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."