Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
November the 8th. If I was only allowed a single day in the entire year to hunt white-tailed deer, then November the 8th is the date I’d be sitting in my stand – full of anticipation — praying, waiting and watching for the buck of my dreams to enter my life.
By the time November 8th rolls around, the annual fall rut has moved into overdrive. For Iowa archery enthusiasts who pursue our most wary game animal, it is a time like no other. Restless and itching for a scrap, mature white-tails are on the prowl 24/7. Those wide beamed, nocturnal stags that have remained invisible all summer have suddenly changed their ways. Brazen and bristling with attitude, monster bucks boldly swagger through daytime woodlands. Locked into perpetual search mode, bucks of all shapes and sizes relentlessly cruise forested ridgetops, river bottom tangles, and brushy fencelines in search of does. Wandering bucks often find rival males instead. When that happens, the Iowa timbers echo with the resounding clash of dueling antlers.
Whether you judge them in terms of body weight or in total inches of antlers, there is no disputing that Iowa bucks achieve heart stopping proportions. True Legends of the Fall, Iowa’s behemoth stags have gained global notoriety. There are, in fact, few places on the entire continent 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. That’s more top deer than is currently listed by any other state or any Canadian province. But even now, Iowa’s big bucks do not come easy. Putting your tag on one will still require a double dose of stealth, woodsmanship, and above all — patience.
Although November bucks can show up at any hour of the day, early morning hunts are always my favorite. Whenever possible, I like to hit the woods at least an hour before sunrise. Getting there early pays off, and I’ll often spot the first buck cruising by while it’s still too dark to loose an arrow.
Most bucks will continue running hard until about mid-month. Like most other Iowa archers, I’m going to spend the next few days holding out for one of the Big Boys. After that, I start thinking about a winter without venison and my standards begin to drop with the velocity of a cannon ball dropped from the watchtower window.
But getting within good bow range of a big buck is only half the challenge. When and if that Dream Stag finally does arrive, many archers simply crack under the strain. After the drilling the Bull’s Eye on backyard deer targets all summer, a hunter may easily miss the entire animal when the moment of truth arrives. It’s called Buck Fever, and is the best explanation as to why so many new broadheads end up imbedded in tree stumps rather than deer.
Earlier this week, I contracted my own personally humiliating case of Buck Fever when a big mature eight-pointer came trotting by at first light. The deer was about forty yards out and rapidly moving toward a nearby field of standing corn. I hit the grunt call and the big buck hit the brakes – skidding to a halt and staring in my direction. I hit the call again and the bruiser immediately began to come toward me at a brisk trot. I kept calling; the deer kept moving ahead until he finally stopped again at a mere twelve paces. Instead of occupying a high altitude tree stand I was sitting on the ground and, at this range, it seemed as if the buck and I were nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball.
Although incredibly close, the deer was standing more or less head on. And as the seconds slowly ticked away, I became increasingly fearful that the buck would smell a rat and vacate the vicinity. At last he slowly turned, offering a perfect broadside shot. Quickly drawing the bow, I took aim and released the string. I’ll never forget the sight of that beautiful brightly fletched arrow cleanly passing just an inch or so below the deer’s rib cage – perfectly in line with the buck’s heart and lungs. I’ll also not forget the sight of the Buck of my Dreams bounding out of my life.
My mistake was obvious. In an effort to see the arrow hit home, I had dropped my bow arm causing the missile to sail under its target. In other words, I had completely missed a huge white-tail buck standing at a distance of twelve steps.
The good news is that November’s monster bucks are still running the ridgelines. And whenever the next opportunity comes along, I’ll remember to keep my left arm steady.