If you've missed part one and two of this trilogy, they can be found here and here respectively.
I believe I left off in Part 2 with the bizarre phenomena of actually seeing deer.
For some reason, last Thursday, I decided to punish my back thoroughly by climbing into my stand almost an hour early. The weather was far from perfect for hunting...High pressure, full moon, and a wind that made picking a tree next to impossible. To add, it was surface-of-the-sun hot again. I really didn't feel like spreading my scent all over creation and sweating anymore than I already was, so I just climbed the tree. This was a new spot I'd picked out along a rub line and I took a few pictures of the surrounding area.
I sat there in disbelief for a moment. She wasn't spooked by any means. She was just simply trotting by. All of this, of course, was fine and dandy aside from one important detail: My bow was still resting on the ground below me. I didn't even have a chance to pull it up before she stepped out.
I wasn't too put off by this. After all, she stepped out well outside of bow range. However, any prior thought of reading was immediately snuffed. I never even considered opening the book the rest of the hunt.
Over the next three hours, rather than read, I resorted to my tried and proven method of attracting deer: Falling asleep. Many people are unaware that there a multiple ways to fall asleep in the stand. There's the classic chin-on-chest sound asleep method...The thirty-second-blink method...The outright coma method (my personal favorite)...And the 'bob your head like you're trying to stay awake in class' method. I chose the latter of these techniques this particular afternoon and, as expected, I started seeing deer.
I was rather impressed with myself for even spotting out the deer without binoculars. It stepped out at about 120 yards and I only saw a quick flash of movement. I slowly stood up, and waited. 10 minutes later, the deer re-emerged about 60 yards away. I could tell immediately that it was a buck. He skirted around my tree, just outside of bow range. I quietly turned on my helmet camera, and patiently waited for a chance. He then stopped, turned around, and went back the way he came, disappearing behind some brush as he did so.
I quietly prayed that he wasn't gone forever. And after what felt like an hour (even though it was less than 30 seconds) he came out from behind the brush and into shooting range. The process of me drawing my bow and settling my sights on his chest took only a second, but in that brief moment, I still had time to think about everything. I noticed my heart pounding in my ears, but my hands and legs were still steady. I could hear the buck's footsteps crunching in the grass below. I was even aware of the mosquito draining every last drop of blood from the knuckle of my clenched left hand. And in that moment, I realized that my past eleven years of hunting experience had boiled down to this one second...
That's right. Up until this moment, I had never harvested a buck. Be it with gun or bow, I had never even had the opportunity over the past eleven years to draw on a buck, much less take one. This isn't to say that I haven't seen bucks during my hunting career. But due to rules, seasons, you name it, the chance had never presented itself this clearly. I can remember sitting in my tree stand on Eglin Air Force Base while in High School, and watching the -same- three bucks, multiple times, walk by JUST out of bow range. I can remember settling the scope of my 30-06 on the chest of a 3 point outside of Andalusia Alabama, and letting him walk. And I especially remember nearly getting stepped on by an 8 point while walking to my stand during bow season, and still having my bow bungee'd to the stand on my back. My point is that I've come close, but never this close.
I've actually been mocked as a hunter here in Florida for -not- ever harvesting a buck after all these years. I can remember in middle school and high school as classmates would tell me about how they shot this big 6, 8, and even 11 point buck out of a shooting house on their grandpa's land or hunting club. I would tell them that I'd seen only three does all season on a particular piece of public land, and would usually get some sort of laugh out of them.
I've hunted public Wildlife Management Areas here in Florida for the entirety of my hunting career. The only exceptions being three hunts in a hunting club in Andalusia, and a bow hunt outside of Blountstown on private land. Other than that, it's all been public, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
My progression into the sport of hunting was slightly skewed when compared to my friends growing up. While they took their ATV's to the shooting house that sits over a food plot and relaxed with their rifle in their lap, my experience was...different. I started off bow hunting. The area I first hunted was walk-in access only, and I carried my stand (at age twelve) the mile and a half to a dim game trail. My dad would come along with me to make sure I got up the tree safely, and would then climb a tree of his own nearby. This continued until I was 16 and got my driver's license. I then started to venture off on my own. I began to read deer sign better and better and it wasn't long before spots that I'd picked out on my own started to produce deer...even though they were all does.
I realized soon enough just how different hunting was between my classmates and myself. Let's face it, of all the Southeastern states, Florida is the -worst- for deer hunting. Toss in hunting on public land, and the difficulty increases even more. The inability to bait, the (horribly) skewed buck to doe ratio, the running of dogs all season, and the competition between you and upwards of 500 other hunters just makes it plain hard to hunt. The bottom line is that I feel as though I had more opportunity to learn more, adapt better, and learn from my mistakes than my classmates who hunted private lands simply due to the difficulty of hunting public land. I'd tell myself every season: This is going to be the year. This is the year I'll take a buck. But the mythical antlered creature eluded me year after year.
All of these things flashed through the back of my mind as I settled the little red pin of my sights on the buck's shoulder. And after eleven years of trial and error, blood, sweat, (and yes) tears, I finally let loose my arrow.
Please don't watch the following video if seeing an animal get shot upsets/disturbs you. My apologies for the poor camera skills...I can only do so much at once :)
My arrow found its mark, and my first buck was there on the ground, just 40 yards away. The shot was placed just between the top of the shoulder and the spine, angled downward.
I would have leaped with joy had I not been in so much shock. I quietly sat down after a moment, and let the near seizure-like adrenaline shakes take over my body. I must have quivered like a leaf for a good five minutes. Once on the ground, and sure the deer was dead, I called my closest friends and family members to let them know what had just happened.
He certainly didn't have the biggest rack. But the little six point was a giant in my eyes and represented everything I'd worked for over the years.
I quickly began to cut up a branch and fashion a carrying handle out of it. I secured it in the buck's back legs and started to drag it. *Crack*. My carrying handle instantly snapped in two. The deer was too heavy for the branch. I gave up on the idea of a carrying handle, and just resorted to dragging by the antlers. It was then that I realized the daunting task that lay ahead of me. Not only was I well over a mile from the Jeep, I had to trudge back through the swamp again...at night.
The combination of dragging the deer and carrying my bow and climber nearly killed me. Each cypress knee felt like a mountain when I started to drag the deer over it. After just a few hundred yards, I was forced to field dress the deer just to help cut weight.
By now I had reached the edge of Lake Lochloosa and I had to take a break or I'd keel over. As I sat there, with my head light off (to save batteries), something caught my eye out on the lake. I stumbled out into the waist high grass that borders the lake, and looked out.
The full moon was just starting to rise over the lake and it cast its reflection across the mirror like water toward me. All around me were fireflies. Hundreds of fireflies. They blinked bright green on and off in the pale moonlight around the lake. Off in the distance, a Barred Owl made its call, and in the grass just a few yards ahead, a Bullfrog let out its deep croak. The whole situation was surreal. I was completely unable to capture this moment properly via video or picture. Come to think of it, words can't even really describe it. It was one of those situations that must be experienced first hand. Once it passes, that moment is gone forever, save for your own memories.
I looked at this moment as a reminder of why I hunt, why I fish, and even why I've chosen my career path. It's not about the kill, or the catch. It's about the experience. The whole thing. Every little wonderful (and sometimes horrible) aspect of the trip. It's these experiences that keep me going out in the field. And it's these same experiences that I hope future generations can have and appreciate as well.
I stood for a few minutes at the edge of that lake, and just stared. Then, turning back, I kept on with the nightmare of a task ahead of me.
Dragging that deer out of the swamp was easily one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Being over 6ft tall meant that I had to slouch over to drag the deer and slouching caused the tree stand to sit at an awkward angle while I walked. The whole thing was a nightmare, and I'm certain that my deer put on a few hundred pounds during the trip out of the woods.
You can clearly see from the graph that a deer actually gains weight exponentially over its dragging distance and nears 800lbs as it closes in on the mile mark.
In all honesty, I was having to stop and take a break/stretch my back every 50-60 yards. The drag took an eternity. I started dragging the buck at about 7:25 pm and didn't reach the Jeep until 10:20. THREE hours of dragging. I can't remember ever being that tired. Luckily, the actual process of putting the deer in the Jeep went by quickly and shortly thereafter, I was driving to a friends house to clean it.
Since neither of us had a gambrel, we used our college student ingenuity and strung the deer up on a tree using a dog leash and a keg as the counter weight. The uses of a keg are innumerable.
Harvesting my first buck was an experience of a lifetime. It's an experience I will -never- forget. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and am truly grateful for every chance I've ever gotten to spend time in the woods. Hopefully, this will be the first of many. But even if it isn't, I can safely say that I'm satisfied and even look at the woods a little differently now. If I wasn't hooked on hunting before this, I certainly am now and I'll do everything in my power to ensure I'm in the woods each and every fall.