Any hunter who buys deer licenses in two states and does not have a buck tag left in their pocket on Nov. 15 has probably had quite a season.
That’s the position I am in right now, and I have had a good season. The last three weeks of hunting between North Dakota and Minnesota have been filled with everything I love about chasing whitetails -- time with great friends and family, highs and lows in the tree and ultimately two good bucks I was happy to put my tags on.
That should make for a perfect ending to the story, but hunting isn’t always perfect. I was reminded of it again after having to make a tough decision on a deer I shot last Friday.
I set out this fall with the primary goal of getting my shot back in the bow stand, and that’s why a buck I killed during a hunt on Nov. 4 in North Dakota was so rewarding. I was able to talk myself through a controlled shot process.
I went into a piece of woods off the Red River for an evening sit in my saddle and had to read sign to figure out how to set up. Two fresh rubs off a main trail in thick cover helped me make my decision.
Almost an hour after getting settled, a buck followed the script. The nine-pointer raked a tree for about five minutes and then presented the perfect shot at 25 yards.
I settled in, buried the pin behind his shoulder and released a controlled arrow. The shot hit the top of the heart and both lungs -- exactly the kind of quick, clean kill we want to see as archers.
That sent me back to Minnesota with a little more confidence, but bow hunting is a shot-to-shot thing. You’re only as good as your next arrow, and my next arrow missed its mark on a good buck that rushed in behind a doe and fawn on Nov. 7.
That was the turning point in me deciding to buy a firearms license heading into the second weekend. It has been almost 10 years since I had gun hunted, but everything I love about bow hunting -- the scouting, the up-close encounters -- could still come into play with a shotgun in my hands.
With the decision made, I climbed into my Millennium hang-on stand overlooking a creek bottom on Nov. 15. My father-in-law, Mike Schaffran, was hunting near me that night in a box blind on another ridge about 200 yards away.
It was an hour into the hunt when the boom of his shotgun startled me to attention. The woods erupted with moving feet. Turkeys were running my direction, and my head was on a swivel for any signs of a deer.
I then noticed a good buck moving up the ridge. He was traveling slower. Not fast at all like I would expect from a deer that was just shot at. Mike has a pretty good history of making his shots count, so my initial thoughts were that this deer was hit.
That made my decision of whether or not I would shoot an easy one if given the chance. Sure enough, the buck stopped behind me through an opening. I squeezed the trigger and watched as the deer hunched and ran off.
I knew right away it was a good hit. He trotted just out of sight when I heard the crash of breaking branches that indicated it was over.
Mike got to my stand at about 4 p.m., and we made the short tracking job before finding the buck. To our surprise, the deer had been shot before, but not by Mike. The bullet hole near his spine was already infected, likely hit sometime on opening weekend.
I have never shot a previously-wounded deer and did not anticipate what was coming next. After tagging and registering the buck, my dad and I started butchering him ourselves on Saturday.
I knew we would lose some of the backstraps from around the wound, but I was shocked to see the extent of the damage when we got the deer’s hide off. The infection had spread through much of his body. Yellow, green and purple coloration ran from his front shoulders to the end of his backstraps. The only area on the deer that still looked edible was the hindquarters.
I had come to grips with only getting that meat off this animal, but the more I talked to people, the more they warned me about even eating meat that might appear good. If the infection had reached the bloodstream, it could still be contaminated.
My dad and I reached out to everyone we could think of -- experienced hunters, a local veterinarian, a doctor and a friend of mine who is a food scientist. I was searching for anyone to tell me not to worry about it. Instead, I got reactions ranging from “I would not eat it” to “you can eat it as long as you cook the meat well done” to uncertainty.
My wife loves venison, but she was apprehensive about taking any chances. We talked about it at length on Sunday night. Ultimately, I decided not to keep any of the meat. It’s a decision I will second guess for a long time.
I love deer hunting because of everything that it entails. The adventure starts with scouting through the offseason. It culminates when things finally come together for a shot, and it continues every time I prepare a meal for our family from that animal.
Part of me feels like I did not do good by this buck for not at least trying the meat. I just did not want to put our family at risk or for anyone to have a negative experience with venison that might affect how much we enjoy it in the future.
In the end, I have to accept that the best way to honor this deer was by putting him down and relieving him of any more suffering. It’s certainly not how I wanted my Minnesota buck season to end, but it’s another lesson I’ll take from a hunt I won’t forget.