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Broken Trail

HerbertBy Jason Hubert

-- Sitting in the middle of a 60-acre CRP field, getting pelted by rain and snow at 6:30 a.m. makes a person wonder what they are doing. Then, I reminded myself it was Nov. 15, Michigan’s opening day of firearm deer season.

This was a new tactic for me. I knew the mature bucks in my area like to get the does out in the middle of this field to tend them and ward off any competition. Just after first light, I had seen a few does and was tempted to stalk a 120-inch 8-point that was about 300 yards away, but something just didn’t feel right. Plus, it was early. There was plenty of time left in my dark-to-dark vigil.

Then I heard a tending grunt, Ughh. ughh, ughhhhh.

I had no time to think. Just to the left at eye level, trampling over the hill, came three does followed by a bruiser of a buck: heavy and with long times. After passing up eight different 1½- and 2½-year-old bucks during the archery season, this was a welcome sight.

I quickly untangled from my rain poncho and found the buck in my scope. I fired, and the buck took off. I shot again, and then a third time, only to watch the buck enter the sanctuary of the neighboring property.

Hunting land is hard to come by in Michigan, and usually is it a small parcel with a lot of pressure, where mature bucks are almost impossible to find. I am fortunate to hunt a 118-acre farm that’s bordered by a large chunk of private, no-hunting land. I am sure the buck felt safe there.

The rain was steady, so I hurried to see if I could find sign of a hit. Blood was everywhere, but it was washing away fast. I quickly loaded my gear into my vehicle and drove to the land manager’s house to seek permission to look for the deer.

No luck. Nobody was home. I went to my parents’ house, which is home base during hunting season, and called the caretaker, hoping to plead for permission in an urgent message. He answered right away.

 I now know he is a great guy. He was excited to help me look for my deer.

We met and began to follow the blood trail. After 20 minutes, we walked up on the buck. It had been almost 2 hours since I’d shot. I had hoped for a much quicker kill.

The manager said we would back out and return at noon, which was fine by me.

On the way out, I asked if I could return with my gun and finish the animal. The manager said we needed to follow the property rules. I would have liked a different answer, but I wasn’t going to argue. I went back to my mom and dad’s house to wait.

We’d agreed to meet at noon. All of the sudden there was a knock on the door. It was the manager. He said the buck was still alive. We’d try again at 4 p.m. I became sick to my stomach and quickly went from excited to very sullen and depressed.

I went into town and do a few errands to help my wife. The baby had been up all night with what looked like an ear infection, so I picked up the slack. I called my pastor from church, and we prayed together for the safe recovery of my deer. He reassured me that God had a plan for this and everything would work out fine.

At 2:55 p.m., a truck pulled up and the manager hopped out. He said the buck was not there anymore. I was completely defeated. He suggested that we meet the next morning and look again.

Dawn couldn’t come quickly enough. While I was drinking a cup of coffee, my cell phone rang. It was another friend, bragging about the giant buck he’d just shot and recovered.

As if by divine intervention, the call waiting beeped. It was the manager saying he couldn’t make it, but I had permission to go on the property alone. I wasted no time in getting out the door. Again, as if this was planned, my brother Nate, who was in town on break from law school, came walking up. Without thinking, I said, “Let’s go!” and his face lit up. Nate had no luck that morning, and came to see if I needed help. It was perfect timing.

We quickly drove to the spot, parked, grabbed our tracking stuff, and got to it. I showed Nate where the buck had been. We discovered two blood-soaked beds, but nothing else. I was once again discouraged. We circled the beds looking for sign and found quite a nice trail. Unfortunately, it led back to the original trail. We were going the wrong way.

Discouraged but determined, Nate and I wandered around for about a half hour. I finally found a splatter of blood about 100 yards from the beds. I couldn’t believe it. We were back in the game!

This splatter led to drops, which led to a nice trail again, and for about 10 minutes I thought we would surely find the buck.

The trail led in and out of a cattail swamp and onto higher ground, where tracking was easy. We could see where he was tearing up ground and turning over leaves. For quite a while, we lost blood, so we just kept following the messed-up leaves. This is much easier said then done.

Three-hundred yard farther, the buck turned and went into a blowdown that looked virtually impossible to cross. Nate went around the other side and quickly picked up the trail again.

I was starting to second-guess my shot placement. Had I hit a leg?

The next couple of hundred yards was a blur. I remember asking Nate to lead the way and I would follow with the marking hats. When we have a tough trail, we drop an orange hat by the last blood until more is found.

The trail led to island of cattails and thick brush. The water wasn’t above our knee boots, so it turned out to be a simple trek. Once on the island, we discovered numerous possible trails, but no sign on any of them.

I felt compelled to go deeper into the cattails. I don’t know why I chose this trail, but I am glad I did, because I found the tiniest smear of blood on the side of a cattail blade.

After shouting to Nate and confirming that it was blood, we were back on the trail. The buck crossed the swamp and got on to another island, and the blood was easy to follow again.

He has to be here somewhere, I thought. I know big bucks die hard, but this is ridiculous. We’ve followed this deer for well over a mile.

 I was tired, thirsty and in rough shape. I hadn’t eaten since shooting the buck more than 24 hours earlier, and I certainly didn’t rest well the night before. Nate took over the lead again, and I was happy to follow.

The buck took us straight into another swamp, but as soon as he entered, he turned almost completely around and went back to the island. The going was easy at this point, but following the trail was not. For the next 100 or so yards, we were on out hands and knees, trying to stay below the thick branches.

Then, like the miracle that it is, there he was! I will never forget laying my eyes on that buck. I turned and grabbed Nate and hugged the life right out of him. It was an emotional moment. We worked hard to find that deer.

It all became clear to me in an instant. Nate and I had just shared an awesome adventure that we would not have had if I had killed the buck quickly.

Amazingly the slug entered directly in front of the  shoulder, passed through the chest cavity, and exited behind the far shoulder. It should have been a perfect shot. After dressing the animal, I discovered that one lung was collapsed, but that was it. The heart was intact.

The buck is a mainframe 7 point, really tall and tight. The spread is only 15 inches. The buck’s rack is full of character, such as a 12-inch tine, 22-inch beams, the beginning of a drop tine, a hole in the beam and four sticker points at the bases. I know the buck was 4½ years old because I had seen him and passed up shots for the past three seasons. He dressed out at just over 190 pounds.

This is not the biggest deer I have taken, but it is the most memorable. I will never forget the adventure and memories that he awarded my brother and me, which in my mind is the real trophy.

There are a few lessons to be learned here. First, big bucks die hard; don’t give up too quickly when looking for them. Second, there is much more to hunting than taking game. Some of the best trophies are the ones we keep in our minds.

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