I Think I’m Starting to Figure Out This Deer Hunting Thing, Still Learning
After six years of learning, trial and error, modest successes and epic failures, I was able to cash in all of that effort into bagging the biggest buck I may ever get in my life.
Growing up as many in South Dakota do, I was raised by a father who had a passion for hunting. While it was something I liked to do as a youth, it was never anything I would consider to be a passion.
I hunted every year we could get deer tags. If memory serves, I drew a tag four or five times and I shot a dose at ages 12 and 16. Both deer were taken on opening morning before 10:00 am and that was just how I liked it. After taking that doe in my junior year of high school, November of 1993, I didn't hunt deer again for another 19 years.
After that, I never really gave another thought to hunting. College, career, and my other hobbies were of more concern, as well as for settling down and having a family.
I took up shooting as a hobby and wanted a practical application for all of the rifle shooting I had done. So, my dad, brother, and I applied for and drew tags for Union County in 2012. I did not get anything, nor did my dad, but my brother took a doe on the last weekend of the season on my uncle's farm.
I had no idea what I was doing.
The following year I drew again and hunted with my dad on my uncle's farm. He put me in a spot that turned out to be really good. I shot a meager buck that just happened to walk right at me for no apparent reason at all. I had no idea why he was there or why he traveled through.
Again, no idea what I was doing.
In 2014 I applied for a Union County tag again. I was denied. No-tag for me that year. At least until a friend informed me that I could still hunt, it just wouldn't be where I wanted to. By then I was far more interested in hunting than hunting my uncle's convenient land. I put in for a double-doe tag in Sully County, the unit my friend often hunted. It had lots of deer running around and a great deal more public land to hunt than Union County. So, I hunted the foreign land far more open and wide than I was used to and failed to even take a shot in six full days of hunting.
Three years in and still didn't know what I was doing.
2015 saw me put together a large group of buddies to go back to Sully County and try our luck. We all saw deer, I even had a dandy buck in my scope, but none of us were able to take home a deer.
I started to figure some things out that year. I learned that if you bump a giant buck, you can go back to that spot every day you hunt for the rest of your life and you probably won't see him or anything else there again. I also figured out that certain land features were more important than others, like what crops were in various fields, and where is the easiest access to water at.
In 2016 I left Sully County with a young buck that looked a lot bigger in the foggy dim light that was legal to shoot in but quite hard to see fine detail in. It was in an area I had good luck seeing deer the year before and I thought I had it all down.
I wasn't clueless anymore, but still didn't really know what I was doing.
A buddy and I headed back to Sully again in 2017. We tried the same old spots I had worked the previous years but crowded public land made it tough. That opening day evening I discovered there were already hunters in the location I wanted so we tried another one that was easy to overlook. I spaced us about 600 yards apart to cover a relatively flat but rolling enough terrain to hide a rutting buck cruising for hot does. It worked perfectly -- for my buddy. While I had a doe tag in my pocket, he bagged the biggest buck I had ever seen up close. He was so thankful to me for putting him in the right spot. It wasn't a grand plan, it was just the best possible option we had. Set up in a spot with a lot of visibility. After the fact, I realized that I had not just put him in a spot where he could see deer a long ways off, that I had put him right on the edge of a travel corridor.
After four seasons there, I was getting clued in. It wasn't about a spot, but an entire area that are all factors in an equation that can tell you where deer go if you care to look at the thing as a whole
In 2018 I failed on my any deer tag, collected another preference point, and got a doe tag, but also took my then 13-year-old nephew hunting there. The mission that opening weekend was to get him a deer. It was brutally cold that opening day and I learned a new bit of data to keep in mind. Deer move a lot when it's cold, and weak-ass hunters stay home when it's cold. We saw more deer that day than we could keep track of. Unfortunately, in the wide-open spaces of Sully County, my nephew wasn't able to get a close enough shot on any of them with a .223 Remington. But we had a lot of fun. I later went back that December with my doe tag for the late antlerless hunt and bagged a doe in the same field where my nephew and I saw a dozen or more deer on opening morning.
That was when I finally accumulated the last of the intel I needed and could say I knew how to hunt my favorite deer unit. But it would be two years before I cashed that check.
I traveled a lot in 2018 for hunting and shooting matches, and I did even more in 2019. I decided that after accumulating two preference points, I would just cash them in for a sure thing close to home, and that was a season back at my uncle's farm in Union County. It was a frustrating hunt, due mostly to my own mistakes. The biggest of which was miscalculating how long of a drive it is from my home in Sioux Falls to the parking spot for my hunt, and then the 5 - 10 minute walk. I watched a very nice buck walk 10 yards in front of where I would have been sitting had I set my alarm 20 minutes earlier. I settled for a big fat doe in Union Grove Park on the second to last day of the season.
This year I fully intended to head back to Sully County armed with five seasons of learning the lay of the land and my .30-06 to finally harvest a good-sized buck that would yield a substantially larger amount of meat than my little pronghorn or whitetail does. That's precisely what happened.
On opening morning, I sat in nearly the same spot I had shot my doe in 2018. I was correct in my assessment that deer would be traveling by me from either of two travel corridors that I was sitting in between. Around 8:30 am I saw spike buck and two does travel by on what I thought was the more likely avenue of approach. An hour later, while taking my periodic look around the horizon while urinating, I zipped up my fly and reached for my binoculars as I saw a pair of whitetails approaching. The glass confirmed a pair of does moving swiftly in my general direction that would pass a couple of hundred yards to my left. I pulled down the binos and spotted another galloping deer of similar size. Behind it and to the right I saw a seemingly larger cervid in pursuit, approximately 500 yards or more away from me.
"Is that the buck?" I whispered to myself as I raised the binoculars.
"Holy s***! That's the buck!" I said probably too loud.
Buck fever kicked in, but while it was trying to get the best of me I had enough experience with these nerves to actually be able to calm myself down to execute the shot but made a really dumb mistake. In my excitement, I forgot this wasn't Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II in which sniper rifles hit at the zeroed crosshair at any distance. I ranged him at 246 yards and stupidly failed to make the proper hold over and held for a 100-yard shot. I broke his leg and badly hobbled him. This was not how my hunting crowning achievement was supposed to go. I was going to make a perfect shot, he would stagger or maybe run for a few dozen yards and tip over. While that did eventually happen, I had to pursue the buck on open ground as he tried to hobble away. I was also starting to run out of public land to continue the chase. I sat down and got back into position and just waited for him to present a broadside shot. He finally complied and I was able to finally end the suffering I had caused. I held and connected from approximately 300 yards. I wanted to be prouder of it, 300 yards is no joke of a shot, but I should have made it the first time when it was even shorter.
When I saw him go down I was excited. It was the culmination of all of this work and study and failure. I was also completely sickened by my mental discipline while taking the shot. Had he gotten away I was going to end my hunt right there. Thankfully I was able to finish the hunt strong.
It was not perfect, but it was memorable. And I was thankful I got to share it with my dad. He would tell you that he had never shot a deer this big in his 72 years, nor had he recalled laying eyes on one this big. I was also thankful that he was there to help me with all the work of hauling the big boy out and butchering him that night in our hotel parking lot in Pierre.
I feel like I'm starting to figure out this whole hunting thing, but I'm not the type to think I can quit learning.