Even though I practice and prepare to limit human error, one or two things are bound to eventually go wrong when I average several hunts each week all season long.
But on one particular hunt last year, when practically 99 percent of things went bad, I learned sometimes it only takes that magical 1 percent to go right to succeed at deer hunting.
It had all started the before the hunt. After I bowhunted on Sicily Island Hills WMA until the last possible second before rushing home for my family’s Christmas dinner, I made a quick stop at the camp.
I grabbed the dogs, repacked gear and switched weapons for the next morning’s hunt on St. Catherine’s Creek NWR on the way back to up from being with the family.
In that mad two-minute dash, I grabbed my new CVA Optima V2 muzzleloader and a few primers from the pile. Little did I know, but that was the used primer pile from when I recently sighted-in my gun — mistake No. 1.
Everyone else at the party was nicely dressed, but my family knows what to expect from “the crazy one.” I arrived — as always — fashionably late, in hunting clothes and boots, entertaining guests with stories from this year’s wild adventures chasing bucks.
I didn’t know it then, but an encounter with my biggest ever buck was soon to come.
Sleep deprivation is something I live with during the season, but my wife was hoping I’d stay home to sleep in. Relaxing at the house is something that only exists for me in non-hunting months, but the Christmas feast had me feeling festive, so I stayed home. (For six straight years my whitetail obsession had led me to miss all family holiday parties, but my wife now keeps my addiction to reasonable levels.)
Still, I awoke at my normal hunt time of 5 a.m. and went for a run and workout to relieve the stress of not being in the woods. Then I went home to cook breakfast and see my wife off before she went to work.
I grabbed the dog and headed north on my yearly winter hunting vacation. Once I arrived at the refuge, Shasseh was begging to go for a run, so I opted for another round of cardio with my dog on the trails. Then, I went in the woods to sit comfortably in my climber on deer hunt No. 88 for the season. I entered the forest then stopped a short way in to load the gun and put on my scope’s camera.
That’s when I realized my blunder — all three primers I had grabbed were used. With the rest of my primers nearly an hour’s drive away at the camp, the hunt would be a no-go.
But luckily, while walking back to the truck, I remembered something: An unused primer was stashed somewhere in my bag from after an earlier hunt. I tore apart my bag and sure enough, that primer somehow had not fallen out and had even survived the washing machine. I was back in business.
With a southwest wind, I headed for a new spot I’d been eager to hunt. It was where a doe ducked my arrow at 20-yards while I stalk hunted in a treacherous thunderstorm earlier in the year. After patiently waiting for the late December rut to begin, I was returning to see what would be chasing that doe.
Fresh scrapes were everywhere and my confidence grew. Sure enough, about 300-yards from my spot, a big dark-horned buck bedded in a tree top took off. With the wind in my favor, I took out my rattle horns to try and call him back.
That’s when I noticed mistake No. 2: my gun’s camera had fallen off. The tiny black Contour with an expensive zoom replacement lens could have been anywhere along the long zip-zagging walk in, but I backtracked the entire way twice, using my GPS as a guide.
Two hours later, I was back to that tree top: hot, tired and thirsty with no camera. But a refreshing beverage and snack had me refueled and ready to continue the hunt. Unfortunately, all of the drinks and food were left on the table back at the camp — mistake No. 3.
Now calling the hunt quits at that point was tempting, but there would be no giving in to these hardships. That buck was out there, and my thirst for it was greater than my thirst for a drink. It wasn’t until 3:45 that I finally climbed in my tree, but I had another miscue: I left my rattle horns at the base of the tree.
I began setting up my all my GoPro cameras on the tree when my grunt call around my neck broke in half and fell to the ground. The dogs had recently used it as a chew toy, and I forgot to tape it back together as planned.
Instead of beginning to sit and watch for a deer, I noticed all four of my GoPro’s and the remote hadn’t been charged since the previous hunt, and some would die before sundown. I hadn’t had any luck within the first few minutes of an evening hunt yet this year, so I figured that wouldn’t be a big issue.
But while standing up to switch batteries, I heard the distinctive sound I knew all too well: a big animal was walking by. I turned to the river bank and briefly glimpsed those same dark horns walking away through the thicket.
But before the deer disappeared, its body passed in an opening broadside. All I could do was watch helplessly with two handfuls of batteries.
Usually, I only have a couple of chances at nice racked bucks on the hard-to-hunt public lands I roam, and I knew that quite possibly the only opportunity this year had just been blown.
I figured this would go down as the worst hunt ever — never in my life had so many things gone wrong.
Suddenly, I remembered Plan C. My can call was tucked away deep in my hunting bag. Hopefully, my luck was about to change.
I turned on my cameras and flipped my can call four times. With my entire body shaking from buck fever, it sounded like a deer with a speech impediment.
But after several agonizing minutes, the bushes in the thicket began to move toward me. Miraculously, the chocolate-horned beast had come back for Round 3 looking for a doe with a bad case of the hiccups.
With his head looking in all directions, I zoomed to nine-power on my scope and finally saw his body. The buck turned around to move on when I lined up the hard quartering-away shot at 70 yards through a tiny 5-inch gap in the branches.
I saw nothing through the cloud of smoke. Did I miss?
About a minute later, the bushes began to move, and the buck was crawling through a small opening, giving me a great shot. But without another primer, all I could do was watch and pray.
The search started just before darkness, but there was no blood where I shot or had seen the deer crawl. I proceeded to walk out of the thicket toward the river where the branches last moved.
When I stepped on the bank of the mighty Mississippi, I witnessed the prettiest sunset I had ever seen — a sunset featuring the biggest buck I’ve ever taken laying out on the open sandbar. Check out this video to see highlights from the hunt.
The shot from my muzzleloader had struck perfectly in the middle of the body, putting my 250-grain Hornady sabot (powered by 120-grains of Triple Seven magnum pellets) lodged at the bottom of the deer’s opposite front shoulder.
All of my deer and hogs last year were drug or hauled out the hard way, but this was the first time I gladly used my cart for this 185-pounder, which featured my first set of dark horns and a rare double throat patch.
I have read that double throat patches are not extremely rare and some areas have more than others, but out of my tens of thousands of trail camera pictures over the years, this was the first one I ever noticed.
It wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. that I finished cleaning my animal, leaving me exhausted like never before. So I planned to sleep in for an unprecedented two mornings in a row — but at 5 a.m., I woke ready for another adventure.
Between Cat Island NWR, R.K Yancey Wildlife Management Area and St. Catherine’s Creek NWR there are over 40 miles of prime Mississippi River and Outflow Channel bank and many miles of Red River bank that can be hunted.
Updates on rising water conditions and hunting closures can be found on the Lower Mississippi River Refuge Complex Facebook page.
This season the river is high, leaving many places inaccessible, and boats aren’t allowed on some of the refuges when the water rises to promote ethical hunting.
However, swimming in is allowed, so I just may be able to access some of my spots this season after all.