By Mike Handley
Almost half an hour since craning my neck and peering up at the tiny treestand illuminated by flashlight beam — 15 minutes of that spent relearning how to breathe after getting up there — I was sufficiently calm enough to pull up my bow.
I’m profoundly uncomfortable with heights, and this stand was higher than any I’d climbed in the four years I’ve been confronting my worst fear. My guide, Bob Stone, had set it up the previous afternoon. It was his own personal stand, too, not one of the lodge’s.
He didn’t have to go to such trouble, since the Pike County, Ill., farm was loaded with strategically placed stands. But that’s the kind of guy Bob is. I’d seen a couple of good bucks emerge from this fencerow draw earlier in the week, and Bob was bound and determined to put me in the middle of the action.
It was still dark when I sucked in some frigid air, leaned to my right and groped for the pull-up rope. When my gloved fingers finally grasped it, the string wouldn’t budge. My brand new bow was snagged on the climbing sticks.
I scooted my butt off the padded seat and VERY carefully slid down on all fours atop the platform, trying to swing the rope outward enough to dislodge the bow that I had no intention of damaging.
No such luck.
By that time, the black sky had become more bluish-gray. Actually seeing how high I was for the first time, I sat back on my ankles — one arm wrapped tightly around the tree. I resolved that IF I got back down to earth, I was NOT climbing that telephone-pole oak again.
On the ground at last, I untied my bow and took up a position a few feet away. I would hunt from the ground, just like I’d done for 30 years before climbing my first tree on that very farm four seasons earlier.
Though off to a white-knuckled start, it was to be one of the greatest mornings I’ve ever spent afield.
When “Uncle Bob” and fellow hunter Mike Jordan of Sportwash fame drove up to collect me around 10:30, excitement was seeping from my pores. You’d think that it would take an encounter with a monstrous buck to turn the editor of Rack magazine into a grinning idiot. Not true.
I saw lots of deer, the biggest a year-old 6-pointer, a couple dozen very noisy turkeys and countless Sumo-wrestler squirrels. The show went on the entire morning, but the highlight took less than five minutes.
While the rest of the turkey flock had chosen to fly across the draw to reach the corn stubble on the other side, the last two hens decided they wanted to cross on foot. And they didn’t want to fly over or crawl under the barbed wire fence to do it.
When they realized they were the only ones left in the pasture, the hens bee-lined it to where a tree had fallen and compressed three of the four fence strands. The only problem was that a forkhorn on my side of the fence was walking toward the same gap.
Seeing this, the turkeys began a footrace and reached the fallen tree about the same time the young whitetail did. The birds hopped on the log and walked across just as the deer was going to step over it.
They were literally nose to beak, like a catcher and an umpire, quarreling over the right-of-way. The deer (like most catchers) lost the contest. As it backed off, the hens crossed without incident — heading straight for me. At the same instant, two squirrels in need of liposuction began chasing each other on the tree next to me.
During that Kodak moment, my field of view had the brace of bushytails at 5 feet, the turkeys maybe 10 yards past them, watching the squirrels, and the small buck 10 yards beyond the birds. Best of all, I was on the ground with them!
I could’ve left Illinois at that moment, happy as Linda Tripp when Monica confessed, “I can’t keep it inside anymore!” But I would have missed yet another stunning display a few hours later.
A new plan took shape right there beside Bob’s Silverado, after sharing the details of my morning adventure with him and Mike. Sometime after the turkey-deer standoff, I’d taken a pop at a fat doe — barely missing her. I watched the fletching pass harmlessly underneath.
When I went to retrieve the arrow, I noticed that the trail she had been following was unbelievably worn. I also noted the perfect tree for a stand right next to it.
I told Bob about the tree not because I expected to hunt from it, but because the next group of hunters to roll into Fishhook, Ill., might benefit. I was left slack-jawed when he asked me to show it to him and then moved the stand.
“I appreciate it, Uncle Bob, but this is above and beyond,” I protested.
“No problem,” he said. “It won’t take long at all.”
The tree was indeed perfect. At some point in the past, it had held a stand. The gnarly bark was swallowing a couple of old tree steps.
After the stand was hung, Bob and Mike asked me to climb up into it and direct them toward limbs that needed to be cut. When Bob went down the trail to my backside, I told him not to worry because I wouldn’t be able to shoot in that direction.
I was perched in the new tree by 2:15, and I saw nothing until about 4:30 — when a few deer filtered out into the cornfield. One was a decent buck, bothering a doe. I tried grunting, bleating and even rattling, but the deer wouldn’t come back into the woods.
With maybe half an hour of daylight remaining, the neighboring landowner fired up some kind of farm machinery that sounded like the world’s largest lawnmower.
A few minutes later, whitetails started pouring into the draw, most of them bucks. Antlers were everywhere, big and small, as the deer zigzagged through the 30-yard-wide strip of timber — unnerved by whatever that godawful noise was. At least two (maybe three) of the many bucks were shooters. One was a wide and dark-colored 8-pointer; the other a 10-pointer wearing a taller, narrower and gleaming white rack.
While I was watching all this activity take place in the heart of the draw, I heard footfalls on the trail behind me. When I peered around the tree, a white-antlered buck was standing with ears cocked, staring into the adjacent pasture, toward the source of the racket.
I stood slowly, my movement completely concealed by the tree trunk, and clipped my release onto the string. The buck was exactly where Bob had offered to cut limbs, where I’d told him there was no need.
I turned, wedged my right boot under the cable connecting the stand’s platform to the seat, and leaned as far out as I dared. Already convinced in those few seconds that I was seeing the white-antlered giant I’d spied moments earlier, I took only a cursory look at the numerous points (it was at least a 10-pointer) and committed.
The head-on angle was not good, so I waited with bow drawn for several more seconds — until the buck finally took a step to its right. It was still quartering sharply to me, but I knew I could put an arrow through its heart at 20 yards.
At the arrow’s impact, the buck spun left toward the center of the draw. Barely 10 yards into its retreat, the deer collapsed. Like all the rest, my fourth bow buck in as many years took its last breath within 30 yards of my tree.
“Cool,” I said aloud. “Cool, cool, cool, cool!”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the much larger wide-racked 8-pointer was standing a mere six or seven yards behind the buck I shot. It calmly walked up and sniffed the arrow sticking into the ground, and then it went over to look at its fallen comrade before casually walking away.
It made two of the one I’d shot!
A second later, I noticed a doe standing stock-still at 30 yards, also looking at the downed 10-pointer. Thoughts of tagging out on the same day, within minutes, flooded my brain, since I’d accomplished that same feat on that very farm during my maiden bowhunt there in 2001. But alas, I shot under her — just as I’d done that morning. I later discovered that my 30-yard pin was slightly off the vertical mark.
After I walked up to my buck, I realized that it wasn’t the deer I’d thought it was. It was very respectable, for sure, but it was a youngster by Illinois standards — not a “slammer,” as Bob calls them.
Nevertheless, the grin that took shape on my unshaven face that day still hasn’t faded. That I returned to Alabama with a generous supply of venison and a dandy set of antlers is purely icing on the cake.
For this deer hunter, the journey is just as important as the destination.
Editor’s Note: The author was bowhunting during the mid-November rut in west-central Illinois. If you’d like to hunt in God’s Country and meet some of the best guides on the planet, log onto http://www.heartlandoutfitters.com.
This article was published in the September 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.