Every close encounter with a big buck is met with a series of emotions.
There is the initial thrill of just seeing them. The shaking that ensues before we try to talk ourselves into calming down to take advantage of an opportunity if it comes our way.
We can do everything right, but an animal that is so in tune with its surroundings and how to survive still has to slip up. For me, that means coming within 30 yards for a shot with my bow. That's a narrow window that they often don't enter. That's when the disappointment slips in.
I got into the stand on Dec. 16 at about 1:30 in the afternoon. We are often told we need two ingredients to see big bucks at this time of year - a good food source and extreme cold.
I had neither on this hunt. Temperatures sat in the mid-30s and all of the agriculture fields on the land I hunt have been plowed under. The best food source was on the neighboring property where there is still a good amount of corn on the ground after harvest.
That was part of the reason I remained optimistic about this stand. I also had not hunted this area in more than a month. That low pressure left me believing that there would at least be does moving in the area. Where there are does, anything can happen.
It was less than two hours into my sit when I heard a branch crack to the right. I looked through the brush to see a small tree moving back and forth about 50 yards to the east. It was obviously a buck, but how big?
He finally put his head up to reveal himself. Right away, I knew he was a deer that I would love to take if given the chance. I watched. Waited. He showed no interest in coming my way, so I let out two bleats on my doe-in-estrus can. The cover was thick enough that I would often lose sight of him only to see a glimpse for a brief moment.
This went on for about half an hour before a group of does came down my trail. I went into this hunt thinking I would shoot a doe if given the chance, but that wasn't happening now.
The lead doe came into my shooting lane. The wind was out of the northeast, good for a shot opportunity but potentially problematic should they keep following the ridge behind me.
Four does were right in front of me when the first one got downwind. She didn't spook initially, but she knew something wasn't right. She turned around, walked back down the trail and trotted back from where she came from, taking the other four with her.
The buck threw his head up when they moved through, but didn't spook. My only hope to bring him my way was to convince him that those does had been pushed off by another deer. I got out my estrus can and let out two calls again. He put his head up but disappeared in the brush.
Ten minutes passed. My mind was starting to accept that this probably wouldn't happen when I caught a glimpse of movement to my right. It was him, and he was coming.
The buck was moving slowly, looking for that doe. He reached a point where he could go left and follow the trail in front of me or drop down the ridge about 15 yards. That route offered more protection, so that was his choice.
I searched the area in front of me and found an opening about the size of a basketball. His path would take him through there at about 30 yards. The buck stopped behind a tree. I drew my Hoyt and centered the pin on that opening. Two more steps.
At this point, my mind is racing. Do I stop him when he walks through? I just couldn't do it. All of me wanted to release an arrow, but it would not have been smart. Everything would have had to go perfect for the arrow to clear all of the tiny branches to make a quick kill.
That is the third buck that I have just missed on this season. One I made a bad shot on. Two others I was drawn on but couldn't release an arrow.
That is absolutely frustrating in the moment. I sat and watched that buck for another 15 minutes on Saturday before he walked out of sight.
How could this happen again? That is the initial reaction. Hours pass, though, and that frustration turns into appreciation.
Every close encounter with a big buck is a learning lesson. I hunted for three seasons trying to figure out how deer move on this land. I watched, learned, tweaked stands in the off-season, and I am continuing to close the gap. I have had more close calls this season than in the previous three years combined.
This won't be the last mature buck to get off that trail to stick to thicker cover, especially when investigating a call. I'll be in there in January to clear a shooting lane.
This season will likely go down as the year of missed chances for me, but one of the most memorable I have ever had because I learned a lot.
Eventually, that will pay off. Maybe next year.