Updated: Nov 9, 2020
It was the Wisconsin muzzleloader season and I’d yet to encounter a mature buck in tight quarters. I was bow hunting a piece of middle ground between urban and rural close to home. There was a resident buck I had watched grow since 2015, but the term “resident” on small-acre private land leans more towards human presence than it does whitetail. Where he bedded was ever-changing, but one thing was certain – he was always close by and timing would be everything.
On December 6th I was back in the same tree I had killed my early-season archery buck with Dave behind the camera. I was hunting a thin timber ridge with a hay field above me and a small neighborhood below. It’s a funnel deer travel to and from adjacent wood lots.
There was a neighbor a couple hundred yards to my north and I watched them rake leaves onto a tarp and repeatedly drag them over the property line to dump them in the woods I was hunting.
Draped in blaze orange I must have stood out like a beacon of light in an otherwise dark forest barren of leaves. Trespassing is risky business but doing so underneath my nose was insulting and doing so amidst my hunt made it even harder to watch. Nevertheless, I kept my frustration silent. If there’s one thing I’ve learned hunting urban deer, they adapt well to human presence, their movement less hindered by distractions. It would only be interference or encroachment to put a spur in their ribs.
I would be lying if I were to say the neighbor’s incessant presence wasn’t beginning to hinder my confidence, however. There was less than thirty minutes of legal shooting light remaining – it was prime time and I could see them prepping one final load of leaves onto that loud tarp.
With time running out I began calculating the probability of the neighbor’s unwelcome visit colliding with the very moment a deer would be moving through. It was in that moment of thought I saw white antlers closing in from the east. The bone seemed to glow amidst the falling light and dark timber surrounding me. It was him, the old boy I had first laid eyes on in 2015.
I had quickly adjusted my camera from manual to auto-focus and zoomed out to ensure I’d capture the next few moments entirely, I was unsure where I’d stop the buck to get a clean shot. With the camera rolling I clutched my bow, hooked on and drew back as the buck closed in.
During the thirty seconds between my first visual of the old buck until after the shot I hadn’t considered the neighbor. I was homed in like a hawk on a field mouse.
The buck took off after initial impact of my arrow but stopped after a mere twenty yards and began to lose his balance as if he would tip. After a moment he tore off on what I only could imagine being his final sprint, but he quickly slowed to a terribly limp. With his tail tucked and body slumped, he limped out of camera frame and I pictured him falling soon after he was out of sight.
I replayed the shot in my head. The shot was low, but near his heart and based on his mannerisms after the shot I pictured his death quick and imminent.
I slipped out of the woods and back to the truck shortly after the commotion had ended and drove to Dave’s house to watch the footage back. To my surprise as the buck stopped and began to sway seconds after the shot, the leaf-raking neighbor was dragging his tarp across his lawn within perfect view of everything going down. I got a chuckle out of that.
Dave and I returned the next morning at dawn and took up the track, but our search would come up empty. The next day it would snow seven inches and I feared for the worst. The snow would make my search more challenging, but I wouldn’t give up.
I contacted the local game warden and briefed him of my circumstances. The muzzleloader season was nearly over, and my regular archery buck tag had been filled since the middle of September. If I were to locate the buck after my gun tag had become invalid, I wanted my story to be on record. After all, everything was on-film date and time stamped.
Three weeks of exhausting search efforts proved futile. I had gridded every bit of woods, patch of tall grass and even the flower beds in the neighborhood thanks to the friendliness of residents who granted me permission. I was sick over it. My time had finally come and now it was gone with nothing but shame to show for it.
Some swore he lived, but I was there when it happened – I knew he was dead.
On March 15th, 2020, I re-visited the farm the hunt had taken place on December 6th. My family joined me for a shed hunt, albeit I hoped to catch a break and recover the old buck.
As we pulled out of the farm I turned left instead of right and followed the highway along the property down the same hill the ridge system I was hunting was stemmed from. I cut a glance down into a steep drainage ditch roughly thirty yards from the shoulder of the road and saw a massive body unveiled after the recent thaw. Snow and ice had filled that drainage since December 8th, I hadn’t seen the ground in that ditch since the fall.
“Could that have been the buck I hit in early December?” I asked my wife as we drove by.
“That could be any deer,” she said. Still, I was inclined to turn around and get a better look.
“The body was so big, though, it had to be a buck.” I muttered as I pulled over.
I hopped out of the truck and ran back up the highway and down into the drainage where I could see the big deer laying. As I got closer it became apparent the head was cut off, but I kept approaching. When I arrived at the carcass of the big headless deer, I gasped at what was evident – an arrow wound in the armpit of the exit side. I was only two-hundred yards from point-of-impact when I sent that arrow on December 6th and this was the direction in which he came from. I grabbed his stiff front leg and rolled up over to see the entrance hole right where my memory and video showed it disappear into. It was him; I’d found him.
I inspected him only for a minute longer but could see no visible sign of vehicular trauma – no evident broken bones or ruffed fur. Had he been hit by a car as he ran off the direction he had come from or had this been his final resting place. Hidden by snow and ice his body was relatively preserved until now, why couldn’t I have found him sooner and why hadn’t I thought to look along the road?
Sometimes the hardest lessons are lined with a touch of silver. While I learned from a mistake I’ll never make again – searching the roadside – I also found closure in locating the buck that had meddled in my mind for three months. It’s bittersweet to find him in the way I did, but I never did give up and that’s what makes this story worthy of my sharing.