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It was the evening of October 31, 2021, and the sun had just set, plunging the frozen, silent mountain landscape into grey light. I knelt down in the fresh, deep snow next to the still warm body of what had just become my greatest achievement of my half-decade bowhunting career.

I shook the glove from my hand and reached down into the snow to grasp the left-hand main beam of a 160-class southern Alberta public land, mountain whitetail deer. Seeing him up close and in the flesh for the first time was very surreal, and I was overcome with emotion as the past came surging to the front of my mind.
In a flash, I was taken back in time over five years to a warm, sunny September evening, walking into the whitetail woods for the very first time with a tree stand strapped to my back and looking for a place to hang my very first set.

Hunting had skipped an entire generation on both sides of my family, and I was totally on my own. At that time in my hunting career, I was eager but unaccomplished and I was as green as the very grass I was walking on. That first night, I watched a doe walk quietly beneath my platform at mere feet and completely unaware of my presence. Although I did not shoot her, I realized that evening the value of concealment in a tree stand and the power that it could give me over the oblivious creatures that wandered the woods below.

Naively, I thought that it would be only a matter of time before I got an opportunity at one of the big deer that I had seen killed many times on hunting television shows. If you had told me then what I know now about what it takes to get within bow range of a wild 5-1/2 year old whitetail buck, I probably would have quit right there. The gap in skill and knowledge between then and now is immense and would have surely overwhelmed me.

This process was a years’ long journey and each season I picked up bits and pieces of the puzzle. Hundreds of trail camera batteries were burned to gather tiny clues that began to form a much larger picture of what was really going on out there. I spent hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours listening to podcasts from whitetail experts who talk about their methods. I watched countless videos trying to glean any tips or tactics I could to help me improve my strategy, and I would pester any experienced whitetail hunter I could find with questions… You know who you are.

In the end, experience played the biggest role in my growth as a bowhunter. An untold number of hours in a stand freezing and shivering until the last rays of light disappeared. Countless long and lonely walks in the dark to and from the truck during the months of September, October, and November for several seasons in a row is what ended up shaping me and teaching me the most. The pieces to the puzzle came so slowly but I stayed committed to the game and stubbornly continued to pursue my goal of a whitetail buck.

Eventually, I reached a point where I was able to hold enough of these puzzle pieces in my mind to create a picture of a whitetail buck’s life and how he uses his environment. Everything from wind direction and thermals, to reading tracks and trails, to learning how to find the best feed and cover, and not just finding but making rubs and scrapes. Most importantly was understanding that mature bucks are nothing like the rest of the deer herd. All of these became chess pieces that seemed to move and interact with each other in real time. It was my job to make these calculated moves and search for an opportunity to get a target buck into “checkmate.”

On August 31, 2021, I met such a deer. Appropriately named “Split Brow” because of a forked brow tine on his left side. He was a mainframe 10-point with exceptional mass. Over the months of September and October, he was a regular on my trail cameras and I determined him to be the biggest deer that actually “lived” on the piece of ground I was hunting.

Unfortunately for Split Brow, between September 13 and 26, he broke off approximately 9 inches of his right side G3, which made his rack a lot less attractive but much easier to identify.

As the month of October rolled on and the mountain aspen leaves changed from their brilliant green to a rich golden yellow that carpeted the forest floor, Split Brow became more and more active. He began to show consistency on one of my mock scrapes I had created back in June. His visits became more frequent, and the nighttime pictures became closer and closer to daylight with each passing week.

Finally, on October 26, he day lighted, which let me know my patience had paid off. It was time to move in for a kill sit. The unseasonably warm temperatures of that entire fall shifted and the mercury plummeted deep into the double-digit negatives. The wind direction was still going to be perfect and at mid-day on Halloween, I drove over an hour into the mountains and hiked the 2.5 kilometres into the timber where my handful of ghostly trail camera images said he was currently haunting.

It was a bitterly cold but high-pressure bluebird wintery day and I sat quietly in my tree saddle, waiting patiently for the evening deer movement. A red fox and a pair of moose kept me company as the hours ticked by until the magic of Halloween night arrived. I had been staring a hole through the pocket of timber to the east of me where I expected him to come from. The sun dipped and the thermals switched. My container of cattail fuzz that I had been tossing pieces of all day was almost empty. I watched with despair as one of the last few pieces I had left drifted opposite of where I wanted it to go. It looked like it was time to pull the plug on this sit.

I began slowly packing up my gear in preparation to descend the tree when I felt the breeze shift again to my favour. A trademark of this particular spot is that in the last 30 minutes of legal light the wind can be inconsistent. I decided to hang tight and keep an eye on it. It repeated this pattern several times more over the next 15 minutes, each time accompanied with heart dropping panic and then suddenly rising again with relief and optimism.

Suddenly, movement to my left. A deer. A whitetail deer. A buck! A big buck! My binoculars had not hit my face longer than a half-second before I recognized the broken G3 on the right side. “Split Brow!” I said to myself, “and he’s coming right towards me.”
The buck was trotting down the trail headed right along the fence line where my stand was placed. Within seconds, I had dropped the binoculars and had my release on the string.

As the buck approached, he passed in and out of sight through some pine trees. I picked my moment and made full draw. He cleared the fence wire with a confident leap and hit the ground on the other side just as I completed my anchor. Then, as if scripted from a hunting TV show, he turned broadside at 20 yards and stopped all on his own. I watched the arrow slam into his chest and tumble end over end out the other side.

The buck burned a 180 back toward the ridge where he had come from and sprinted off into the already darkening timber. I had done it!

Walking along the red speckled deer tracks in the snow a short distance, the reality of what I had just accomplished began to set in. When I laid eyes on this large, brown, burly figure lying in the brush, I lost control of myself. A flood of emotions came over me and the incredible weight of this monkey on my back melted away.

The author with his prized whitetail.
I remember one of my whitetail hunting mentors jokingly say to me, “There are many easier ways to put a head on the wall if that’s all a guy wants”, and he is indeed correct. Shooting a deer of this calibre is not entirely uncommon, but there was always so much more to it than that for me.

The romantic side of me wants to believe that there is prestige for those who hold the whitetail with such high esteem that they choose not to circumvent his sharp senses by means of long-distance equipment. There is a profound sense of honor and pride in a hunter who willingly chooses to go toe-to-toe with each one of the animal’s keen defenses, and by virtue of their crafted patience and skill, maneuvers between those senses, defeating them one-by-one until they have that deer right where they want him—in his house, playing his game, by his rules.

A perfectly righteous arrow released at 20 yards has earned me the right to stand among those who forfeit the ease and convenience, who challenge themselves with one of the most highly regarded trophies out there. I will forever be humbled by the pursuit of this animal and am proud to be counted as one of those who annually try to match wits with these legendary, hallowed ghosts of the forest. ■

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