So there I was, full-draw on a Beaver Island 8-point…
Let’s back up a moment and figure out how I got there, what happened, and what I learned. And hopefully you can learn from my mistake. It’s game film time, without the film.
Last Tuesday, we had an On the Ground (OTG) project on Beaver Island, teaming up with the Beaver Island Wildlife Club (an MUCC affiliate) and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to distribute and plant crabapple trees donated by NWTF and grown by the DNR at the Rose Lake Wildlife Research Center in East Lansing.
Twenty volunteers showed up to take the trees and plant them on private properties around the north end of the island, because most of the land on that end is private and that’s where the turkeys hang out. Tony Snyder and Steve Sharp of NWTF, and Jackie LaFreneriere and Phil Wyckoff of the Beaver Island Wildlife Club, were instrumental in organizing the successful day’s events. Volunteers went home with trees to plant, an OTG t-shirt, and a delicious burger to-go from the Shamrock.
Beaver Island Wildlife Club volunteered to plant NWTF crabapple trees around the island.
After the project, I took a couple days off to stay on the island and hunt on the state land I’ve hunted on and off since college. I had pitched my tent in a clearing on state land off Hannigan’s Road, about halfway down the island and bordering thousands of acres of unpressured public land. No, that’s not always an oxymoron, even in Michigan. If you’re on an island.
I still-hunted for the opening three days, and the conditions were perfect. It was raining, which kept the forest floor quiet and pushed my scent down, as well as provide some cover noise. And the wind direction was fairly constant from the west (by the end of five days of camping, that was very important!). I guess I should say that the weather was perfect for still-hunting. As for camping, my right leg that woke up in a pool of water inside my tent would beg to differ. The island is a sponge.
I saw eight deer over the first couple days, but none close enough to get a shot on. I covered at least ten miles over three days, sometimes going extremely slow and stopping in a natural blind of cedar blow-downs for an hour or two, and sometimes moving quickly to get through an open area or around a beaver-dammed wetland complex. On the morning of the second day, I spotted a buck through my binoculars at about 75 yards, but when I tried to put the stalk on him, he caught me at about 60 yards away. He was in a good area, though, mixed pines and oaks, so on the third day, I hit that area in the afternoon when the rain started to let up.
A hiking trail, improved a few years ago by Boy Scouts, helped me to quietly get deep into the area. Where the pine and oak stand transitioned to swamp, where they like to bed, I took a well-used deer trail south to where a dry land funnel allowed the deer access to the oak stand from the swamp, well away from the hiking trail. I spotted a few rubs around a light trail that snaked north along the swamp edge about 10 yards further west and parallel to the uphill trail that I’d used.
No treestand necessary…you can get close to bucks on the ground by using natural cover.
Using a tree as a backrest and some 10 to 15-foot dead tree stumps (the tops had long since snapped off in a windstorm) as cover in shadow, as well as the top of the small knoll as a screen, I decided to sit there for a little while to see what came. About an hour later, what came was an eight-point with a four-point following behind him.
The setup was perfect. It was around three in the afternoon. The rain had let up, but the wind was still coming steadily from the west, keeping my five-days-of-camping scent downwind from him. As he stepped into a natural shooting lane 25 yards away, I drew from below the cover of the knoll separating us and slowly rose from my crouched position enough to clear the knoll as a clump of trees blocked me from the four-point’s view.
So there I was, full-draw on a Beaver Island 8-point…
I’m not gonna lie: I definitely had a bit of ‘da buck fever,’ but I set my 25-yard sight pin on his vitals, took a breath, and triggered the release. It whistled right in line and … clank, rattle: right underneath him and into the tangle of scrub in the swamp behind him. The buck flinched at the noise and bounded away a few dozen yards, as did the four-point. Then they calmly walked up the trail, up a hill and out of sight. Never knew I was there.
I couldn’t believe it. After years of trying to still-hunt within bow range of a buck, I finally had one I could get a shot on. Each of the last three years I’ve been close, but spooked one while drawing and more than a few after spotting them at a distance and trying to stalk closer. Now I finally had one, did everything right to get in position to shoot, and missed!
I wasn’t done. Using the knoll between us, I tried to move quickly and quietly to where I might get another shot. I crept to the last spot I’d seen him, found their tracks, but they’d moved southeast to where I would be upwind of them and too far away for a shot.
“So there I was…” Know your range to make your shot.
Just to be safe, I followed his track south and then back north to where he was when I shot, looking carefully for any speck of blood. There was none. I knew there wouldn’t be. It was a clean miss. I wasn’t able to find my arrow, because after going underneath him and into the tangled swamp cover, with at least a foot of mucky water and mud, it was useless. I searched the surface carefully, though.
Pacing back to my location when I shot, I discovered why I’d missed. He wasn’t at 25 yards. He was at least at just over 30, which is well within my range, but that doesn’t matter if you’re aiming for 25. So what did I do wrong? I underestimated his distance from me. I don’t use a rangefinder: I thought I was good enough at estimating distance in the woods without it, but I wasn’t. It was never an issue for me when hunting with my rifle, but archery is different.
Does this mean I have to go out and buy a rangefinder? I don’t think so, but it means I have to practice estimating distance in the field more, which looks different from distance on the practice range. I’m going to do more picking out objects, estimating (not guessing) their distance, and then validating until I’m consistently accurate with it.
I did a few things right that day: taking advantage of weather conditions, going slow, stopping often, paying obsessive attention to the wind, using natural cover, recognizing deer habitat and habits, and following up to make sure I didn’t wound him. But that one thing wrong cost me. And that’s still-hunting. There’s no room for errors, but that’s why I love it. It pushes me to be perfect and punishes me when I’m not. And I have yet to be perfect.
It was great week of hunting, camping & OTG on Beaver Island.
I’m beside myself disappointed that I missed the buck, but it could have been much worse. I could have wounded him, and that would have been devastating. I wasn’t good enough on a critical component of hunting that I took for granted, and that will not happen again.
If you can’t accurately estimate distance in the field – like the difference between 25 and 30 yards – then find a way to do so. If it requires a rangefinder, get one. If you want to hunt without one, then practice. Learn from my mistake and make the shot.
So why did I take all this time to tell you about a miss? It wasn’t just because I didn’t have a hit to tell you about! I’m hoping that when you’re in the woods this fall, you’ll double check the distance, make sure you can judge it accurately, and hit your shot. Luckily, it’s only October 8. I still have time to get it right. There’s almost three months left of deer season, and all is possible.
WildLife Wednesday is the weekly blog from Drew YoungeDyke, Field Manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs.