Updated: Apr 5
Let’s set the stage. It’s November 5th, 2016 on a hunting farm in Greenup County, Ky. My cousin, Zack Reed and I are getting in the woods for one last weekend with our bows before gun season comes in the following weekend. As we like to call it, it’s one last chance to get in the woods while the rut is kicking in before the Orange Army lights up the woods and all the mature bucks feel pressure and typically disappear. Zack hunted a hang on stand in between a bedding area cedar thicket and a pond over on the neighboring ridge. For that morning, I decided to stay towards the front side of the property and hunt a pipeline that deer like to travel on their way to bedding.
To give you a better layout of the property we are on, we used to park at a small cemetery where the farmer would store his hay in a big blue barn. From there we’d walk through 3 small patches of woods that were probably about 200 yards worth of walking and we’d cut across a gas line pipeline before entering into the next section of woods. After the last pipeline, you’d reach the hill where the property owner had everything clear cut a few years prior (so everything was super thick and really good for bedding). From there, if you walked up a loggin’ road to the top of the ridge the woods opened up perfectly, or if you walked around the ridge you could cut up the holler and cross over onto the other hillside, that’s where Zack headed. So you’re looking at a woodlot, pipeline, woodlot, pipeline, woodlot, pipeline, hillside straight up, or holler and other hillside to the left.
I remember the morning being really cold and calm, and adding that bucks were up and cruising around starting to look for does, had us both really excited that the deer would be up and moving; and man were we right. Right after daylight I had a small herd of about 4-5 does come in behind me that browsed around and made their way slightly downwind of me and sure enough, I got busted. This wasn’t one of the times where you get winded, the does blow 1 or 2 times and disappear into the thick stuff. These does were definitely out to ruin my entire hunt. They blew, and blew, and blew, and blew so much that I texted Zack and said, “Well, my hunt is busted.” Of course, I remember him sending me text back to tell me that I must have a stinking rear end (I cleaned that up a bit) and that’s why all the does kept blowing at me.
About 20 minutes after those does finally decide to leave me be and I was sure my hunt was over, I had something catch my attention from my left. Have you ever had one of those “oh crap” moments in the woods? The moments where when you absolutely least expect to see something, you look up and say “oh crap.” Well, safe to say that after the morning I had, this was one of these moments. About 40 yards in front of me and to my left stood a very mature typical 8 point, who had no clue in the world that I was there. This was one of those bucks that the second you lay eyes on them, there’s no decision on whether you want to shoot or pass. This type of deer I like to call a “definite shooter” (what my dad likes to call a “SWARPER,” but that’s another story for another day).
After the dust settled from my “oh crap!” there’s a buck moment, I slowly reached for my bow from the bow hanger to my right. As the buck stepped behind a few limbs, I watched him work the heck out of a couple scrapes in the pipeline in front of me. As he finished up working the last scrape after what felt like forever, he turned to his right and was walking from left to right in front of me at what I figured to be about 30-33 yards (I knew that the start of the pipeline was about 15 yards from me and the other side of it was about 35 since the pipeline was 20 yards wide). He stepped out, I slowly drew back, setting my 30 yard pin tightly behind his front shoulder, and let my Bear Compound and Rage 2 Blade do the work.
I remember feeling really good about the shot, but knowing that it would’ve been my first buck with a bow and by far my largest buck to date, I believe my excitement got the best of me and I actually forgot to look at how the buck reacted once I let my arrow fly. First thing I did was call Zack and, in a super excited and shaky voice from the adrenaline, let him know that I just “smoked a stud.” Zack (being the voice of reason) calmly told me to be patient, wait for him to slowly make his way off the hill in my direction, and then we’d look for my arrow.
However, I let my excitement change my mind and I went ahead and got down from my stand and went to the shot sight to try and find my arrow, so I thought. Even though my arrow was nowhere to be found and we didn’t find blood right away, I still remember feeling really good about my shot. We waited about an hour and headed in the direction of the next pipeline over from me to try and find blood, which was the pipeline right up against the side of the bedding on the hillside. Once we found blood, we found what you’d call good blood, and lots of it. A great sign right? Nope, not on this hunt!
As our blood trail track got longer, the blood got thinner, and so did my confidence. If anyone has ever put a poor shot on an animal or blown a great opportunity to tag a heck of a buck, you know that feeling is the worst thing you can imagine. I would compare it to a kick in the stomach. Safe to say, it sucks. After about a 300-yard track and fewer and fewer blood, the blood trail started to go straight up a steep incline. If you know anything about tracking a whitetail, if the blood goes away and the trail takes you up a steep hill, that animal is probably not expiring anytime soon, or at all.
We took that opportunity to think about the situation and back out (after looking back now we probably should’ve sooner). I went home and that sick feeling I had in my gut continued to get worse and worse as I replayed the shot and the situation in my head. This has to be the worst feeling as a hunter. Knowing that it’s our responsibility to make an ethical and fatal shot that doesn’t require the animal to suffer, I knew that I had failed in my duty as a bowhunter. After realizing that the buck was actually at about 25 yards instead of what I assumed to be 30-33 yards, I finally concluded that my 30-yard pin led to me hitting the buck high and making it a non-fatal shot. To ease my mind and be completely sure, I went back to last blood every day for the next 3 days. Nothing. I even went back the next Friday (the evening before rifle season opened in KY) to look for buzzards circling over the dead buck. Once again, nothing. Even though that wasn’t the conclusion I wanted, the story about this buck was far from over.
As a side story, to put you back where I was in 2016, I was a new teacher in the 3rd month of my 1st year of teaching. I learned quickly that as a new teacher when someone asks you to do something, if you want your job, you say yes. With that principle in place, I became the middle school boys and girls head basketball coach at my school. I was also the idiot that scheduled a basketball game in the evening on the first day of gun season. What the heck was I thinking? Lesson learned.
Fast forward to exactly 1 week after my first encounter with the big mature 8 point, and it’s the opening morning of gun season in Kentucky. Bring on the orange army! Zack and I were back in the woods again for that morning hunt. If I remember right, it was windy and we might have seen a random doe or two throughout the morning, but no shooter bucks were seen. As we made our way out of the woods around 11 in the morning to get some lunch, I had to rush to my vehicle to get to my basketball game in Paintsville, KY (about a two-hour drive from where I was hunting). So due to my poor scheduling, after lunch I headed 2 hours in the other direction, while Zack and my uncle Kevin (his dad) headed back into the woods.
Our game ended around 3:30pm and I got back to our school bus to check my phone. The first thing I saw was a text from Zack that read “BIG BUCK DOWN.” Instantly, I was absolutely jacked. I’m one of those hunters that I almost get more excited to see someone close to me kill one than when I punch a tag myself. We hopped on the bus and headed back to our school. From there, I raced back to Greenup County to get in on the action of tracking, dragging, and hauling it out of there. To hear Zack tell the story, shortly after settling into the same stand he was hunting the previous Saturday morning, which was actually only about 100 yards from where we found last blood, he heard something running through the woods and heard a grunt. If you’re whitetail hunting in November around my neck of the woods and hear the commotion of a buck chasing a doe along with a grunt, it sounds like cows coming through the woods. That’s when you know it’s on! A buck came in fast trailing a hot doe and Zack smoked him with his lever action 30-30 Marlin.
Once I made it back into town, Zack and Kevin had already dragged the buck out of the holler and had it in the truck and were heading back towards our house. I remember waiting impatiently to take a look at the deer he had killed because the only information he’d shared so far was “Big Buck Down!” As excited as I was to see someone put down a big mature whitetail, the anticipation was rough. The next part of this story is where that same feeling I had a week earlier of being kicked in the stomach, soon resurfaced. They pulled into the driveway, I came out to the truck and dropped the tailgate. Zack laughed and said, “You’re never going to believe this, take a good look at this buck.”
I saw a heck of a deer with really tall tines, 1 and a half ears (must’ve lost a chunk from fighting), a huge body, and (you guessed it) a big hole in it’s back that was about the size of a Rage 2 blade broadhead. Coincidence, nope. Even though I was super excited for Zack and the buck tag he had just punched, I was holding the antlers and admiring a buck that had given me a great opportunity just one week before that. Talk about a kick in the gut!
To this day, the running joke between all of our family’s hunters and hunting buddies is I actually shot the buck and now take credit for the deer, all Zack did was finish him off for me. As you would assume that he would, Zack tells the story just a tad bit differently. After all, the tall and mature “SWARPER” is now on the wall in his living room instead of mine. What makes it even better is that each time I come over to visit, the first thing I see walking up the stairs from his garage is the shoulder mount of “The One That Got Away.”
The moral of the story is that if you hunt long enough, unfortunately, things happen. Even though it’d be great if we did, you're not going to have an opportunity every time you step in the woods. You’re also not going to make that SMOKED EM shot every time you let an arrow fly. Here’s some things to consider that I did wrong that might have changed who’s wall that buck calls home.
1. Don’t get caught not paying attention or caught off guard when you get an opportunity. Especially in the rut, anything can happen at any time.
2. You should always be sure of your yardage. Purchase a rangefinder and range everything out while you have down time in your hunting spot. Lord knows that you’ll have plenty of down time while you wait for some action.
3. Control your excitement. After you pull the trigger, pay attention to what happens next. You may be able to gather information that will help you with the track and recovery. What direction did the deer run? How did it react? How was my shot placement?
4. If you’re unsure about your shot or the blood trail isn’t consistent, you should back out. Most of the time, even when you make a decent but not great shot, you just need to give the animal time to expire. The last thing you want is to bump a wounded animal out of their bed. Trust me, I’ve done that too. When in doubt, back out.
As outdoorsmen, we should always celebrate every opportunity we have to enjoy God’s creation. Even though I got the short end of the stick with this story, my cousin still killed one heck of a deer and our family created a memory in the outdoors. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway? Now each time we spend a weekend at our family hunting camp, this story gets told. Sometimes multiple times. I still make my claim that it’s really my deer, but no one’s seem to buy that yet. Maybe one day. Lucky for me, this past bow season Zack missed an absolute stud of a buck with my crossbow, which obviously from now on gives me a great comeback anytime this story gets brought up.
Due to my mistakes and a little bit of bad luck, that buck will always be “The One That Got Away.”