The story began a year earlier when my phone rang. “Bob, it’s Brown,” John said in his slow southern drawl. “We’re getting the band back together. You in?”
Brown’s father was a professional musician who, among other things, played drums for Loretta Lynn’s backup band, The Coal Miners, for 9 years, then later played behind other country music superstars, including Dolly Parton. John Jr. is also an accomplished musician. Since my musical talents are limited to a little air guitar, the band he was referring must have been a handful of guys who deer hunt together in southeastern Illinois. I was intrigued.
“I have some new ground to hunt, and it’s prime,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
I first met John back in the 1980s when he was a freelance videographer for Knight & Hale. Later we worked together some when he was heading up the then-relatively new video division for the old North American Hunting Club. We’d stayed friends long after he left for greener pastures. Today, John heads the video division for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), whose conservation outreach has expanded far beyond the wild turkey. Nearly a decade ago we had bowhunted together in this area of Illinois. The plan was for me to be the shooter and John the cameraman as we filmed an episode of “NWTF 365” for the 2016 season.
“Deal me in,” I said. “When do I need to be there and what can I bring?”
John and co-worker Greg Darnell make the day-long drive from Edgefield, South Carolina, to the lease several times beginning in summer to plant food plots, set scouting cameras and get everything ready. When I arrived Nov. 4 it was like walking into a dream world. The plots were up, there were bucks on the cameras and they were ready to rock. The downside was the weather — highs in the mid-70s, lows in the upper 50s and sporadic rain.
John had both tree stands and ground blinds set up, some on the plots, some in travel corridors, all in prime locations. The first afternoon Brown and I sat in a pinch-point ground blind that filtered into a cut bean field. We saw two old bucks and some does, but nothing thrilling. The next morning Greg and I tried a blind on a small food plot tucked in the middle of a bedding thicket. We struck out.
The afternoon of Nov. 6, the weather was beginning to turn, with a high cloud cover, light breeze from the northwest and temps that dropped into the low 50s. The stand set in a block of woods between two fields, one a cut soybean field that bordered a river lined with thick woods.
We saw the first does 200 yards across the field 3 hours before dark. Soon there were a dozen milling about. At 3 p.m. I looked to the south and here he came — a beautiful, heavy-antlered 10-pointer with a barrel chest and even bigger attitude. He rolled through those does like General Patton through the Nazis before disappearing into the thick stuff. Thirty minutes later he was back, and we decided to make something happen.
As the buck was making a scrape, I started grunting loudly. That got his attention, and though he stared our way he didn’t come far enough. I quickly hit him with The Can, and that was it. At the sound of an estrus doe he came at a trot so fast I barely had time to put the calls away and hook up.
He came to the edge of the woods — exactly 40 yards out — and made a scrape. It was too thick to shoot, so I waited. Instead of cautiously coming on, he came at a fast walk through the tangle of limbs and brambles, and before we knew it he was behind us and gone. There had been no chance for a shot.
You know what we were both thinking, don’t you? Was that our one chance for the week?
The does were still across the field. About 30 minutes passed when I looked up the woodlot to the north and saw a doe and another deer. Raising the glasses I could not believe it. Our big 10 was right there, 70 yards away — and he bedded down!
We went to red alert. It was so thick I lost sight of the deer, then saw him move and I thought he had moved north away from us. I mean, there’s no way we’d get another crack at him, right?
Another half hour went by, and then, out of the trees across the field came surfaced another good buck. This was a big 8 with a little G-3 on his right side that technically made him a 9. He cruised through the does then stopped and worked a licking branch with great vigor. I started working him with the grunt call, and when he heard it he snapped his head around, stepped up into the field and gave us the “look.”
So I canned him, and he started walking slowly our way. For some reason I looked north again, and guess what? The 10 was still there, up on his feet and staring at his approaching rival. “Bob,” Brown, who couldn’t see the 10 was still in the game, hissed from behind the camera, “you best get ready; that 9 is coming!”
But he was angling for the 10-pointer, not us, so when he was maybe 80 yards out I gave him one more shot of The Can. He locked up his brakes, turned his head and strut-walked to the edge of the woods right where that 10 had scraped not an hour earlier. This guy made two scrapes, violently thrashed a young oak then turned and came into the woods, working his way so he could approach the 10. I could almost read his mind: “We need to decide who is the skipper of this ship!”
His route took him right at us, and when he turned broadside he was so close he was further away from me vertically than he was horizontally. When the top pin floated over the sweet spot I touched the trigger; he didn’t run 75 yards before crashing. How John kept the camera on that deer the entire time is testament to his skillset. We were both quivering so hard the tree was shaking.
Two days into it, my Illinois season was over.
Bowhunting is a humbling game. After decades of doing this, it’s sometimes difficult to think you don’t have all the answers. And yet, every time I tune a bow, shoot some practice arrows or head afield, I am reminded that only a fool thinks they know it all.
On this brief trip I was reminded that despite all the research and all the data available to us, whitetail behavior remains largely unpredictable — especially during the rut — and that the best way to counter that is to keep your game plan simple. Always watch the wind and minimize your scent profile. Remember that funnels and preferred food sources are your best friend. Minimize human pressure, and never hunt your best spots until conditions are perfect. Be patient. When — not if, but when — things go south, keep a positive attitude, regroup and get back after it. Continually tweak your bow-and-arrow setup until it is tuned perfectly with broadheads. Practice your shooting. Be safe and do everything in your power to make sure you return to your family at the end of the day.
Perhaps most important of all, every time I take a life I am reminded vividly of how fragile all life is, how quickly and unexpectedly it can end. Once an hour of your life has passed, it’s gone forever. These days, though extremely serious about hunting, I make it a point of smelling the roses along the way. I revel in the sunrises and sunsets, the sound of the wind in the leaves, the smell of freshly turned earth. I give thanks every day that I am blessed to have been born in America, where we are men are born free to make our own choices in life and can enjoy a hunting heritage passed down from those who had the vision so conserve wildlife and habitat for future generations.
I can’t wait for the reunion tour.