Bow hunt comes with plenty of drama and surprises

It’s misting rain from the south, with a strong wind blowing across the wheat field we’re guarding, when a deer finally gets up to move.

Bobby Parker and I have been sitting in this wooden blind for several hours, fighting off the cold of a December afternoon hunt in East Texas. It’s supposed to be a quick and dirty bow hunt for a really big whitetail buck on Jack Brittingham’s Briar Lakes Ranch south of Athens.

Parker, a complete novice, is the hunter. I am the “guide,” and I’m having trouble because I’m not sure the deer in front of us is the buck we’ve come to hunt. Parker, though, is absolutely certain, and between deep gulping breaths that are racking his body, he’s telling me in no uncertain terms: “That’s him. That’s him.”

I’m not trusting his respiratory system, however, and I decide to take my time to view the buck from every angle before giving the go-ahead. This deer is much bigger and wider than the buck we have viewed in photos, and I don’t want to make a mistake that could cause some consternation back at camp.

Parker invited Brittingham down to Camp Verde in the early fall to take part in an arrowhead dig, and this was his return gift. We left Central Texas in mid-December during a warm stretch of weather, expecting to hunt a different deer that Brittingham had seen in a game-camera photo. We arrived to bad news.

“That first deer is not showing up anywhere,” Jack told us at dinner that night. “We’ve got another one I think we can kill.”

A hard-core bow hunter himself, Brittingham sets up wireless cameras to scout promising spots on his ranches. Whenever a deer that meets his requirements — 7 years old and at least 200 inches on the Boone and Crockett system — begins using that area, the camera sends a photo to Brittingham’s cellphone. That gives him a time of day and a location, and he begins the mentally arduous task of hunting that particular deer.

We planned to do just that with a main-frame eight-pointer with a bunch of kickers, but just before we left, the buck disappeared from view, probably off chasing a doe during the secondary rut that had kicked off. Jack put plan B into motion, and we switched deer.

It just further complicated what had become a tough hunt before we left Central Texas. First of all, Parker was new to bow hunting. Actually, he had killed a buck many years ago with a bow, but it wasn’t exactly a perfect kill. “I hit it in the leg, and it died,” he explained.

After that faltering start, Parker had undergone a shoulder operation that left him struggling to draw a bow. Brittingham sent down one Matthews set at 50 pounds that I took to Aaron Barton in Lampasas and had rigged for Parker with arrows, a new sight, quiver and broadheads. Parker couldn’t begin to pull it to full draw.

Then he got nervous and decided to purchase his own bow, which he did, and got one set at 32 pounds. He could barely draw that and began working hard every day to increase his draw weight to a level that would kill a deer. “It’s got to be 40 pounds,” Brittingham said. “If he can’t draw 40 pounds, we can’t do this hunt.”

Through very hard work out in the yard, shooting 30 to 50 arrows a day, Parker moved into the upper 30s and finally to 40.1 pounds just before our departure date. We set off on our adventure, which was an attempt to duplicate the big 15-point typical I killed hunting with Parker on his ranch at Camp Verde.

There was no time to practice when we arrived well after dark at Briar Lakes, but Parker planned to do plenty of loosening up before we left the house the next morning. We met a ranch hand about a quarter-mile from the small house-type blind where we would be hunting and rode the rest of the way with him.

As he scattered a bit of corn in a gravel roadway, we climbed into the blind and set up for the hunt. Fortunately for us, there was a small catalytic heater in the blind that helped keep off the morning cold. We saw nothing that morning and only one young buck in the afternoon. Then things got weird.

At dinner that night, Brittingham said he thought we should change hunting spots the next morning. The deer weren’t moving the way he had hoped, and maybe a nearby blind back in the woods would be better. But there was nothing there, either in the morning or afternoon.

As we came out of the woods and approached the truck that morning, though, we saw three bucks feeding on the leftover corn just 20 yards from the blind we had started in. I looked through binoculars and was pretty sure that one of them was our buck, a fact Brittingham confirmed over lunch. He showed us a picture of the buck we were hunting, feeding right near the game camera.

We moved back to the first blind the next morning but struck out again. Then we decided to try again that afternoon. We parked behind some trees a good distance away, just across the large wheat field that sits right in a curve on the main ranch road. We got into the blind several hours before dark and began waiting and hoping.

Exactly at 5 p.m., I saw a deer walking back in the woods, well behind the area we needed for shooting. It was just a nubbin buck, though, which was joined by another nubbin and a mature doe. They were passing well off to the west of our spot, out of the windstream that was blowing across us.

I was watching them through my glasses when Parker suddenly began gasping for air and pointing out the left window. “There’s a big deer coming,” he said, way too loud for my taste. Now he was standing up and pointing, which blocked my view of the buck as he traveled on an angle that would take him past us and to the corn out in front.

“Bobby, you need to sit down so I can see,” I whispered as I put a hand on his shoulder. “Get in the chair and get ready if this is him.”

Now this is the only place our telling of this story differs, because he then said, at least to his memory, “I have an arrow notched. That’s when Leggett said, ‘It’s NOCK. You NOCK the arrow. You don’t NOTCH it.’ ”

I remember saying that to him but not at that particular point in the hunt. I was desperately trying to get the window down so I could evaluate this buck with the binoculars. I finally found a tiny little bump on his right brow tine that I could see in the game camera photo I had on my phone.

Except for that bump, this deer was far too big and too heavy and way wider than I thought he was going to be, but the bumps matched and that got him shot. “OK, I’m pretty sure that’s him,” I whispered to Bobby. We had the front window down and ready for the shot. “Don’t hit the front of the blind with the bow and make sure the arrow is out the window,” I said. “I don’t want a 100-grain broadhead bounding around inside this blind if you mess up.”

The 40.1-pound draw was all Parker could handle, but he managed it without having to raise the bow up over his head, and with the deer broadside, he released the arrow. I could see the hit, even if Bobby could not, and told him, “Good hit. That was perfect.”

The buck took off down the road about 60 yards before turning to his left and disappearing into the heavy brush in front of us. “I just hope that’s the right deer,” I said. I was worried. It was nearing dark, and we didn’t have much time to look at the buck before Parker took the shot.

We waited 15 minutes before getting out to look for him. I went to the spot I knew he’d left the road and quickly found a few drops of blood. We began tracking through the heavy brush to a spot where the buck would have had to continue uphill and turn 90 degrees and travel downhill.

I took the turn and walked around a clump of brush and saw a welcome sight, a giant antler sticking up between two small trees. “Bob, look right over there,” I said, pointing to the deer lying dead as a hammer 40 yards away.

We hugged and slapped each other on the back on our way to the deer. It was really cool, and we had a special treat in store. Brittingham and his friend, Leigh Creekbaum, were going to meet us at the cleaning barn. They had already left for Tyler for a date movie when Leigh saw us on Jack’s phone. “Uh-oh, they’ve done something,” she said. They immediately turned around to meet us and join the celebration.

There was plenty to celebrate, too. Not only was this Bobby’s first confirmed bow kill, but he’d done it with his new bow and with a great shot that passed through both lungs on its way through.

The buck was a whopping 24½ inches wide with a gross score of 171 6/8 inches. Not bad for a management buck — or any buck.

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