It was pretty cold out when I settled into my seat 15' up the oak tree at 5:30 a.m. But I had dressed warm and was looking forward to another full day in the Iowa hardwoods.
The previous day had been very interesting. I had seen plenty of deer, probably thirty or more, including one trophy buck that stayed out of range. My hunting partner had shot a big buck and for a couple of hours I came out of my tree, joined in the search, and was excited to be present when his big fella was found. Oh, did I say fella? His big whitetail scored 160 gross (Boone & Crocket) but it had no testicles! "Oh, John, you shot a horny doe!" (as you might imagine that was only the beginning ribbings that continue to this day).
After the recovery of John's deer I returned to my tree stand. A little breeze had come up, and I impaled a strip of paper towel on a bush about 30 yards from my tree and saturated it with Tink's Real Doe Pee (so passing creatures might be distracted from my own scent). Within a couple of hours after returning to my stand I again had deer filtering through the woods. Some smelled the Tink's, others were oblivious, none spotted me, and none sported antlers like the buck I'd seen in the morning.
That little breeze foretold a weather change. Overnight the temperature dropped into the teens, and now the following morning there were several inches of fresh snow on the ground. As I settled into my tree stand I knew it would be a good day for hunting. Against the bright background of the snow, visibility was great; also, I'd noticed as I walked to my tree that morning that the deer had already been traveling through the hardwoods, stopping here and there to scratch for acorns.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m. I spotted several deer about 200 yards off to my west. Among them was a very large buck. In Iowa a buck with antlers scoring more than 125 points (B&C scoring system) is considered a "shooter" and this one fit that description. But he wasn't traveling in my direction, and although he was soon gone from sight, yet just spotting him served to warm the bones and encourage my continued wariness.
Within the next hour or so, two does, a seven-point buck and an 8-pointer had all passed under my tree stand. These two bucks would not be likely to slip past a hunter in Michigan , but they were not shooters, and so out here they were just fun to watch. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, blew my nose (temperature now in the 20's and nose running pretty constantly), and settled in for the afternoon.
Time actually seems to pass surprizingly quickly when sitting up in a tree watching deer, squirrels, turkeys and so on in their natural habitat. It was 3:18 when I saw a doe approaching from the north. Although a hardwoods may be described as open, yet there are the tree trunks, blow-downs, branches and bushes that obstruct clear view, and although I could soon see several other deer trailing the first, it was several minutes before I could make out a large rack among them. Did I say "large"? I mean that as I watched this deer slowly work its way toward me, disappearing behind natural features, reappearing briefly and then gone again, I knew that it was large because I could hear that it was large. I don't mean that I could hear the crunch of heavy footsteps-- no, what I heard was the boom!, boom!, boom! that was my heart pounding in my chest. This was a shooter!
For ten minutes I watched him draw ever nearer. Every thing else in the world was gone. My nose drained down my mustache and acoss my lips and down the front of my jacket. My hands had grown numb but I couldn't feel cold. This would be an awkward shot, as it forced me to stand on my 20" platform facing the tree. I got my left foot up onto the frame of the seat, rested my elbow on my bent knee, and prepared to shoot. He was about 160 yards out when he turned to the west and I just knew that he was going to walk away (I knew this because big bucks never just walk on in to a hunter- that's the secret of how they survive to be big bucks). Then he stopped. My Encore muzzle-loader has a 3-9 x Weaver mounted atop it and I cranked it up to max. He stepped forward and stopped again. There! Between two trees, in an opening about 14 inches wide, I could make out the back of his shoulder and the front of his chest. Broadside. Center the reticle. Shoot! Pull the trigger now! I did. Nothing happened.
To load an Encore you put powder down the barrel, then ram a bullet down atop the powder. You must then tip open the barrel of the gun by pulling on a tang or spur that is under the trigger guard, which enables placement of a primer cap. To fire you simply close the breach, cock the hammer, and pull the trigger. That sequence causes the firing pin to drive into the primer cap which explodes and ignites the powder which propells the bullet toward the target. Pretty simple, really.
But I was pulling on the tang, not the trigger.
"For God sakes!" I exclaimed to myself in an inner voice so loud that it momentarily drowned out that damned booming of my heart. I took my gun off my shoulder. "Wait!" I commanded myself. That old nemesis of every whitetail hunter, buck fever, had its awful grip on me and as a result I had nearly blown my chances at this buck by taking a dang near impossible shot, from an awkward position, at beyond reasonable range. I was only saved by the fact that the fever had me pulling something other than the trigger!
It took a very long time for the buck to work his way back to giving me another shot. He entered a creek bed. For five minutes all I could see of him was an occasional thin line of his back and his antlers when he raised his head from browsing along the creek bottom. He stepped out behind bushes. He wandered closer, at an angle, slowly and always behind trees. Then he stopped and stood, watching a newly arrived doe. If he approached her I could see that I would have a broadside shot. Directly in front of him, just 90 yards from my stand, there was an opening.
I put my crosshairs on the opening. One step, two steps, steady... steady... now! My shot put him down in his tracks. The smoke from my muzzle blast cleared and I saw his head twitch, and then he was still. Dead. The does looked around, then continued to forage through the woods. But wait! What is that? Here came another buck: another bruiser of a buck. He didn't care about the report from my firearm, he only cared about the buck I'd just shot. Not two minutes after my shot, as I stood in amazement and considered the implications of shooting a double, this huge second buck came up to the dead deer. He reached out with his forefoot and kicked him. He backed up and pawed the earth. He kicked him again, then raged on a bush, tossing broken branches in all directions. He walked to the front of his adversary and engaged antler to antler. "Click, click" and the familiar sound of antlers rattling sounded. He backed off and pawed the earth again, walked to the side, and then rammed his dead adversary squarely under the shoulder and began pushing him about on the ground (later, upon skinning the first buck, several deep penetration wounds from the goring were discovered).
For several more minutes the assault went on. Finally, satisfied that his dominance could not be questioned, the King of the Forest , swaggered (I swear it was a swagger) from the vanquished, shot his piss all about the place, and walked to within 20 yards of my tree. He carried a perfectly symmetrical 8-point rack with heavy mass, 12 inch tines, and main beams that went out beyond the ears and then swept back to nearly meet in the middle.
He and I looked one another in the eye for a few seconds, but he was full of the strength of the whupping he'd just handed out, and was not at all intimidated by my presence. Had he known I was other than part of that tree I believe he would have challenged me to come on down and fight him. He turned and walked away, pausing at the doe pee strip I'd put out the day before. I watched as he took it into his mouth, tipped his head back and chewed the thing up like he was a baseball player with yesterday's bubblegum. He swallowed it. The woods was full of testosterone.
I watched him watching the does who remained scattered about. They were all very much aware of his status, and any time he stepped toward any of them they were quick to scamper away. He stood at the edge of the forest and his silouette was sharp against the snow of the field beyond. He was the King of the Forest .
After dark I came down from my tree. It had been a good day of hunting.