The Silent Treatment

The silence was painful.  Dawn was breaking as the slate gray sky grew ever lighter in shade with every passing minute.  I scanned the skidder row in front of me, where the now thinned pines met the hardwood drain.  Without moving my head, I glanced over at my hunting partner, and caller, Nathan.  I could tell by his body language he was getting anxious.  We had set up close, maybe a little too close.  The downed saplings and piles of pushed up brush had made navigation in the dark difficult.  Now we sat quietly waiting for a sign that he was there.  Last weekend, Nathan had, had him hammering away at every sound he made on the slate.  Today was a new day.  Maybe the 42 degree night had them shut up.  Or maybe those guys Nathan had seen slipping out of this bow only area with shotguns had been back in here.  My mind wandered back through the years of mornings spent hunting Tom, when he never made a sound.  Long mornings spent running and gunning spots with our owl hoots, yelps, and cackles left unanswered.  Endless afternoons spent napping in the woods in areas we knew he liked to be.  I snapped to attention as a set of soft tree yelps broke the morning's silence.  The calls echoed out across the pines and chased themselves down the bottom.  I held my breathe to keep the sound of it out of my ears, that I might not miss a distant gobble.  The silence was so heavy that my ears were ringing.   We waited quietly, concealed in the brush.  Surely he would get fired up any minute, after all, we knew where he lived.  Sometimes the cold makes them gobble late, everybody knows that.  Heck, he might not even fly down until late morning.  I fingered my shooting tab nervously.  I looked down at my longbow, running my eyes over the arrow, checking that I had clearance to draw and shoot.  I stared out at the lone hen decoy, and as my mind played out the scenario, my heart began to beat hard in my chest.  I could see his tall dark form slowly exit the dark woods.  His skepticism turning into excitement as he broke into a full strut.  I could here him drumming, dragging his wings in a slow figure eight, an ancient dance older than cypress in this swamp.  As he passed around the decoy, his fan slowly obscured my view of his head.  I raised my bow slowly and came to anchor in one fluid motion.  I focused slightly above midline through his tail feathers, and began pulling through the shot.  As the arrow flew through my minds eye I was once again brought back to reality by a sharp cackle followed by a louder series of raspy yelps.  There was no answer.  Silence.  

After a while, we slowly rose and collected our gear.  We made our way down the forest service road, stopping to call occasionally in hopes of finding a player.  As we moved down the road, we could see a power line ahead.  We observed from a distance, slipping ever closer, watching carefully for any sign of a dark body.  Nathan remarked that he had previously heard the gobbler moving towards the power line, down through the hardwood bottom.  We finally peeked around the corner and out into the open.  Feathers littered the ground, and I felt my face go red.  "They killed him." , Nathan said.  We stood there in silence.  Finally, Nathan made his way back towards the road and I fell in behind.  As we passed through gate, I looked up and saw the large green sign that read, "Archery Only".  


I dropped the tailgate and opened my box containing my cast iron skillet.  As the bacon sizzled we talked about the morning and our disappointment with what we suspected had happened.  We weren't upset that the turkey was dead.  As traditional bow hunters that hunt public land, we mix it up with hunters using firearms regularly.  We were upset because we felt like the trespassing hunters had stolen our experience.  As I piled the second egg onto Nathan's sandwich, he took a large bite, and after chewing for a moment he said,"It's alright, this is a fine consolation."


Creighton Island, The Return

It' been a few years since my first trip to Creighton Island to hunt hogs with my stick bow.  You might recall during the first trip, my skiff, the "Double Haul" went down in bad storm that overwhelmed the bilge and killed my onboard battery.  Honestly, the sting hasn't really faded.  As we pulled up to the island, I metaphorically shook my fist at her and swore retribution.  There had to be blood....

Full Circle

I quietly shut the truck door, shouldered my stand and took a long deep breath.  The landscape was changing rapidly and I knew winter was around the corner.  The rut was essentially over and I had made a move to hunt the edges of the thickest bedding area I could find. Rifle season on public land drives the deer to deep cover by mid November.   All of these things were running through my head as I walked along, sounding like an elephant walking in cornflakes through the fresh blanket of fall leaves.  As I approached a drain that made its way down to a beaver pond from the top of the hill I paused.  I remembered walking out one night and spotting a doe who had made her way down just at dark. I stood for a minute pondering a change of plans, and then turned and quietly made my way up the drain.  Inside the edge of the pines there was a small pocket of red and white oaks that bordered a 2 acre cutover that appeared to be an old loading dock.  A well worn trail skirted the edge of the cutover across a saddle and there were several piles of fresh droppings along the way.  I chose a white oak 15 yards below the trail.  This gave me a good shot from my stand to the edge of the cutover and let my scent blow downhill and out over the beaver pond.  


I settled in and was sitting quietly for about an hour.  The spot was perfect and I couldn't believe I hadn't hunted here before now.  I stood looking out over the beaver pond watching the wood ducks feeding and listening to their quiet chatter.  I looked back over my right shoulder towards the cutover and there stood 3 does at 50 yards.  I never heard a thing.  They had slipped up on me silently the way deer often do.  They fed along quietly as I retrieved my bow from its hook and slowly got into position.  The lead doe was the largest and she was scanning the woods constantly for any sign of trouble.  She slowly and methodically made her way down the trail.  I checked my shooting stance, made sure my limbs were clear, and pulled slight tension on the string.  As she came into range I slowly drew the bow and settled to anchor as the deer paused broadside at 15 yards.  That's when it happened.  Time just seemed to stop.  I stared at a spot 2 inches behind her shoulder , saw the arrow spinning in slow motion, and the fletching collapsing as it disappeared through the deers side.  The doe jolted forward a few steps and looked around.  She walked down the trail about 20 yards bleeding badly from her side.  The arrow had passed cleanly through her.  She began to get weak and laid down and was soon still.  It took me several minutes to realize what had just happened.  After a year away from bow hunting, and switching to traditional gear, I had just killed my first deer with a stick and string.  I had sent an arrow I built and fletched, a broadhead I had sharpened by hand with a file to its mark.  I gathered my things and descended from my perch.  I ran my hands over the deers soft coat, placed my bow across her shoulder and took a few photos in the fading light.  



I have never had a higher moment than that in my time as a bowhunter.  In that moment, I found a connection that I had never experienced before.  This is what I had been searching for, what had been driving me, since the young boy of 12 picked up his first bow.  There was a soft sadness and yet a glowing pride and sense of accomplishment.  It felt raw and pure.  There was a deep primalness that caused my heart to pound and my hands to shake.  I thought back over my journey as a bowhunter.  The struggle to learn the craft with no teacher but a few books and magazines.  The memory of a 19 year old standing over his first deer after years of mistakes and fruitless seasons.  My bowhunting had finally come full circle.

Choppin' Wood

It was clear I had screwed up.  In the gray of the early morning dawn, the fog was slowly lifting enough for me to see that I was at least 60 yards out of position.  The fog had been so thick on the walk in that morning my flashlight was of little use.  Now I was settled in my stand and dawn was coming like a train down the tracks.  I was frustrated and I knew if I didn't make a move now I would risk blowing my whole morning hunt.  

A year prior I had decided after months of consideration to give a recurve a try.  I had been bowhunting nearly 20 years, but I knew absolutely nothing about traditional archery.  It wasn't like I had killed my fill of deer with a compound either.  I had started bowhunting when I was twelve.  I don't even really remember why I wanted to bow hunt or how the idea got into my head.  I do remember wanting to learn to hunt.  I had always been a boy who was lost in the woods or wading some nearby creek catching crawdads.  I guess it was just a natural extension of my desire to be outside.  I cut lawns and saved up $60.  My dad, who knew nothing about archery, took me to a local pawn shop where I picked out an old Darton trailmaster compound with wood glass limbs.  I thought I was Fred Bear himself with that bow in my hand.  I learned to shoot that bow with fingers, that is, as soon as I was strong enough to pull it back.  I worked and worked at it increasing my strength pull by pull.  I poured over the pages of Bowhunter Magazine and Field and Stream for any tips and instruction I could find.  This was 1988 and there was no internet to scour for information.  There were no youtube videos or online forums.  It wasn't long before I had somehow managed to teach myself a reasonable form and solid anchor point.  I was drilling a cotton filled burlap sack my dad had purchased for me at Augusta Sporting Goods at 25 yards with ease.  I wouldn't take my first deer with a bow until I was 19.  It was a long drought.  Hunting pressured public land and having no idea what I was doing made for a steep learning curve.  For some reason I never quit.  It just wasn't my nature really.  I hunted with a rifle some during those years mostly with my high school friends.  Only one of them bow hunted and he was as clueless as I was.  We played football on friday nights and on saturdays we hunted.  

I made my way slowly across the shallow wet weather pond.  The water was only ankle deep and I was headed to a willow tree growing at its edge on the far side.  I was in Graduate school at the University of South Carolina and I had, had almost no time to hunt over the past couple of years.  I had managed to get out to some pubic land over the holidays and had found several scrapes just along the edge of this wet weather pond.  There was a 35 yard swath of land between it and the river and any deer traveling the river bottom had to pass through it.  The willow had a low branch that made a perfect seat with lots of good cover around me.  I settled in for what I imagined would be a long fruitless wait.  I cradled an old martin hatfield takedown recurve in my lap.  I had managed to get consistent with it out to 20 yards and I felt confident if a buck checked that scrape at 12 yards he was mine.  I was startled out of my thoughts by the sound of a deer trotting right at me.  He was coming right down the edge of the pond and I held my breath as he approached.  He stopped at the scrape and began sniffing and pawing at the leaves.  At 10-12 yards he was lager than life and I was afraid to blink.  Suddenly, I noticed the moisture vapor from my breath floating right at the buck like a toxic cloud of death.  The wind had shifted and the deer was now directly downwind of me.  Instantly he snorted and stuck his head straight up on full alert.  He scanned his surroundings for danger, the muscles in his shoulders rippling with fear. He looked dead away from me and when he did I drew and released.  He was already in motion as the arrow arced towards his vitals.  He ducked and spun in the direction he had come from as the arrow narrowly sailed over his back.  He was gone.  I sat motionless completely numb to what had just happened.  Oddly all I could think about was getting back to columbia to tell my room mate, Rocky, about my incredible encounter.  

I had met Rocky Cooley while I was in Nurse Anesthetist school at USC.  He was in the class behind me.  I was graduating in May and my wife and I had put our house up for sale early and it had sold in two weeks time.  She was moving back to live in North Augusta, SC while I still needed a place to crash until school was officially over.  I had heard through some students that Rocky had a house and might be willing to rent a room to me on the cheap.  We Immediately hit it off.  We were both huge outdoorsman and it was like we had been friends all of our lives.  Rocky was a bowhunter plain and simple.  A good ole boy from Lagrange, Ga, he and I just simply saw the world the same way.  Proof of this was in the fact that I hadn't even gotten the story completely out of my mouth when he said, "So when we going back?"  We hatched a plan in short order.  We would use my jon boat for an afternoon river assault next saturday.

I settled in to my stand on one side of the wet weather pond and a text from Rocky confirmed he was also, "Up n good!"  We had the pinch point covered on each end of the wet weather pond with about 100 yards separating us.  The jon boat was beached at the rivers edge and we were both drunk with the possibility of hauling a deer out in it.  My thoughts were broken by the sound of crunching leaves.  The buck was back and heading right for me.  I slowly stood and retrieved my recurve from its hook on the tree.  The buck stopped at about 18 yards and was feeding on pin oak acorns and slightly quartering away.  It was now or never.  I drew slowly keeping my eye focused on a spot just behind his shoulder.  The arrow passed just under the bucks chest and stuck into the ground.  The buck startled but was unsure of what had happened.  He stood still for a moment and then slowly walked right towards me.  I fumbled with my quiver and got another arrow ready, never taking my eyes off of him.  The deer passed behind my tree and when he was at 10 yards I drew.  The angle was a little steep and I didn't take into account that my bottom limb might be in peril of striking the side of my stand.  However, when i released it became very obvious.  The arrow soared over the deer's back and he started off at a trot down towards Rocky. A few moments later I heard the tell tale sound of an arrow slamming into an animal.  

I reached Rocky just as he stepped out of his stand onto the ground.  He said he wasn't sure about where he'd hit the deer but he felt like it was a good hit.  We debated for a moment about backing out, but we both had to be back in columbia the next day for call shifts at the hospital as part of our training.  We decided to take a quick look and assess the blood trail.  There was blood every where.  It called to us and drew us deeper and deeper into the woods like the song of some mythical siren.  Somehow we knew better, but somehow we just couldn't help ourselves.  We found several spots with large pools of blood where the deer had stopped.  Surely we would find him at any moment.  There was so much blood!  Thats when we jumped him the first time.  We waited about 30 minutes and picked up the trail and it wasn't long before we jumped him again.  To make matters worse the blood trail was getting less all the time.  Something wasn't right.  This deer should be dead by now.  We were a long way from the boat by then and we new were very close the national forrest boundary.  We followed the trail up the side of a hill into waste deep grass and thats when the blood stopped.  

The ride home was a quiet one at first.  We both knew we had made a mistake.  What was worse we knew that deer was likely going pay the price for it.  Rocky had lost a few deer in his time as bowhunter.  This was my first.  It felt awful.  I could tell that Rocky knew what I was feeling.  He told me stories of hunts gone by.  We talked about the fact that we should have backed out, but we really hadn't had a choice with school and all.  At the end of the day we had done all we could and it wasn't enough.  It wasn't enough for either of us.  Rocky paused and took a long deep breath and then in his thick south Georgia accent he said something I will never forget, " If you chop enough wood man, you gonna a splinter."