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A bad year whitetail: even when circumstances conspire against you, something good can still happen.

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I HEARD BRUSH BUSTING and turned my head to the right. To my delight, a "shooter" buck was coming --but on the wrong trail. The strong wind whistled around me as I grabbed my grunt tube and quickly let out a grunt. No reaction. As the buck walked behind my perch high up in a cottonwood tree, I jumped to my feet and turned 180 degrees to my left. I'd cut a shooting lane to cover the trail at 23 yards, but I'd never taken a shot in the awkward position required to deliver an arrow down the tight gap. There was no time to do anything but grip my ACS longbow and jerk back its 56 pounds. The buck slammed on its brakes when it hit the fringe of my scent stream that wavered toward him in the morning breeze. Too late--my arrow was on its way.

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My scouting for whitetails never really stops. The minute deer season is over, I start making notes about what I observed and changes to be made the following fall. In late January and February, it's impossible to avoid following deer trails from feeding zones to bedding areas to refine my knowledge of deer travel patterns. It's also a great time to observe scrapes and rubs from the previous rut. Shed hunting intertwines with my scouting trips. A heavy-beamed shed is a treasure, and it raises my hopes that the buck that dropped it will still be around in the fall. Turkey hunting occurs virtually everywhere there are whitetails. Sitting in a blind, waiting for a gobbler, is a great time to observe deer-movement patterns to and from feeding areas.

By midsummer, corn and beans become a premium food source. A little time behind binoculars and a spotting scope are usually rewarded by sightings of bucks in their early stages of antler development. Trail cameras placed in high-volume travel zones and near water sources create some added excitement on scouting trips. Deer hunters who are also landowners, or who lease ground, start getting serious about food plots in July and August. The sweet smell of freshly turned moist soil while sitting in a tractor seat is a true country boy high. The physical effort required to plant and grow a few small food plots is not insignificant, and neither is the expense. However, the results of lush, tender shoots of oats, radishes, and turnips are your reward when Mother Nature cooperates.

For many bowhunters, by early September there are enough pictures, tracks, and sightings of mature bucks to raise confidence levels to new highs for the much-anticipated fall season.

Some years the pieces fall into place --sightings of a few special bucks, worn trails in all the right places, and heavy rains develop the crops and food plots to perfection. Next, the observation of several bucks in October from a new treestand location really gets the blood pumping. The hope for the ultimate reward of a dream buck on the wall and a freezer full of choice meat appears to be in the cards.

But what about those years when the joy of the process gets thrown a few curveballs? A job change, family activities, health issues, employment demands, or even conflicting hunts disrupt the whole process. For several years in the Western states there have been some nasty droughts and crop failures, not to mention diseases such as CWD, bluetongue, and EHD.

Serious bowhunters think, plan, and work 12 months a year in an attempt to influence and control as many variables as possible in the whitetail game. It's beyond devastating to have a disease like EHD attack a deer herd, with the mature bucks being the primary victims. It has the makings of a horror movie for deer hunters. Our fathers never had to deal with mites killing deer. It wasn't that long ago that my biggest concerns in the rut were stand placement, scent control, and wind direction. None of those issues matter if there aren't any 5 1/2 to 7 1/2-year-old bucks to hunt.

I observed a "sick," mature 5x5 buck moving around on my ground, and in January and February I found several deer carcasses. It's easy for guys who don't own land and hunt recreationally to say, "The herd will rebuild," or "It's probably not that bad." Obviously, to be able to hunt trophy whitetails, you need a few mature whitetails in the area.

As 2015 progressed, nothing was shaping up. My trail cameras were revealing the lowest number of mature bucks I'd observed in years. This wasn't surprising, as I never drew back on a buck during the 2014 rut. Drought and disease had ravaged my area. I have a sequence of pictures at a waterhole of a buck in velvet, walking up and dying. The pictures of the coyotes doing what they do best to the carcass weren't pretty. It rained all summer--until I planted several food plots. Then all rain stopped for the next six weeks. The brown, dry soil failed to reveal new growth a month after the toil of planting the seeds.

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I saw quite a few deer during my turkey hunts. They looked healthy, but the overall volume was lower than in previous years. During the summer months, deer sightings were hit and miss.

A series of phone calls to fellow bowhunters during late summer revealed that I wasn't alone in my apparent dismal situation. There was a definite concern that the deer population had declined, and only a few hunters had confirmation of shooter bucks on their properties.

It was mid-November, and upon my return from an Alaskan trip I had a stack of paperwork at the office I had to attack. My plan was to work hard for nine days, and then hunt for five days over Thanksgiving weekend. I was battling a head cold, as well as a new bout of Giardia from an October hunt. I was mentally weak. Every day I thought of the bucks walking by my unoccupied treestands. By Thursday I committed to hit the road Friday, hunt for 2!4 days, and then return to work on Monday. In the Midwest and Western states, every day that passes in November is another lost opportunity to have a chance at a mature buck. Bow-' hunters who have caught the whitetail bug know that it is virtually impossible to think about anything in November but rutting bucks. It only happens once a year, and it passes quickly.

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At the end of the day, no matter how much scouting and effort is put into the process, the only way to get a shot at a buck is to be in the field with an arrow on the string.

I stormed out of the office on Friday at noon and headed down the highway. A few calls on my cell phone revealed that my core group of whitetail deer-addicted friends were having mixed results, leaning toward the bad. Sightings of mature bucks were as rare as a conservative viewpoint on CNN.

I finally found myself in a treestand at the end of the third week of November. It was painful. I'd sacrificed the best part of the rut to hunt Sitka blacktail deer in Alaska. With only eight days left in November, I knew the odds were against me.

On the first morning, I slid into my stand under the cover of darkness and waited with anticipation for the glow of the morning sun. The minute I had good shooting light, pounding hooves in the leaves exploded as a doe raced past me with a 2 1/2-year-old buck following closely behind her. Next, an immature buck drifted by silently and tended a scrape 30 yards in front of me. I smiled--the rut was on. A non-hunter will never be able to understand the joy a deer hunter experiences observing the rut in progress. After reading articles and watching TV shows about whitetails for 10 months, it's surreal to see it happening in person.

It was easy to settle into rut mode. My grunt tube and binoculars hung from my neck, my rattling antlers dangled from a hook, my bow hung perfectly within reach, and my eyes scanned for movement. The November rut has been a highlight of my fall hunting season for four decades. I was dreaming of a monster buck, but I only had a couple of days to hunt.

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Trophy hunting gets a bad rap by people who don't get it. The more selective a bowhunter is about the type or size of a deer to harvest, the longer he or she gets to hunt. Besides, most bowhunters have a wide definition of a "trophy" buck. It might be a bruiser that scores high in the record book, an old buck in bad physical condition, or a really tall rack that just looks cool. I knew it might be wise to lower my standards a bit, or maybe consider a "cull" buck that had some character to his headgear.

Not every year can be the best one ever. Just to have the time to walk through frost-covered leaves and watch does and fawns cautiously pick their way through the thick, dried brush was satisfying.

On the second morning of my hunt, my hands were deep in the wool muff worn around my waist. The crisp wind and single-digit temperatures stung my exposed face. The cold chill while sitting motionless in the dim light of the morning is all part of the ritual. Thoughts of the approaching day are full of uncertainty and hope. Within two hours, the welcome sun warmed the air and the deer movement picked up. A few does slipped by within range. It was game time. Then the brush started busting behind me.

As previously described, I barely had time to get into shooting position, which required standing up and spinning 180 degrees. I knew the tree was wide enough to cover my movements. I also knew I had to shoot quickly before the buck hit my scent stream. The buck was over 20 yards away and moving fast. All summer a bowhunter sets up that perfect shot by continuously going through the shooting sequence. Why does every shot at a great buck involve a now or never, split-second shot?

The buck's vitals appeared and disappeared behind a screen of head-high weeds. Keeping focused on the spot was a challenge. Just as the buck broke into an opening he locked up and I released. My white turkey feather fletching was a blur as my arrow arched and disappeared through the buck. The explosion of motion as the large-bodied deer crashed through the forest left my senses blurred. I have a habit of not focusing on a deer's antlers when I shoot. I only knew the buck was a "shooter," but I didn't have any idea how big he actually was.

The buck only traveled 100 yards before going down, but I couldn't initially spot the exact location where he fell. Using my binoculars, I scanned over a rise and saw an antler. Scrolling the focus knob on my Zeiss 10x40s, I got a good look at the main beam sticking out of the high grass and whispered, "It sure is wide." When I stood over the old buck, it was like opening a Christmas present. The buck had matching forked G-2s, and plenty of mass. I'd actually captured nighttime pictures of him the past two years, but I had never seen him in person.

So much for a subpar year of deer hunting. I had one of my best bucks ever, plus a sunny morning and blue skies for caping and caring for the meat.

Lucky? Probably. But I know that even in a good year, I've never killed a deer on a day I didn't hunt.

The author is an attorney and avid traditional bowhunter from Broomfield, Colorado.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

My equipment on this hunt included a 64-inch, 56-lb. ACS longbow, Carbon Express 250 Heritage arrows, and Razorcaps broadheads.
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Title Annotation:BH WHITETAIL SPECIAL
Author:Andersohn, Nathan L.
Publication:Bowhunter
Date:Nov 1, 2016
Words:2023
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