Monday, September 16, 2013

Theory vs. Practice, In Which The Archer Receives Another Step in His Education.

Picture it:  North Florida, 2013.  A not-so-young-anymore man sets out down the trail to his deer stand in the almost-cool predawn hour.  The sounds of the night call out of the flatwoods as the small pool of his headlamp opens and closes in his passing, lighting the way to the edge of the swamp.  From there reflective blazes mark the way around the drying muck to his tree stand, carefully placed against a pond cypress tree, it's position along the confluence of game trails chosen after careful deliberation weeks before.

That not-so-young man is your's truly, of course, and I was beginning the morning hunt that marked both opening day of archery season 2013 and the christening hunt at our new lease, my portion of which I've dubbed Blueberry Flatwoods.  It's a ten minute walk from where I parked my truck to my stand, short by my public land standards but still far enough to enter another world.  The stand is placed on the edge of a clearing beneath the swamp canopy.  In wet times, such as earlier this year, the area is under standing water.  Now, Mid-September, it was still soggy but rapidly drying out.

I scouted this area back in the heat of summer (not that it isn't still hot here, but only just a bit too hot, not stupid unbearably hot).  The section of swamp that crosses B.F. is roughly shaped like an inverted cross.  I was in the eastern limb.  The southern branch reaches to the property boundary, while the northern limb intersects the road through the property, a favorite crossing point for deer.  The western limb contains ares of deeper water.  It is all surrounded by flatwoods planted in slash pine but with a very diverse understory, brimming in places with the namesake wild blueberries.

Several game trails (presumable only deer, as we have seen no confirmable hog sign) converge on and cross the branch of the swamp I have chosen.  It was here I captured several does and at least one buck on game camera several weeks earlier.  Just natural features, no corn or other bait involved.  I felt pretty good about the place as I settled into the tree stand with my Therma-Cell warming up to keep the six-legged "swamp angels" at bay, bow across my lap, ready to watch the world wake up in the gloaming of the new day.

Only a few minutes later I heard something approaching fairly quickly from the direction I came in from.  It sounded like a deer so I got my bow ready.  A few moments later I vaguely made out a deer approaching, its winter grey coat flashing through the leaves.  Still too deep in cover for a clear shot, this deer came right up near my stand, finally half-entering the opening only about 6-7 yards away.  I froze, but I could now make out antlers.  The dim light made it difficult to tell exact detail but it looked like an older, large-bodied (for Florida) buck with a small for it's size rack, perhaps a 6-point.  Unfortunately, even though this buck was super close I was now in his direct line-of-sight and couldn't move unseen. Just a couple of seconds later it hopped back into cover.  It never really startled, so I presume it did not know I was there, but worked its way rapidly around the south edge of the clearing, behind too much cover for a shot, and away to the west.

Of course, I thought this was amazing, only on my stand a few minutes and a very desirable-sized deer had already made a close appearance.  I thought a little about the savory stews I'd not be making from that guy but had little regret, he never presented a decent shot at any rate.

I settled back down and continued my silent observation. Only about 15 minutes later I could hear another critter approaching from the same place deer #1 had appeared.  This one wasn't as loud, and I was soon lucky enough to see why.  A much smaller-bodied but definitely adult deer (it was much lighter now of course) worked its way towards me, more slowly than the previous deer but on the same path.  I had my bow in a better position this time, ready to draw. 

The deer came out right where the other had stopped just minutes before, revealing itself as a young buck with a 4-point rack.  Except this time the deer kept on coming, out into the open.  It made its way at a walk right in front of me, still in the open, totally broadside, 8-9 yards away, head down, oblivious to my presence.  To be honest this startled the hell out of me, way beyond my wildest dreams.  I gave a silent "Do it!" to my immobile arms and I shifted my bow into shooting position and drew back.  I remember thinking, wow, it doesn't even hear the arrow draw from this close.  Right there he was, broadside, stopped.  Crazy easy shot...

Then it all just flew out the damn window.

Honestly the actual moment of the shot is a blur.  I believe I came to full draw, but I know I didn't pick a spot.  I was just washed over with a blinding moment of panic and what should have been an easy shot, one that I've practiced many times, went flying free and clear over the deer's back.

A wave of shame and anger at myself crashed in my brain.  How could I be that damn stupid?  Such a rank amateur! But then I realized the buck hadn't spooked.  He jumped away from the arrow when it half-buried itself ineffectively in the muck but now he was looking back at it inquisitively.  He still had no idea I was there.  I collected my shaking hands to slowly pull my backup arrow (Clippy, my favorite target arrow because the fletching is already somewhat damaged) and get it nocked.

No, this story doesn't have a perfect ending.  By the time I got Clippy ready to fly the buck had wandered back into cover.  I could see him looking around, sometimes at me but not always.  He was onto something, and finally accumulated enough input do decide he should be elsewhere.  He blew a few times and half-ran off, still not panicked but ready to be somewhere away from where sticks with feathers fall on him and strange shapes lurk in the trees.

I was left there alone with my thoughts, mentally flogging myself with wild enthusiasm.  The rest of the morning was uneventful.  As rationality finally returned (its hard for me to stay in a mental hole in the woods) a group of squirrels milled up behind me and finally decided to start scolding the blob in their path.  I guessed no deer was going to show up with that going on so I called it a hunt, and collected my things to head back to the truck.  But before I climbed down I did one last thing.  Choosing a leaf on the forest floor as a target I focused, drew and released.  The arrow thucked into the ground two inches away from it.  Two more leaves, two more arrows with comparable results.  Strange, guess core ability wasn't to blame. 

By this time I'd convinced myself that I had been overcome by a common nervousness that many novice hunters (which I certainly still am in many ways) fight with.  Target panic, or buck fever, or whatever the hell you want to call it.  Now I've had that experience, I told myself, and next time I'll avert the panic, grab the wheel instead of going for a lovely little backseat ride on the control bus and drive that arrow right home.  But as the soft rain of love bugs squashing against the windshield attempted to sooth me with their gentle plopping, I knew something else was wrong, some other piece was missing. 

Later at home after I told the story my husband added a simple observation that rocked me again.  "Maybe you just didn't want to kill it."  The words had a profound impact, and I knew them to have truth.  Now that I've mulled that over I believe the missing piece was that I just didn't want to kill that deer and it factored into my miss just as much as any "buck fever". 

Why didn't I want to kill it?  I'm not completely sure.  Partly because of sympathy for the animal, it was obviously a young deer, but maybe I just wasn't ready yet.  And I'm not sure what that means, but the more I think of it, I think that was a big part of it.  I did my time practicing, sure, I was halfway decent at target shooting. I think I was physically ready, but I just wasn't mentally ready to kill again. 

A friend of mine recommends for someone who wants to kill deer to spend a season or two hunting small game like squirrels, to get used to the idea of killing.  I'm not sure I'll go that far, but he has a point.  I've killed deer, yes, but always with the detachment of a gun, and always with the reinforcement of others.  This deal with me with a bow, alone, in the woods is in many ways a new thing.  Yes, I've done it many times now, but maybe the last two seasons were really a dry run of sorts, getting me used to the idea of taking the equipment out, learning to sit silently, reading the woods.  But this, this was the very first shot.  The first moment of truth, as it were.  

Now the big question, when am I going to be ready?  Did it just take this one time to jump start the learning curve?  Or will I have another T-0.5 abort the next time I draw back on something other than a leaf?  Or am I just going to start Blueberry Flatwoods Wildlife Sanctuary?  I don't think it will be that extreme, I am pretty sure I can eventually face a death in the deer woods.  Only time, luck and experience is going to tell me when.

Let it be a clean kill or a clean miss, nothing else.

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