Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Late Season Archery – Round 1:
I could already tell that it was going to be a challenging morning in the great out-of-doors. The overnight temperature had plunged to ten degrees below zero and increasing NW winds were howling in excess of 30 mph. Wind chill values were at 40 below – or an even more painful minus 65 if you’re still using the “old” Weather Service formula. But regardless of which wind chill calculator you choose, there was no denying that it was brutally cold.
The predawn conditions seemed even more refreshing due to my present location — seven feet up, sitting in a tree. Wearing insulated snow boots and swathed in five full layers of clothing, I was pretty sure that today we would be using the “old” weather formula. A late muzzleloader season deer tag was nestled in my pocket; but a Lonesome Wind longbow was in my hand. In Iowa, both weapons are legal during the January deer season. And although I certainly don’t have anything against traditional cap & ball smoke poles, I just derive more pleasure from shooting a hand crafted longbow.
Local habitat conditions were ideal. Around six inches of new powder had recently freshened the landscape, and I was pleased to already see evidence of deer activity around the stand. In spite of low light and frigid temps, I soon spotted three different cottontails making their way toward daytime hideouts. The light continued to improve until the sun — accompanied by a pair of spectacular and colorful sundogs — finally appeared on the horizon.
The action was quick in coming and the cold was temporarily forgotten when I detected movement along a trail 20 yards behind my stand. It was a group of four does, and I began to question my choice of weaponry when two of those does paused to offer a wide open shot. Although it would have been an easy shot with the black powder rifle, there was too much wind to attempt launching an arrow at that range.
The deer moved on and were lost to view. The wind grew louder, and the cold began to torment the exposed skin of my face. After what seemed like a long while later, I spotted five more white-tails that also ended up offering no shots. I soon began to fidget, and decided to call it quits. Returning to the truck, I discovered that I had only been out for two hours. All things considered, I decided that was probably long enough — my wind burned face looked as if I’d been visiting the local tanning salon. So much for Round One.
Late Season Archery – Round Two: By early afternoon, I was getting antsy to get back to the hunt. Only three full days remained until the late season’s January 10th closure and I really wanted to put some additional venison in the freezer.
Although the temperature was still hovering at 10 below, the winds had backed off to around 15 mph; raising the current wind chill value to a balmy minus 32. I felt certain that deer would be up and on the move long before sunset. The theory panned out and I soon began to see does and fawns slowly moving through the woods browsing on twigs and buds or pawing through the snow in search of dried leaves.
I had chosen a new location and nothing came my way until, an hour later, I spotted a single deer moving along a trail that would lead it to my position. As the white-tail drew closer, I could see the animal was a huge, gray faced mature buck. Unfortunately, the buck had already shed its antlers — the second shed buck I’d seen in the past three days.
Although the woodland giant would have taken my breath away earlier in the season, I now decided to let him walk. Hard to explain, but it just seemed ‘somehow disrespectful’ to shoot the aging monarch without his headgear. Continuing its approach, the huge bodied deer passed within 20 yards of my position.
I soon detected another movement down the same trail. A second deer was on its way, following the identical path of the first. Peering through the cover, I could see a modest set of antlers. Moving quickly, the deer had soon approached to within 35 yards. When the buck lowered his head to scratch for leaves, I cautiously raised the bow. Remaining unaware of my presence, the white-tail passed at about 15 yards. Drawing the bow, I emitted a single grunt. The buck immediately halted and I dropped the string. The hit looked good, but the deer lost no time in disappearing from sight.
By now, the afternoon sun was dropping fast. After anxiously waiting for five minutes or so, I decided to attempt an immediate recovery. The hit was as good as I thought with the arrow passing dead center through the vitals. The two sided blood trail was impressive and I found the deer lying within 50 yards of where I’d shot. The buck had crashed within literal seconds of being struck.
The sun — still accompanied by that colorful pair of giant sundogs — had now arrived at the horizon. It was a magnificent woodland scene. The snow was clean: the air crisp. Kneeling beside the fallen buck, I felt extremely grateful for a successful conclusion to an exciting winter hunt under extreme conditions.
The stark winter solitude was suddenly shattered by the sound of approaching geese. Flying in a long ragged Vee, the migrating Canadas soon appeared above the treetops. High in the air, the loudly clamoring flock was headed due South — undoubtedly forced from wherever they‘d been living by the current polar conditions. Although the woodland floor was dimming, the southbound birds were traveling at an altitude that still allowed the late day sunlight to reflect from their feathers. The sound of the geese quickly faded and the silence returned. With darkness rapidly closing in, I knew it was time to go. Grabbing an antler, I began sledding the deer through the soft powder.
Some hunters contend that no one should shoot six point bucks. Let them grow into something worth hunting, they say. Wait until the deer becomes a massive, antler laden trophy worthy of the wall.
Those hunters are certainly entitled to their own opinions, of course. And I freely admit to harboring a very different perspective than a lot of younger deer hunters. There’s a reason for that. Back when my fancy first turned toward big game, deer were still a comparatively scarce commodity. Shooting a deer — any deer — was a really big deal. Forty-four seasons later, I still feel that pursuing white-tails is all about the hunt — and is still about the venison. Large or small, every deer is still a trophy.