How to (NOT) MISS the Buck of a Lifetime
Hard lessons learned to make sure you’re ready.
As far as “how to” articles go, this is probably not the first thing you want to know or make as a personal goal. However, sometimes looking at the opposite of what we want actually clarifies how to achieve what many of us want as a whitetail hunter: successfully tagging the buck of a lifetime. My 2021 archery season will be our prime example, and through painful lessons learned in the hard knocks school of “real life,” hopefully you can save yourself a bit of misery. So if you’re brave enough, come along as I tell you how I missed the buck of a lifetime during my 2021 archery season.
The definition of a buck of a lifetime might be different for everyone, so let me start by sharing my definition: a buck, of whatever size, you will most likely only get a chance at once in your life. Pretty simple, right? Depending on if you hunt private or public land, the deer herd in your area, and a variety of factors this could be a 120 inch 3 year old, or a 180+ inch 6 year old buck for you.
For me, hunting primarily public land in Mid Michigan, that deer is something over 4 years old and 150 inches. This may change in time, as a few years ago it was probably 130 inches, but with 30 years hunting experience I’ve only had one chance at a deer that big in the mitten state, which was this year. Missing bucks like that, within 25 yards with a compound bow, can really leave “what if’s” in your mind and cause a lot of self evaluation to determine just what went wrong, and rightfully so. Here are a few of my takeaways. Remember, you’ll want to do the opposite.
Lesson 1 - Don’t prep as if this will be the season for the buck of a lifetime.
The old axiom goes, “if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.” This is definitely true with life and definitely with whitetail hunting. This past year I slacked a little, especially in the summer,
when it came to the prep work I usually do. Yes I had all my spots marked in my gps and listed in an excel file, and yes I did some preseason scouting, but I didn’t do near as much as usual or enough groundwork in my opinion. In fact, I knew this in my gut as the summer progressed. I didn’t run as many trail cams, didn’t glass as much in the summer to see what was in certain areas (and therefore put a game plan together for the season), and didn’t revisit many spots that I would possibly hunt in the fall to make sure they were ready (as well as my entry and exit routes to and from them). I leaned on old historical intel, which is good, but didn’t have as much “right now” intel as I wanted or should have had.
Bottom line is I didn’t do enough prep work or scouting, and as I’ve written in previous
articles - intel is KING. Therefore, my hunts were not as productive as usual, and I had to do more guessing than usual on where I should hunt as the season unfolded. I just wasn’t as confident, and it showed with some frustration and a bit of lack of confidence when I hit the woods. For a seasoned veteran, this isn’t a good feeling or one you want to have.
Nevertheless, on October 28th I put a stand on my back and nosed into an east wind on a piece of public that I was familiar with. It had produced in the past, but I was going on a hunch rather than current intel. But luckily as I entered the swampy wooded section, I found fresh big rubs and no sign of other hunters. Pushing back to the thicker swamp edge that I planned to hunt near, I found several trails leading to a large scrape and immediately searched nearby for a tree to hang my mobile stand
setup. More on that in another article, or see it HERE. The best I could find was only 8 yards from the scrape and downwind (I would rather be a bit further and you’ll see why later, as bucks tends to scent-check these downwind and you should have your stand positioned downwind of incoming bucks), but it was my best option that worked, so I climbed up and got set.
I had several shooting lanes, but the thickness of the area would make shots difficult. It would have been much better if I had revisited this area in the summer and had better treestand locations selected and prepared. This should have included tree selection, climbing the trees and knowing how high optimal stand height was for shooting opportunities, being aware of shooting lanes, and even tying back some branches to help create more shot opportunities. As it was, I was in the game but not set quite as good mentally or spatially in my environment as I could have been.
Lesson 2 - Be unaware of exactly what you can shoot through.
One thing I’ve become more knowledgeable of the last five years or so is just how much I can shoot through with a bow. From doing more realistic 3D archery shoots, I’ve been forced to take shots in difficult situations and positions I’m not used to. By doing this I’ve realized just what
I can get away with, and what I cannot. I’ve been amazed at how much foliage an arrow can go through and not be affected. Leaves and small twigs, especially near the target don’t seem to affect arrow flight or impact much at all. However, those closer to the shooter, and larger twigs do deflect the arrow. You have to have extensive experience with your equipment and different obstacles and obstructions to know what shots you can take and which ones you should definitely avoid. Honest evaluation of what you can do is needed, and in my scenario my confidence may have been a little too high as to what I could slip and arrow through. One also has to remember a broadhead has more surface area than a target tip that can be affected by these obstructions, and practice should be done with them as well as target tips. This is something I neglected in my shot evaluation.
About 20 minutes before dark on October 28th, from my mobile setup back by the swamp, I watched the sun dip and light begin to fade quickly. As gray began to filter into the swamp, I heard the telltale sound of a deer splashing through the calf-high water behind me and downwind of the scrape I was hunting. I turned to see a good size deer through the trees that was angling away from me. The strutting way he walked told me it was a buck, and as I peered through numerous limbs between us to see just how big he was, he popped into an opening revealing he was a good buck, a very good buck. Wide, heavy, tall tines, this indeed was a buck of a caliber I’d never seen on public land in Michigan before - a buck of a lifetime. The problem was he was walking away from not toward me. Pulling out my grunt call I grunted several times, louder with each grunt, until he heard me and stopped directly downwind from me. He stood and listened for a good five minutes, checking the wind, and looking for the source of the grunt. This is where, I believe, my stringent scent control system saved me, as big bucks will evaluate their environment tediously before committing, especially in high pressure areas like public land. The buck was about 60 yards away and needed to move my way a good 30 yards for me to get a clear shot.
Lesson 3 - Be hazy on your shooting lanes.
Whether mobile hunting many different locations on public land, or hunting the same old stand season after season on private land, you have to know your shooting lanes. If you’re hazy on where you can shoot, where you can’t, and haven’t decided this beforehand, making a good judgment when a big buck is in front of you and your adrenaline is pumping is not going to turn out well many times. In this state of “buck fever” it’s just too hard to make good decisions and make objective calls (as shooting is usually going to be the default for most people with “the fever”). Our intense focus naturally makes us overlook certain things such as twigs and branches that could deflect an arrow or bullet. The prescription - be keenly aware of our clear
shooting lanes or holes. The more we can make better decisions about shots and be confident with our shots, the less gut-wrenching mistakes we will make (which could be misses or worse yet wounding of animals). Having these clear shooting lanes memorized should be the goal so we aren’t guessing or doubting ourselves in the moment of truth.
As the huge public land buck stood looking for the source of the grunt, and saw nothing (typically they will not commit if they do not see the deer), good fortune came my way. I began to hear another deer coming from deep in the swamp and walking toward the scrape. As the deer came into view, both I and the large buck noticed it was a doe, and we both responded accordingly: I readied for a potential shot, he began walking toward the doe and closing the distance between us. With the light fading, the shooting lanes I thought I had identified earlier, and the “no shot” zones began to blend. Without adequately reinforcing these in my mind in bright daylight earlier in the night, where I could safely shoot became a thing of doubt and I could feel my anxiety rising as the big buck marched closer. As he hit 30 yards and stood broadside, I drew. But was that really an opening or were some dark swamp branches actually in the way?
I decided to let him continue his approach, and he turned and walked straight toward me and into a known shooting lane at fifteen yards. The problem was he was facing me and presented no shot. As he passed the doe he turned 90 degrees, walked behind her, and presented what looked like a clear broadside shot at 25 yards. As I settled my pin behind his shoulder I had an unsettled feeling in my gut. Was this actually a clear shooting lane?
The question was soon answered as the arrow flew and the illuminated nock veered off it’s mark 2 feet left of where I had aimed and struck dirt and roots directly in front of him. Both deer slowly walked off slowly, splashing deeper into the swamp. As dark settled, retrieval of my arrow revealed a clean miss, and looking back at my stand with my headlight clearly showed a maze of dark oak branches not visible to me at the moment of the shot.
Lesson 4 - Don’t come to terms with Murphy.
Missing the monster buck of a lifetime on public land in Michigan, which I guessed him to be a solid 150-160 inch ten point, was definitely heartbreaking. I did some things wrong for sure. However, when one hunts, particularly in a hang and hunt scenario where you are entering different environments every sit, Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will) is a very real foe you will deal with on a regular basis. This is especially true in thick, hard to hunt areas where the big boys live. Your prep work and the things mentioned above is an attempt to minimize its effects,
but it is a reality and some hunts regardless of how careful you are will get messed up. Learn to deal with it, expect it, and realize what happened to me will probably happen to you at some point in your hunting life too. If it doesn’t, then great, but taking the attitude of preparing as best you can, but expecting things like this to happen sometimes is your best defense against despair. You have to come to terms with Murphy’s Law - welcome to hunting.
Are there other ways to screw up a hunt, for sure. This was just my experience missing the buck of a lifetime and I’m sure some readers have theirs and would have different lessons. Thankfully, however, after a few weeks and a few hundred dollars worth of therapy I was able to return to normal life. All joking aside at this point in my hunting journey this encounter only bothered me a few days, and not too badly. I reviewed my mistakes, made positive changes, and moved on with the season and was able to put two nice bucks in the freezer (and future wall). Do I wish I would have been able to get this buck, absolutely. Did I need to relearn some lessons to help me be a more effective hunter in the future, apparently. I guess the silver lining is now you get the benefit of learning from me, and can apply this as you now know how to do the opposite - hopefully NOT miss the buck of a lifetime when your paths cross.
About the Author: Adam Lewis is an avid whitetail hunter with 30 years of experience. His writing
is found in a wide variety of outdoor magazines including Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Deer and Deer Hunting, and Woods N Water News. He is a sought-after speaker and founder of soundbarrierhunting.com. To contact him about speaking or writing, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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