Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
For Iowa archery enthusiasts, November is a time like no other. For the hunter, the season’s finest opportunities are at hand. For white-tailed deer, the annual rut is gaining momentum. Restless, edgy and itching for a scrap, mature bucks are on the prowl. The same giant stags that have remained totally nocturnal, and therefore invisible, for the other eleven months of the year have suddenly changed their ways. Bristling with attitude and competing for dominance, monster bucks brazenly swagger through mid-day woodlands in search of does. Sometimes, these wandering bucks find rival males instead. When that happens, the Iowa timbers reverberate with the bone jarring clash of dueling antlers.
For dedicated deer hunters; dreams of giant “Wall Hangers” permeate the consciousness. There’s good reason for all the fuss. Whether you judge them in terms of body weight or in the measurement of their antlers, there is no disputing that Iowa bucks achieve heart stopping proportions. There are, in fact, few places in all of North America where deer grow bigger or better than they do right here at home. To date, Iowa has produced 19 of the all time top bucks ever recorded. To put it in perspective, that’s more top deer than is currently listed by any other state or Canadian province.
But even in November, the bucks don’t come easy. Putting your tag on one requires ample amounts of stealth, woodsmanship, and above all — patience. When the Big Buck finally strides into view, many archers simply crack under the strain. After the drilling the Bull’s Eye on backyard targets all summer, a hunter may easily miss the entire animal as the moment of truth arrives. It’s called Buck Fever, and is the best explanation as to why some arrows end up imbedded in tree stumps rather than deer.
November white-tails are predictably unpredictable. Success or failure spins on a dime. Pursuing them may involve endless hours of watching empty trails while shivering in a late season tree stand. But when the scenario takes a turn for the good, things can happen fast. A good example of this happened to me during the 2011 season. After I had passed on some smaller bucks earlier in the month, the local deer population suddenly dove into total lock down. For three consecutive days, no deer had come my way and I was beginning to second guess my earlier choices. I was just getting ready to leave the stand when I suddenly spotted a doe running at full throttle. Covering ground as if the wolves were snapping at her heels, the deer passed directly under my stand. Thirty seconds later, a second doe appeared from the same direction, also running past my stand at full speed.
The signals were clear, and the running does presented strong circumstantial evidence that a buck had arrived on the premises. Tensing my grip on the bow, I wondered if the buck would be large, small, or somewhere in between. But although the suspense continued to build, the anticipated buck failed to appear.
Five minutes passed; still no buck. I had just began to relax again when the long awaited deer suddenly came into view — a big, Roman-nosed, wide racked mature buck making a beeline approach in my direction. The buck was displaying attitude and a mere glimpse of his swaggering demeanor sent my pulse rate skyrocketing.
Just when everything appeared to be going my way the deer unexpectedly hit the brakes, stopping at a distance of 12 to 15 yards. But although the range was ideal, the angle was not. The stalled buck was now standing directly head on, and he may as well have been standing on the dark side of the moon. In addition to offering no ethical shot, the animal also now appeared to sense that something was not quite cricket.
Hoping to dispel his alarm and replace it with anger, I picked up the deer call and made my best attempt at trying to sound like a rival buck. The real buck was noticeably unimpressed. And although the sound stimulated his curiosity, the rendition failed to inspire the reckless aggression I had hoped for.
For the next minute or so, the stare down continued. At long last, the deer turned and took a couple of steps. The good news was that he now offered a viable, quartering away shot. The bad news was that he had also increased the distance separating us to around 18 yards. Whether or not the buck’s next move would bring him closer or move him still farther away was anybody’s guess.
I was shooting a wooden longbow crafted by Nebraska’s Vince Smith. I had been practicing on some 20 yard targets at home, and felt good about the shot the buck was presenting. Bringing the bow to full draw, I sent the arrow on its way. The buck lunged and, following a few startled bounds, abruptly paused in some adjacent corn stubble to resume staring in my direction. The buck was standing on small hilltop and, although he no longer seemed alarmed, I could tell that the broadhead had left its mark. A second later, the deer suddenly turned and disappeared over the rise.
Regaining my composure — well, at least partially — No, not really much at all — I began to plot the next move. Should I immediately go after the deer, or should I wait a bit? While still pondering my options, I suddenly became aware that another deer was making its approach from the exact same direction as the others. The latest arrival quickly loomed into view. Imagine my amazement when I saw that the deer was another a neck swollen, fully mature buck. I couldn’t believe my eyes! After three days of seeing nothing, and in less than four minutes since shooting the first buck, I now had a second monster white-tail standing within 15 yards. Although I didn’t yet know it, the best development of all was that the first buck was already lying dead beyond the crest of the hill. Like I said, when it comes to November white-tails, success or failure can spin on a dime.