A Buck for Jake

A Buck for Jake

Mike Lowry

Mike Lowry, who now makes his home near Helena, Montana, is a long-time bowhunter and member of the Browning Pro Staff

A monster Montana whitetail — and special memories of a lost son — combine to give this veteran bowhunter an unforgettable season.

AUTUMN WAS IN THE afternoon air as I silently followed the wandering creek, noting how, in only a few short weeks, fall’s frosty breath had transformed the surrounding woodlands from summer green to fall brown. All around me the damp ground beneath skeleton branches was carpeted with curled leaves. Soon I dropped into the streambed, easing carefully along a fallen cottonwood, slick with moisture. Wet gravel crunched softly beneath my rubber-bottom boots as I forded the shallow creek and eased up the far bank, stepping into the brushy tangle beyond. This was a time for extra caution as I neared my treestand. This was where he lived.

I could still visualize the giant buck I’d seen here at the end of last hunting season. He’d paused in his pursuit of the doe he was trailing and turned his massive nontypical rack my way, searching briefly for the source of what sounded like two bucks fighting. Then, ignoring my rattling horns, he’d chased the doe on over the forested ridge and out of sight. All I could do was sit there and watch, vowing that I’d be back next year, wiser about where to hang my stand and more determined than ever to get a shot at this huge whitetail.

Slipping ahead, I quickly reached my treestand, shrugged Out of my pack, and fished out the small plastic bag of Trails End 307 lure and scent pads. Cautiously crossing a fence and narrow cattle trail out of these bottoms into the lush pastures beyond the ridge, I set out the scented pads, hanging one along the trail 30 yards from my stand and another 15 short yards away at the edge of the trees.

Easing back to the base of my stand tree, I shouldered the pack, tied my bow to a handy haul line, and climbed into the treestand. After belting myself in, I fitted an arrow on the string and hung the bow within easy reach. Everything was ready. All I needed was for the big boy to show up and give me a shot. Yet big deer are super smart. Realistically, I knew my chances were pretty slim.

SILENTLY WAITING, I THOUGHT of how things change. When I first moved to Montana some 10 years ago, I’d primarily been a stalker and still-hunter. Slipping through the desert and high woods had been, and still is, my favorite way to hunt. Sitting perched in an overhead stand had always taken a great deal of effort on my part. But I knew from experience that this was my best bet for taking a big whitetail. Sure, I’d tagged some smaller bucks and a few does while hunting at ground level, but never a true trophy whitetail. Now I was determined to get the big one — by playing the waiting game.

It is wonderfully strange how a person can sit down and blend in, becoming a part of the forest, aware of every sight and sound. I often feel that the woods actually absorb me, that I am part of a natural harmony that’s difficult to put into words but is easily recognized by anyone who’s experienced it. I am not an intruder; I simply disappear, becoming a part of nature’s continuous cycle of life and death.

At 4:00 p.m. I picked up my rattling antlers. This is always a real test for me since disturbing the peaceful harmony of the quiet woodlands is like breaking some magical spell. Besides, I can’t quite convince myself that rattling doesn’t scare off more bucks than it brings in. Of course, there was that big one I’d called in with my “horns” a couple of years ago. Why not give it a try?

First I blew a few soft grunts on my call, then faced a different direction and gave some deeper grunts, trying to sound like two bucks. I then turned the antlers over in my hands and clacked the backs together before locking the tines and grinding them back and forth, hoping to sound like the whitetail shoving match I’d listened to right here the day before yesterday. Three does had eased past and turned to look back the way they’d come. I remember thinking there must be something behind them when suddenly a couple of bucks started fighting back in the trees, just out of sight. It was too bad they didn’t cross the cattle corridor until it was too dark to shoot — or even to get a good look at them. Oh, well. Back to the business at hand, I ground and clacked the antlers together for a few minutes, grunted a few more times, and then started the sequence all over. Finally, I hung the antlers over a limb, grunted again, took down my bow, and waited.

Nothing moved. No bird or squirrel. Not even the slightest rustling in the leaves. Total silence. It was as if everything was just listening. Then slowly the woods came back to life. Squirrels scampered. Birds flitted branch to branch. Dead leaves fluttered down to the forest floor on a chilly breeze that bore the unmistakable smell of snow. Gray, moisture-laden clouds scudded overhead, promising a blanket of white by morning. I shivered.

Moving slowly and carefully, I pulled my PolarFleece neck gaiter up over my nose and snugged my hat over my ears. Cold minutes passed. Finally, I softly blew another series of grunts. You gotta have faith, I muttered to myself. Just hang in there.

TUNED IN, STRAINING to detect the slightest clue of an approaching buck, I thought of my son, Jake, who at 19 would have been a better bowhunter than his dad ever was. By the time of his death in a traffic accident, he already had taken live elk, including four branch-antlered bulls, and maybe 10 deer. lake truly had been blessed with a hunter’s gift. A sharp pain cut at my heart as I recalled the special times we’d shared and how excited he’d been on our hunts together. It was such a tragedy to have him taken away at such a young age, but nothing could ever erase the memories of our great times and talks together while enjoying God’s magnificent creations. Those times created a father/son bond that even death could not destroy. I found great solace in the fact that I did not have to suffer regrets at having failed to do things together when we had the chance. Truly, we’d done it all, together. Now, alone in the woodland solitude, I felt Jake’s presence. Death is only a separation of the physical; the spirit still communicates.

As daylight faded, I glanced at the threatening sky. Steel gray clouds hung low and heavy overhead. Maybe 20 minutes of shooting light remained. Then a throaty grunt jarred me back to reality A gray form was ghosting through the trees 40 yards away. The deer was walking stiff-legged, purposely toward where I’d hung the scent pads. I slowly stood and focused on the opening where he’d leave the cluster of trees. It was a buck for sure. But was it him?

When the giant nontypical strode into the open, my bow came up automatically and, somehow, I was at full draw. My anchor was solid, my muscles relaxed, my focus riveted to that sweet spot just behind his muscular shoulder. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered.

As the buck stopped to nose the scent pad, my arrow was instantly gone. He started to duck, but too late. The fluorescent green nock disappeared through his ribs with a hollow whump!

He took one leap forward and stopped.

What? I know I hit him!

The huge whitetail simply stood, staring straight ahead, ears working to pick up some hint of danger. I carefully nocked a second arrow. Immediately his head swiveled my way, giving me my first clear view of his incredible rack. Wide, tall, and exceptionally heavy, the antlers were a magnificent sight. Suddenly I was having difficulty breathing, as if a giant hand had clutched my chest in a steely grip.

It seemed as if he stood there staring my way forever. Finally, he stepped back toward the scent pad, then changed his mind and turned away. By now I was beginning to doubt that my arrow had, flown true. He looked and acted perfectly normal, except that he kept his tail tightly tucked instead of flicking it nervously like a suspicious whitetail. Strange.

As the cautious buck paused, I shot again. The arrow flew true and this time the big guy tore off to his left and vanished into the trees. I held my breath, straining to pinpoint his travel route amid thudding hooves and breaking branches. Then all was quiet.

He’s down! He’s down!

My mind was racing at full gallop. Should I climb down or wait? Be patient. Sit down. Give him some time, just in case. Wait. Don’t blow it now.

A handful of hour-long minutes passed. I was really tempted to climb down and slip over to check for blood sign where the buck had stood, but I resisted the urge. It sounded as if he hadn’t run far. If he wasn’t down and dead, I could push him and maybe lose him in the darkness. With the threat of snow, it just wasn’t worth the risk.

DAYLIGHT SLOWLY FADED. Calming down at last and able to collect my jumbled thoughts, I decided to climb out of the stand and sneak away, returning my gear to my car. As much as I hated to leave without immediately trailing and recovering my buck, I wanted to give him plenty of time. Maybe I was being overly cautious in my old age, but if anything I would error on the side of caution.

Pushed by a powerful adrenaline rush, I returned to my vehicle to deposit extra gear, and, then, making sure I had my knife and flashlight in my pack, I headed back to search for the buck just as the first wet snowflakes began tumbling from an inky sky.

I hurried through the crisp darkness, not wanting any blood sign to be obscured by the falling snow. Yet, strangely, I wasn’t really worried. An unexplained calm had settled over me as soon as I reentered the woods. It was as if I already knew how this night would end, and I was exhilarated with anticipation. It seemed I belonged here, doing exactly what I was doing. And in my heart I knew I wasn’t really alone.

Reaching the exact spot where the buck had first stood, I played a flashlight beam over the ground and immediately saw crimson splotches staining the carpet of dead leaves. My Muzzy-tipped arrow was buried deep in forest duff, covered with dark red blood. A liver hit, I thought. Maybe the follow-up shot was a good idea after all.

Moving ahead along the ample blood trail, I found where the buck had spun and bounded away when my second arrow had struck. This would not be a long search. Blood was everywhere. Not bothering to search for my second arrow, I followed the red droplets into some ghost-white aspens beyond. There I played the flashlight beam to one side and saw him sprawled just off the trail. He was simply awesome.

In my mind I clearly heard Jake say, “Yes!” It was the exact same word he’d spoken that September night a few years back when our flashlight beams fell across his first bow and arrow bull elk. Completely at peace, I sank down on a log near the magnificent buck and lifted my face to the falling snow. Tears of joy – not sadness – suddenly streaked my cheeks. Sharing this extraordinary moment with my son made a special hunt even more unforgettable.

COPYRIGHT 1999 PRIMEDIA Special Interest Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group