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Public-Land Hunting At Its Finest

“Hey, I’m hunting over here,” called out the voice from above. I stopped and quickly scanned the skyline before spotting the figure perched atop the platform in the tree. I closed the remaining distance between us and we quietly greeted one another before he dropped the bombshell. “Just so you know, my buddy and I are accessing this area through that field” he said, pointing past the low-water creek and in the direction of a cut bean field.

“THAT field?!” I asked incredulously. “Yep,” he asserted smugly. “It’s a private field.” He followed up with the latter as if to proclaim that he had some kind of a special “in” that gave him more of a right to hunt this side of the public-land parcel we were in than I had. “I know, Bozo,” I silently thought to myself… “And I’ve got access to the field on the other side of THAT one which touches the woods leading to this section. So I could access this spot just as easily as you could from that direction.” But there’s a reason I don’t. There’s a reason I set my alarm an extra 15 minutes early, when it’s already going off at 3:30 a.m. And there’s a reason I take the time to drive all the way to the back side of these woods and walk a half-mile in. That’s the field the deer are moving toward in the evenings, and spending their nights feeding in. That’s the field the deer are still in as the sun begins to climb its way toward the horizon. And THAT’s the reason I wasn’t seeing any deer the past several mornings!

Public-land hunting is tough. When the average hunter doesn’t give pause to think about his approach direction and the fact that he’s blowing out every deer in the area as he’s walking to his stand? Yeah, sometimes it can be downright impossible to send an arrow through a big bruiser. That’s why when I pull it off, I feel a sense of pride that goes way beyond merely killing another deer big enough to take to the taxidermist; I know I’ve not only outsmarted one of the most cunning creatures in the woods, but also hordes of hunters that unfortunately sometimes aren’t as bright as the quarry they pursue.

That chance meeting as I was doing some on-the-fly scouting after another fruitless morning sit prompted me to begin a routine that probably accounts for more gray hairs than I should have at this point, and certainly for losing more sleep than I would like. I pulled my maps back out. I poured over them, looking for something to jump out at me that the average person wouldn’t notice. I thought about loading up the canoe on top of my Jeep; after all, water is the great deterrent that separates the men from the boys. Who wants to wrestle with off-loading a canoe from atop an SUV at 4:30 a.m. with the prospect of running into log jams and beaver dams in the dark?

Two days later I pulled up to a fencerow that I would follow to a dry creek bed. Jumping down into that, I followed its winding path for a quarter of a mile between draws and ridges before silently climbing out at the bend where the nearby tree had two reflective thumbtacks staring back at me. It was the only tell-tale sign I had left indicating I had found this pinch-point several years earlier, and I had seen some nice bucks deep in these woods here. Dawn was just giving way to twilight when I heard a succession of soft footfalls to my right. Easing my bow off its hook, I focused my attention toward the sound. A couple seconds later, I replaced the bow on its hangar as I observed a fellow hunter stealthily follow the same dry creek bed I had almost a full hour earlier in the dark. He climbed the bank opposite me and I watched with alarm as he quietly made his way to a waiting hang-on stand 25’ off the forest floor not 40 yards from me.

A couple hours later, he got down and so did I. We knew each other from having hunted the same area over the years, and there was a mutual respect between us. He had hung the stand a couple days earlier and obviously I hadn’t seen it in the pitch black as I came in. We both chalked it up to the type of encounter that makes public-land hunting so tough – yet so rewarding.

I continued bouncing from spot to spot. Some were near and some were far; my plan was to change things up from my usual haunts and just go. Explore. Run and gun. Find new ground. It was a dangerous game, this walking in blind on almost every single sit. There are only so many “good” days at this time of year, and each time I came up empty the squeeze of my own internal self-induced pressure intensified that much more.

With two days left in my vacation, I slowly idled my Jeep in between two bushes and turned off the motor. I slid out the door and carefully popped the hatch where my gear was stowed. My plan was to gather everything and head west toward some cut corn fields, hoping the bonanza of food would draw out the does and with them, perhaps a trailing buck. Slipping into my harness, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. I took a few steps closer and found myself staring into a freshly made scrape, most certainly from just that previous night. I began looking around and just 10 yards to the north stumbled upon another – this time with a freshly rubbed thick cedar still oozing its life-juice toward the ground. I immediately abandoned my plan of heading west and instead pulled out my phone to gain a perspective of what lay ahead to the north. Quickly identifying a spot that held promise, I set out with newfound hope.

Thirty minutes of walking led me to the base of a tree that gave me a commanding view of an area I was satisfied with – as much as one can be for such on-the-fly tactics. An hour before sunset I watched a big doe and her yearling come out of a thick bedding area and make her way across a CRP field that lay to my right. After letting her disappear, I scanned the far edge of the field with my binoculars and watched a small spike work its way toward me before it too turned back into the woods; it didn’t take long before he located the doe and chased her out into the field, dogging her every step. I enjoyed the show and smiled at the buck’s antics, even if it was something three or four years too young to really get my heart pumping.

With less than 30 minutes of shooting light left I suddenly realized I was listening to footsteps coming out of the thicket directly in front of me -- heavy footsteps, the kind that every hunter yearns to hear purposefully marching his direction. A huge white rack materialized just inside the tangle of brush and vines. I grabbed at my binoculars hanging in front of my chest and quickly focused on a maze of kickers, stickers, splits and forked tines. He would pop out in the open at 17 yards in front of me, and any direction he chose to walk after that would remove him from behind the one tree that lay between him and me.

Now completely in the open, he turned to his left to walk along the edge of the thicket he had just emerged from, placing him broadside. I already had my bow in hand and I placed tension on the string. I debated trying to sneak an arrow through the array of limbs shielding him from me, particularly paying attention to one window that looked promising. I’m not one to pass up the first opportunity at a large buck, knowing they are few and far between. “No, stay disciplined,” I thought. “He can’t do anything but walk out into the wide open from here. You’ll have a perfect shot…”

He paused only briefly before beginning to walk. I pushed my bow arm straight out readying to draw. Five more steps… four more… now just three. And then he stopped. He didn’t move. I didn’t like his body language. I needed three more steps, and now he was really behind the thickest part of the overhanging canopy blocking him from me. Did the wind shift? Did he smell me? He couldn’t have! My wind has been good all night! My mind was racing with this behemoth standing a scant 20 yards away like a statue.

Impossibly, he turned back to his left and just melted into the woods from where he had just come. “NOOOOO!” I screamed inside. I was in pure shock. “No WAAAY!” I was a grown man conducting a silent temper tantrum internally that had I been able to express it and act it out would have rivalled any child’s, all packaged up in two seconds’ worth of time 18 feet up a tree.

Before I could even relax the tension on the bow string, I caught movement at the top of my peripheral vision to the right. Snapping my head in that direction, I locked onto the beast of a buck that had just walked all the way across that open CRP field I had in front of me all night and here he was at 26 yards, still plodding purposefully to where the other buck had just stood.

“Eeeeeh!” I throatily grunted as I pulled into my anchor, bringing my Muzzy to rest an inch in front of the arrow rest with 68 lbs. of stored energy ready to send it on its way. I centered the sight ring perfectly inside the peep and began lowering the top green pin to its mark. Just as I began settling the pin the buck began walking again. “EEEEEEH!” I called out, probably loud enough for not only this buck to hear but the one which had walked away moments prior. The buck stopped and looked at me once again with me still at full draw. The overhanging limbs were now shielding the front part of his shoulder and I stretched to my full height and then tip-toed to slide the arrow over the branch, thankful for being securely tied in as always in my full-body harness. I watched the Nockturnal scream to the giant and send back to me the sound of a watermelon being struck by a baseball bat. The buck bolted into the woods and all was quiet.

I quietly packed up my gear and began inch-worming down the tree as quickly as I could while doing my best to remain noiseless. I noted that the normal shakes after encountering a good deer still hadn’t arrived, even though I’d just had two world-class deer in front of me at less than 25 yards. I silently strode over to the impact site where my arrow waited, slathered with bright red blood so thick it dimmed the glow of my nock. I texted a couple good friends who’d been fighting the good fight with me from afar in pursuits of their own. After following the heavy blood trail 40 yards, I gently laid my bow atop the brute and lifted his head to admire his beautiful rack. He was my first gnarly non-typical, and I made a quiet promise to return next year for his rival.

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