By Russell Thornberry
“It’s zero Fahrenheit, and the bucks are going crazy,” said the voice on the line. My heart fluttered with excitement. After a fall of hot weather and draggy deer hunting, I was finally going to hit it right. The next day, I was scheduled to leave for Fort Saint John, British Columbia, to bowhunt with my old friend Ray Jackson (horseshoecreekoutfitters.com). “Last week I had a hunter miss a clean 12-pointer that would go at least 180, and I’ve been seeing a big 10 that will make 165 or more. We’ve got more big bucks than I’ve ever seen, so get your butt up here!” Jackson teased.
The next morning, Nov. 7, I headed for Jackson’s whitetail wonderland with visions of rocking-chair-sized antlers. But in the 24 hours since I’d hung up the phone, a warming trend hit eastern B.C. It was the curse that had followed me all over North America. I had warmed up every state I had hunted. I felt like Jonah bringing the wrath of God to every deer camp in America – and now Canada.
On the first morning of our hunt, while it was still relatively cold, I saw elk, moose, mule deer and whitetails. But with every new day, the weather warmed, the snow melted and so did my hopes.
I had never been in a more perfect situation for true monster whitetails – hunting private lands where alfalfa fields were surrounded by vast tracts of timber. Hunting pressure was minimal, and there had been five successive mild winters allowing maximum numbers of mature bucks to survive. It was the dream situation for whitetail hunting in western Canada. Except for the weather. That brought the classic report: “You should have been here last week.”
Due to some untimely cancellations, I was the only hunter in camp. The two guides that had been slated for the hunters who had cancelled were suddenly without anything to do, so Jackson gave then a dream assignment. Farther west, in higher elevations where Jackson normally hunted grizzly bears, some monster-class white-tailed bucks had been spotted, including one that Ray watched rubbing an antler on a power pole.
He estimated the buck in the 250 non-typical class. Jackson tends to understate matters, so I have no doubt that the buck was all he said, if not more. And that was not the only braggin’ buck seen in the area. So the two guides were sent to the grizzly bear area to observe and attempt to shoot the biggest white-tailed buck they could find. They called in by cell phone twice a day to report their sightings, and, while the warm weather was busting our chops down low, the phone calls from Grizzlyville were enough to drive a man to drink.
The guides were seeing record-book bucks almost every day. Admittedly, getting a shot was a different matter, but they were seeing them! I was on pins and needles every time the cell phone in Ray’s truck rang.
Of all the treestand locations from which I hunted, one became my clear favorite. The stand was in a tree some 40 feet up a steep hillside above a ledge about 12 feet wide. That ledge followed the base of the hill for a quarter of a mile or more. Below the ledge, the ground fell off sharply into a narrow ravine, rising on the opposite side to a steep timbered hill. There were two obvious deer trails coming off the opposite hillside, merging into a single trail that dropped into the steep ravine and led up onto the ledge below my stand, right in front of me. There was also a deer trail on the ledge with rubs, scrapes and tracks that were obviously made by a mature buck. I felt good about being there.
In addition to the tree being quite a way up the hillside above the ledge, the stand was a good 30 feet up the tree. I did several shifts in the nosebleed stand from daylight until noon. I also hunted from 2 p.m. until dark a couple of times. On each shift, I saw small bucks crossing the face of the hill across the ravine, but none was what I wanted. Plus, they seemed to have no interest in my rattling antlers or grunt call.
The warm-weather blues were getting to me. I felt like staying in the bunkhouse and reading a good book. But the hunter in me, and years of experience, kept reminding me that I only had to be lucky for a split second. And I couldn’t be lucky at all if I weren’t hunting. So it became a clear case of mind over matter, plus the fact that I owed it to Jackson to keep on keeping on. That’s what he was doing on my behalf.
At 11 a.m. on the last day of my hunt, we decided to check the nosebleed stand for any fresh buck sign. There was plenty, presumably made overnight. I told Ray that I wanted to return after lunch and spend my last afternoon there. Whether I saw anything or not, it offered such a wonderful view that it was worth the effort – deer or no deer.
It was 12:45 p.m. when I started my walk back to the stand along the ledge. When I came to the bend in the ledge trail that allowed me to see the last 200-yard straightaway that ran under my treestand, there were two does walking ahead of me. A rush of confidence and adrenaline shot through me. These were the first deer I had seen on that trail, and what’s more, they were out at midday.
By 2 p.m., the wind had died down and the sky had cleared. Win, lose or draw, this was going to be a beautiful afternoon. At 2:30, movement caught my eye on the opposite hillside. Low on the hill, just above the ravine, a buck emerged from the thick spruce and stepped into view with his head down. I strained to see antlers through my binoculars. He mooched along slowly, head still down, for at least 2 minutes before he lifted his head and I realized my moment was at hand.
I could see thick, black beams and some irregular-looking sticker points around his brow tines. Finally, he began walking cautiously across the face of the hill toward the place where the two trails merged and dropped off into the ravine, leading below my treestand. He would take a step or two and then stop and study his surroundings, then proceed a few more steps. The more I studied the buck, the more I realized that he was not only heavy-beamed, but that he also had a body of a young Hereford.
After an eternity, he finally arrived at the confluence of the two trails. By then my anxiety was almost unbearable. To make matters even more electric, he stood at the edge of the trail and looked uphill (away from me) then downhill (toward me) and contemplated his next move for several minutes. I took a deep breath to keep from suffocating just as the buck turned downhill and took the trail down into the ravine. The next time I saw him, he’d be right under my stand.
Suddenly tips of tines came into view, then his broad head and finally his body, which now appeared even larger. With a mighty lunge, he hurled himself up the nearly vertical ravine bank and stood facing me on the ledge. I held my bow at arm’s length with my release on the string, waiting for him to turn either right or left. The face-off dragged on until my bow hand developed an involuntary quiver as I fought to keep mind and body under control.
At long last, the huge deer turned to his right, offering me his left side as he picked up his stride. I drew my arrow, placed it behind his shoulder and released. What I saw almost made me sick. He walked through my shot, and, in my panic to get the shot off before he reached the timber, I totally forgot to grunt him to a stop. It appeared to me that I shot him too far back. He bolted uphill and disappeared in a single bound.
I sat in silence, replaying the shot. Nothing about it consoled me. How could I forget to stop the buck? I had to admit, even after decades of bowhunting, that the excitement factor was still strong. After 30 minutes, I climbed down and examined my arrow. There was heavy tallow the full length of the shaft, but no blood on the arrow or the ground. The buck’s tracks crossed the trail and led up into the open mossy ground where the sun had melted the snow. I decided not to follow him because I thought he was shot through the paunch.
I was heartsick that night as I explained what had happened to Ray. I couldn’t believe that in the closing hours of my hunt, the chance came and I blew it. I reasoned that the buck would surely not survive the shot, and that since I declined to follow him at the risk of pushing him out of his bed, perhaps I would find him close at hand the next morning.
I changed my homeward flight schedule from the next morning to a night flight so I would be able to look for the buck at daylight.
A sleepless night ensued, and I was relieved when the clock struck 6 a.m. Jackson and I were on our way back to my stand at first light. I showed Ray where the buck had been standing when I shot, his tracks in the snow and where he’d headed uphill in the spongy moss. Ray took two steps uphill, looked to his right and said, “There’s a deer right there.”
I raced up to join him and, to my astonishment, my buck was lying 25 yards from the tree in which I’d shot him. He had headed uphill for a few steps and then dropped back down to the deer trail that left the ledge and cornered back into the green timber. He must have been there when I got out of the stand to check on the shot! The trail wound around a tight bend that I couldn’t see from where I’d stood the day before. My arrow had cut the back on the near lung and centered the other. His unusual amount of body fat had plugged the holes.
The buck’s size was staggering. We silently stared at the fallen beast for a time until Ray finally uttered, “What a toad!” His description of the animal, which turned out to be well in excess of 300 pounds, was perfectly fitting – a toad indeed.
What had been a tough and disheartening week of deer hunting turned into sheer exhilaration. We were still swimming in the sudden turn of events when Ray’s cell phone rang. I could hear the excited voice of Ray’s guide telling him of the great buck he had taken that morning up in grizzly country. “Great,” Ray replied. “Get here with that buck as fast as you can ’cause we’re getting ready to take some pictures!”
This article was published in the July 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.