The one that got away

It was November 12th, 2005, and I had settled in to a large maple less than thirty yards from where I had taken my first buck 23 years earlier. It was the place that my whitetail addiction was born. I hadn't taken a buck there since, but I had built up many fond memories. Plus, it was mid November, and over two decades of hunting have taught me that it was that "any" time of the season. I refer to it as the any time, because any buck can show up at any place during any time of the day. I was hopeful and confident. As the morning progressed I had the pleasure of watching several young bucks chase does throughout the woods. I also watched as a blue heron landed on a limb overhanging the creek. I wondered if it was the same one I had a picture of from my trail camera nearby.

My good friend and long-time hunting companion Darren Rueter was in his stand less than 200 yards away. He had arrived at my house plenty early for our morning hunt, so I invited him inside to view a 5 second video clip I got of a buck two weeks earlier with my home-built video trail camera. As we watched the footage, I told him I planned to pass up this buck, given the opportunity, but he would look real nice next to the 200 lb. 11-point brute he had taken in 2003. He has similar characteristics, with a big body and an extra point on his left brow tine. He was a nice buck, but not what I was looking for.

I hated to cut my morning short, but I am building a new home and I was having a garage door installed at 10:00 AM. I wanted to be home by 9:00 AM to make sure everything was cleaned up and in order. So I climbed down out of the big maple with more memories of the young bucks chasing the girls etched in my mind. I was taking an alternate route home, so I didn’t disturb Darren’s hunting any more than I had to. As I got to the creek bank, I looked upstream at the blue heron as he left his perch and soared upstream as they often do at first sight of a human. The spot I was standing has long been my favorite place on the farm. Here the creek makes a 90-degree turn, with rocks coming out from both banks. The water is shallow, with a couple pebbly sand bars here and there. From this vantage point, it is possible to see nearly 150 yards upstream and downstream, and much of the bottomland on the other side.

As I looked upstream, something caught my attention. I saw what resembled two deer legs about 120 yards away. I watched them stand there motionless for several moments. I had convinced myself that it was nothing more than weeds or sticks protruding up from the sand bar, and I was just about to make my way home. But then I saw the telltale flicker from the top of those “sticks”, and I knew I was looking at a real live whitetail. I still didn’t understand why a deer would be standing in the open like that for so long. Then he turned slightly and I could see antlers. I’ve witnessed bucks do strange things during the rut before, and I just figured he was on a date with a doe. Any second, I assumed, she would run up out of the creek bed and the chase would be on. But instead the buck turned broadside and I could see that he was head-to-head with another buck. I immediately realized they weren’t fighting, which must mean they’re exhausted, which must mean they’re locked together!

I left that vantage point to take a closer look. Using the terrain, I dropped into a drainage that entered the creek 70 yards from the deer. As I peeked around the bank, I realized I hadn’t been seeing things. Standing before me were two mature bucks, nearly motionless. I used the drainage to slip away undetected, and I ran toward Darren’s stand as fast as I could. As I crest the hill, I quickly realized two things; first, I was a lot more out of shape than I thought, and second, Darren was no longer in his stand! He had already left and gone home. Exhausted, I made my way home, phoned Darren and told him to get to my house post-haste. I then called my wife (on her way to work) and briefly explained the situation to her. She told me to call her as soon as possible to give her more details.

Darren arrived within minutes. I grabbed my video camera and a hacksaw and headed out the door. I explained everything to him as we hurried back to the deer. As we got to within 40 yards of the bucks, we positioned Darren in the weeds on the bank where he had a good vantage point for video. With bow in hand, I went out into the field and approached the deer at a right angle to the creek. I used the gusty winds and a big tree to conceal my approach. I sneaked to within 20 yards, and watched in amazement as the two bucks stood there helpless. Still unsure of what to do, I thought things over. The two of us wrestling in the creek with 500 lbs. of wild whitetail didn’t seem like such a good idea. It was impossible to predict what the outcome of that would have been. Both bucks could have drown in the creek and it would have been a huge risk to us as well. As I watched the bucks turn, I recognized one of them as being the buck in the video I had shown Darren earlier in the morning. I decided it was best, and safest, to shoot one of them. I settled on taking the one from the video. The other buck looked to have a nicer rack, with better mass and sweeping main beams. I knew we were going to have to sacrifice one life in order to save another. I waited as they turned, offering a perfect quartering away shot, and placed an arrow through his heart.

As he expired, I met back up with Darren to figure out what our next move was going to be. Originally I had planned to cross the creek and use the hacksaw to cut a tine from the live buck, freeing him. But by now the buck realized two humans were present, and he was thrashing wildly to get away. Darren convinced me that it was going to take both of us to do the job, but knowing how rare this situation was, I didn’t want to loose any video. He suggested that he go home (just down the road) and get his daughter Jessica to run the video camera. He would also bring a rope and a better saw. It was a plan.

I sat alone on the bank watching the deer on the screen of my camcorder. I wondered how long they had been locked together. I knew I would never get an answer to that question, but I guessed it could have been as long as 24 hours. Every inch of that sand bar was covered with tracks. As I sat waiting I decided it would be best to remove an entire antler from the live buck. I hoped this would discourage anyone from shooting him, and he would be easily recognizable if we saw him again. It seemed like an eternity since Darren had left, and now the buck began dragging and twisting the body of his rival into the creek. He became very twisted up with the dead deer, and now he was standing in several inches of water. The weight of the dead buck, coupled with complete exhaustion, made it difficult for him to keep his nose out of the water. I knew deer breathe through their nose and not their mouth, and this was now my main concern. He would raise his head up just long enough to get a breath, and then the tip of his nose would dip into the water again. This went on for several minutes, and his nose was getting deeper and deeper. But then, fortunately, he turned and struggled back on to higher ground.

Just then Darren returned with Jessica and his son Tyler. After giving Jessica a quick lesson on operating the camera, we crossed the creek downstream with a good saw and rope. We had planned on using the rope to hog-tie the legs of the buck for our safety. We approached the bucks from on top of the bank, and when we got to them the live one was worn out and lying on his belly. “This is good,” I thought, so I approached him slowly. But as you might imagine, he didn’t much care for someone walking up to him. He thrashed away from me violently, and he was quickly in water over two feet deep. Thinking quickly, Darren took the rope and lassoed the tangled antlers with one throw, like a cowboy on the professional rodeo circuit! I was relieved to see the slack in the rope tighten as he pulled. I rushed out to grab the antlers, and Darren followed. Things quieted down, and the buck was standing before us. It was then that it hit me that we were standing in the creek holding on to a mature living whitetail. He was standing calm now, and instead of trying to get him to the bank and tying his legs I decided to cut the antler right there. He stood relatively calm for us as I sawed. I finally broke through, and he was free. He took a couple slow steps backward and slowly shook his head. His head was tilted slightly, as the crown he had worn for months was now lop-sided. He then walked upstream a few yards and attempted to climb a very steep part of the bank. But his troubles weren’t over yet, as his front leg got caught up in a tree root protruding from the bank. We stood motionless, trying not to spook him, hoping he would not break his leg. He got free, came back down into the creek, walked upstream and up another rather steep part of the bank. Finally, he had gotten away.

As the whole ordeal ended I reflected back on what an unbelievable set of circumstances took place in order for this to happen. First, it had to be on a Saturday or Sunday so I wasn’t at work. Second, I had to hunt that stand. Third, Darren had to hunt his stand. Fourth, Darren didn’t bring his two way radio, so there was no way I could know if he was still in his stand, forcing me to take the alternate route home. Fifth, the only reason I was leaving early was because of the garage door guy (who, incidentally, was late). And sixth, I don’t think I would have concentrated so much attention upstream if it had not been for the blue heron. Also, if the bucks had been just a few yards further upstream (as they were when Darren and I got back to them) they would have likely been out of view. Between Darren, Jessica, and myself we recorded about 45 minutes of video on tape.

As the days passed the story traveled rather quickly. Looking back on it, I am certain we did the best we could with what we had. But I have had many people ask me “why didn’t you just shoot the other buck”? That thought never crossed either of our minds. Darren had a legal tag, and we certainly could have done that. But we would have saved both those bucks if we could have. I took no joy in shooting that helpless deer. Mentally it was the hardest shot I have ever taken.

Every buck harvested has a story behind it, and I have vivid memories of all of mine. This buck has a more interesting story than most, but it was certainly less than fair chase. Luck. Fate. I don’t know. The mounted head of this buck will be displayed in my home next to several others, with the sawn off antler of his rival nearby. But I will never be able to take any pride in the way his life ended. I will, however, always have great pride… in the one that got away.

FYI- The buck I killed dressed at 201 lbs. and had 12 scorable points. He was a basic 5X5 with an extra point on each brow tine. He also had several short stickers on each base. The other buck was a real nice 8-point with good mass. The sawn off antler scored 65 5/8 inches. The other antler was very symmetrical, so with a modest spread of 15 inches he would have grossed 146 2/8.

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