Hunt long enough and you’ll make some mistakes. Hunt as long as I have and you’ll make a whole bunch of mistakes, some dumber than others. But, regardless of how dumb the mistakes are, they are almost always lessons built in. Here are a few of my past hunting screw-ups.
It had been a long week, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. I was hunting an area I’d never been to that’s likely to have a fair amount of hunting pressure. I planned my arrival for when I figured bucks would be locking down tight with hot does. After fruitless efforts, I had decided to sit in my truck a bit, eat my lunch, read a chapter or two of a book, and simply enjoy the lack of digital disruptions.
At that minute, things got interesting.
I was halfway through a ham and swiss when I looked up and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Standing right there, halfway down the hill in front of me was a buck. And a pretty good one by the looks of it. He was staring intently at something. Then, I saw the second buck, a really good one. I grabbed my bow, binoculars, and a grunt call and headed toward them as soon as they dipped out of sight.
I was hunting an elevated pasture with a heavily-used cattle path and a 10-foot strip of thick, nasty brush that separated the pasture ground from the CRP-like cover that the bucks were in. I had figured they were looking for a doe that was laid up in that grass, and, long story short, that’s exactly what they were doing because I ran smack into her as I was making my way around the pasture. When she spotted me at about 10 yards, she turned inside out and hauled off for the next county. It was perfect. The bucks knew the doe was around but had no idea she’d just left. They were going to continue the search.
For the next hour, I chased the biggest buck back and forth across that wretched strip of dense brush. I had him at about 30 yards two separate times, but he was on the opposite side of the brush from me. I couldn’t get a shot.
And finally, it all came together. The buck was frantically searching for the doe, had hit her trail, and was marching right to me. I hopped across the strip of brush, came to full draw, and waited for him to appear, which he did—on the other damn side of the brush. By the time I realized he had crossed over again, he was about 12 steps out and coming fast. At a distance of about four yards, he finally caught my scent and saw me. When he spun to bail, the dirt from his hooves actually hit me in the face. \
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The lesson? If I had simply taken an extra 10 seconds or so to stop and prepare myself to have an opening to shoot either side of the brush row, I’d have likely killed that buck. Consider every shooting lane, every option, because you’ll never know what a buck is going to do at the moment.
Back in the day, Southern Iowa was a pretty special place. It was easily the best public ground hunting I’d ever seen, and I simply could not wait to get back to it. I’d waited four years to get back to this specific spot after four years of dreaming, scheming, planning, and plotting—and it didn’t disappoint. I saw a ton of good bucks that were hard after it, searching for does, responding to calls, and doing all the things you expect in November.
There was one area I wanted to explore, but it would require a long hike up and over a number of ridges, traversing a fairly significant drainage system that could be full of water. I loaded up on food and water and decided to dedicate the day to it. After a lengthy hike, it was everything I’d thought it might be.
I had just settled in when I heard the deep, guttural sound of a buck grunt. It was game time.
I grabbed my grunt call, fired back an answer, and scrambled to get everything set up. In less than 30 seconds, I could hear the buck on a steady walk in the leaves. He was coming.
I reached for my release in my pack, and that’s when I remembered—it wasn’t there. I had taken a couple of practice shots the night before and left the release in my bow case, where I reasoned, I surely wouldn’t forget it.
The buck was closing fast, and I knew I was stuck. I tried to draw and aim the bow using just my fingers as I had when I first started hunting. It was useless. There was simply no way I could do it.
The buck marched into range and passed below me at about 15 steps. It was a stud typical pushing 170 inches or so. I returned to that ridge the next day, this time with my release strapped to my wrist, and never saw another deer. The lesson? Strap your release to your bow after every use. You’ll thank me later.
I’m not a huge fan of winter, but, like most whitetail hunters, I welcome a good cold front in October or November. If it brings a little snow with it, all the better. That’s exactly what I’d gotten in South Dakota as I was returning to a public area that had treated me well in the past. About an inch of snow had fallen the day prior to my arrival and I thought little of it. I knew the temperatures were rising, and by the time I completed the drive from home, the snow would likely be mostly melted, and it was.
What I didn’t know is that the dirt roads that had seemed tame the year before would become nearly impassible paths of wet, sticky muck, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. With my truck in four-wheel drive, I could slide, crawl, and slip my way at about three miles an hour. After about four miles, I decided I’d make a mistake. I was able to turn around and begin to work my way back to a paved road. About every quarter-mile, I’d have to stop and claw the built-up mud from the wheel wells, or the tires would simply stop turning.
Two hours later, I made it back to the blacktop. With darkness coming on fast, I decided to head to camp and try again in the morning, knowing that the overnight temps would dip into freezing and the roads would be much easier to navigate. The next morning, everything went off without a hitch (aside from not seeing any deer), and I was smart enough to bail out around 11 a.m. before the midday sun turned the roads to soup again.
As I loaded my gear into the truck and prepared to depart, I noticed my tires. The caked-in mud had frozen solid overnight into concrete-like sanding blocks. As I drove the 20 miles to the hunting site from my camp location, I had essentially sandblasted my tires. The inside of each tire had steel belts showing through where the rubber had been scrubbed cleanly by the frozen mud. It was an 80-mile drive to the nearest tire shop, which I made at about 25 miles an hour.
The lesson? Take care of your gear, truck included, and it’ll take care of you. Otherwise, you have a hard road ahead of you, literally, in my case.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.