Whitetail Redemption in the Kentucky Hardwoods

An old-timer gets back into the stand to take on a bucket-list whitetail bowhunt in Kentucky.

Whitetail Redemption in the Kentucky Hardwoods

It had been years since my last bowhunt. Business interests and a bum knee had kept me from enjoying my favorite passion, and it wasn’t pleasing me in the least. It was a prison sentence. So, one fine day in December, I went under the knife to get a new knee. It was a life-changing event. Within a few months, I felt about 15 years younger and got right to work planning a few hunts.

Using a tag application service, I applied for a slew of tags and was lucky enough to draw New Mexico elk. But that wasn’t enough; one hunt just wasn’t going to do it for me. I called up my Kentucky friend, Jim Litmer, who operates Third Hand Archery, a treestand accessory company, and asked how the hunting was in his area. He provided a few tidbits of info and then invited me to hunt some of his spots that fall. Yes! Hunting Kentucky deer had always been on my bucket list. With over-the-counter tags a much-appreciated bonus, we made plans for a rut hunt.

Business had me tied up in late-October and well into the first week of November, but after that I was free and chomping at the bit to hit the woods. You have to understand the situation here: The years have caught up with me. I am no longer that young, or even the middle-aged balls-to-the-walls predator I once was. I was downright old, like well past retirement age. Most of my friends have long given up hunting due to various health conditions, and in some instances, they aren’t even here anymore. Not unexpectedly, activities once considered no big deal were about to become major challenges.

One of those challenges is getting up early. I never liked it, but now it was downright unpleasant. Another is the physical limitation of just plain getting weaker, regardless of how much one exercises. But, as I learned on my elk hunt, I can still do everything I used to, but at a much slower pace. The mountain I used to fly up, now takes me hours. So be it. Ditto for putting up treestands, and for that matter, simply climbing trees! A certain Toby Keith song comes to mind here. Nevertheless, however many years the good Lord still had in store for me, I intended to hunt them any way I could.          

Kentucky Bound

Setting up a treestand at the top of a high ridge that first day was a challenge. First of all, after spending hours exploring, I was already pooped. But, I had found a spot of which whitetail dreams are made. It was at a ridgeline, graced with dense pines overlooking hardwoods on the hillsides. The transition was choked with dense brush. Laced throughout were well-traveled deer trails.

One particular spot had a 6-inch-diameter rub tree with a sizeable scrape nearby. The only trouble was the trees weren’t too stout and the upper canopy cover was sparse. I picked the best one, approximately 20 yards on the downhill side from the scrape, then set up my stand. I was using Millennium Tree Sticks, so installing them was pretty simple. There was absolutely no way I would have had the strength for screw-in steps, so thank heavens for these contraptions. Getting the stand installed was a challenge, but while strapped to the tree with my old, self-designed climbing belt, I eventually inched the stand into position. Great, I thought, but I wouldn’t want to do this again for a few days!

This spot was pure magic. Deer sign was everywhere, and the layout lent itself to a situation I had experienced several times in the past. I’ve learned that ridges play games with a bowhunter’s scent, but sometimes they grace us with a gift all the money in the world wouldn’t buy. In this case, the air currents would carry my scent up and away, no matter the wind direction. I suspected I could hunt this spot every day, as long as I was careful getting in and out.

Hanging the stand was a challenge for the author, but its placement above a scrape proved well worth the effort.
Hanging the stand was a challenge for the author, but its placement above a scrape proved well worth the effort.

All Day Long

This old bowhunter was determined to hunt sun up to sun down. It was that time of year, thank heavens, when bucks were likely to appear anytime. Sitting still for 10-plus hours in cold weather is something us old coots don’t particularly appreciate, which is why many of us move South for our retirement years. Luckily, I was using an extremely comfortable Millennium hang-on portable, and except for a nagging hip problem, extended sitting was going to be tolerable.

Soon the rut would be in its full glory. The weather was great — meaning lousy: cold, rainy, icy and even a little snowy. I was bundled up with my old standby winter clothing, something that was about to have a detrimental effect on my shooting. Why I hadn’t invested in some of the current-day, high-tech and less-bulky inner and outer wear is a mystery to me. I was getting old and stupid, I guess.

Just as old was my bow — a trusty Mathews Drenalin that Matt McPherson himself had given me many years ago — I’m an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of guy. I simply had new cables and string put on the old workhorse and called it good. Older people are resistant to change, and we sometimes cling to objects that remind us of our past — the good old days. “Drenny” was still accurate out to 60 in my less-than-steady hands, so I felt more than confident using it for the 15- to 30-yard shots I expected at my little honey-hole.

The days dragged by at first, with very few sightings. But this was the place to be; of that, I was sure. I decided to harvest a doe first and get that out of the way. I needed to draw blood and get my juices flowing. The next doe that came by presented me with a less-than-20-yard shot, and to my surprise the arrow missed her by several feet. My lower limb had hit my inner thigh, as she was not off my right shoulder, but rather in front of me when I released. I’m a lefty, so shots to the right are the order of the day when sitting.

In the past, this bowhunter would have been pretty irritated with himself for missing a chip shot, but this was different. I didn’t care so much anymore. I was immersed in just being there, enjoying the great outdoors. When you get older, you begin to realize that you won’t be doing this much longer and it changes your perspective on things. It changes the way you look at everything, but in this case it had me savoring simply being there. It was magnificent to be all alone, deep in the woods, with my thoughts and memories of past hunts, intensely awaiting a heart-throbbing buck to materialize in the thick brush under my treestand. More than ever, I was enjoying the simple act of just being there. Getting a deer just wasn’t that important.

The Hunt Continues

The days went by, with nothing sighted during a particularly windy, freezing and rainy stretch. The deer were obviously content to sit this one out while a goofy bowhunter actually enjoyed the adversity. Good things were to come, I was sure.

Two pairs came by the next day, does towing marginal shooters. I loved it, and filmed them with my phone to play back time and time again for the rest of the day. The next day, I hit the jackpot, 18 deer paraded by, everything from spikes to various 6- and 8-pointers that I shot with my camera and nothing more. Eighteen deer in a day was more than I had seen in a long time, and it filled my heart with pure joy. Surely a bigger buck was about to get in the game. Remember, I didn’t care if I tagged a deer or not, and surely wasn’t expecting a monster.

Next came a bluebird day and I wasn’t expecting any deer movement. It was absolutely wonderful, sitting there in relative warmth, just enjoying the solitude. I still hadn’t filled my doe tag, and decided the next one that came by was headed for my freezer. It was about 11 a.m. when a doe appeared, with two yearlings following in her footsteps. She approached the same spot where I had missed days earlier, so I concentrated on not hitting my leg and let out a guttural “baaap” to freeze her midstride.

It was the first time I had ever tried that unusual method of shooting at game. Never in the past would I have considered making a noise to have a deer look at me as I was about to shoot. But after watching countless episodes on TV where that method was used, I gave it a try. It makes perfect sense. Make a noise that gets their attention, which tenses them up and decreases the possibility of the dreaded string jump. It worked, and I let the arrow fly.

My Victory arrow was tipped with one of the new Musacchia NBS broadheads, introduced by John Musacchia of former Muzzy fame. The four-blade found its mark, and to my surprise the doe lurched a few steps and piled up within 10 yards. That was redemption. I was always a good shot, and the earlier miss, while laughable, was gnawing at my insides just a little. A perfect shot always caps off the anticipation, hard work and practice in a way that’s almost impossible to describe. A smile came over this old bowhunter’s face that was years in the making.

Close Behind

The doe had just collapsed when a flicker of movement caught my eye. It was antlers, following the same path the doe had taken. The buck must have been following them, and the silent Drenalin had not spooked his love-clouded mind. He appeared, sporting 10 points, good mass, long beams but not super long tines. This was it; he was good enough for me. This wasn’t a deer on any “hit list.” To the contrary, the buck was likely one that nobody even knew existed.

He sauntered up the trail, following almost exactly in the doe’s footsteps. When he reached the spot where the doe met the arrow, I “baaped” once again, with even more confidence this time. In one fluid motion, I drew and shot. At that range, 17 yards, aiming is almost a moot point. But shooting form isn’t and I missed, once again, by a country mile!

Remember earlier, I mentioned my ancient clothing that should have been replaced with something modern, and less bulky? I had just been bitten in the butt for that oversight. The string hit my sleeve and no doubt sent my arrow somewhere besides the buck’s vitals. Thank heavens it missed him completely. He just stood there, apparently still looking for the doe. Or maybe he could see the dead doe laying there, just a few yards from where he stood.

His head was obviously in the rut. I was able to reach around to my Catquiver, hanging on the tree to my side, and slowly bring another arrow to the bow. This time I crooked my elbow a little to clear the bowstring, made sure my leg was not participating in the shot, and placed the arrow right in the 10-ring.

Redemption? You bet!

Having won the match of wits with a “run-of-the-mill, wild whitetail,” the author proudly displays his mature Kentucky buck.
Having won the match of wits with a “run-of-the-mill, wild whitetail,” the author proudly displays his mature Kentucky buck.

The Gift of Bowhunting

What a gift it is to be a bowhunter. We love our sport and all it entails. We love getting new equipment, setting it up, practicing and embracing the anticipation of the hunt. Nowadays a lot of hunters spend inordinate amounts of money procuring land and tending to it meticulously for that one moment of truth. For me, I’ll simply take the opportunity to match my wits with run-of-the-mill wild deer. That’s how I started out and that’s how I’ll finish this lifestyle I love so much. I can’t wait until next year. It’s what we live for.

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