'Big Buck Down' - A Twisted Tale
I still remember the exact moment I spotted this buck. It was a foggy Sunday morning, a couple of hours after the sun rose, and Steven and I had just walked back into the house from a relaxed morning looking for deer up on our property. My eyes scanned the field across ours and saw the legs and body of a deer I knew wasn’t a regular for this area.
Steven was in the other room as I shouted, “Steven, come here…” only silence answered back, so I followed it up by something I knew would provoke a response, “do you want to shoot the biggest blacktail of your life?” He came running.
I already had my binoculars in hard trying to get a better judgment of just how big he was, but his chocolatey dark brown tines made them hard to decipher from the vines and branches he stood in front of. “He’s a STUD, Steven,” I said over and over. “That’s a great buck!”
We made a quick call to a neighbor, and within minutes we were heading over and going over the play by play we hoped to execute. As we made our way around the apple trees and tried to sneak in without the buck or his doe pinning us, we were abruptly met by a flock of turkeys who didn’t like the stealthiness we were trying to pull off.
Things unfolded, and before we really even had a chance to mess up plan A, plan B began to unfold. Steven and our neighbor moved quickly as the doe and buck moved toward the standing timber in the back of the property. They guys quickly hopped a fence and pushed in. I knew my best play was to stay back with a good vantage of the possible escape routes he might take if they pressured him out. So I positioned myself and waited.
Just as I knew it would happen a couple of short minutes later, I heard the faint but distinct crack of the arrow accompanied by the sound of chaos in the trees and just seconds before I watched the buck fly over a five-foot fence and bound out of sight. I made a precise mental note of where he went, and the last place I saw him as I waited for the guys to come out and ramble off the exciting details of what just happened.
“That’s a dead buck!” the neighbor anxiously announced. “I saw him,” I said. I know exactly where he went in,” I piped off.
A few minutes after he walked over, holding out the fletched end of his arrow, we walked over to where I saw him jump the fence knowing that somewhere near there, we should be able to pick up good blood from the impact of his jump. We walked around for several minutes talking and trying to playback exactly how the shot went down and asking him to replay where he saw the arrow hit. He was confident in his shot, so we were a bit surprised when all we saw in the 80 or so yards between where he was standing and where he jumped the fence only produced a handful of blood splatters.
We spent most of the morning and into the early afternoon helping him look, pushing down to the creek, even picking up tracks and a few blood-stained leaves along the way. But no trace of the buck that a few hours early, I’d been eagerly watching through my binoculars.
Knowing the weather, cold air, fog, and occasionally rainy conditions meant the deer would be moving good, I returned home and made my way up to the top of the property only to be greeted by a large single doe making her way to the back fence line. I went through the motions as I always do regardless of the plan for actually pulling the trigger, snuck into 25 yards, found some cover, and watched as she fed my direction.
Carefully I brought my bow up and waited for her to turn her head so I could draw my bow, but before I could begin to pull it back, she caught my movement out of the corner of her eye, stopped feeding, and pegged me. I waited with my bow and arm fully extended, my eyes pointed toward the ground, and my body as still as a stone wall. Seconds turned into minutes, and my arm began to shake. I inhaled a long breath and exhaled as slowly as possible as she lost interest in what I may be and returned to munching down the dew-covered clover she stood in. Her head turned away from me, and I took the opportunity to draw my bow and settle into my shot.
“There is so much season left. The bucks are everywhere. It's just practice.” I said in my head, trying to justify why a perfectly good, and very ethical close-range shot should be passed up. I couldn’t find a reason. Shuffling schedules, leaving my kids, and missing family time in hopes of holding out for a buck couldn’t beat out the blessed opportunity already standing before me. I let a long breath out and settled into my trigger. Whack, my arrow hit the mark and provided an instant and final moment of life that would bless my family and humble me as a provider.
Days passed as my deer hung in the shop, cleaned, skinned, and aging to perfection. Every morning I’d make my way to the top property to check game cams and take a look at what deer had been moving. It seemed like almost daily I’d see a new buck come roaming through pushing does display their typical rut behavior. We had everything from a couple of up and coming forky’s, some decent 2x3’s, a studly 3x3, a big white-faced forked horn, and a feisty first-year unicorn spike who pushed the does harder than any other buck we saw. It became a highlight to my day to review the videos with my kids and get to observe more of their daily behavior together.
Steven handpicked the best time of the day and usually sat in for the morning or evening hunt, hoping that one of these bucks would bound into sight, pushing a doe up past him, but things didn't line up.
Another morning came, and like I had done every other day, I went to get the card and excitedly brought it back home. I took the card out of my pocket and slid it into my computer. The anticipation was always palpable, and my often overactive mind expected to see giants. I gasped, paused, looked at my son sitting next to me, drug the play button back to start, and started it over. “Holy buckets,” I said. “Got something good?” Steven asked? “Uh, yeah. He’s back!” I squealed from the other side of the breakfast bar.
I initially thought the monster on camera was a giant 5x6 non-typical buck I had snuck into as he lay bedded 17 yards in front of me the year before, but it wasn’t. After getting several different videos with multiple angles, we realized it was just another stud buck cruising down to check for breeding does, one neither of us remembers seeing before.
The new buck gave Steven a little extra pep in his step that day, and he, as you would imagine, spent a little more time in the blind that night. Maybe it was that his excitement could be felt or sensed by the deer, but nothing came in. It was completely dead.
I went to bed every night hoping Steven would wake up early, walk up to the blind and be given the opportunity to shoot this buck. So much so, that secretly I started a folder on my computer titled “Steven’s Monster Buck.” Every video he appeared in would be enthusiastically slipped right into the folder on my desktop, every time with the thought, "maybe this time is the last we see this beautiful animal on the hoof."
Wednesday morning rolled around the weather was perfect, and the rut was hot, but a slight bit of anxiousness built inside me wondering if Steven would head out to hunt in the morning. My unquenched urge for the hunt wasn’t tamed, although my deer still hung in the rafters waiting to be aged to perfection and ready to butcher and process.
I rolled over and heard the faint beeps of the coffee pot, five beeps to be exact, alerting that it was time to get up. I tiredly opened my eyes to see that Steven was heading out to hunt! “YES, it’s going to go down.” I thought to myself.
In the days leading up to this morning, Steven had been watching a younger 3x3 aggressively push a doe all over God’s creation. I mean to tell you, days, hours, and endless displays of breeding kept Steven’s heart pumping, hoping that he would push his does straight into his lane. But the opportunity for a shot never presented itself.
I was just about to start work when I looked down at my phone and saw a text from Steven, “arrow downrange,” it said. I jumped up and had my gear on, ready to bolt out the door, before his next reply came through. “I think it’s the 3 point I’ve been watching,” he said…
Only time and thorough searching would show what really went down that day.
“I’m on my way up,” I replied to him. “No, sit put,” he said, instantly squandering my anxiousness to meet up and see the buck lying on the ground. I guess in the four years I’ve been archery hunting, the one thing that has been the hardest to comprehend is that there aren’t many times that you see the animal go down. Unlike the lifetime I had spent rifle hunting, a greater level of patience has to be implored. And in all honesty, it’s my least favorite part.
I met Steven at the door, and as you can imagine, I rambled off a hundred questions. “Was the shot good? What buck was it? Did the arrow pass through? How far was the shot? Did you see where he went? Was he with a doe?” I mean poor Steven walked into an interrogation from a lady with morning breath, a messy bun, and a salvation army looking wardrobe. All Steven wanted to do was come home and calm his nerves. All I wanted was to know all the things that had just unfolded.
For the next hour and 8 minutes, we waited in the house, pretending to give attention to work. Still, my eyes were glued to the fields surrounding the house as I kept a strong mental note of exactly where my binoculars sat in case I needed to find them quickly and assess movement in the timber.
I snuck into my son’s bedroom, pulled his blanket down off of his face, and whispered, “Hey, sleepyhead… guess what? Steven just shot a buck.” His sleepy eyes squinted open then closed again. A few seconds passed by and then boom, his eyes popped open as big as quarters, he sat straight up and said, “what did you say?” I repeated the words I had just spoke, followed by, “now get up and get going. It’s time to hang another deer.”
It’s no secret in this house, hanging meat is one of the things we look forward to the most. From the learning moments of the season, time in the outdoors, followed by the blessing of hanging our future meals from the beams, we are a family that is proud to hunt.
We slid on our muck boots, zipped up our jackets, and pulled our beanies on. The cold morning would quickly warm up once we started gutting, skinning, and cleaning the deer, but in the meantime, the crisp air carried a bit of a bite.
I walked up the driveway anticipating about 50 yards ahead of me I would slow down and start my search for a sign, but my attention was pulled away as something flashed out of the corner of my eye. Three bright orange fletchings buried among the clover and almost entirely covered. I stepped back, looked up the hill to my right at where I imagined the buck had been standing just a short time ago, then back down at the arrow. It was obvious that the arrow had passed through, and we would be able to inspect the remnants of what may linger on the shaft laying in the dirt.
As I took a few steps back, I waited for Steven, who was driving up the road. I got his attention and said, “I found your arrow.” He seemed a bit surprised but put the truck in park and got out to investigate. I watched carefully as he pulled the arrow straight back and revealed its entirety. The arrow was intact, the mechanical blade deployed, and almost seemingly unscathed. “That doesn’t look good, I said,” but Steven didn’t reply.
He threw the arrow on top of the truck as I continued up the driveway another 45 yards until I could see four disturbed prints where the buck was standing the moment the arrow hit him. The marks were connected to small patches of sliced grass, and tracks I knew were the steps of the buck trying to escape the arrow.
Steven jumped into the tail and began looking like hunters do for blood, which would give us direction. I stood and stared at the same four tracks I walked up to until I saw a tiny spec of something that didn’t fit in. My heart sank. I took a hard swallow, turned to Steven as he stood bent over, looking in the brush, and said, “it’s a gut shot.” We both knew instantly what it meant for us as well as for the deer — a fatal and always unfavored way to take an animal. Our jobs just became a lot more complicated.
We knew that the best thing we could do was pull back and let time take its course as this deer would bed down and expire.
Hours passed by, and again we geared up and headed out. We stood at the fence and looked in the direction he went trying to imagine where we’d find him and prayed the Lord would ease any of his sufferings and let him pass quickly. We made our way toward his tracks intently, watching the ground, and looking for confirmation. Because the last several weeks had displayed so much activity in the area, it made it even more difficult to decipher his fleeing tracks among all the others. But something in my gut told me exactly where to go.
I carefully walked toward the fence line covering a little more than 100 yards as I kept my eyes scanning back and forth between the ground and where I was going. Once I made it there, I looked down and saw the distinct tracks of his last steps before he jumped the fence and made his way toward the timber. I quietly called Steven to me and pointed to the tracks.
Over the next hour, we tirelessly scanned the same 25 yards of dirt, but every time we came up short. His tracks we well defined and evident, and then, they were gone. Our stomachs again turned with disappointment. The same ache that exactly a year ago I felt as I lost tracks on the buck I had shot. The frustration and fear that forces you to think deeply and try to imagine exactly where he would go to die.
We teamed up as a family and made a plan to grid search until one of us screamed to announce we’d found him, but our efforts came up short. As the afternoon came and went, I made my way to work and pressed through my job as my mind stayed tangled up in the search. I waited impatiently for a picture text to come through once the boys found him, but it never came.
That night as we all met up and began to unwind from the long day, our moods were somber and uncertain, but we all held onto the hope the cold night temperatures would keep his meat from spoiling, and we’d find him in the morning.
The next day we went through the motions again, teaming up to grid and at one point all circling back to the same spot on the north-facing ridge of the timber patch. My mind kept hearing the words of my son calling us over to tell us he found him, but no matter how many times I fictitiously spoke those words inside, they never came out of any of us.
My hope was starting to slide as I met up with Steven on the side of the hill and said, “If you go about 120 yards that way”, pointing him east and signaling to a big group of maples that wove through the blackberry bushes, “you’ll run into some good trails that funnel down into some bedding areas - maybe you’ll find him there? I’m gonna head this way, down to the creekside. Wounded animals tend to go toward water, so maybe he’s there?”
We both took off in different directions, mine leading me down a steep embankment and toward the water's edge, his to where I told him. On his way, our anxious little tracker, Gabe intersected him as he came from the bottom of the ridge up one of the cutout trails that the animals had made. They decided together that instead of continuing east, they’d turn and head back down in the direction Gabe had just walked up.
We all met up at the water's edge and spent the next hours gridding the game trails wove into the meadow, into the thistle thickets, and back toward the house. Once again, we came up empty-handed. Two days of tracking and still no idea of where he would be, a feeling of hopelessness consumed me as I once again had to end my search and head to work.
Three days had passed as we slowly began our morning. I tried to shift my focus to work but immediately veered back to wondering where he was. Staring out my office window toward the mountainside and imagining that I was probably looking at where he lay. The temperatures worked against us and began to warm up into the low 50’s. A hunter's moment of regret, doubt, and grief began to set in.
By mid-morning, the unknown took over, and Steven laced up to give it one more look. By now we had been watching for birds to move in and knew they could be the thing that gives up the buck's location. I wished him luck and like every other time, told him I would be waiting for the picture text of him to come through.
I turned on a podcast, sat the phone on the counter, and started cleaning the kitchen when my phone rang. Steven had been out the door for less than 30 minutes, so I didn’t expect it to be him, but I stopped what I was doing and grabbed my phone anyway.
It was him, and I knew immediately he found him.
“Hello,” I said, waiting for the news to spew out of him. “He was right there,'' he said. My stomach turned. “The crows were going crazy and led me straight to him…You know where you pointed east and told me about the trail and beds, the same place Gabe and I met up yesterday?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said sadly. “He was right there. If I hadn't intersected Gabe he would have walked right to him.”
We spent a few quick minutes chatting about it all. Where exactly he was, the condition he was in, and of course which buck it was. The funny thing about the whole ordeal is that until Steven walked up to him, he had no idea which buck he’d shot.
Repeatedly over the three agonizing days, I kept telling him, “you shot the big buck.” He’d reply the same every time, “no, I don’t think so. I didn’t really look at the antlers, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same 3 point I’ve been watching.”
My obsession with the game cameras provided me an insight he didn’t believe, and ironically over the three days since he shot the buck, we had every one of our regulars on camera but two. The big one I’d coined “Steven’s Monster Buck” and the 3x3 he spoke of. So, it was no surprise to me when that much-anticipated picture text finally came through, and it was indeed the “Steven’s Monster Buck.”
Before we got off the phone, he said something that would bring the entire story full circle. “He’s been shot twice.” “What did you say?” I had to clarify how this whole thing could get any more twisted. “He’s been shot twice.” He described where his arrow had hit and then told me about the other one. “He’s got an entrance and exit in the void. Good windage but high, right in the void”, he said. It hit me like a freight train, “that’s the same one the neighbor shot. You’re kidding me.” I couldn’t believe it.
The video we have of that buck a few hours before Steven shot him, and a week after the neighbor arrowed him raised, not a single question of it being that same buck. Not to mention a video of both the left and right side of his body gave no hints of a partial Easton Axis arrow in his side. He was just there, doing what rutting bucks do, pushing does, and spreading his genetics.
I quickly gathered my things and headed Steven’s way the entire time praying the meat would be good, and the blessing of this animal's life would be conveyed every time we sat around the dinner table and honored his spirit.
He met me about 100 yards from where he was, and we walked the last bit of the trail to him together. Of course, in my typical fashion, I rambled on and on with questions about all of it. When we walked the last 10 feet to where he lay, my apprehension turned into gratitude as we circled him, joined hands, and stared at him. There would be closure here, for all of us - a truth that doesn’t always happen.
Growing up in a Christian family, I'm well acquainted with words of prayer. Steven grew up in a non-religious family had always reserved the task to me, but at this moment, my throat began to swell, my words of thankfulness and blessing stifled with a lump inside that broke me. He immediately took over and offered his words of recognition and thanks.
It took a few minutes to find my composure, but the issue of getting him open and checking the meat pressed on our shoulders like bricks. “I’m assuming all the meat on the ground side has turned,” I said sadly. “Let’s roll him over and check the other side.” Steven diligently cut to take chunks of meat off. Anything that was good would be taken while we figured out what had turned and what hadn’t.
Once again, the clock worked against me, and I had to run home, grab my badge and head to work as Steven and Gabe returned to take what they could of the meat, cape out the head, and pack him home.
We all sat in the resolution for both Steven and the neighbor. Thought back on the successful season, the many lessons learned, meat in the freezer, and the recognition that even what won’t end up on our plates isn’t a loss in the grand scheme of things. It pains any hunter or non-hunter alike for unfortunate events to happen, but the circle of life remains and thrives even in times like these.