Rut Reporter Brandon Ray is an expert on the region. Ray was born in Dallas and shot his first deer with a bow in Central Texas at the age of 15. The full-time freelance writer manages his family’s Texas Panhandle ranch, is a licensed New Mexico guide, and last year took a 184 gross P&Y non-typical trophy. States covered: TX, OK, NM.
I spent the afternoon of October 22 set up in a tripod stand near a corn feeder. It was hot, 76 degrees. That corn feeder sits near a river corridor at the bottom of a steep canyon. Wild hogs had been hitting the free feed every day, morning and afternoons, according to my long-range scouting work with the big spotting scope and the pictures on my trail camera. I knew if left unchecked, the hogs would keep the deer away.
So I settled into the stand to wait. Earlier than expected, here came five small hogs. Behind them was a big, fat black sow. When the sow presented a broadside shot at 20 steps, I punched a G5 CS Montec broadhead behind her shoulder. A good blood trail ended with the pig about 125 yards away.
I checked my watch. Still 30-40 minutes of daylight left. I could go back and sit in the tripod until dark or start the long 1 ½- mile hike up the canyon wall back to the truck. I figured I’d already boogered up my stand site enough for one afternoon, so I decided to hike out early. There was a decent chance of seeing another hog on the way out during those prime last 30 minutes of light.
I was halfway up the canyon, in a series of steep bluffs, thick cedars and giant boulders, when something out of place caught my eye. I knelt down and raised my binoculars. It was the back half of a whitetail, head in a bush, less than 50 yards away. Just as I focused my Leupold binoculars, the deer lifted its head and looked right at me. It was a wide-antlered buck! I saw big brow tines and a good spread. I figured I was busted, but then the buck put his head back down, feeding on the elbow bush. When it turned its head back to feed I saw long beams and ten points. A shooter for sure. There were literally only minutes of decent shooting light.
Quietly, I snapped an arrow out of my hip quiver and onto the bowstring. I crawled forward a few more steps, then checked the distance. The Nikon rangefinder said 36 yards to the buck. From my knees, the bowstring of my 61 pound Hoyt bow came back smooth and silent. I bracketed my 30 and 40 yards pins, then cut the shot.
Instantly, the buck whirled and ran at top speed. He ran up into rough cliffs amidst truck-sized boulders, zig-zagging through the bluffs. His tail was up and I watched him go 100 yards before he disappeared from view in dense cedars. The shot felt good, but he certainly did not act hit.
With my headlamp, I checked the location where the buck had been standing for the shot. No blood and no arrow. So I followed his escape path. Twenty yards down the trail I found a speck of blood. Thirty more yards I found a splatter of three small drops. For the next hour, slowly I scanned the rocky, sandy ground and rocks with my tiny headlamp for sign. Occasionally I followed only a splayed hoof print, but later I’d find a small drop of blood to confirm I was on the right path. The buck’s escape path paralleled a narrow seep of water running out of the canyon wall. Something I never knew existed, but probably explained why that buck was in such an unusual spot. Secret water in a drought has a way of harboring lots of game.
About 200 yards into the trail, I lost all sign. The last drop was on a well-traveled game trail with a smear of blood and two hairs on a small cedar bush at waist level. It seemed like he would have stayed on that path, side-hilling the steep canyon wall on the game trail, but there was nothing. It made no sense for me to continue looking in the dark, possibly pushing a wounded deer. I had no idea where my arrow had hit. The smart thing to do was give him time and come back in the morning light. I flagged that spot with some toilet paper and hiked out of the canyon in the pitch dark.
After a sleepless night, I returned at first light the following morning. A good friend joined me in the search. At last blood, the buck had taken an unexpected 90 degree turn, running downhill into a brushy draw, then back up a narrow trail and around a huge boulder. Behind the boulder, about 100 yards from where I quit the trail the night before, there he was. The arrow was still in him. It had entered in the right hindquarter, penetrated to the nock, with six inches of arrow and the still scary-sharp CS Montec broadhead protruding out of him mid body.
It’s worth mentioning here that the shot was obviously less than perfect. The buck was quartering away when the arrow hit. Because of the low light at the time of the shot, I’m not sure if he ducked and whirled at the sound of the bowstring causing my arrow to hit off the mark, or he was quartering more severely than I realized when I took aim. Either way, it was not the double lung shot I hoped to make. Less-than-perfect shots happen and it’s what you do after that shot that matters most.
If I don’t find a good blood trail and a dead deer in 200 yards of trailing, I back out. In my experience, a deer hit through both lungs never makes it further than 200 yards. So whenever I reach that distance, I reevaluate my next move. In this case, I believe the deer was dead within seconds of my last visual contact with him after the shot. But it was still the right move to back out and return with some tracking help in daylight, just in case.
The buck was even better than I thought. With ten symmetrical points, a 20-inch inside spread, long beams and good mass, he carries about 150 inches of antler. I guessed his live weight at 180 pounds.
Up to that point the deer hunting had been VERY slow. And that spot where I shot that buck, steep, cliffy country choked with cedars and cactus, is a place where I’ve NEVER seen a whitetail, buck or doe, in my life!
To me, the lesson here is to always stay ready. Opportunity can knock when you least expect it. The wind had been out of the northeast that night, blowing into my face as I hiked up and out of the canyon. Therefore, the buck was straight upwind of me. And I spotted him just moments before he probably heard my footsteps, giving me time to crouch and remain still. Lucky.
A less obvious lesson, I think, is that just being there, outside in deer country, has a way of presenting its own opportunities. Sometimes we think and rethink the whole is-the-wind-right, will-the-deer-be-moving-because-of-the-warm weather, which-stand-should-I-hunt, blah-blah-blah thing too much. Just go hunting! Sometimes it’s better to think less and just go because you can! Maybe you’ll get lucky, like I did, and blunder into a gorgeous 10-point buck. Or maybe you’ll see nothing. Taking chances is what makes hunting so exciting.