The sun rose while I searched. I never found the X I made on the earth to mark the spot. My steps, retraced several times, revealed nothing. I was terribly frustrated. To ease my mind, I tried to convince myself that it was a clean miss. But I knew better. All morning, coyotes hollered incessantly. I sensed that the band had found my deer and were celebrating their midnight feast.
The last day of Arizona’s first archery season was an emotional roller coaster. Earlier in the season, I had gotten in one great, but unsuccessful, five-day backpack hunt. I also hunted just one quick evening in a spot close to home. That was all that work and other responsibilities allowed for. At that point, I had given up on the early season and was looking forward to the next season later that fall. The evening before the last day, I just couldn’t take it any longer. I decided to give the early hunting season one more go. My strategy was this: hunt the early morning, leave to find a Wi-Fi connection in a nearby town and work during the day, then return to get in one last evening hunt.
I rolled out of the driveway at three that morning. My boots were bound for a convenient little glassing knob I like to take advantage of when I can only get away for short hunts. I arrived well before sun-up and hiked to my post on top of a little mountain in the dark. As the morning progressed, a few does emerged, but that was all my binoculars could find. Glassing farther away, I spotted some deer a couple miles behind me in another basin. Every time I took another look into the distant basin, I would see deer and knew I couldn’t be seeing the same ones over and over again. It was worth getting a closer look. Attempting to move in quietly with the wind in my favor, I still managed to spook three groups of mule deer out of the area. There weren’t any mature bucks, just some spikes and several does. I decided to back out before spooking any more deer and go put in some hours at work.
A local public library’s WiFi got me through a few uncomfortable hours of work in my truck. Afterwards, I headed back to the woods to give my early archery season one last try. With no better plan in mind, I returned back to that same basin I spooked the deer out of earlier in that morning. From my new glassing knob, I located a mule deer doe and a spike buck. It was getting late during the last day of the season, so I decided to make a play on the little buck. I covered 200 yards before kicking off my boots, trying to stalk in the rest of the way as quietly as I could in my stockings.
Things settled down once again. I was completely content with my hunt, especially after the scene I had just witnessed, and counted the day as a win. It was getting late in the evening by now; I figured that was my last shot at filling my buck tag. I walked back down the mountain and, after a bit of nervous searching, found my boots and pack. I decided to call it quits and trek back to the truck.
It wasn’t long into my hike when I saw a deer about fifty yards in front of me. However, it lurked off before I could get into a position for a better view. I walked up to where that deer had been standing and I saw another deer; this time just 40 yards away. I was losing shooting light rapidly. I pulled my binoculars up and saw a small set of fuzzy antlers jutting out of his head. A legal buck; that was good enough for me. I tried to maneuver myself into a shooting position, but the other grazing deer kept moving behind tall bushes. At last, a shot opportunity revealed itself, and I drew my bow only to have my glasses fog up at the last minute. I couldn’t see through my peep site at all. The little buck moved behind a big juniper tree. I scooted forward, to the left, to the right, then forward a bit more. When he came out again, my glasses had cleared. I drew my bow and released an arrow.
Shooting an animal in the gut had never happened to me before. I had no idea what an arrow hitting a stomach sounded like, but somehow, I knew that’s what had happened when I heard the arrow strike that buck. I moved to the place the deer was standing, but I could not find my arrow nor a drop of blood. Darkness fell fast as I searched for any evidence of a hit. I tried to mark the location on my GPS, but something about this area caused my GPS to go haywire. It showed my location on top of a mountain that was miles away. In a last ditch effort, I drug my boot heel through the dirt, making a big X to mark the spot. I moved on, continuing to search for evidence of a hit. Before long, I had become so disoriented that I couldn’t find my way back to the location where it all started. I searched for hours into the night without finding anything. Finally, I decided to head home and come back early the next morning with my dog.
Edward, my German short-haired pointer, has an amazing nose. However, he’s only a year old. His nose gets distracted easily by all sorts of things, especially quail, and that morning, there were several coveys in the area. Edward wasn’t much help when it came to finding the buck’s scent. After six hours and many miles of searching, the only potential evidence of my deer was an excited pack of coyotes. I begrudgingly decided to give up. It’s a disgusting feeling, knowing that you’ve lethally wounded an animal and can’t recover it. But I had lost all hope. I texted some buddies complaining of my plight and mentally prepared to head back to the truck.
I stood in an opening, trying to decide which way to get around a big brushy area, when Edward began acting strange. He was clued in on something, adamant about going a particular way around the brush. I followed him. Just 10 yards away, I noticed a rock in front of us that looked an awful lot like a deer. I kept telling myself, it’s just a rock, it’s just a rock, it’s just a rock. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, it was my young buck.
Many things came together to make this early archery season adventure a successful hunt. Thanks to an unusually early cold snap and an overcast morning, the buck’s meat was still in great shape. The decision to bring my pup along ended up being a good one, too, especially after his nose saved the day. “Never give up” is a phrase that rings loud in my mind and is a lesson worth heeding. The most important element of any hunt might just be having a persistent nature and an unwillingness to easily give up.