By JEFF DUTE | al.com
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Taking your first deer with a bow is special.
Erica Gates first bow kill is leaning toward record-book special.
The 23-year-old dental assistant from Pickensville stuck a main-frame 12-point buck on Nov. 15 that will most likely place her name in the Pope and Young Record Book for deer killed by stick and string.
The deer was unofficially scored by a scorer for North American Whitetail Records at 163 inches gross green and netted 156 inches after deductions. Its score for official record-book consideration won't be determined until after a required 60-day drying period.
The minimum score to make the Pope and Young Record Book for a typical whitetail is 125 inches.
While this amazing 180-pound buck was Gates' first deer with a bow, it wasn't her first time to climb a tree with one in her hands.
In fact, over the previous couple of seasons since taking up archery, she had become so frustrated with her lack of success even in taking a doe that she actually thought about hanging up her Matthews Craze bow for good.
“My boyfriend, brother and dad all kept encouraging me to stick with it,” said Gates, who also hunts ducks, turkey, dove and squirrel. “My dad said, you're not meant to shoot a doe with your bow.”
That belief had precedent in fact.
Gates began her deer-hunting life by taking a fine 9-point. She was 12.
“So I guess it was just my luck to kill a big buck with my bow before anything else,” Gates said.
The Saturday morning hunt started at about 4:30 when Gates, her boyfriend, brother and older sister got up and planned for a day of hunting on roughly 400 acres of west-central Alabama's Pickens County ground that has been in the Gates family for generations.
By 5:15, they were headed to the woods. Temperatures were in the lower 20s.
Gates decided to go to “Erica's Stand,” a lock-on placed amid oak trees that were raining acorns.
“I was in the stand by 5:30. It was super cold that morning, but I had only seen a couple of does out of range by 7,” Gates said.
Fifteen minutes later, Gates was looking at a nice 8-point “shooter” buck, but she decided to let it walk because it was young and had the potential to mature.
For the next hour or so, Gates hung in despite the cold. About 8:30 texts from her sister indicating she was thinking about returning to the house almost had her convinced to give it up for the morning, too.
Twenty minutes later, Gates got a text from her sister that she was in fact leaving the woods. When she looked up from reading that message, Gates said the smallest doe she'd ever seen was making its way toward her.
“It got right underneath my stand and I had my phone out taking pictures and texting them to my boyfriend,” Gates said. “When I sat back down and looked over to the left, there he was. I thought `Oh my good gracious. That's a monster buck.”'
She never really assessed the buck's rack, realizing on sight that it was a shooter. Its body dwarfed that of a 4-point that stepped out with it.
With the buck at about 25 yards and munching on acorns, Gates was able to get up and grab her bow.
The buck fed closer. When it stepped behind a tree, Gates drew only to find that the peep sight inserted into the bow string and through which she would aim was twisted.
With a view of her sight pin obscured, Gates' preseason practice paid off.
“Before the season came in, I practiced shooting my bow with and without using the peep,” she said. “I knew that I'd never seen this buck before and we didn't have it on any of our game cameras. I figured if I didn't shoot now, I'd probably never see it again this close. I was confident I could make a good shot.”
When the buck stepped out from behind the tree 12 yards from her stand, Gates placed the string's kisser button in its proper spot, lined up the arrow where she thought it should be, and triggered her release.
The arrow appeared to fly true through the vitals. But when the buck bolted out of sight without falling, inevitable doubts crept into Gates' head.
That's when the combination of nerves and the cold hit – hard.
“I was shaking so hard I had to climb down or I was just going to fall out of my tree,” she said.
Meeting back at the house with the rest of her crew, Gates decided to give the buck more than the traditional 30 minutes before taking up the blood trail.
“At first, we only found one little blood drop. I thought, `Oh, no. This is not good.' But then we started finding more and more every few yards. Then we started seeing bubbles in it, so I knew I'd got a lung,” she said.
About 250 yards from where she shot and after only 40 minutes on the trail, they found the buck piled up.
“That was the best moment of my life so far,” Gates said. “The adrenaline was still flowing and it was such an emotional moment that I have to say that I started crying.”
The shot was perfect. She'd hit both lungs and part of the liver.
“My dad was super excited. It is definitely a buck of a lifetime, for sure,” Gates said.
Gates said she doesn't understand the folks, who since she's killed the buck, are suggesting she hang up her bow for good.
“I really don't care if I ever kill anything else. I'm going to keep going as long as I'm having fun,” she said.