As my travels in Arkansas wrap up I find myself behind the steering wheel again. The open road for a 7 hour drive leading me home allows for a long list of questions to accumulate, eager to hear the detailed account of Joel’s successful hunt.
Soon, I’m back at home on the small Kansas farm sitting in the kitchen and catching up with Joel. The air is rich with butter, sea salt, garlic, and rosemary aromas lifting from the pan as it reaches cooking temps. The unmistakable sound of red meat hitting cast iron has me intoxicated in sensory overload as two freshly harvested whitetail tenderloins crowd the large pan and begin to sear. A couple dashes of bitters find their way into the celebratory old fashion cocktails I’m working on as Joel begins to tell me the experience of shooting his deer, while carefully inspecting the two tenderloins in the pan.
I set up this stand recently, looking at terrain features and the river banks. As I climbed over the embankment, I got all the visual clues that my scouting paid off. A hub with a number of trails all converged on this point. It is a deer mega highway in there.
After a short sit, a small 6 pointer worked his way out. He’s chasing a group of does around in his youthful optimism. They work back and forth from the wheat to timber, with an old doe stopping momentarily downwind of me. She cocks her head and looks directly at me, holding the stare. I know I’m busted at this point and am waiting for her to snort – but she simply continues her path and walks off.
Then I hear heavy footsteps in the leaves slowly walking forward, coming in from about 80 yards to my left. The massive deer proudly takes his time walking out. He’s the biggest body on a whitetail I’ve ever seen – you can guess how my adrenaline skyrockets when I get my eyes on him.
Anyways, he comes in on one of the trails in the hub I’m set up for. A quick check on my rangefinder confirms my initial ranging, and it’s a waiting game. Finally, he hits the 25 yard marker and I let it rip. By the time I’m next to the animal, my hands begin to shake as the weight of the moment set in.
No matter how we look at it, there is always an underlying aspect of competition between us. Sitting in the kitchen and listening to the story unfold, my urge to hunt builds hard internally like a pressure cooker. Through personal reflection, it’s not the way I like to hunt – with the unnecessary added stress of brotherly competition. Try as I may, it’s there and the internal conflict is engrained; I’m envious of Joel’s recent experience. I know once I get back in the stand my priorities will realign while watching the sun filter through the timber on early morning sits and slip below the horizon line during the last light of a Kansas sunset.
As early November moves along in a heat wave, I find contentment in placing my kayak into the river and sneaking down to the stands we previously hung. Early morning entries place my first paddle stroke at 430 am, while my headlamp stays off. Navigating slow currents by the early morning Kansas starlit sky holds moments I won’t be able to effectively express in words. Nocturnal creatures swimming near me and fish exploding through the darkened water have me grinning ear to ear; the pressured feelings of sibling rivalry a distant thought in my mind. Afternoon trips to the stand allow time for me to slow my mind while I revel in fall foliage, exposed limestone, and stacked riverside timber as I quietly dip my paddle in and out of the muddy water. It’s impossible to not slip into an introspective mindset in the 45 minute journey.
By mid rut I finally have a 170(+) class mature buck in my shooting lanes. A doe crashes through the woods, not spooked by human presence but looking to get the hell out of Dodge for a different reason. Her emotions are shown through body language while moving through: she’s annoyed. Goosebump sensations flow through my body and my eyesight immediately sharpens. I know what’s coming. In an instinctual motion, I’m on my feet with bow in hand and release set in place.
Through the timber, the motion of white tines catches my eye. My heart knocks hard on the door of my ribcage and does it’s best to beat out of my chest in this moment. Perfectly camouflaged, the body of the mature buck appears. Moving slowly, he stops often to smell the aroma of the doe in heat that he’s pursuing. Quintessential rut action has his head in the air, sniffing and licking his black nose. Cleary, he’s enjoying the chase and taking his time. I could sit here in this stand, happy and content to witness these moments. There is no doubt, these magical slivers of time watching wildlife interact and the natural world play out are a large reason why I hunt. But it’s not all, I’m here to selectively kill and source my own meat from this timber. The opportunity is walking directly towards me.
The Mathews bow elevates slowly and enters my vision as my left hand slowly raises in the air. I push the bow away from my body as my right wrist feels the squeeze of the release while I pull back through the draw cycle. Anchor points are set, vision locked into the peep sight and the 30 yard pin lines up on his vitals. The buck is walking directly into my shooting lanes, I switch to the 20 pin. My lungs slowly fill with air in preparation for a calculated exhale.
Finally, his hoof lands in my first clear shooting lane. My shoulders initiate a burning sensation while waiting for this moment, locked in place. My intuition tells me the buck must inherently know the dynamic difficulties of a hunter letting an arrow fly ethically. The animal my attention is wrapped around instantly picks up his pace up to a quick trot as soon as this initial step into my shooting lane is taken. His movement is swift through my lanes, coming as close as 12 yards and leaves just as quickly. Possibly a consequence of savoring too much of this moment, and his selected doe making her grand escape from his desires to mate her. In a matter of seconds, he’s gone. He moves swiftly and silently through my lanes, becoming a ghost in the timber once more. I’ll never see him again.
The devastation immediately overwhelms me. The lead up was picture perfect, the classic action of the rut immediately underneath me. A flurry of hormonal driven animal actions starting and stopping in my static observational post in the timber. By the time I sit back down, I’m laughing like a kid and settle in to savor the moment of time that just occurred.
Future visits to the riverside treestand leave me with all the needed time to contemplate everything besides nocking an arrow with a large buck in my sight. With two tags in my pocket, I’m looking to fill either sex to get meat in the freezer. One evening as the light is slipping away, a small group of deer walk my direction. In the small water source, remnants of the previous rain in a small creek bed, they drink. Weaving through the trees in their departure, the last deer of the group momentarily halts in an opening.
I’m set up for this shot, as it’s my only opportunity before the trail leads them deep into thick timber. At the bottom of an exhale, my release is squeezed. In a flash, my arrow leaves the rest and shoots cleanly through the deer, becoming lodged in the oak leaf covered embankment behind the deer. Dark Kansas dirt flings into the air as the deer bolts to the woods with the last legal light of the evening hiding the precise placement of my arrow, though the noise of the arrow hitting it’s body confirms that I’ll be looking for a deer on the ground shortly.
Darkness blankets the timber and ground as I slip down the stand with my headlamp on. I sweep through the woods and start to look for the blood trail. Unbeknownst to me, that would be the first and last arrow I’d release from the stand for the 2017 season.
Every cell in my body is vibrating with excitement while I slip down the stand. The beam of the headlamp leads me through the trail and across the creek to where the deer stood. The scene gets every oak leaf turned over looking for the first speck of blood to follow. My search leaves me filled with the uncertainty as no blood trail is available to track. The timber is pitch black by this time and Joel has joined in the search after I call for help. We make the decision to quietly slip out of the timber and go home to return at first light to find the deer. Stress builds with the thoughts of a misplaced shot, resulting in an animal that I may or may not find. The best thing for us to do at this point is walk away, ensuring not to bump the deer and add a new layer of difficulty in recovering the animal.
Laying in bed that evening was the worst sleep I’ve experienced in recent memory. Thoughts race through my brain: Where did the arrow hit? Is the animal suffering? Are the multiple dens filled with hungry coyotes I heard during the sunset going to find this animal before I do? Sleep doesn’t come easy.
A stressed exhale exits my body as I sit up in bed early the next morning. I’m dressed and out the door as quickly as possible, heading back to the last place I stood the night before. I walk in prepared for a stalk if necessary, but within 15 minutes of anxious breathing through the crisp November morning my eyes lock on the deer I shot the night before. 50 yards away from where I shot, the deer passed during the night and was left untouched by any scavenging animals. Dropping to a knee, I pause and give thanks. A couple of phone calls and 15 more minutes pass and I’ve got Joel and dad by my side field dressing the deer.
In typical fashion, most everything Joel and I are doing is wrong and my old man keeps asking for the knife. He held off bow hunting this year because both of his boys were getting after it, though it seems he’s eager to be involved and/or put his two cents in. In a polite and respectful Mason family style, I tell him exactly where he can go – it’s much warmer there. He laughs and moves out of the way while continuing to back seat drive our efforts.
I look back at these memories while embracing the moments unfolding in front of us. The best part of it is the recognition that us Mason boys aren’t afraid to dish the sarcasm cutdowns we’ve been accustomed to, now feeding them back to our old man. The non-stop banter has us on our toes constantly, looking for an angle or weakness shown. It’s a slippery slope, and I’m laughing the whole way down. I’m beyond thankful for these moments.
Deer season begins to wind down as a cold snap finally sets in around the holidays. Snow and ice clog up river channels and I move to hunting stands closer to the house. Deer have turned into nocturnal ghosts at this point, only stepping into fields in the very last light.
Joel and I get our last shot to fill our remaining tags during an extended day for rifle season, January 1st. I choose to leave my rifle behind and join my brother in a promising deer blind, close proximity to where he killed his buck. All the weight of the season sheds away with each step into the deer blind as we walk side by side. The final hunt gives us an opportunity we’ve never experienced: to sit in the same blind during a hunt. Time to converse over the season, the upcoming horizons for the both of us, and share an appreciated silence while keeping a close eye on the timberline.
After a few hours of conversation and a missed opportunity, a doe slowly works her way into range. Anticipation builds as the cautious doe weaves between the tall grass in the treeline and open field. Watchful eyes scan the horizon for movement and an acutely sensitive nose of the doe inspects every gust of wind brushing against her. The crosshairs of the scope mounted on dad’s old .243 begin to find their place. A deep bellowing shock, followed by the scream of a bullet ripping through the air always causes me to blink, even after 31 years of hunting and time spent in the military. My eyes open and examine the results of a perfectly placed shot, six inches behind the jaw. The doe drops instantly due to the fatal placement of the bullet; vast amounts of meat perfectly intact. With gunpowder in our nostrils, Joel and I work our way out, 117 yards away to field dress the animal. The whitetail season is officially over.
The mercury continues its downward descent as winter locks it’s claws into the Kansas landscape. Our freezers now filled to the brim with burger, sausages, steaks, and a whole front shoulder that will soon find its way into our smoker. It’s been a successful season of whitetail hunting for the Masons. Two whitetails harvested from our bows, one from Joel’s rifle, and another by our father’s truck during the rut. My chest swells, with knots in place. I know how special these moments are with my family.
Spring will be here soon and my travels will have my new basecamp in a mountainous setting, far from the landscape of Kansas. The adventurous lifestyle in the tightly crowded topographical map lines is where I’ll be soon, but I’ll always know where home is.