By Drake Smith
I became addicted to bow hunting back in 1994 when my very first bow hunt proved to be an experience I would never forget. This “moment in time” just so happened to be the closest I have ever been to an outright state of cardiac arrest. I’m talking complete meltdown leading to a sensory overload of biblical proportions. The type of physical, emotional and mental breakdowns that few people ever realize and fewer still care to discuss. This is my story…
I was born and raised in eastern Arkansas, where row crops of the Delta region reign supreme. Hunting is considered a way of life in this part of the world and I was very much a part of this fraternal order with duck hunting being the main focus of our attention. It wasn’t until I moved to the northwestern part of Arkansas (few ducks / Ozark Mountains) that I had my first experience with bow hunting. A close friend of mine and myself would often converse of chasing the elusive whitetail with generally little else actually being done on the subject.
But on November the 12th 1994 we decided to follow through on our much-anticipated activity. He borrowed a crossbow from a friend of ours (crossbows are legal in Arkansas) and I gathered my ancient compound bow that I had bought off a local renegade in my hometown for $20.00 back in 1980. I am almost certain he acquired this bow by some unjust means but he was broke and looked to be in need of another drink, so in a humanitarian display, I jumped all over what I just knew to be a great deal. The bow was old when I bought it. Now fast forward almost 15 years later and you should have a good indication of the cutting-edge technology the bow possessed. And one more thing, I had never shot the bow, much less ever hunted with it.
The first order of business in the pre-hunt preparation was to go to the local Wal-Mart and purchase a pack of three arrows and some broad heads. It never occurred to me that there were such things as “spine weights” in arrows, or that it might be a good idea to match bow poundage to arrows to the weight of the broad heads.
This most certainly would not have mattered anyway as I was sure this whole “bow hunting thing” was merely a gesture in good faith and the chance of my seeing a deer, let alone getting a shot at one was, well, some what less than zero. I, however, holding true to form, knew some practice was in order. Since I was certain no deer would be seen, it was imperative for me to have practiced so that I would not miss the unseen deer. So with a look of determination that Robin Hood himself would have envied, I set up a “Sonic” bag in a pile of dirt and gravel in the parking lot of my old office building. I had decided to sacrifice one of my three arrows to the “cause”.
Knowing the life of this practice arrow would not match the longevity of a male firefly, I silently paid tribute as I stepped off about ten yards from my paper target that had once held a chilidog and some onion rings. I drew back and “let er fly”. I never did hit the bag, although I am sure I scared it on one of the shots. The arrow broke after about three tries but since I got dang close on that one shot, I knew I was ready for action.
My partner and I had seen deer cross a creek where he and I wade-fished for smalljaws throughout the spring, summer and fall. This creek, being one of our very favorites to fish, was perched at the base of one of the large ridges for which the Ozark Mountains are famous. Said ridge sat to the North of the creek while pastureland was located to the South. As always, we crossed the creek in our vehicle thus allowing us access the base of the ridge.
Even though this was a classic case of “blind leading the blind”, our far-reaching primal instincts instructed us to do a proper scouting job prior to the big hunt. We manned our bows and proceeded to stomp thru every inch of a thicket that ran between the base of the ridge and the creek itself. My buddy generally kept a lip full of snuff and this day was no different. As we tracked noisily thru the very area we were to hunt later that afternoon, he made sure to spit every two to three feet so we could make sure any deer that wandered onto this domain would make no mistake as to who was boss of this region.
We managed to work up an incredible sweat on our query and looking back, I am sure we turned the entire landscape into what would seem like a high school locker room to the highly sensitive nose of a mature buck. Of course, that was irrelevant because after just two short hours of fighting our way through thorn and thistle we had each identified the perfect “spots” from which to ambush our non-suspecting prey. Nether of us owned a tree stand, so this task would be attempted from the ground with no cover.
After such an intense scouting session, attention to “the comfort factor” seemed as important as much as an active deer trail. I chose a most lovely spot about 20 feet up on the East side of a narrow ravine that came off the side of the ridge and emptied into the snuff drenched thicket below while my buddy went down the ridge from me about 100 yards.
My spot not only looked like a natural way game would traverse, but 20 feet or so above the base of the ridge was a phenomenon which rivaled Stonehenge itself. There, protruding out of the ground was a flat rock about half the size of a twin-sized mattress. Perfectly straight up, this “backrest from Heaven” would allow me to sit in complete stealth mode with my back to the ridge while overlooking the thick stuff below. Of course, it didn’t matter that the wind was out of the northeast that day. This would allow my scent to disperse from where I was sitting directly to where I envisioned my moss-horned buck to be standing when I let my arrow take flight.
I tried to imagine this hypothetical situation to also include the same type of shot that I had made during one of my three practice shots. You know, the one when I almost hit the Sonic bag from ten yards out.
Once situated, I realized one small problem (besides the wind blowing the wrong way). During the course of our most diligent scouting escapade, my arrow rest must have been ripped off the bows riser during one of the many tug-of war bouts I had had with those devilish briar patches. Clearly, those demonic thorns had been trying to strip me of my weapon as I bulldogged through them. They had been trying to rob me of my ultimate quest to find the best hunting spot in the area! Now I was in a fine mess.
There I was, having scouted and found the best spot with a built in easy chair and everything, and my dadgum arrow rest was gone. But wait, it was ok. I would just hold my pointer finger up a little above the grip and, presto my hand would be the rest! Now that was a close one. For a minute there I thought I wouldn’t get a deer. Never mind the fact that not even one of my three practice shots were performed without the arrow rest in place… Well, maybe that could be a good thing…. had I done the ol’ hand arrow rest method I would have hit that Sonic bag on that one shot! Boy! Everything was just falling into place perfectly.
So there I sat, butt on the ground, knees propped into the air with my bow ever so comfortably resting upon them. It turned out that not only had I noticed this “Eden” of all spots, but also I believe that I was perched under what seemed to be the Disneyland of squirrels. It seemed I was located in the middle of some squirrel convention in which the primary agenda consisted of nothing more than to run circles around my beloved easy chair rock as much and often as possible. All the while, I am jerking around on my seat in a vain attempt to interpret every scrambling sound they were making.
I am sure they all got together later that evening for a good laugh about the break-dancing hunter behind the “Stonehenge” rock holding the bow with no arrow rest! However, I was not going to let this chaos deter me from my goal. No matter how many times those “tree rats” got my nerves on fringe, I would keep my game face on and stick this thing out… Or stick it out at least until it got dark. Which, by the way, was in another hour or so.
It was about that time when I noticed another sound easing closer from behind me. This sound was kind of like what I had been hearing from my little fury pests… Only this time, it sounded, well, heavier. With my mind preoccupied with the ever growing jolts of pain coming from my derrière, I non-nonchalantly peered over my right shoulder fully expecting to find yet another small critter shuffling along. But at that instant I thought my eyes were deceiving me.
What I thought would be just another false alarm, turned out to be the biggest buck I had ever seen in the wild! At that instant I realized I was looking at a huge buck making his way down the West side of the ravine not 15 yards from me at eye level! He had come from the upper reaches of the ridge and down the trail leading directly downwind from me and into the thicket that held buckets of snuff spit. That was when time stood still…
I had heard of buck fever but never gave it much thought until that very instant. Once I realized what was going on, I experienced what can best be described as simultaneously blacking out while sensing an urgent need to vomit. I don’t exactly know what my heart rate accelerated to but I am confident it was some sort of record. The beat of my heart surged blood thru my brain with such ferocity that I am sure it sounded like jungle drums in an old Tarzan movie to anything within hearing distance. There is no way a human was designed to live thru an encounter such as this! Never mind the fact that the lower half of my body was paralyzed due to lack of circulation for the past two and a half hours. Never mind the fact that not only was my arrow rest missing, but my arrow had also worked its way up the bowstring about four inches from the original nock point. Never mind the fact I was sitting on my BUTT with my legs cocked into the air with my bow resting on them! But I had a giant buck within spitting distance from me and he didn’t even know I was there! Now What??? Oh what a cruel world!
Well, the buck slowly held its course with a posture that reminded me of a blue blooded hunting dog. Nose to the ground, his hurried pace slowed somewhat as he descended past me. Although he didn’t see me…yet, it was as if he sensed something was not right. It could have been that he felt my heart beat through the ground, or that he sensed something close to him was screaming with anxiety from within. I certainly wouldn’t rule out the jungle drums either.
Regardless, this boy was on a mission that brought him dangerously close me. The danger being that I was not sure if I was going to survive this ordeal. As he cautiously moved down the trail, I used only my eyes to watch him while simultaneously glancing at my out of position arrow that I was ever so slowly trying to ease back into position.
But as fate would have it, the buck kept moving until he reached the point where the bottom of the ridge met the thicket. This put the buck under and in front of me at a gut wrenching 17 yards. Yikes! The exact spot where, just three hours earlier, my buddy and I had stood for several minutes (ejecting several mouthfuls of snuff spit) admiring the lovely spot and acknowledging our superior scouting skills. That’s when the buck came to an abrupt halt.
Pointing like a good quail hound down wind of a covey, he gently stuck his nose forward and either got a snute full of skoal or caught my scent from above. Either way, he gave a good snort and jumped backward and away in a move that happened so quickly even Barry Sanders in his prime would have taken notes.
During this explosion, I rolled from my sitting position onto one knee, while pulling my bow back all in one motion. Surprisingly, the buck wasn’t running. Instead, he chose to walk away from me (and the soiled spot from which he had jumped), taking a path along the base of the ridge with a posture that mimicked someone who just stuck his head into an overly ripe outhouse on a hot day. Kind of staggering away, the buck seemed stunned at the sudden rush of tobacco and human fragrance that had flooded his sinus cavities.
All the while I was holding my drawn bow, resting my arrow on the pointing finger of my bow-holding hand and aiming at the slowly escaping deer. I had done it! I had successfully gotten into position for the shot. Out of instinct I whistled. The buck came to a stop 25 yards from me and perfectly broadside. There he stood, majestic in stature, staring intently in the direction of the whistle. Staring directly at me!
There I was, master hunter, controller of my domain. I held my bow true, envisioned that Sonic bag, aimed for his shoulder and gently let the bowstring slide out of my fingers. Swoosh went the arrow. “Womp” was the sound of the hit! The buck exploded with athleticism I had never witnessed before. In three giant, powerful leaps he had scaled the side of the ridge and in a flash he was gone.
My arrow had found its mark …right in the middle of a tree even with me but about 20 feet off the ground.
Needless to say, that old buck was none the worse for the scare. I am sure that from that day forward he moved a little faster when he happened upon the sweet essence of snuff and humans. However, once the ordeal had reached conclusion, I was a different man. I then understood what all the commotion was about when the subject of bow hunting surfaced. I came to the realization that this bow-hunting thing was the ticket!
Before long, I replaced my ancient bow with a brand new one and my practice shots, which numbered in the hundreds if not the thousands, were aimed at a real broadhead target instead of a chili stained Sonic bag. My new arrows spine weights actually matched my bow poundage and tree stands were added to my arsenal.
Thus arrayed with knowledge and equipment, I pursued him many, many more times those next two years, but I never saw that buck again. I would like to think he made it to a ripe old age. But nonetheless, one thing he was successful in doing was to transform the life of a hunter.
And though many years have come and gone since that magical day, his memory motivates me thru countless hours on a tree stand regardless of wind, rain, heat or cold. I give thanks for this bow hunter’s blundering beginning. For without it, this story could not be told. And one hunter’s never ending whitetail quest would never have begun.
By Drake S. Smith