For the second time, I watched helplessly as my target buck, a 4½-year-old main-frame 10-point with a cool kicker off his right beam, fed just out of shooting range in my food plot. He was joined by four other bucks, none of which matched his majesty, and it was clear they knew it too by the way they kept their distance.
This was now the third time I had an early season encounter with the buck that seemed addicted to the food and cover I provided him on that area of the Pennsylvania property. In fact, it made him one of the more predictable mature bucks I ever hunted, and I was certain I’d eventually get my opportunity at a shot if I didn’t educate the buck on my bad intentions in the meantime.
A Photogenic Buck
I knew this buck well, and the prior year the deer was all over my land, resulting in well over a hundred trail-camera photos of him. He wasn’t on my list of bucks I wanted to shoot, so I didn’t think much about it until he added significant antler growth heading into the 2022 season. Now, being highly interested in this buck, it occurred to me that I still hadn’t seen the deer in person.
He remained photogenic though, and I quickly learned the area he was favoring. Based on the data I collected, I felt my best chance to finally lay eyes on him would be from a blind I set up in late summer primarily for the purpose of firearms hunting. I had never archery hunted from a tower blind, as I much prefer a saddle or fixed-position stand, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from giving it a shot.
We Meet At Last
Within an hour of getting situated in the blind, I laid eyes on the buck for the first time as he entered the plot with a companion buck and began to feed about 75 yards away. I thought for sure he’d eventually wander into bow range, but it didn’t happen. The wind shifted, and as soon as I saw him point his nose into the air, I knew I was toast. (The moment was captured in Nick’s videos of the hunt, as seen in the screenshots of both Nick and the buck at the top of this page). A couple nervous steps and a leap later he was gone.
I gave the spot a few days to rest, and sure enough my target buck started showing up again on my Moultrie camera with plenty of shooting light to spare. When the wind was right, I headed back out but this time with my crossbow in response to my bad experience with my compound from the blind. Despite having the crossbow for a few years, I never shot at a deer with it but seemed efficient at hitting small targets at ranges out to 50 yards. It felt awkward but seemed the better tool for the task at hand.
Once again, the buck showed but managed to stay just out of my self-imposed range of 40 yards or less. In doing so, he revealed the area of the plot he favored, and it allowed me to formulate a new plan for the next hunt. It would have to be from a ground setup, but with a little luck, patience, and stealth, I felt confident I could get a shot opportunity. A couple days later the wind was right, and I made my move.
The Shot Opportunity Appears
I was tight to the buck’s bedding area, so I was extremely cautious slipping into my ambush spot behind a small pine tree with some additional cover provided by goldenrod and blueberry shrubs. It took me more than 30 minutes to go less than 100 yards, as I was only moving when the wind blew and concealed any noise I was making. I was carrying my crossbow again, because now I suddenly wanted to shoot a deer with it for the first time, and it was a little more appropriate for my setup.
I waited anxiously for my target buck to show up and had a few tense moments as other deer wandered by close to my location. Those encounters were helpful though, because I knew the wind was right and I wasn’t getting spotted. As darkness approached, I was starting to think I may have bumped the buck on the way in, and my hopes were rapidly fading with the remaining daylight.
With about 20 minutes of legal shooting light left, I could see the legs of a couple deer in the plot to my right. The rest of their bodies were concealed by the branches of a large pine tree, so I slowly slithered out of my hiding spot for a better look. I peeked under the branch and there he was, feeding right in front of me, and probably had been for a while. I got back into position and waited while I watched the clock.
With about 10 minutes left, he was right in front of me and in the open, but still more than 40 yards away. Just as I was about to give up hope he inexplicably moved in my direction and turned broadside. My rangefinder pegged him at 40 yards on the dot, so I readied myself for the shot.
I released the bolt and thought I heard impact as the buck jolted forward and exited the scene like a freight train. I texted “I think I got him,” to my friend and Coffee and Deer podcast co-host, “The Doctor,” Mike Groman. I took a quick look for blood and my bolt, but it was almost dark, and I found neither. I wasn’t sure of the hit so after some consultation, Mike and I concluded that waiting until morning would be best, and he’d be available to help then too.
After a sleepless night, we started our search at first light. As time ticked away and we covered more ground, it seemed clear that I missed or may have just grazed the buck. We never did find the bolt or any blood or hair. I thought for sure I hit him well, but trying to follow a speedy crossbow bolt through a scope is not the same as following the flight of an arrow from a bow. The sound I heard must have been the bolt hitting the ground. It turns out my lack of crossbow-hunting experience bit me. Luckily, the buck was no worse for wear.
I monitored my trail-cameras closely for the next several days, and it wasn’t until more than a week later that I got another photo of him. In the meantime, I filled my tag by taking a wide 8-point that was also on my radar, but a little lower on the list. I assumed the buck I shot at had left the area for good, but after checking a couple other cameras it became evident that he shifted his core area and altered his movement patterns. One of the photos revealed a spot on the buck’s back just above his shoulders that seemed like evidence I had grazed him with my shot.
Hoping He Makes It
With my buck tag filled, my focus shifted to hoping the buck I grazed would survive the upcoming firearms season. I’ve put in a lot of work improving habitat and food sources on my land, but the reality is I have a lot of hunting neighbors, and my land borders more than 5,000 acres of State Game Land. I was also concerned that the deer’s new hangout was on the border of my property, and I was certain he was bouncing back and forth. Prior to this, the buck spent almost all his time in the core of my place, so obviously things had changed.
The opening weekend of firearms season came and went, and although I was aware of a few bucks taken nearby, none of them were the focus of my attention. My hopes for his survival got another boost when I got a photo of the buck on November 29 in the very food plot where I grazed him weeks before. At that point I thought he might decide to settle back in his old core area and wait the hunting pressure out.
Just as I was feeling better about the situation, I received a text message two days later that confirmed my fears. My neighbor’s niece dropped the buck from a tower blind situated about 800 yards from my property line with her rifle during a morning hunt.
Just like that, it was over. I had hundreds of photos as well as some great video of this buck from several hunts, and he was suddenly gone but not by my hand. There’s no doubt I was disappointed, but at the same time I was happy to know how it ended. I was also happy for the woman who shot him. She was thrilled to tag her biggest buck to date.
I immediately sent over photos of the buck for her to enjoy and offered video clips and other information. They’re good neighbors and avid hunters. Earlier that year they invited me for a tour of their tower blind, which is more of a hunting camp on stilts. It’s ironic the buck was eventually taken from that blind.
5 Lessons Learned
Despite more than 35 years of experience pursuing whitetails, I’ve never stopped learning, or making mistakes. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the experience I gained from this buck, some of which I wouldn’t have learned had my shot been true on that fateful October evening.
If you have good habitat, there’s a better chance deer will stay because you’ll be giving them all they need. The mature buck I was after called my small property home and rarely ventured off it until I gave him reason to. He almost seemed addicted to the AniLogics Amazin’ Grains I planted in my food plot.
Don’t overhunt a particular buck, and only hunt when the conditions are right. The buck did catch my scent the first evening I hunted him, but I backed away for a few days, saw him on every other occasion after that, and eventually got a shot.
Know your equipment and have full confidence in it. While I was hitting the target just fine with the crossbow, I didn’t execute the shot when I most needed to. I shot the crossbow after my hunt and learned it was suddenly hitting high, which accounted for my miss. In hindsight, knowing I never shot a deer with a crossbow, I should have practiced more.
If you miss or wound a deer, especially a mature buck, chances are good it’s going to change its behavior and will likely adjust its core area. I could have reacted to this sooner by continuing to scout and looking at trail-camera photos more often to see if I could locate him. As it turned out, he did move to a different core area, but he largely remained on my property and continued to move during daylight hours. I convinced myself he was gone altogether and shot a buck I probably wouldn’t have shot otherwise.
Appreciate when you’re fortunate enough to know how the story ends with a particular deer. I have many examples where a buck I was after just disappeared without a trace, and that’s frustrating. In this case, because I have a good relationship with the neighbors, they shared the news of the buck being shot. In return, I was happy to share photos and video of the deer, which added another element of excitement for the hunter who tagged him.
You Never Stop Learning
One of the many things I love about managing for and hunting mature whitetails is no matter how much experience you have, it’s impossible to know it all or have done it all. The buck I was pursing was like no other mature buck I ever hunted in that he was hiding in plain sight and very visible. Despite that, I didn’t get it done, but at least I walked away with lessons learned that will help me down the road. One of the best qualities I’ve developed over the years is a good sense of humor, which helped make my latest hard lesson a little more bearable.