hang-on treestand in the woods adjacent to a field with food plots. The landowner asked us to shoot any nice buck older than 3.5 years old, which I was more than fine with. He then showed me two posters from QDMA explaining how to age and sex a deer on the hoof. These would later prove to be invaluable.
At about 1 pm, I climbed the tree for a long wait until sunset.
For almost four hours, I saw nothing, but I heard plenty. A murder of crows to my southwest. A few barking dogs to my south east. Plenty of “8-point squirrels” to keep me on my toes.
At 5 pm, as if a dinner bell rang, an actual 6-point buck tried to come into the woods from the field, his antlers got hung up in the brush and it took him three or four shakes to make it through.
I had roughly twenty seconds to age him. Judging from his rack size I could tell he was older than a yearling. Judging from the flatness of the back and lack of any evident belly sag, I guessed that he was 2.5 year old. Definitely a “shooter” on public land, but true to the landowner’s request, I held off. He sauntered past me no more than 15 yards away and spent roughly 5 minutes walking, sniffing, looking, forming a scrape, etc.. This hunt would teach me again and again how tiring it is to remain statuesque with a buck close enough to hit with a rock.
After he left my field of view, I went back to relaxing. An hour passed. The light was beginning to dim. My eyes were trained primarily on the path to the field from which the seeking buck came. That said, I turned a bit and sure enough a doe and her fawn had snuck up within 25 yards of my stand. One boot squeak and that doe let loose a blow and they were off. After about 75 yards they stopped, turned back, leered, and then departed.
Lesson learned: even when bowhunting with dry leaves, you can’t always rely on hearing deer before seeing them.
Sunlight was rapidly fading, but with about ten minutes of light left, a fawn came from the same direction as the first buck. I clipped my release on my string ready to take my first whitetail. Then I said, “what did the poster say about ‘beware the lone antlerless deer?'” Right, “button bucks.” It was too dark to see pedicels with the naked eye, so I grabbed my Zeiss 10×45 binoculars. I had to glass ‘him’ three times to make out the faint protrusions that signified a buck fawn. After seeing that he too wasn’t a shooter, I saw a final two does out in the field feeding roughly 45 yard away. Too far, given the lighting conditions, without a clear shooting lane.
After another 30 minutes, I climbed down from my stand and checked in with my friends. One had bagged a nice doe using some of the gnarliest broadheads I’ve ever seen, Silver Flames! Following a nice dinner of venison stew (the meat of which was obtained from a doe taken on the property the week prior), we put on headlamps and went to to recover the doe. The blood trail was effusive! We followed it roughly 150 yards from the point at which the doe was hit to where the doe bedded and expired. The hunter who took the doe was very experienced and within 30 minutes the doe was weighed and butchered, coming in at a healthy 120 pounds. The best cuts were vacuum sealed and tossed in the fridge. By this point it was already midnight and we had another long and early day ahead of us.
The following morning, at 5:45, I climbed into another hang-on stand that was high enough to cause acrophobia in those who were prone!
After getting settled in, I still had a long ways to go until first light. This time, I was determined not to let anything get the drop on me or worse, get spooked by my presence. In less than two hours, I failed on the first count, when a lone deer came sauntering towards me at 7:15am. It was too dark to resolve fine detail (or the pins on my SpotHogg for that matter), but I suspect it was a doe. Some how it got within 15 yards before I could even hear it. Thankfully, I saw her before she saw me and she made it past me without getting spooked. About a half hour later, I saw a very nice 8-point buck, but unfortunately, I never had a clean shot as his closest approach was roughly 40 yards and even then he had ample cover. Judging by his behavior, I don’t think he winded me, he just picked a ‘lucky’ path.
After the buck departed, I returned to scanning the brush for movement with my ears fully perked. At about 9:00, a fawn began approaching. “Beware the lone antlerless deer.” I glassed him and eventually it was clear that he too was a button buck. I was hopeful that he would pass, but day was upon us and it was clear that most deer would be bedding down soon. Sure enough, this button buck decided to bed less than 20 yards from my stand. This was kind of annoying as going undetected by a deer 20 yards away means being very quiet and very still.
For approximately 90 minutes, I waited, hoping that he would move on to no avail. I could have come down, but it would have spooked him and he would grow up knowing to avoid this area. So I waited for my compatriots (who had their own issues getting pinned down by deer). They came making barking noises, which was enough to roust the fawn.
With only one final hunt left on the trip, I was hopeful that the weather would stay cooperative as reports had called for major rains that night and we were already seeing some sprinkles. Between 11 am and 2 pm we ate food and helped the landowner with his farm chores, which was fun. For the coming sunset, I picked a pinch point roughly 50 yards wide separating bedding areas and food. The pinch point was created by a field without cover on one side and a pond on the other. It was expected to be a “high traffic area.” My stand was a ladder stand, which was considerably lower than the earlier hang-on stands from the prior two hunts. I liked being lower as it would mean that my shooting angles would be less oblique, the downside, however, was that forest was very open so deer would be able to see me from much further away. Also, with the earlier sprinkles, the wet leaves were far quieter than before. I would have to be even more perceptive to avoid spooking my hoped-for monster.
Once ensconced, I had a chance to absorb my surroundings. A pair of bald eagles lazily circled overhead. I first heard the whine of the turbofans on a pair of A-10s as they flew over me. At around 4, I heard rustling about a hundred yards from me and then thousands of red-winged blackbirds flew up, over, and past me. For some reason, the combination of loud rustling and the birds kicked up my adrenaline. I can tell I need more time on the stand because every time I saw deer my adrenaline levels rose, obvious “buck fever.” With a rifle or <20 yard bow shot, a little bit of adrenaline wouldn’t really matter, but I can imagine having to relax a bit before taking a 40 yard shot.
As the sun began to dim, I saw a flash of a running deer roughly 100 yards from me. I clipped my release in case he/she was coming towards me. A few minutes went by and nothing happened, but just as I went off high alert, I heard very loud rustling less than 30 yards away and got ready. It was a deer! It was a buck! It was… a four point yearling. Ah well, hopefully he would be followed by either an older buck or nice doe. When the yearling was 20 yards away, he halted and got VERY spooky. Maybe he saw my movement or smelled me, but he froze for what seemed like at least 5 minutes before inching his way forward, stopping every two or three feet. I didn’t want to turn my head towards him as my face was uncamouflaged (note to self: next time when the weather is warm, put on some camo face paint to break up the characteristic eyes-nose-mouth pattern of a potential threat). Once he started moving, I was able to take a nice video with my cellphone camera. Next year, I’d love to have a pair of binos with the ability to take stills and video, ideally in ultra-low-light conditions. The yearling passed within 10 yards of my stand and continued past me.
Thirty minutes later, I saw the final deer of the hunt, a spike who came from the exact same direction as the yearling. He was totally oblivious to my presence and walked to the pond to take a drink. At this point, it was basically last light, and part of me was expecting the monster 12-pointer to come by precisely when it was too dark to see my pins! I gave it another 20 minutes until it was pitch black, came down, and checked in with my buddies. They too saw ample deer but no shooters. After the hunt, we met back at the farmhouse, divvied up the venison from yesterday’s doe and bid each other farewell. I had a long drive back to Connecticut and part of me was eager to get home to watch my new videos.
I’m overwhelmingly confident that with my equipment and abilities I COULD have taken several of the deer that came within shooting range of my stands. That said, by honoring the landowner’s wishes, everyone will win: he’ll get bigger, healthier bucks next year, and I’ll get invited back to hunt ’em.