By Zachary Welch
My heart began racing out of control as the familiar 9-point from the trail camera pictures squared up to the fence crossing less than 30 yards from me. Time seemed to stand still as the buck stood frozen solid, staring at the plethora of does that were feeding just in front of me. The evening had fallen still and you could hear a pin drop as the sun began to sink in the west. “No way this is going to happen,” I thought to myself as I kept my eyes locked on the buck hoping he would decide to come join the party. Then, in the blink of an eye, the buck leaped over the fence and continued down the trail onto the edge of the field. The cards were on the table, all of the hours preparing over the summer came down to this moment.
The season had been fast-paced and action-packed for me since the start. I was in my first year of physical therapy school and I was learning quickly that free time in graduate school is very limited. Nevertheless, I was jumping at the opportunity to get into the woods any chance that I could. My season started with a quick trip to Wyoming during the final days of summer vacation before starting school. A 9-hour drive after a white coat ceremony put us into antelope camp just after 1am. After a short night’s sleep, and a morning in the blind, my antelope tag was punched and before I knew it, I was on my way back to Nebraska the next day to prepare for my first day of school. Fast forward a few weeks to the beginning of September, and I found myself punching tags on both spot and stalk archery antelope in Nebraska, as well as my first buck tag for the season on a wide 9-point that I connected with on my 3rd encounter in 24 hours. On top of that, my younger sister connected with a mature buck the same night, making for one of the most unforgettable weekends of hunting in my life.
My freezer was full, and I had just one buck tag remaining for the season in my pocket. While my mind was set on a mule deer buck that I had multiple close encounters with since the start of the season, I knew that if an opportunity at another mature whitetail came, I would not hesitate, especially with the semester now in full swing. With weekend plans of returning home and making the most of a free weekend my anticipation was growing as the week began to drag on, and when I received a picture message from my dad of a mature 9 point hitting our food plot several times over the past week, it reached an all-time high. I began counting down the days until the weekend, and when Friday afternoon hit, I was on the road as soon as the class was finished. Little did I know what the weekend had in store.
The sun lit up the Sandhills as it broke the horizon and gave way to a beautiful Saturday morning. After walking several miles that morning, I started to make my way back in order to stay on schedule of getting to our family cabin for an evening hunt. It was almost too good to be true when on my way out I came face to face with the deer that had been on my mind. Bedded on a side hill with his companion 5×5, he seemed to taunt me as his massive chocolate-colored rack stuck out like a sore thumb against the gold of the dying grass. I plotted out my approach, and dropped back into a cut to circle around and get into position. This story would be ending much differently had I taken a different approach, and as I drove to town, I felt a bit defeated thinking about what I could have done differently. As they say, ”hindsight is 20/20.” Nevertheless, I was grateful to even have an opportunity at such an amazing animal, and the feelings of defeat soon turned to thankfulness that I was blessed to be able to be doing what I love, as well as the thought in mind that I would be in a tree in just a few short hours. It’s hard not to smile when you look at it that way!
I looked at the trail camera picture on my phone as I prepared to make my way to the stand. “I will decide if he shows up,” I said to myself while examining the several angles he gave to the camera. With a close call with the muley earlier that day, I would be lying if I said that my mind wasn’t dead set on him at the moment, or so I thought. The 9-point was the only mature deer making an appearance at this spot, and consistency was not part of his routine. Pictures ranging from the middle of the night, to daylight, and even morning made it hard to tell exactly when he would show up, but with a slight chill in the air, I had a feeling that tonight just might be the night. I looked up the ladder at the double-wide stand strapped into the oak tree. The stand had been in the same spot for nearly 11 years, it was a special spot, to say the least. It was hard to believe that nearly 11 years had passed since I took my first deer from it, a memory that I can vividly replay like it was yesterday. I proceeded with my routine; I thanked God for another opportunity to hunt, made the ascent into the stand, knocked an arrow, and settled in for the evening.
The first deer made their way into the field shortly after I settled in, and deer continued to emerge from the woods, filtering into the field in front of me as the evening went on. As the sun sank over the ridge to the west, the air began to cool off and the evening fell still. Does and fawns fed in front of me, and I was amazed at how many deer were in the small plot, the most I had seen in one night on that field in quite some time. A movement to my right caught my attention, and I leaned over to get a better view. I was in disbelief when a familiar 9-point lifted his head and began making his way to the fence line. After a few intense moments that seemed to take an eternity, the buck was now in the field and does begin to scatter as he made his way towards them. I closed my eyes and tried to compose myself, I didn’t have to decide if I was going to shoot him or not, that decision was made the second I saw him, he was bigger than I thought, and without a doubt was mature. I opened my eyes and watched as the buck fed, I just needed him to turn…
The buck turned his head away and I drew my bow as his shoulder moved forward. Settling my pin behind the shoulder, I squeezed slowly and heard a thump as the buck dashed for the trees to the south. It all happened in an instant and the woods fell completely silent. I waited until dark and climbed down to grab my arrow, which was soaked in blood. Opening the door to the cabin, my dad leaned forward in the chair and I didn’t have to say anything. I held my quiver up and arrow that was coated from tip to knock in red told the story for me. We had a blood trail to follow!
They say bowhunting can be the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and from the muley that morning, to the shot, and now taking up a blood trail that was not offering much hope, I was experiencing that to a T. I was in disbelief when a few specks of blood and a couple of tracks were all the blood trail had to offer, especially considering the looks of my arrow. Ultimately, my dad and I went different ways where the trail split. He continued up the trail towards the top of the hill, while I stayed on the outside of the tree line along the draw. I was confused, devastated, and in complete disbelief that we had not found the deer. The shot looked and sounded good, and now I was beginning to doubt myself and began to think that we should return in the morning.
My dad’s light came down the hill and his voice broke the silence. “Have you found anything?” I heard him say as he walked towards me. My stomach was in a knot as I told him I had not found a drop of blood or any sign of the deer since the split of the trail. Just as I was about to make the call to come back in the morning, he slapped me on the shoulder. “He’s beautiful!” He said with a smile as he gave me a hug. A huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders and we seemed to skip up the hill as we made our way to the buck. High fives, pictures, and a prayer of thanks followed, and as I prepared for bed that night, I couldn’t help but smile in reflection of the whole season. Looking back, making the decision to set the stand that evening instead of return to the hills was the right one to make. Having the opportunity to shoot a buck from such a special spot and to take my mind off of school for a bit gave this hunt much more meaning that goes far beyond the harvest of the buck. This season has been full of making memories with family and friends, and though I may be tagged out, I look forward to making more memories with them on hunts of their own.