By Ben Leal

The North American whitetail deer…one of the most sought after and elusive quarries in Iowa. These animals have keen senses that they use to full advantage, to their advantage and to yours the hunters, disadvantage. They have large ears that can pick up the sound of leaves crunching underfoot; a tree limb snapping as it’s being stepped on; the brush of nylon or even the loose buckle on a rifle sling. Eyes that can detect the slightest movement, much farther than a human can see. And then, the sense of smell…the most heightened of the white tail deer senses. Deer sample the air continuously as they walk along the trail in the woods. Odor particles drift by in the breeze, stick to the moisture on the deer’s nose and then are drawn in to the olfactory organs…297 million olfactory receptors. A deer can detect the odor of approaching danger several hundred yards away. Given all these factors, we still don our camouflage, shower with scent eliminating soaps and body washes, spray ourselves with scent eliminators when we arrive in the field and climb in to tree stands…hoping that we can best these senses and harvest a whitetail deer.

Are we mad? What is it that drives us to these lengths every October? “I’ve been hunting for years,” said one hunter I was talking to. “I only harvest one deer every three years or so” shrugging his shoulders. Some hunters have a chance every year and some, like this writer, will go through his third season without filling his tag. But honestly, what a season year three became.

I was provided with yet another great opportunity to hunt some private land that was, fortunately for me, very close to where I live. I have been sworn to secrecy folks, but I can say that I hunt in Warren County, which by chance happens to be second on the list of the top ten counties for large bucks in Iowa. October 1, 2011; opening day and a new season lies ahead to improve my skills as a hunter and to hopefully harvest my first deer. One early trip out I had several deer walk by, two small bucks and a number of does, I remember thinking to myself “WOW…this has got be my year!”

I was out again for a second time during late October in the same stand. As I was considering making a departure from my stand I could hear deer moving towards me, and moving quickly I might add. I grabbed my bow and waited to see what was coming down the hill. As I turned to look a doe was running right towards my stand, not far behind her was buck. He wasn’t a huge deer by any means, but a six pointer and would have been a great first bow buck. As he started chasing after her I waited…he got closer and closer…I went to full draw. He was going to run right by my deer stand…I bleated…snorted…hissed…made as much noise as I could to make him stop. Not happening. That deer only had one thing on his mind and I was not going to stop him from his task at hand, period! I crawled out of my stand that night laughing a bit…”now there’s a true male there.”

I had a young hunting partner that would tag along with me on those early nights, Brandon “Cookie” Cook. He and I talked about going out one morning early and this time he’d leave his bow behind and try to capture my first buck on camera. A cool Saturday morning came and we walked out to a two man ladder stand. Cookie would sit in the upper part of the tree stand and I would stand below him. All set…now we wait.

Sunrise came and went and we saw a few deer moving out in the corn field that had been recently harvested. Nothing came close to our stand for most of the morning. Then about 8:30am I hear from above, “Ben…big buck walking this way!” So I turned slowly and looked in the direction that he’d pointed, sure enough a big mature buck was walking toward our stand. I pulled the bow off the hook it was resting on and prepared to take this animal. My back was against the tree I was standing in and my heart was pounding…thumpTHUMP…thumpTHUMP…thumpTHUMP… He took a trail that would lead him straight in front of me and offer me a great broadside shot. There was a big tree to his right and his head would disappear behind it as he walked. “Okay…I’m going to draw as soon as he’s behind the tree,” I thought to myself. His head disappeared…”NOW!” I pulled my bow back to full draw…but in my haste and excitement I pulled back a bit too quickly, “ssssSSSSTTT”…my arrow raced across my arrow rest. He froze! Stopped and looked right at me! I had pulled back to fast and hard and the arrow made enough noise for him to hear it. What seemed like an eternity went by…then he turned again. This time his entire body was behind the tree. I drew down…he then ran off about twenty plus yards and stopped, looked at me one more time and ran up the hill. It was a heartbreaker!

Disappointed for sure, but not undaunted, I waited for another week before I made another attempt at harvesting a deer…this time it would be from a stand that I had put up myself, and would be my last outing for 2011. It was close to dusk with about 20 minutes of shooting light left when I heard the familiar sound of deer moving through the tree line. I stood, turned and slowly grabbed my bow. Watching closely, three deer moved out of the trees headed toward a cornfield just across the road from where I was set up. One nice doe walked straight down and offered me yet another chance to harvest a while tail deer. Even though this was doe, my heart still pounded as I lifted my bow and went to full draw. I aimed…or so I thought, and then released the arrow. THWACK!! At that moment I thought that my draught was over. The deer jumped, turned and ran back in to the woods. Trembling and excited I exited my deer stand and found my arrow. It was covered in deer hair, but the lack of blood made me a bit nervous. There was some, but not a significant amount indicating that I had penetrated the deer.

Choosing to wait for a bit, I called and enlisted a friend to help track the deer. I found blood, but it was spotty at best. After hours of finding small traces of blood, we lost the trail and gave up the search. I took time to recall my shot and to be honest, can’t remember which pin I used when I aimed. I think the arrow had flown right over the deer’s back and hit the tree, as she turned she scraped her side, hence the large amount of deer hair and little blood. So year three comes to a close, another set of tags in my bag unused. However, I gave myself better opportunities that I had in the past, had two chances at harvesting a deer and learned yet more valuable lessons.

October 2012, my fourth season as a deer hunter. During the spring, summer, and fall I I did my homework. I bought a trail camera; shed hunted, practiced with my bow and started scouting for deer. Learned more about deer movements, timing and what kind of deer were out there in the area I was hunting. As each season has come and gone, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and applied it to the new season, also employing new tactics to improve my chances. The trail cam would prove to be a great tool and one that produced a lot of excitement.

My first week of logging pictures on the trail cam produced some really exciting results, a lot of deer and some very nice and big bucks. There were three in particular, one was a big 10 point buck, another that I dubbed “Gnarly 11” due to the non typical rack and his little kicker that made him an 11, and a third which looked like the big 8 pointer that got away the year before.

So pictures in hand and more scouting on the ground, I was more than prepared for season four. I knew where the deer were and even put up a new stand in an area that I had seen quite a number of deer moving in and out during my field trips. Shortly after the season opened I was in a deer stand once again. With the warm weather and early harvest of the cornfields, we saw a lot of deer coming out, but all were feeding heavily on the corn, none of which were close to the stands we were sitting in.

I made it out ten times this season, some early morning sits in a stand and others were late in the evening. In the ten times I was out for the first bow season of 2012 I had several encounters with deer but didn’t have an opportunity to let an arrow fly.

So here it was, the last day of early bow season, no deer yet and I had not seen any of the bucks I found on my camera. I sat in my tree stand waiting. “Thirty minutes left,” I thought to myself. Right at that moment I saw a deer and in my haste and excitement I grabbed my bow and got ready. Moving way to fast and too much the deer spotted the movement and scampered off. I couldn’t believe that after four years of hunting I made the rookie mistake of moving too quickly. I thought my early season had come to a close, but then with about ten minutes of shooting time left, three more does came out of the timber line. I waited anxiously as time was ticking on good shooting light. One doe walked straight down the same path that the one I missed last year did and I just had a feeling that this was going to it. I went to full draw…”aim, make sure you aim and use the right pin”, I said to myself. I placed the correct pin right behind the front legs for a heart/lung shot and…the arrow whizzed through the air. THWACK! I had hit the deer hard. It jumped a bit and then ran down the hill about twenty yards, stopped and waivered a bit then fell. DEER DOWN!!

I was ecstatic! I had finally harvested my first deer with a bow. Four years of empty tags and some frustration and there it lay. What an amazing feeling that was. I was so proud of the shot and the fact that it went down only twenty yards from where it was hit. I know that deer hunters, when asked, will always be able to recount the first deer taken with a bow. This is no exception. I can still see the entire process in my mind’s eye from start to finish. So as I walked down to check my first deer it turned out to be a button buck instead of a doe. Nevertheless I was still proud of the harvest and glad to have the deer-less monkey off my back. I had hunted hard for four years and it was finally time to place a tag on a Iowa whitetail!

So what lies ahead? Well late bow season will begin here in a few days following the writing of this article. I’ll hit the stand again to see if I can’t give myself a chance to harvest one of those big bucks that have so far eluded me. Whether I harvest another deer or not, this year will always be my most memorable one…I harvested my first deer with a bow. I am a bow hunter, finally!