I forgot the Ravens were watching me until the arrow hit home. Their death cries marked the celebration of my first archery black tail: a giant, velvet-antlered monarch I could only have dreamed of taking when I first set out on this mission over a decade ago. Why they never betrayed my presence I will never know. Were they anticipating a fresh feast of steaming gut pile? Or simply intrigued by the entire episode unfolding beneath them in the forest canopy? They had squawked and cawed to herald my arrival but their presence was forgotten once the stalk got underway. Did I somehow win their approval with my patience? Or did they too, forget about me as I waited for the breeze to cover my movements, sweeping the oak litter aside with my foot to mimic the squirrel and clear a silent footfall. You read that right-I too forgot about me-at least for much of the stalk anyways. Bowhunting can do that to you; create an outer body experience in which one has silent conversations with overgrown crows. I had become a tree. And then a squirrel rustling up an acorn in the brittle oak detritus. A pine bough teetering in the breeze. To a flock of turkeys who passed by at a respectful five yards, I was a ridiculous scarecrow of a hunter: some joke-of-nature mannequin dressed in a Camo Gilligan hat, stuffed with leaves, barefoot in board shorts. Yet there I was, poised to make the biggest archery shot of my life.
This was day #10 in my quest to take a blacktail on public land with archery equipment. I only knew that because my wife likes to remind me of the sacrifices she makes for my crazy ambitions.
Packing up my camp that morning, my disappointment at going home empty-handed again was tempered with the reassurance that I still had one more trick up my sleeve; one more buck I hadn't yet busted. I know it sounds crazy but I had a confident feeling that morning that my string of heartache was about to run out.
A week ago I had spent five days in the same area with one of my former students: "Merica". A popular cowboy of a kid, he won his seat on the student council unopposed, but earned his nickname with his speech. That is to say his nickname was his speech: "Merica". He volunteered to start our Hunting and Fishing Club at the high school when he was a freshmen and I wanted to pay him back for all of his hard work and dedication to the club, while at the same time, easing my wife's worries of going it alone. He made a great hunting partner and we got more action that trip than either one of us would have admitted to hoping for. We both missed "gimme shots" on the same "spork" from the same tree stand, and the last day "Merica" got a good look at Mr. Mountain Lion in hot pursuit of "Lucky Sporky". An experience I'm envious of and one he won't soon forget. On the second afternoon of our hunt, we crept up a valley and bumped a nice buck. He got a better look at it than I did and proclaimed it to be "nice and tall". I made a mental note to return again. Once I had my truck packed up, I already knew where I would head for my "Hail Mary".
The valley lies at the head of a meadow-the parking spot a campsite for purveyors of target trash. A lone bowling pin, long since whacked in a barrage of bullets, marks the trailhead. I gently pressed the doors shut, grabbed my pack and bow and, sockless in running shoes, proceeded up the trail, determined to lose a race with a snail.
Even the soft soles of my Nikes snapped the pine needles and crunched the earth and so, in one of my characteristic fits of homage to Ishi and his brethren; I removed my shoes.
"OK, forget about the rack, forget about the rack!"
"How the hell am I gonna get up there?"
"Rangefinder, rangefinder. How far is he? Ok. 75 yards or so. No way I wanna take that shot"
"OK, what do I do? What's the wind doing? Left to right in the direction he's feeding he'll be in the slight clearing straight ahead. Gotta scale an open face with loose, sun-scorched rock and maybe, just maybe he won't see you."
"Shut up and go!"
"Slow the ****down or he'll hear you, idiot!"
And thus the internal dialogue waged a war that melted as I came into tune with my surroundings. My bare feet proved a worthy weapon so long as I resisted the urge to vocalize my discomfort. My toes helped me cling to lose rock and sensed the brittle snap and, thus sensing, could sweep the whistleblower aside. Just a squirrel having a snack.
I had to lose vision of the buck to scale the rise and hoped to come up behind an obstacle that would obstruct his vision. I crested the hill with glass to eye, knowing the only way to beat him was to see him first. Just when I began to believe what my mind had been telling me for the last half-hour, the same thing everyone will tell you about stalking blacktails in the heat of summer: that you can't fool the Blacktail Ninja-I spotted him again. He had moved almost 100 yards, retreating behind the rise, finding shade and cover in the corner of the grove. With a sure sense of direction now, I covered ground more quickly, ducking below his horizon. Finally I was within 50 yards of the buck, now bedded and facing away. A flock of turkeys darted behind him and soon began to work their way between us. An ancient dance of bobbing heads made their way past. I, a wayward mannequin, and the turkeys in their noble, if not slightly suspicious, procession, gawking as only a turkey can.
I watched them fade away into the forest and then turned my attention back to the quarry. He was up! I ranged him at 35 yards before he made a beeline down the depression. I thought, "Oh great, here is where he just keeps on trotting off". But he veered back up the hill, bent on a path that would put him right in front of me! I came to full draw unconsciously as he passed behind an old grey stump. I heard the footsteps but he never appeared and I seriously started to believe he had disappeared! I took a few cautious steps and he was NO WHERE TO BE SEEN!!?? This was one of those silent scream moments.
Great. He heard me, saw me or smelt me. Just great.
For the thousandth time I fought off the urge to believe what my brain was telling me: "Oh well. It was never meant to be. Good game, etc."
Not that they could help me drag the buck back to the truck, but it's always nice to have someone to celebrate with you when you score on a nice one. Then, when I sat down to give thanks after the hit, I began to think that the Ravens all represent some one who had gone before me.
Hey there Ed. Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, did you guys see that? Glad you could be here with me.