By Mike Handley
Aaron Burke was reluctant to burn vacation days for a hunt in a strange land. Now, not even $4-per-gallon gasoline will keep him from making the nearly nine-hour drive to Ohio.
-- You'd think that a couple of bowhunters who planned for every conceivable circumstance when packing for a four-day, out-of-state hunt would have pored over maps or at least discussed the lay of the land during the nine-hour drive. Yet for all the planning, all the packing and all the fuss, the itinerary for day one was amazingly -- almost alarmingly -- simple.
When Aaron Burke and Johnny Mitchell arrived in Knox County, Ohio, that first afternoon back in November 2003, Johnny already knew where he wanted to go. The trip had been his idea; the farm belonged to his family. But his instructions to Aaron were far less specific.
"Just walk down that road and find you a place," Johnny told Aaron, who had never hunted deer outside of his native North Carolina.
Some hunters might've bristled at the lack of guidance, but Aaron, a veteran bowhunter, simply started walking. The then 33-year-old sock mill worker was eager to take advantage of a complete change of scenery.
It had taken Johnny, who was brand new to bowhunting (as in: he'd never done it), more than a year to convince Aaron to accompany him to Ohio. Aaron, by contrast, was a seasoned archer.
The two guys had attended the same high school, but had never run in the same crowds. It wasn't until their wives, coworkers, began comparing notes that the men were brought together because of their common love of deer hunting. It took a lot of pleading before Aaron agreed to burn some precious vacation time to spend with a new pal at a strange place nearly 440 miles from home.
When they finally left North Carolina, the vehicle resembled an archery shop on wheels.
"We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies going up there," Aaron laughs. "We took everything we had."
Things got off to a slow start. It took Aaron two and a half days of trial and error before he found the perfect setup.
The farm is mostly open ground, but its sparse timber serves as a refuge for the many whitetails that feed on the corn and beans grown by the neighboring farmers, who were harvesting that week. The land might have been hunted years ago, when family members got together to stage man-drives, but the resident whitetails hadn't been bothered in a long time.
It took Aaron three stand moves before he found himself in the center of the action. He'd seen several very nice bucks. And with each move, he got closer to the hub where most of the deer traveled. He'd hunt the mornings and move his stand by afternoon.
Although he wasn't seeing anything close enough to shoot, he was having a blast.
"I wasn't used to seeing big deer like they have up there," he said.
When Aaron was about 20 feet aloft on the third morning, the neighbors were combining corn. The harvesting was so loud that he couldn't hear much of anything else. But then the machinery ground to a halt.
Somewhere between 8:00 and 8:15, he heard a buck grunt -- a sound that he'd have missed entirely a half-hour earlier. And had it not been cold, Aaron might not have seen the animal. Even so, it took him a minute or two to realize that the strange "smoke" he saw was actually the buck's breath. And within that puff, he could make out a "tangled mess" of antler.
The deer strolled to within 50 yards before turning and heading away from the slack-jawed hunter. Desperate, Aaron reached for his rattling antlers and brought them together with such force as to shatter the stillness. A few minutes later, he heard the deer returning.
When it materialized, every hair was standing.
"It was in a pretty foul mood," Aaron recalls. "I wouldn't say it was posturing, but that buck was definitely looking for its rivals."
Within 45 minutes of seeing the buck, opportunity knocked. When the agitated whitetail's head disappeared behind an oak at 15 yards, Aaron drew and took the shot.
The buck never flinched. It simply turned and walked away.
"Dude, the only thing I remember is seeing my fletching floating through the woods," he said. "I told myself, 'He's not going to die.'"
Johnny arrived an hour later with his own good news. He'd shot his first-ever deer, a 5-pointer, with his bow. Aaron went with him to retrieve it and carry it back to the barn. Afterward, the guys returned to look for Aaron's buck.
They found one spot of blood about 100 yards from where the arrow struck the deer. After that, Johnny and Aaron spread about 50 yards apart and began easing through the woodlot. Johnny saw it first.
"After a little piece, Johnny said 'Aaron?' When I looked over there and saw that big grin on his face, I just took off running," he said.
"Everything usually goes wrong in bowhunting," Aaron said. "But not this time."
This is not to say that everything went according to plan. Although Aaron managed to double-lung the buck, his arrow didn't pass through, which explains the lack of a blood trail -- reason enough for many hunters to have abandoned the search.
"He weighed 281 pounds," Aaron grinned. "Compare that to the deer in North Carolina! Here, a mature buck will weigh between 150 and 175 pounds.
"Now I go with Johnny to Ohio every year. I start marking my vacation about eight to 10 months in advance."
BTR Score: 183 5/8
-- Mike Handley