Like many of you I have read more than my share of stories about hunters identifying and pursuing a specific whitetail over the course of a season. In some cases the chase lasts for multiple seasons. For me, I guess you could say I am more of an “opportunistic” hunter. What I mean is I usually try to hunt where I feel I have the greatest chance of seeing deer. If a big boy does walk by then great, but I have never really tried to zone in on a single deer with the intention of putting a tag on it.
This changed for me during the 2012 season. Actually this happened by accident and I really didn’t realize it until I was consumed with my attempts to arrow this particular whitetail. Now what may strike some as odd is I am talking about my pursuit of a cagey, wise, and mature whitetail doe. This old girl would teach me a lot over the course of the season. I learned volumes about the behavior of whitetails under pressure, but I learned something else as well. Something of a more personal nature.
My addiction to this particular doe started back in June of 2012 as I began scouting for whitetail activity on a local Wild Life Management Area in North Georgia. This particular WMA was rather small and “Bow Only” throughout the season. These deer received a lot of pressure due to the length of the season, which ran from early September to January 1. To further complicate matters, several hunting clubs bordered the property which had the deer completely spooked by the end of the season. I captured numerous photos of her over the next several months. She was always alone and what first caught my attention was that she noticed the camera immediately the first time she passed by it. On more than one occasion she was looking at the camera when it triggered. She always came from the same direction and within an hour of the same time, but on different days of the week. She was using a section of young pines for cover, all too small for a deer stand but perfect for a ground blind here and there. With a little work, I figured this would be a piece of cake so long as I played the wind and made the most of the thick cover available.
As the season got underway, I waited for the perfect wind, eased into one of my natural blinds and waited. As I sat there, I remember thinking it would only be a matter of time before I had venison for the freezer. By this time I had captured so many photos of my quarry I felt I knew her intimately, and was confident in my potential harvest, too confident as it would turn out. I never heard her in the thick cover of pine needles, but the loud blast I heard as she blew at me a few yards away told me I had been outsmarted. I turned my head just in time to see a lone, mature doe retreating to parts unknown. Somehow she knew I was there and I felt I’d done everything correctly.
I did not hunt that area again for several days. I knew I had been busted and was trying to figure out what I’d done wrong, and at the same time, what I could do differently. I did hunt different sections of that WMA and on a couple occasions spent an hour or so at mid-day to scout the area. I even placed a couple of cameras at heavily used trails for a few days to make sure she was still using the area. I finally found another spot I thought might prove productive. I located a trail I was sure she was using to enter the pines and figured if I set up between my original spot and this entrance, I could catch her right at first light. Due to the path she was taking, it would be harder for her to circle behind me without leaving the security of the pines. Again, I waited for the right wind and as I sat there early one morning, I caught movement of a lone doe making her way through the trees about 40 yards away. I tried this spot again 3 or 4 times and if I saw her at all it was on a different trail, 40 yards away, moving through cover so thick a shot would have been impossible. It was time for a new strategy.
Flash forward to later in the season, the rut had pretty much passed and I had returned to the area for my doe. After checking cameras and scratching my head, I came up with another plan. I knew she was still around and I figured I would try to use her elusiveness to my advantage. I planned to set up my hunting stool in the blind I’d originally hunted in the pines but instead of hunting there, I placed a wool pullover over the stool. I then set up where I thought she would try to elude the “fake hunter” I had created. It was my first time outside of the pines and I was worried about eluding her.. The oak and deadfall I was using for cover felt sparse as compared to the thick cover I was used to.
But as the sun peaked over the hills in front of me, I had a feeling today would be the day. I watched for movement in the pines while checking the escape route I expected her to use with my peripherals. Suddenly, I spotted movement near my decoy. I lost her for several minutes and began to question whether or not my faux hunter would be enough to turn her from her course, but she reemerged seconds later, heading cautiously down the trail. If she continued on in this direction I would have a 10-yard chip shot while perfectly concealed behind a tree. There I stood fingers on the string of my longbow, muscles tense, my heart racing. I realized I was holding my breath and strangling my bow, so I did my best to control my breathing and relax. Just two more steps and I will have a clear lane to her vitals. Then, without reason, she locks up. I can see her nose, ears, and eyes. She knows something is not right. I kept thinking, “just a couple more steps”, but it wasn’t meant to be. After a grueling 30-45 seconds, she slowly turned and made her way back to the pines. I slowly sat back down; dejected, bewildered, and amazed. I tried to find a reason for what had happened, but nothing came to mind. It was the perfect setup, but she had just bested me yet again. I began to admire this old girl. I was giving it my all, but to no avail. She had my number and I was running out of ideas, but as I sat there reflecting I get the feeling I am being watched. I look to my left and there, in the pines at 15 yards is my nemesis. She has circled around and walked back to the edge of the one spot that my current position affords no cover. She didn’t even bother blowing; she just turned and pranced away. It was a brutal slap to my ego. I left the woods that day ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat. A month passed before I would try again, but during this time a plan began to form.
The pines I was trying to hunt form a large triangle, the doe was entering at the widest point early most mornings, by working her way through the pines she would then cross a county road at the narrowest point. Once she crossed the road she was on private land, an area that was part of a hunting lease, but over the course of the season I had yet to see a single hunter on it. I had to have a westerly wind to execute my last ditch plan for success. It would come on the next to the last day of the 2012 season. The plan was fairly simple. I would give her no other option than to escape the cover of the pines using the same escape route as before, and hope she would stop long enough to give me a shot. I had used the method I was about to try before, but never to this extent.
I arrived at my parking spot an hour earlier than normal for my last attempt. Partially because I had decided to use a climbing stand, second because I had prep work to do. I eased out of my truck with a zip-loc bag containing six pairs of socks I had worn to work the previous week. I started about 100 yards from the point where I knew she crossed the road and placed a sock 3 feet off the ground every 10 yards or so till I was near where she entered the pines. I then went back to my truck, washed my hands, collected my gear and headed the long way around the pines to the tree I planned to hunt.
As I sat there in my stand, my confidence was pretty high considering how my efforts had been rewarded thus far. I scanned the pines almost constantly just knowing at any moment I would see a glimpse of her moving through the pines. Then as if on cue, there she was, heading towards me as if on a string. If she stayed on her current path, I would have multiple shot opportunities. The culmination of 6 months of pursuit came down to the next few minutes. She continued forward steadily, nose down, ears fixed forward. You could tell she felt danger was behind her and she was really only concerned with putting distance between herself and what she deemed a threat. (My wife would not disagree bless her soul. She washes those socks every week.) She approached the first shooting lane and my bow was ready, I was watching her and applied tension to the string, but chose not to draw. She continued on and came into the second lane, 12 yards away, and paused. She looked at her back trail and stopped. My string arm came slowly back as I stared intently at a tuft of hair behind her shoulder. I felt my finger touch the corner of my mouth. The fletching on my arrow lightly touched the tip of my nose through the mesh of my facemask. This was it, she was mine.
It is amazing how many thoughts can speed through your mind in less than an instant. I thought about all the close calls throughout the season; how I’d been schooled by this wise old girl; and the multiple images I had captured on my cameras as she made her daily routine. Then the questions: “Was I going too far with my trickery to force her to my shooting lane?”;“Why had I chosen to hunt from a tree stand instead of head on at ground level?” I thought about the other deer I had already harvested, a freezer packed with venison that would last me through the offseason. Then, from out of nowhere, a voice inside me asked, “is this simply for your ego?” As she took a step forward, I realized I had lowered my draw. And as she stepped into the third and final shooting lane, still only 15 yards away, I smiled and in a silent whisper heard only by myself said, “see you next fall.”
I watched her make her way across the hardwoods till she disappeared. I sat there for awhile thinking about the season, it had been one I would remember for a long time. I had learned a lot from this doe, lessons that would hopefully pay off in seven months when the ritual would begin again. Later that night I was telling my wife (who doesn’t hunt) the whole story, and as I got to the end she looked at me in a puzzled manner and asked, “Why would you put yourself through all of that and not take advantage of the situation?” I thought for a moment, struggling to provide a meaningful answer. Finally I responded, “Only a hunter would understand.”
May all your arrows find their mark.
This article originally appeared in Stick and String Magazine – Spring Edition 2013.