Buckmasters Magazine

October Rush

October Rush

By Russell Thornberry

A veteran hunter and smart old buck go head to head in Alberta.

September 2010 in western central Alberta was a monsoon, and farmers were picking their oats, barley and alfalfa in October, a month later than usual. This created an interesting but dicey bowhunting dilemma. Bucks were still feeding in the remaining unharvested crops, which were shrinking daily, as the clock ticked away the days and hours before the harvest was finished.

Soon the pre-rut would trigger bucks to abandon their bachelor groups, as well as their predictable, early fall feeding habits. This combination of factors in play all at once, created a dynamic, living puzzle in which urgency reigned.

If I hoped to get a chance at the buck I had nicknamed Ol’ Moses, I was going to have to hurry and do it very delicately. I knew it would be a one-shot opportunity at best.

Long-range observation through binoculars revealed no less than 12 bucks were feeding in the small greenfield bordering a small tamarack swamp. Most were young, spindly 6- and 8-pointers, but at least three had very nice racks of 8, 9 and 10 points. Even bigger racks were worn by bucks that looked physically immature. My guess was if there was a fully mature buck in the area, he might not be hanging out with the youngsters.

The following day at noon, I found the main trail where the bucks entered the greenfield from the swamp. I guessed they bedded no more than 100 yards from the field, so I quietly slipped about 40 yards into the timber and hung a trail camera. What it revealed made my heart skip a beat.

All the bucks I had seen in the field paraded past my trail camera, including a buck I had not seen. He was a hefty-bodied deer with a heavy rack that was getting gnarly. I suspected he might even be past his prime.

His rack and advanced age prompted the moniker Ol’ Moses. He was definitely the buck I wanted, even though some of the younger bucks would probably score better. There’s just something about the challenge of hunting a fully mature buck that trips my trigger.

The next step was to hang my treestand, and that proved to be problematic. The dominant wind directions were southeast and northwest, with southeast being more probable. I didn’t want to penetrate far into the timber for fear of tipping my hand.

My tree choices were aspens or spruce. I was leaning toward spruce because of the ample canopy cover provided by their bushy branches, but that would require a lot of limb cutting.

I learned long ago that creating any noticeable disturbance can cause a wary old buck to move away.

I once saw a buck find sawdust on the ground where a single pine bough had been cut for a shooting lane. It was as if he’d located a land mine. He raised his tail in alarm, let out a blasting snort and ran like his tail was on fire. That was the last time I saw him. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.

I could attach my ladder and stand to a naked aspen, but then I’d be hanging out like a bear cub on a power pole with no cover. Neither choice was ideal.

After much head scratching, I found a solution — an aspen tucked in beside a thick spruce. I would be able to hang my stand on the aspen with no limb cutting and still be well hidden from the deer by the neighboring spruce.

It was a good setup except for one thing: The tree was only two steps from the main deer trail. I normally try to be 15 to 20 yards off a trail, but in this case I had no choice. The situation was going to be testy.

The spruce boughs that hid me would also hide approaching deer until they were directly below. I would have to bank on them passing under me undisturbed and then hope for a going-away shot. It was such a delicate situation that I didn’t dare occupy the stand unless conditions were absolutely perfect. Even then it would be chancy. At such close range, whitetails have a sixth sense of impending danger even if they don’t see or smell it. This setup would require more than skill — it would require a good measure of luck, as well.

A month of rainy weather finally subsided in early October, and the farmers were feverishly harvesting their crops. The delayed harvest was great for the deer, giving them an extra month of easy feeding. That’s why the bucks were still predictable.

I patiently waited for the perfect day. I needed a breeze from the southeast so my scent wouldn’t blow across the trail. Even a dead calm day was no good because the downward thermals of the evening would pool my scent below the stand. A good southeast breeze would carry my scent well away from the trail.

On Oct. 5, everything was perfect. I was in the stand by 4 p.m., two hours before I expected the deer to start drifting out of the swamp. My confidence ran high until 5 p.m., when the landowner came rumbling in with his tractor and began cutting his oats northeast of my stand. I knew the deer would not use the trail below me that night. I anticipated they would enter the greenfield from a lesser used trail to the east, and that’s exactly what they did.

I watched through my binoculars as they raced into the field. After I was confident they were all out of the swamp, I climbed down and headed home. The farmer was still cutting his crop in the dark when I left.

October RushThe next day was just as perfect, so I was back in the stand at 4 p.m. Precisely as the day before, the farmer showed up at 5 and began cutting his crop in the same area. I was sure he would have finished in that area and moved on, but I could see there was still a bit of standing crop. It finally dawned on me the farmer had a day job and farmed when he got home after work.

I guess I could have asked him when he was going to be in the field, but I didn’t want to impose in any way. After all, I was his guest.

Initially, I was disappointed my plan had been foiled, but as I watched the tractor through the binoculars, I realized the farmer might finish cutting with enough time left for my plan to work. The pressure was on, and I knew that when the crop was gone, the deer would likely relocate. In addition, the pre-rut was coming on, and that would also alter their travel and feeding habits. It was now or never.

Finally, a little after 7 p.m., the tractor made its last round. The clock was ticking the evening away when the tractor headed over to the east side of the swamp where the deer had entered the field the evening before.

Just as it had worked against me then, I knew the tractor would likely cause the bucks to come by my stand that evening.

It was 7:30. I knew that by 7:45 I would be unable to see well enough to shoot. Legal shooting time ended around 8 p.m., but I’m no spring chicken and my low light vision isn’t what it used to be. I had 15 minutes left.

At 7:35, a doe nervously sprinted under my stand and stood like a statue testing the air with her nose. Was she nervous because she sensed trouble from me, or was it because she had changed her travel plans at the last minute? I held my breath knowing she could be the deal-breaker. After a two-minute eternity, she scampered down the trail and out into the field.

At 7: 40, I heard the footfall of a deer in the dried aspen leaves. Ol’ Moses was walking beneath my stand!

I went into autopilot, stuffing my surging shock and excitement. The buck was already walking directly away as I came to full draw and anchored my top pin on his vitals.

At what I guessed was 25 yards, he angled slightly to his left and stopped, giving me a shallow view of his ribs. I held low to compensate for the sharp downward angle created by my elevation of 30 nearly feet and touched the release. I didn’t see the arrow, but the sound of the impact told me I had connected.

The buck jumped forward and stopped for a split second and then made a few bounds to the left and stopped again. He looked around before bounding out of sight.

It was not the death run I was expecting. His response seemed almost too casual. I searched for my arrow through the binoculars, but the grass along the trail was too tall, and light was fading. To make matters worse, I heard no crash of a falling deer. I was beginning to feel uncertain about my shot.

As I tried to review the events in my mind, I realized my autopilot mode is subconscious for the most part. It is a reflex action formed by 40 years of performing the exact same task. I decided to stay in my stand for an hour.

At 9 p.m., I climbed down and walked to the spot where Ol’ Moses was standing when I shot. I found blood immediately, but no arrow. I followed the blood trail by flashlight and found blood on both sides of the trail, indicating the arrow had passed completely through.

Forty yards later, I found him in his bed. The arrow had passed through so effortlessly he simply did not know what had happened and therefore didn’t panic. Apparently he began to feel weak and simply bedded down and expired.

It was one of the most thrilling bowhunts of my life, and I realized I was a different hunter than I had been in my younger years. I had learned the value and the essence of patience and how to deal delicately with urgency. I had also learned that you don’t win them all, and that if the deer wins, you tip your hat to him and be grateful for a wonderful contest.

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This article was published in the October 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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