However, these brief teases got him hooked, and he's returned each season with the longing of victory. Would this finally be his year?
Zack had only killed a few deer before, in addition to a hideous-looking ram on a trip to South Texas as a young kid. Even he admits seeing dozens of deer throughout the entirety of each hunt before picking which one he wanted to harvest wasn't a true hunting experience.
Zack wanted to bag his first hard-earned buck.
All season long, while I'm slinging arrows, Zack is busy coaching high school football as the youngest offensive coordinator in division 5A. I keep him updated on the bucks I see to amp him up for his few opportunities in the woods after football season. Secretly, I'm pulling for his teams to loose so he can join me on the hunt sooner.
This year, as with most, I found the deer in new areas of the management area, yet these new spots were much farther from roads than ever before. Zack isn't all that lazy, but unlike me running marathons and hiking many miles without getting a deer isn't his idea of a good time.
To make matters worse, the winter rains had finally arrived, later in the year than ever before. Instead of normal sporadic precipitation throughout the month of December, the drought-ridden woods became a flooded lagoon overnight. It was as if all the storms had patiently waited to deliver their massive onslaught of water on this very weekend. The ditches I had been crossing were now impassable even with waders. We had to enter the woods from one of the few bridges available, making one-mile walks into nearly two-mile expeditions.
After nine hunts and seeing nothing, I was worried Zack was wearing out and would be returning home empty-handed yet again. However, I was on my 84th hunt of the year, still just as excited about each chase of the whitetail as the season's opener.
The day was Sunday: Zack's last day to hunt for the year, as well as the end of the bucks-only gun hunt. We trekked the flooded woods slowly at dawn. I found a hot spot with fresh buck sign close to the road but said, "Let's go farther; don't wuss out on me now."
While making the long hike, we didn't see a lick of deer sign, and Zack was muttering obscenities under his breath with each briar patch we busted through. He was regretting not hunting the closer spot, as all my other deep-voyage "guaranteed you'll see a buck" spots I took him this year had left my credibility woefully scorned.
Sure enough, once arriving at the nuttall oak ridge, buck sign filled the forest floor, and Zack's confidence rebounded.
"The deer were gorging themselves under these hard-to-find red oaks dropping striped acorns in the late season," I told him.
I set up with my bow 250 yards farther in under my favorite tree.
At 10 a.m., I heard two quick shots followed instantaneously by a phone call with my brother speaking a foreign language. Well, Zack only knows English, but in his excitement I couldn't understand anything he was saying, but I knew he must've knocked down a nice one.
Not bothering with a call back to decipher his blabbering nonsense, I rushed over, eagerly anticipating the only word I had clearly heard: "RACK!"
Come to find out, the buck was chasing four does through a thicket 40 yards away. Zack made the best shot he could, hitting the deer on the first squeeze of the trigger, but he was unsure of the placement.
The second bullet hit a tree as the buck continued running on.
The brew of a sprinting buck through a briar patch and the addition of a hunter experiencing a bad case of the dreaded buck shakes is the recipe for a lost or missed deer.
We were able to get on a decent blood trail, but it seemed to never end. As the trail continued, it crossed several water-filled sloughs. We were barely able to pick up the trail across each slough, getting a sliver of hope each time we'd get back on the track.
Zack hadn't been on a tough blood track before, and he couldn't understand how I could be so thrilled about this tough task. He said I sounded like Dexter, the leading role from the hit Showtime TV series of the same name, as I was getting overly excited and spouting off about the deer's staggering movements, rest stops and blood patterns across the forest floor.
An avid bow hunter learns to become a blood-splatter analyst.
Like most seasons, I shot six deer and 12 hogs this year — the majority with archery equipment; needless to say, I go on a lot of tracks. I've made this stressful, sometimes impossible, mission of tracking animals into a passionate hobby. As an archer, you either learn how to track animals or come home empty-handed time and time again.
Unfortunately, the odds of finding Zack's buck dwindled further as the blood was not only thinning, but stopped completely in a section of woods that was flooded as far as the eye could see about 300 yards from the initial shot.
Our best bet was to split up and search every mound in sight, but walking around without a precise plan leaving ground uncovered is a losing approach.
By using mathematical formulas correctly, you'll cover every portion of the woods in the direction the trail leads. But, who is going to start using advanced trigonometry and algebraic equations, including radians, arc lengths, Pythagorean theory and rules of sine, cosine and tangent in the woods?
Well me of course!
This is when I really have fun, attempting to mentally battle a buck utilizing my love of mathematics. My tracking formula, which uses triangles to triangulate a deer's "10-20," will outperform a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile and make my geometry teacher proud. However, with a little common sense you don't have to break out a protractor and the scientific calculator to find your deer.
Using a compass and a Garmin GPS, I walk back and forth, spanning outward in a perpendicularly expanding pattern directed at a 120-degree angle from the deer's last-known location. With two people, I get each person to only cover 60 degrees of the angle. I use a toilet-paper trail spanning straight out from the center of the angle to know my position. The blank screen on my GPS soon turns into something that looks like a rat's maze. The buck is the cheese at the maze's conclusion.
This strategy is very successful, although the farther a buck has run, the greater the amount of ground has to be covered. Every 20 yards I walk in the deer's perceived direction along the toilet-paper trail, I turn and walk to the left and then right in a non-backtracking manner. For every yard I walk outward from the angle's origin, I walk roughly 1.5 times that far to each side, thus creating the 120-degree barrier.
I said my mathematical calculations would eventually put us on the buck. Zack was more than skeptical but too depressed to laugh at my dorky ways like he usually does.
If the deer has been running in a straight line, you can walk in expanding rectangles or narrow the search cone to a smaller-degree angle. Without a clue of the deer's direction, I have a squared quadrant pattern to find your animal. I further explain these methods in the attached video.
And boom! After a few hundred yards of the angle method, my brother jumped his buck, giving him a decent shot on the move. Unfortunately, he had his gun slung around his neck. By the time the deer was in the crosshairs, it was too late. Clean miss.
Zack said the deer was running unencumbered at full speed. We looked at the spot the deer lied down, only to find a small amount of blood and a tiny chunk of meat. This deer had run off through even more water, leaving zero trace of his current whereabouts.
Veering off in a new direction, the deer had never once run in a straight line since shot, which usually means a poorly struck animal fully cognizant of its surroundings. This buck was winning at our armed game of hide and seek.
Zack's faith was hitting dire levels, as I knew all too well the gut-wrenching feeling of losing a buck. To make it worse, he had two opportunities to get his first Louisiana deer, yet both attempts failed.
I have lost two big deer through the years. One the same way, where I jumped up the buck on the track as the deer leaped too quickly through shooting lanes, never to be seen again. The images of that bounding buck still haunt me to this day.
There was no giving up on my end. I knew with five hours of daylight left, I had five hours to search every inch of these woods to find my brother's buck. The deer had good use of all four limbs, and had already run nearly half mile wounded and with the vitals untouched; getting him with the gun was our best option.
Zack pointed in the new direction of his last sighting and we split up, angling out 120 degrees again. I slowed to a creeping pace and started stalk hunting on my back-and-forth walk. The buck knew it was being followed. I had to spot this camouflaged, hiding creature first. I decided to focus on the portion of my angle in the direction of some thickets deer usually bed in these woods; his home turf.
The track was lasting hours, and I was nearly a quarter mile from where Zack had jumped him up when, with my brother off in the distance and devoid of all hope, I noticed too much off-colored brown in a tree top 60 yards away. It was still too thick to tell for sure, even with my scope.
I crept closer to get a better view at what I thought might be the prize to the game. It was.
While peering into the branches, with one accidental snap of a branch under my foot, the buck busted out of the tree top. All I could see were scattered chunks of brown moving through the thick tangle of limbs and picker bushes. It was now or never.
I fired off two rounds faster than I ever had before. Then, saw nothing. Could I have missed?
Once arriving to where I shot, eight extra branches were sticking out of that tree top. As my brother saw his buck, the dead silence of the woods was filled with the two loudest and proudest screams of joy ever heard.
Later, another hunter a ways off told us our screams sounded louder than that of the shots.
Unbelievably, both rounds hit the mark. Besides Zack's initial shot, which grazed the bottom of the neck, this buck now had two more holes in him — one in the midsection and another in the heart to put him down for good.
I've had the thrill of taking over 30 public-land deer, but helping my brother finish off his buck made me happier than every one of them. Zack and I get along well, but he is far from the sentimental type but this was cause for celebration; for the first time in my life I gave my brother a hug.
I called a buddy to come bring a pirogue to the road. I trekked out our gear, and then got in the pirogue and made it back with one paddle to where Zack waited with the buck. While paddling Zack and his buck down the long, windy bayou, uncontrollably tears of joy were rolling down my cheek as I realized that these are the moments hunting is all about.
Luckily, the embarrassing moment was averted because Zack was facing forward, preoccupied with holding on for dear life, praying the overloaded pirogue wouldn't flip.
Zack's deer, my broken-bridge-buck and three other deer were taken on my first vacation from work in my six years at my job. I was able to shoot three more hogs, as well. It was great to get in that familiar "living in the woods" lifestyle I've been missing out on since my college days, when I lived in a tent practically the entire six-week winter break each season.
I burned my last buck tag shooting the first deer I ever saw with fibroids. This Bayou Cocodrie NWR spike wasn't the big one I was looking to take, but after seeing his eyes and face filled with giant tumors, I wanted to put this poor guy out his misery. I hear that this virus can be spread to other bucks while sparring; a benefit of killing such a young buck is tastier meat from that tender buck versus a big nasty one in late rut.
After tagging out on bucks, I figured I'd end my season duck hunting. I had an enjoyable time shooting some birds to finish my vacation, but I never got that crazy adrenaline rush I get from sitting in the stand just thinking I hear a deer nearby. Nothing compares to that instantaneous spike in blood pressure, with weakened knees leaving me incapable to stand just from seeing a doe.
Now a buck — I'll be so immobilized, I might as well call for help to climb down.
My fiery obsession with chasing whitetails couldn't be halted till next October. I crossed the river and bought a Mississippi license to bow hunt their public land till season's end. I like how their license lasts one year from the date of purchase.
Now the challenge will be creating enough time next season to tackle two states in my endless quest for "the buck of legend."