By Derrick Nawrocki
Have you ever gotten the feeling that "it" is never, ever, ever going to happen to you? That feeling you get when despite year after year of throwing every trick in your bag at something, you still end up striking out time and time again? Well, if the "it" is harvesting a quality whitetail buck with your bow, you can put my name at the very top of that list.
I am that guy with years and years of countless tree stand sits under my belt, yet zero notches marked to designate a buck down. Many day-long sits logged with no more than the sounds of barking squirrels, whistling winds, owl hoots, and chirping birds to show for it — often in uncomfortable cold, snowy, sleety, wet and sometimes flat-out brutal weather conditions. Yet despite a growing list of successful shots on coyotes, armadillos, hogs, raccoons and does and a pure enjoyment of the outdoors, I do not have one buck arrowed for my time, effort and paint-drying patience.
This was until I climbed into my stand on a cold November 2012 morning just before daybreak in north-central Kansas, just north of a little town known as Glen Elder. The rut was on, and anything is possible when bucks go crazy chasing does in big-buck country. Why couldn't this happen to me in the land of Oz, where bucks are plentiful and year-round food sources abound? The region I hunted has a topography littered with farm after farm loaded with timber havens surrounded by what seemed like miles and miles of soybeans, corn, wheat, milo and plenty of acorns in the timber.
Let me see — timber patches wrapped around creek bottoms surrounded by crops that disappear as opening day nears and soon after the rut kicks in? It's all about location, location, location! And just like that, bingo! All those pinch points and deer crossings become magnets, one of which was to make me a very lucky bowhunter.
According to Jeff Rader with Rader Lodge, his hunting leases are surrounded by vast fields with meandering streams and drainages, which provide narrow areas and pinch points. "We have learned that the big bucks like to find pockets and small woodlots to lay up with the does during breeding season," he said, "and old dry ponds, abandoned farm houses, and the like have all turned into buck hotspots."
After a long day of travel that saw my 5:30 p.m. flight into Wichita turn into a 10 p.m. arrival, I didn't make it to Rader Lodge until 1 a.m. I was whipped and not looking forward to a 4 a.m. wakeup call. I was meeting up with some great friends and industry veterans, including Mark Garcia with AXT Archery, Joel Harris with Zeiss, Mark Thomas with Walther, and three co-workers from Grand View Outdoors — Jared Pfeifer, Mark Melotik and Lee Hetherington. We had been planning this gig for the better part of a year. The alarm rang early and I felt out of sorts, unorganized, and convinced I would forget something en route to my first stand sit.
As the morning light awakened the field in front of me, I noticed a huge-bodied buck slip past about 175 yards straight out — a buck that I couldn't study through my binoculars, because I'd left them in the lodge as I was half out of it from two hours of sleep. I quickly learned that using your rangefinder to judge antlers at any distance can be a tall order. He was big, but he drifted out of view in the dim early morning light. Not long after daybreak another buck slipped in like a ghost — don't they always? — about 30 yards to the left of my stand, but he gave me no shot. He was not spooked and was certainly a shooter, but he slipped up the dirt road along the timberline as quietly as he had come in and made me wonder if my big chance had come and gone.
It all changed about 7:25. Doe number one came into view behind me and traveled into bow range, then doe number two followed, and then three does all came to a magical stop straight away centerfield at about 20 yards in front of my stand, still unaware of my existence. This was a perfect scenario for either of the bucks nosing around earlier to come back. One problem — I was now facing the wrong way, with my back to the does. With three sets of eyeballs within spitting distance, I was stuck.
Then I heard brush and small trees being thrashed and knocked around where the does had come out of the timberline — it was Mr. Big, he was coming fast, and I did not need my binos to determine he was a shooter. As luck would have it, my position facing away from the deer enabled me to stealthily grab my bow, connect my release to my string loop, and turn around ever so slowly, all without alarming the does.
There was no question on what to do next. I was at full draw, praying I wouldn't have to hold for too long. Clearly the rut was in full swing, as he came in nose-down, trailing the does all the way. Mr. Big was now facing me, and I wondered if he would ever turn enough to give me a good shot. Then it happened — he started to turn and yes, kept turning, now a makeable quartering-to angle, pause, take a deep breath, pick your spot, don't look at his horns, and boom! It was a great hit, the buck was stunned, and he ran out of view only to expire about 200 yards away — of course too far to spot without my binos, which were still at the lodge.
Unable to see blood from my stand, I was worried my Kansas magic was another pipe dream. Not this time! On this magical day I was rewarded with a monster buck that gross scored a tick over 160. To make it even better, two others in my group, Melotik and Harris, both tagged out while the rest of the group were seeing bucks, some 140-class, some even better.
What did I learn? When location, timing, hard work, patience and Lady Luck collide, great things can happen. Kansas and Rader Lodge during the rut is the place for me. I also now realize the importance of all those practice shots I have taken over many years and how all those does and critters taken likely gave me the confidence to get it done in crunch time.