MA#309Adapt for Big Bucks in the Bottoms
Dan Goodnight had to draw on five decades of bow hunting experience when he came up against a strange problem while hunting big eastern Colorado mule deer. He found very few trees on the plains and it’s tough for an archer to put up tree stands in the brush! Even though there are a few trees in the river bottoms, big muleys are deer of the open spaces and not in the habit of passing by places with the necessary ingredients for a good set up.
When hunting a new area, a bow hunter must rely on previously learned skills so Dan began serious scouting. After a few trips he came to the conclusion that his odds on the plains would be much better than trying to hunt in the sparse timber. Walking the four miles of river bottom with a camera and notebook he covered the outer edge of the timber and brush paying particular attention to areas with access to a food source and adjacent cover on CRP ground.
Dan was looking for a deer super highway; not a trail with occasional use, but areas that indicated major traffic. He also kept an eye open for sheds to learn more about the bucks that inhabited the area during the winter months. Although these were mule deer, they acted much like whitetails and didn’t migrate for the winter. The only movement they made was to change their access to a food source.
The fresh sign indicated a good food source was available and the deer were content to stay in the area. Unfortunately, this only held true for the doe population, as the bucks were vagabonds, living in bachelor herds except during the rut. But, with almost thirty does living in the area, there would be plenty of attraction for the vagabonds once the rut kicked it.
Evenings found him watching a super highway from a distance and right on schedule, after two lead does came out of the river bottom, entered the tall sorghum and settled in to eat, a herd of over thirty deer walked the exact same track. If the same routine occurred during the rut, the big bucks would be drawn into the open to check current estrus levels.
The Colorado archery season started in September and ran until December 31st so Dan wasn’t worried about time. September provided an opportunity to put up tree stands and develop ground blinds, so one by one, he put up stands in the sparse timber. He left a week or so between trips so the deer could get comfortable with the new disturbance as the last thing he wanted was to push them out of the country. He didn’t plan to seriously hunt until the November rut when he could hunt all-day and rotate stands.
After all his scouting and careful placement of stands it turned out a natural stand he had located looked like his best bet. It was a large oil tank with a ladder on one end that had been abandoned by oil exploration crews years ago. The clincher was the deer were now using the old access road as one of their travel routes.
Dan spends non-hunting time working in his auto body shop and practicing. Auto bodywork develops strong shoulders and arms and simplifies shooting his 70-pound bow. His constant practice developed the theory that if he can hit the target at 70 yards it makes a shot easier at 60, a sure thing at 50, a done deal at 40 and always dead center at 30 yards. Dan shoots a Mathews Switchback XT set at 70 pounds, using Carbon express Maxima 100 shafts and a 100-grain, G5 Montec head.
By the time the mid-November snow arrived Dan had left the area alone for over a month. Knowing the rut usually peaked in mid-November he finally arrived in the early morning darkness to climb his unique stand. He wanted to try the tank first as it was in a good location to view the deer traffic around the other stands. With head to toe Scent Lock coverage he quietly slipped into the area, put out a deer decoy then climbed the ladder into the nest he had built to break his silhouette.
At first light familiar groups of deer began to appear along with bucks he had never seen before. He sat all day but never saw a buck he wanted. The fields were covered with a light skiff of snow on day two that provided a fresh map of the nighttime deer movement and countless interlaced tracks confirmed his stand choice.
As the first two does walked down the oil tank road they stopped when they saw the decoy and went on full alert, large ears checking for sounds and noses working the air. Walking stiff-legged toward the artificial intruder one touched it nose-to-nose then bounced backwards as if in play. When the decoy did not respond they spent long moments smelling the entire decoy then turned and started to feed. This must have been the signal for the unseen deer that stood back in cover to move down the trail as other does began to follow the exact same route.
Two new visitors had joined the does, deer that Dan had never seen before. The first one was a nice 5×5 and the other a huge, long tined 4×4 that trailed at the very end of the parade. Recognizing the familiar, daily pattern as two adult does ventured out to check the area before the others emerged, Dan expected all 30 does and the two good bucks would soon be feeding around the oil tank.
As the deer approached the tank some inspected the decoy while others simply few walked around it. As the group grew in size Dan felt like he was sitting in a feedlot with the closest deer feeding just 20 yards away while the furthest was only 60 yards out. Once they all arrived the big 4×4 fed amid a big group of does blocking a clear shot. With 32 sets of eyes looking in all directions Dan realized any motion he made while drawing the bow could easily be seen. They had him pinned down and a comment his wife made recently in the sporting goods store popped into his head, “You could look but you could not touch.”
As the herd fed away, an opportunity opened up to draw for a quartering away shot. It was now or never and his motion spooked a doe but luckily, she quickly settled down. Being patient had its drawback as the buck fed from 40 yards to almost 60 before Dan could put the pin behind its shoulder. When the buck finally turned broadside to snatch a new clump of grass, Dan felt like it was teasing him by slowly taking away a shot.
Dan had been at full draw so long he had to either release or let the bow back down. The buck was still at 60 yards so he decided to take the shot but when he moved his hand along side his cheek, a finger caught on his facemask. He tried to push the mask out of the way with another finger but the elastic was new and tight. When it finally moved, the 60-yard pin settled back behind the front leg and he released.
The brightly colored fletching started out well above the buck but as if pulled by a magnet, it dropped lower and lower and finally struck the deer then disappeared from sight. The buck jumped and bolted while the does ran in every direction but the big 4×4 eventually headed for the river bottom. It stopped after 100 yards, holding his head lower than normal, then stepped down into a shallow draw and out of sight.
Dan sat there for almost an hour with binoculars shaking as he glassed the draw watching for the buck to exit. When the buck didn’t show Dan sat and waited another hour. As noon approached Dan finally felt brave enough to take a chance. He didn’t want to spook the buck he just wanted to see if it was still alive.
Slipping quietly around the draw, planning to back off and out of sight if its head was up, he finally saw antlers and froze. Looking through his binoculars he finally identified the buck’s position and was relieved it was lying down. After more patient glassing he finally realized the monster 4×4 was down for good and began a quiet celebration. He had come up against one of the biggest bucks in the river bottoms and won. The oil tank monster scored 177 6/8.