The dim, but sufficient light of the miniature one-LED flashlight in my hand was just enough, together with the cloud-shrouded full moon's glow, to see quite well the road before me as I cleared the fence and walked toward the food plot.
At the end of the little road before me was what we call "camp oaks", a quarter-acre food plot which had two hunting stands for me to choose. One was one of those clever new wire ground-blinds that Larry Yerger had invented, and had put on a number of the food plots around the ranch. The other was a twelve-foot tripod positioned so that the hunter would be shrouded by the branches of a stately old live-oak tree, which stood within the food plot itself. The stands had been strategically located on opposite sides of the feeder location, making the food plot very huntable in either of the prevailing wind directions seen at Buffalo Mountain Ranch during deer hunting season.
The breeze was favoring the tripod this morning, so as soon as I reached the food plot, I strode quickly across the narrow neck of the plot toward the large oak tree which hid the tripod. Given the choice, I would rather hunt the more open tripod stands. You have to be very still and quiet in those exposed stands, but they allow more light to reach me in the margins of the day, and thus I can see my pins earlier - and later.
The crunch of acorns beneath my boots as I ducked under the outer limbs of the old oak tree was a reminder of the bumper crop of them which had been dropping all this fall. The deer, elk, turkeys and bison at Buffalo Mountain Ranch had been extremely well fed, from not only the natural sources, but by the food plots and the many feeders throughout the ranch.
Topping the ladder of the tripod stand, I flipped the back to the plastic seat into its upright position, and stepped carefully onto the platform. With a careful turn, I slid silently into the comfortable curves of the seat. I swung the seat around to face the larger portion of the food plot, and the feeder. Several large hooks had already been screwed into the large limbs of the oak tree which crossed just a foot or two to the right side of where I was seated. I hung my Mathews Dren on one, and my fanny pack on another. Within a minute, I donned my face mask, and my gloves. I already put my release onto my wrist before leaving camp.
After plucking my "number one" arrow from the quiver, I slipped the nock securely onto the bowstring with a reassuring "tic". The small fingers of the Kazaway fall-away rest held the middle of the arrow securely in the other two dimensions, awaiting my draw. With all preliminaries now accomplished, I pulled the miniature light from my mouth, and I twisted its head until it went dark. My eyes would now begin the process of adjusting to the ambient light.
The full moon was still very high in the sky. On the opposite side of the world from a full moon is the sun. After doing some calculating, I figured I would be sitting here for about a half-hour before first light. That's fine. This gave the woods time to settle down somewhat from the disturbance that I made while entering the area, and climbing the tripod. When I knew that on this trip I would be hunting during the full moon, I was concerned. Rick Worley, the Hunting Manager at Buffalo Mountain, had told me that the second rut was still in full swing, so maybe that full moon was not so much of a factor. The problem was that the bigger bucks were just skirting the food plots during the day, coming by on the margins to scope-out any does which might be feeding. That is fine with me, since I was really looking for an older "old maid" doe anyhow. I'm a meat hunter. I prefer to save the best "shooters" for the other hunters who come to the ranch for trophy hunts. I have not taken any buck other than a spike in ten years.
My eyes were adjusting, and the contrast of light and dark was becoming more pronounced. I now could see the shapes of the leaves on the branches all around me clearly, and the food plot beyond. I swung around slowly in the silent swivel seat, and surveyed the various shooting gaps cut into branches of the old oak tree. Depending on how I leaned in the chair, I would be able to launch an arrow through any one of four narrow gaps between me and the food plot. Visibility is a balancing effort, because you can have a stand where you can shoot everywhere (but be easily seen by the deer), or you can have a limited number of shooting lanes, and be screened well from the deer. We have chosen to take the latter approach, since it gives the hunter the best chance at a good shot. Following that pattern, the oak's limbs were left largely intact, so that the hunter would be screened from the deer for almost every approach angle, but still allow a shot at the most likely places where deer would be crossing. We have learned this lesson the hard way. Deer have been known to look up at the seats in tree stands to see if a hunter is present, spoiling the hunt. Hidden stands and hidden hunters equals calmer deer. I pulled my Dren down from the hook, slipped my left hand into the lanyard and onto the grip, and rested the bow upon my lap.
As I faced the shooting lanes, a gentle breeze was blowing toward me from the front left quarter. That was what I had in mind, since the feeder was at my front right quarter. A growing faint orange glow behind me told me that first light was only minutes away.
There was enough pastel light reaching the food plot now for me to range some landmarks. The far edge of the food plot through the left shooting lane was 47 yards. The middle shooting lanes gave me a good shot at the approach to the feeder from the left, with a range of 20-40 yds. The far right shooting lane gave me a good shot into the food plot to the right of the feeder, and ranged from 20 yards to well past my shooting abilities. Leaning to one side, I could see clearly a couple of the legs of the feeder, and I ranged them. 29 yards to the near one. The downward angle of the shot was gentle, and would only make an inch or so difference at that range. I made a mental note to aim just a little low when the range was 30 yards.
The calm of the early morning was broken by the electric feeder as it spun out corn and high-protein feed, right on the morning schedule. I knew that sound would echo for hundreds of yards, and would be the "dinner bell" for at least some deer. I sat up a little straighter in the seat, and began to look more intently at the margins of the plot for movement.
The sun had not begun to paint the ground, but it was good shooting light, as the action began. I saw movement to my right, and turned my head slowly to see what was moving in my peripheral vision. A nice 8-point buck was already twenty yards into the field, coming toward the center of the field from my right rear quarter. He crossed directly downwind from me, and I expected him to bust me at any second. He didn't. Maybe it was because he kept his head down, eating from the wheat that still remained in the field. Maybe it was good scent control or just dumb luck. I will happily take either one at this point.
Although it had been very dry for the last many weeks, the wheat in the food plots was still green, and alive. Early rains had really brought it on. The wheat never gets very large, since it is heavily grazed from germination onward. The ranch now has more than 250 acres of cultivated food plots. Some are hit harder than others, but all get a lot of attention from the animals. The blades of the plants were four inches long, but had been trampled by the many deer which came to the food plot every day. The buck was able to use his lips to pull the individual leaves off the ground and take a few bites for each step. He wasn't interested in does, just some good nutrition. He was only twenty or so yards to my right. His rack was well out past his ears, and was a symmetrical typical 4-by-4, but was not heavy.
Although he was a "shooter", he was only a couple of years old, and I wanted him to grow. In the next three years he will grow into a monster that I hope some happy hunter will take. I had already passed up about six or more shooter bucks as large (or larger) than this guy in my two previous trips to the ranch this year, and this one would be added to that list.
I'll take a buck, but I really just want to take a cull. The whitetail herd at Buffalo Mountain Ranch has some amazing genetics, and with the great nutrition, we are seeing some awesome antler development. I watched this beautiful young buck for probably half an hour, as he worked his way slowly across the food plot, finally working his way near enough to the feeder to gather up some corn and high-protein feed that it had just scattered. As that buck was turning to leave, another buck entered the food plot from about the same location the first buck had used.
This second buck was another 8-point, but with a body and rack that were slightly smaller than the first deer. Maybe this was a deer that was also two years old. If so, he was the son of one of those world-class bucks that the Ranch has. Either way, this young guy was also destined for greatness. I watched as the two bucks simply grazed slowly through the food plot. No does came to the feeder.
The two young bucks finally walked off the food plot and into the woods. But I would not be alone long. Within another ten minutes I again saw movement. This time the movement was directly upwind - from my left front. I leaned forward to peer around one of the larger tree limbs that blocked my best view from that angle. When I did, what I saw made my heart stop. Through the leaves of the tree I could clearly see a large buck walking toward the food plot in a small clearing adjoining the plot. His head was up, and he was alert. I sat up in a more "ready" position in the seat, and leaned forward to maintain visual contact with this bruiser. I could see that he was a "4-by-something" even before he got to the food plot. His rack was high, wide, and heavy. But one side looked odd. Where his G3 should be on his left side was only a small bump, and he had no brow tine on that side, either. But the right side of the rack was beautiful, with long tines, in a typical configuration. That is when the discussion began...
When a deer that is coming in doesn't meet my personal "specifications" (but I am pretty sure there will be a shot opportunity) a conversation begins inside my mind. First to the inner podium for the opening statement is the “don’t shoot” inner hunter. Then the “shoot” inner hunter counters with his opening statement. I have had such internal conversations – some of which failed to result in a final "shoot-or-no-shoot" decision before the animal walks away and the opportunity is gone. That is normally because the inner hunters spent so much time bickering over the orientation of the podium, and the rules of the debate, each side ran out of time. On occasion, the “shoot” hunter prevails (according to the unbiased judgment of my panel of inner judges), and once the "shoot" decision is reached, I watch with intense disappointment as a single step too many put the animal into the "one-that-got-away" category. Then I spend the next ten minutes engaging the “internal referee”, as the inner hunters engage in a frenzy of verbal barbs back and forth which on occasion grow rather animated. On one occasion, it all degenerated nearly into a slugfest, throwing me nearly out of the stand.
So, here is a partial transcript of the debate between my two inner hunters, regarding this particular buck:
“On one hand, this is a great animal.
On the other hand, I would much rather that another hunter take him, and I would just rather have a spike or a doe for the food locker.
On the other hand, there are only a very few days left in the season, and the chances that this brute will present himself for another hunter to have a shot are few.
On the other hand, I am trying to take cull bucks.
On the other hand, we almost never see spikes any more.”
So, the argument within me raged back and forth as the huge animal walked in a nonchalant manner over to the feeder.
There the deer stood, right in front of me, broadside, pretty much lined-up perfectly with one of the shooting lanes. And with no leaves between me and the buck, I could take a very good close look at him.
The buck was probably four to six inches taller at the shoulder than either of the bucks I had just seen. His neck was huge, well out past his head, and blended seamlessly with some well-muscled shoulders. His muzzle was graying somewhat, and large floppy ears hung well inside the spread of his massive horns. He was a little "pot bellied", which also confirmed that he was an older deer.
Now the mental jousting lost all semblance of order, as my inner hunters grasped one another’s clothing, and resorted to name-calling. It would go to blows soon, I reckoned. My left eye twitched as one of my inner hunters kicked the other in the shins.
"Ok" I told myself, "It's time to make a decision. It’s a long way to the ground, and these inner hunters are about to knock me out of this seat.” The buck was an older buck, and with the amazing nutrition that he had been provided at Buffalo Mountain Ranch this year, he should have been a ten-point or better. He had mass, he had symmetry, but he was only an eight-point. His rack on the left side was incomplete. He would never be more than an eight-point, and he would be breeding that genetic trait into more and more offspring if I let him walk. That final analysis left the inner “shoot” hunter standing over the defeated and whimpering “don’t-shoot” hunter, lying helplessly on my mind’s floor. Quietly, I raised the bow to vertical.
The Tru-ball release found the string loop quickly, and in a single smooth draw I brought the bow to full readiness. I noticed that the buck's front feet were even with the middle of the two legs of the feeder. The second (30-yard) pin was placed just a smidgeon low, and I began to check-off the remainder of the final items before the trigger would be pressed: the buck was dead-perfect broadside; the buck's head was up, and he was looking generally away from me; his near front leg was slightly forward, exposing the vitals; the light breeze was rattling the leaves just enough to mask (even if only a little bit) the sound of the string; the range was known and verified. My right index finger moved from behind the release’s trigger to the front, I took a breath, let it half-out, then held... as I began the squeeze. The second pin was as steady as a rock at about an inch low when I felt the string surge forward. I saw the arrow fly for only an instant, and heard a loud, hollow, "thwack" as the arrow found its mark.
The buck ran at a slow gallop off to my right, and stopped after just exiting the food plot. He just stood there, broadside, presenting me with a view of the opposite side of the shot. It wasn't hard to see. A four-inch circle of bright red blood on his side showed me the arrow's exit. I smiled. It was a good shot.
For better than a minute, the buck stood there, looking back at the feeder and trying to see something to explain what had just happened. Then he felt a wave of dizziness, and decided the deep woods would provide safety. He began to run off into the trees. But he stumbled after only a couple of steps. He was able to get back up to his feet, and lurched forward again. But then he immediately stumbled again, and rolled into a summersault. He was within my field of view the entire time, and I saw where he lay. I glanced at my watch. 7:15 a.m. I lay my bow back across my lap, took a deep breath, and leaned back in the seat. I would sit here for another thirty minutes, to be sure that I would be walking upon a fully-expired deer. My inner “shoot” hunter patted me on the back, and said, “You did good.” “Thanks”, I whispered in return.
That half-hour passed faster than I thought it might. I was occupied by looking at the beautiful high clouds, now glowing in the sunrise. I enjoyed the smells of the morning, and the gentle kiss of the first beams of sunlight upon the food plot. I thanked God for the opportunity to live in a free country, which has places like this ranch... where bow hunters can experience wonderful whitetail hunts as I had just done. I thanked Him for the blessings that had been mine that morning, and for those I had experienced on a hundred similar hunts from my youth to today. I would have meat in the locker, and a "cull" buck would be out of the herd. Blessings were too many to count.
The buck weighed-in at 124 lbs (field dressed) and had an inside spread of 15 ½ inches. Rick said this was a six or seven year-old buck, and an eight-point was all he would ever be. He was glad I took him out of the herd. We have some much better genetics in the herd and those bucks should be doing the majority of the breeding. When I heard this, my inner “shoot” hunter whispered “I told you so!”.
“Yeah, I know.” I answered out loud.
“What?” replied Rick.
“Oh, nothing.” I responded.
The two missing tines on the left side had been broken off in fights. A fresh tear of over four inches divided the buck's right ear from the middle to the tip, a further testimony of intense battles. Rick said the rack would score about 122 if the two broken tines were added back in.
I’ll be back at Buffalo Mountain Ranch later this winter, to pick up the meat and bring it home. Maybe then I will be able to take a doe during the “spike and doe” season that runs through the middle of January.
Jay Ledbetter is the owner of Buffalo Mountain Ranch, in Abilene Texas. He is also a frequent contributor to BowhuntingInfo.com and a constant hunting companion to BowhuntingInfo's own Bob Baldwin. If you would like more infomation about hunting at Buffalo Mountain Ranch, visit their site at www.buffalomountainranch.com