ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Leading up to the Minnesota archery opener on Sept. 19, I wrote a column that laid out my best guess on how I would try to get on an early-season buck.
There was one area in particular that I mentioned because it set up perfectly this year due to access opportunities based on standing corn along a low field. That would help me get into the tree undetected, but that spot also needed other specific conditions to produce.
A south wind felt necessary because that’s when I anticipated a big buck bedding on the points off the north-facing ridges above me. They love those spots where they can see the bottoms below them and smell any danger from behind with the wind coming over their back. Year after year in my scouting, I find bedding in hill country where I sit down at a deer’s level and am blown away at how strategically located it is.
A strong wind might also be helpful in this setup. My thought is any buck bedded on those points might want to go low in the terrain where the wind was more calm once they get on their feet. They can use their primary senses of sight, smell and hearing so much better down low in those conditions.
It just so happened that all of this aligned on the evening of Sept. 20 for my first Minnesota hunt of the season. Temperatures were about 75 degrees with winds directly out of the south, gusting to more than 25 mph.
Settled in my saddle by 5:30 p.m., a doe and a fawn were milling around behind me, eventually getting downwind and blowing. I always wonder if that warning wheeze we all know as hunters will ruin the rest of a hunt, but I had a small fork buck right below me not long after getting busted.
Then at about 7:30, I heard a twig snap. The tree I was in was overlooking a creek crossing down low on the terrain with a steep bank to my left and a flat bottom off high ridges to my right.
I couldn’t turn to look because I would have gotten busted with that movement, so I waited to see what was coming down the trail from the steep decline on my left. He got into my peripheral vision, and I could see it was a good buck.
It took him taking a few more steps before I knew how big. Hunting in low areas like this in hill country is inherently risky because of the winds. It can be so inconsistent, and this buck came to a complete stop about 15 yards away out in front of me now.
He stared right in my direction but underneath where I was in the tree. What blew me away about this deer was the size of his body. The rack was outside the ears, but his gut hung well below a chest that looked like he was ready for November.
I knew this was a deer I would shoot, but I needed that opportunity. I was bracing for him to catch a wrong swirl of the wind when he put his head down and continued walking. I immediately drew back my bow and let out a bleat to stop him. Nothing. A second bleat, louder this time, halted him in his tracks at about 18 yards.
As I anchored my draw, I noticed that his front leg closest to me was positioned back a bit from his rear leg and he was slightly quartering toward me. I hate this shot. I have passed up a lot of quartering-toward shots before because there is just so little room for error before you worry about hitting too far back and catching liver or guts.
One major change I made to my setup this year was moving up in arrow weight on my Victory RIP TKOs to about 540 grains with 260 grains on the front between the insert and broadhead. I now shoot 200-grain Strickland Helix fixed blades, and I have been blown away by their accuracy out of my bow setup.
The whole purpose of this change was to get an incredibly hard-hitting, deep-penetrating arrow to eliminate some of the deflection issues I have had in the past. With that in mind, I settled my pin right near the front of that close shoulder. My arrow hit right there and exited an inch behind the back shoulder. It took out both lungs, and my father-in-law and I followed a thin blood trail to him less than 100 yards away an hour later.
After a couple years of dealing with target panic, it was an incredible feeling coming up on this deer. I sent pictures of the bottom jawbone to Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association to get an age estimation, and the wear on the molars is consistent with that of a 4.5-year old.
I think a lot about why I love bow hunting so much and how difficult it is to explain to someone who is curious about it. This hunt perfectly encapsulates it. To have a detailed plan come together like this on an animal I have so much respect for is incredibly rewarding, especially knowing he will feed my family for months.
After every hunt, I like to think about why it either worked or didn’t work. Here are a couple additional reasons why I believe everything came together to tag this buck.
The reason I was so excited about this location’s potential in the first place is because of how it allows me to get into a tree undetected.
The standing corn that blocks my entrance on the low field that parallels the high ridges runs right up to a creek with 30-50-foot-high bluffs. I’m able to slip right along the corn and into that creek to access my tree over the crossing the deer use. Yes, it’s more time consuming and difficult to move slowly through rocks and downed timber up water, but you just don’t shoot deer that see you coming into the stand. Creative access when given the chance is so important.
Advantage of saddle hunting
There is no doubt that hunters kill deer from ladder stands, box blinds and portable hang-ons every year. I have used ladder stands and hang-ons a bunch over the years, but I continue to be blown away by the doors that saddle hunting has opened up for me.
The tree I used to shoot this buck was no bigger than my leg in diameter 12 feet off the ground where I positioned my platform. That is not the ideal size for staying hidden, but this is where I needed to be for my best shot opportunities.
When the buck came down that ridge to my left, he was at eye level with me 15 yards away. He stopped to scan the area, and I was extended with my legs trying to mimic a limb coming off the tree. He had no idea I was there, and it was eye opening, especially after a hunt in North Dakota earlier this year where my dad was busted visually by a big buck while sitting in a hang-on.
Everybody should hunt their own hunt in whatever way is most enjoyable for them. For me, I have found huge enjoyment and so many more encounters with older bucks by being mobile with ground setups, or in most cases hunting out of a saddle.
It’s lightened the weight I’m carrying in. It’s allowed me to hunt trees I could not fit portable hang-ons in, and it lets me have the complete element of surprise I have come to believe so much in by not having a stand or platform permanently set before the hunt.