My First Bowhunting Trip: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Table of Contents

I’ve been shooting bows and arrows ever since I was a kid, and I’ve loved every second of it. Even from the very beginning, it’s brought me a great deal of happiness and pleasure, and I’ve been active in archery for as long as I can remember.  

As an adult, I continued with archery, because of all the benefits it brings me: calmness, discipline, peace of mind. I’m a lifer, and I’ll be shooting until I “meet my eternal reward,” as my father would say.

I like archery so much, in fact, that I started a website devoted it—the one you’re reading now! It doesn’t make me rich, but I love managing it, and it, too, brings me a lot of happiness. I hope to keep this site up as long as I can.

One thing I’ve never done is bowhunt, and when you run an archery website that instructs people on the finer points of shooting a bow, you’re going to get a lot of questions about bowhunting. When we started the site, we were just about archery—competitions, best practices, and that sort of thing. I had taken my state’s hunting course to learn more about it, but I’d never actually been hunting, and while I’ve hired experienced hunters to write our posts about bowhunting, I’d never gone myself. Hunting was an aspect of archery that I had no real-life experience with.

I’ve been a meat-eater for all my life, but having grown up in the suburbs (outside a very, very big American city), I never had the opportunity to hunt. I knew people hunted, and that it was an incredibly popular pastime—often part of family traditions and family life—but I had never really been exposed to it. I never had anything against it, and, as I said, I’ve eaten meat my whole life, but I’ve never harvested any of that meat myself. 

So, finally, I did what any owner of an archery website would do, and I found a hunting guide to take me hunting. Just like our ancient ancestors did, I went online and found a paid professional in my area, and wallah, six weeks later, I was sitting 20 feet up in a tree, scanning the ground below, hoping our tree stand wasn’t some knock-off brand made from recycled parts.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I went hunting, and I can tell you without a doubt in my mind, it was one of the most important experiences of my life—both the good and the bad—so I I’ll start from the beginning. What follows is really long and really detailed, and I realize it’s as much for my memory as for anyone here who reads it, but I think for you new hunters out there, all these details—and especially the accounting of my emotions—can be very helpful.

Alright, let’s get to it:

Selecting a Hunting Guide and Booking a Tour

I was going to spare you the details how I found my guide, but upon second thought, some people might want help with this step, so I’ll include it (and you can skip to later sections if it bores you).

It would have been a great deal easier had I been able to go with a friend, but the two people I know who are hunters are married and their wives just had little ones, so they were “no-go”s for the time being. So instead, I went to my preferred search engine and typed in “bowhunting guide near me.” I live in an urban area, but I found a few options within a couple of hours from me, so I actually had a couple of different options.

There was one guy who talked a lot about the process, about his respect for the hunt and for ethical harvesting (that is, being sure to put an animal down quickly and painlessly), and what I could do to get ready. I appreciated that approach—if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right, and I wanted to be prepared—and I did NOT want any animals to suffer. I signed up and sent him my information via some online form he had on his site.

I got an auto-reply email saying my sign-up was complete, that my credit card had been charged, and then I heard… absolutely nothing for the next four weeks. As it turns out, people who spend their lives in the woods aren’t great with email, and I had to text message him a few times just to make sure we were still on.

As we got closer to the date, however, he got better at sending me replies. We talked about the gear I’d be using, and more importantly, what licenses I’d need. I’m lucky, in that I live in an area where I can get to four different states in only an hour or two, so we had our choice. The state we chose (and the state he led almost all of his tours in) had an apprentice license program, so I signed up for that, and the red-tape/bureaucratic part of it was done. 

Why all states don’t offer an apprentice license is beyond me. It’s a fantastic option, because it allows anyone trained as a guide to bring a new hunter into the woods—all that person needs to do is pay for an apprentice license, and wallah! You’re good to go. There are some restrictions—no muzzleloader hunting, no bear hunting, etc.—but it’s a fantastic and quick way to get new hunters into the woods. And I’ll be honest—as someone who tried to hunt on his own but got tangled up in ridiculously old state websites and complicated maps of public land zones, the apprentice license that enabled the guide to take me into the woods was like an answer to prayer.

The last thing we talked about was what weapon I’d be using. The apprentice license was good for shotguns, bows, and crossbows, but I wasn’t interested in a shotgun—not yet, anyway—and while I have a lifetime of experience with a compound bow and I’m a very good shot, I opted for the crossbow. And, yes, I know that there’s a lively debate in the bowhunting world as to whether crossbow hunting is “real” bowhunting, because using a crossbow is so much easier than using a bow. I think there are some good arguments on both sides of that topic. But, as I mentioned earlier, I was 100% certain I wanted to put game down without bringing any unnecessary suffering to the animal, and a well-made crossbow with a well-made scope can allow you to put an arrow on a dime at 50 yards (or much more). I figured I’d have the rest of my life to hunt with a bow, and for my first time out, I’d take every advantage I could take. So that was that.

Getting Ready for the Big Day

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating: even though I’d never hunted, I’d learn a lot about it, because I’m the Managing Editor of this website. I’m in charge of content for the site and I’ve hired about a dozen experienced bowhunters and processed their work, so while I’m not an expert, I “know a thing or two about a thing or two.” Namely, I knew I’d need:

Camo Bodywear That’s Warm and Quiet

We’d be spending most of the day in the woods high up in a tree stand, and while it was early season—late October—it gets surprisingly cold where we live, so I knew I’d have to get something that would keep me from freezing to death. Ultimately I chose the NEW VIEW Upgraded Hunting Clothes for Men (affiliate link). The reviews were largely positive, and the pattern matched the environment we’d be in.

NEW VIEW Hunting Clothes for Men,Silent Water Resistant Hunting Turkey Duck Deer Hunting Jacket and Pants
  • 【Upgraded ultra-quiet material】NEW VIEW hunting clothing clothes, which use a new generation of ultra-quiet patented material, effectively reduce noise. It allows both bowhunters and gun hunters to remain quiet and unnoticed by animals while hunting.
  • 【Stay concealed】They design NEW VIEW's three unique camouflage patterns. There are more than 35,000 hunters who wear our clothes, keep active in the woodlands, mountains, swamps, farmland, shrubs, and other environments. They can quickly blend into nature and stay hidden during big game hunting, small game hunting, and migratory bird hunting.
  • 【Upgraded details:】Removable hood, one-way zipper instead of two-way zipper to reduce noise, all pockets have zippers to prevent things from falling out. We also realign all zipper compartments to prevent noise from zipper bumps. The elastic waistband can be adjusted from 0.5 to 3 inches.

You get really “get into the weeds” when it comes to selecting camo (haha), but this was close enough.

A Balaclava to Go Over My Big Dumb Beard

I feel like this is an oft-overlooked item for new hunters. I chose the Under Armour Men’s Cold Gear Infrared Scent Control Balaclava (affiliate link), and it was a GREAT purchase. It kept me warm without smothering me or being uncomfortable on my chin. It had juuuuust the right amount of flexibility, too—I have a beard (which I trimmed for the hunt) and the balaclava fit over it nicely.

Under Armour mens Coldgear Infrared Scent Control Balaclava Gaiters, Realtree Edge (991 Black, One Size US
  • ColdGear Infrared uses a soft, thermo-conductive inner coating to absorb & retain your own body heat
  • Form-fitting balaclava offers full facial protection in extreme cold
  • 4-way stretch fabrication allows greater mobility & maintains shape

I absolutely fell in love with this thing, and I know wear it around the house to scare my wife. I think it’s hilarious (and she kind of thinks it’s funny too).

A Hunting Knife for Field Dressing

I wouldn’t need a hunting knife to field dress the animal—my field guide had a (wildly expensive) knife we would use, and should we be lucky enough to harvest something, we’d use his. That was fine by me.

A Headlamp with White Light and Red Light

These are good to have anyway, but they’re absolutely vital for navigating the woods. We ended up staying well past dark, and without it I’d have been in really, really bad shape. I knew that I’d need something with red light—red light provides a lot of vision capability but it doesn’t make your irises contract, so you can flip it on and flip it off without losing your night vision—and I knew it would need a solid white-light option. It didn’t need to go far—our hunting environment would be very dense—so that wasn’t a real concern. Ultimately I picked up the Petzl Headlamp (affiliate link), which actually does have a pretty good range. It felt real snug around my head, too, so it didn’t feel like it was bobbling around, which would have driven me crazy.

PETZL ACTIK CORE Headlamp - Rechargeable, Compact 450 Lumen Light with Red Lighting for Hiking, Climbing, and Camping - Black
  • LIGHT FOR ANY ACTIVITY: With 450 lumens, two beam patterns (flood or mixed), and several white brightness levels; the ACTIK CORE provides high-performance lighting in dynamic outdoor activities. Lighting can adapt to proximity, distance, or rapid movement. Red lighting preserves night vision and prevents members of a group from blinding each other.
  • RELIABLE PERFORMANCE: With Petzl's 50:50 Brightness-to-Burn-Time ratio, your Petzl headlamp will retain 50% of its original brightness halfway through the Burn-Time, rather than the 20-30% brightness you get in other brands.
  • HYBRID CONCEPT: The Petzl ACTIK CORE comes with a rechargeable CORE battery. Like other Petzl Headlamps it can run on either the CORE rechargeable battery or three AAA/LR03 batteries without an adapter.

I’m a gearhead and I loooooove selecting and reviewing products, so all this was a lot of fun for me.

A Sturdy Pair of Waterproof Boots

I had a pair of rubber hunting boots I liked, and didn’t need to buy them.

Last but Not Least: Crossbow Stuff

Luckily, my guide had everything we’d need—crossbow, scope, broadheads, rangefinder, treestand, etc. etc. etc.—so that was all taken care of. His crossbow was a piece of art, and it cost literally thousands of dollars. It was an incredibly capable tool, and that would save the day later (and I’ll explain when we get there).

I asked him hundreds of questions about his choices, and he was very patient about explaining his decisions.

Training and Getting to Our Hunting Environment

On the “day of,” we met at the archery range, sighted in the scope on the crossbow, and aimed at targets 10, 20, and 30 yards away. I’m always amazed at how easy it is to shoot a crossbow—most of my experience is with recurve and compound bows, and after you master those, a crossbow seems like a walk in the park. When you add a pair of shooting sticks to the equation, and you can calmly shoot between heartbeats, putting a bolt on a target almost becomes too easy (almost).

Once we were good to go there, we did a quick brush-up on the basics: tree-stand safety, game positions (broadside, quartering-towards, quartering-away), and that sort of thing. We then talked about the hunting environment we’d be in, and how to navigate it. My guide had been hunting on public land, and that had worked fine, but he had used the OnX hunting app to find a guy who would rent his private land, and that worked fine, too—much better, in fact, because any deer that wandered onto the land wouldn’t be too pressured.

After we finished up, we drove over the edge of the private property and suited up. It was a beautiful fall day, and not yet cold, so we were a little toasty as we crept onto the lot. He had a tree that he liked to use for his tree stand, and while the property was very, very large, it wasn’t infinite—so in a sense, we knew where we were probably going—but we tracked our way to the treestand options. We saw some hoofprints and some scat—and it had rained within 24 hours, so those were most likely fresh—and we looked at a lot of the greenery as we crept along. Much of it had been chewed off the stalk, and my guide found some hoofprints near some hard mast—acorns from an oak tree—and that was another good sign. We had found some rubs, but those were pretty old, and probably not from any bucks that had been there recently. He told me that was fine. 

The truth is, though, that while I am certain that my guide is an able tracker—he’s been at this his entire life, and grew up in a state where tracking is a necessity—the state we were hunting in is literally overrun with deer. There’s an absurd amount of edge land—suburbs next to farmland next to public hunting land next to huge private lots that are wooded—and the Division of Fish and Wildlife drastically needed hunters to reduce numbers. My guy told me, “If I can’t at least get you to put eyes on a buck today, I should retire and never come back,” and he was right, because over the course of the day, we saw many. Once we got set up, it was like we were in a deer zoo, but I’ll talk about that later.

The tracking was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I’ve been hiking and camping since I was a kid, but the great outdoors was always something I had always marched through—I’d stop and enjoy the view, sure, but I’d never really zero-ed in on all the minutiae of the forest. Hiking was mostly about getting from Point A to Point B and I like to hustle. But after my guide’s instruction on tracking—and to track, you need to slow things down a bit—the entire forest floor came to life in a way that I had never seen before. It wasn’t loud, but it sure was busy.

One thing I noticed as we carefully, quietly crept through the woods was how *@(*#$@# heavy all the gear was. My goodness—the tree stand, the crossbows, a small backpack… it wasn’t a lot, but it was heavy.

Getting Reacquainted with My Fear of Heights, aka Climbing the Tree Stand

Finally, we got to our spot: a mature oak tree, with a great view to three deer paths, one of which ended in a funnel. Even to my inexperienced eyes, I could see why this was a great spot, and as it was still early in the season and deer weren’t pressured yet, I was started to get hopeful. I felt very positive.

Those good feelings fled pretty quickly—they got spooked, I guess you could say—as soon as I set foot upon the climbing sticks. On the sign-up form, the guide asked if I had a fear of heights, and I entered, “I don’t love heights, but I’ll deal with it,” and I suddenly realized that my words may have made me seem a bit more brave than I was. I *hated* heights, and I always had.

The odd thing is, I was never able to get rid of this fear, even though I’ve “conquered” it dozens of times. Every time I’ve ever gone on a vacation—either hiking, or camping, or even to a new city—I seem to always end up on top of something. Every time my wife and I go on holiday, there’s always some scary height involved: last summer we went to Maine, and we ended up at the top of the Beehive peak at Acadia; two summers ago we went to Ireland, and went to the top of the Cliffs of Moher (aka the “Cliffs of Insanity,” for you Princess Bride fans out there) and three years ago, we went to Iceland, and climbed to the top of that famous waterfall (I don’t remember the name but was something like “Laugerfosgulval,” or something like that). Pretty much the only time I’ve been on vacation and not had to confront a fear of heights is on a beach vacation, where you’re in the sand, looking at the water, and oh man isn’t that nice.

(And, listen: I’m not complaining about any of this, obviously—I’m really lucky to be able to go on adventures like that. I work really hard and my wife and I save up for these things and I know that not everybody has that kind of opportunity. I’m just saying… heights, man. No thank you.)

So here I am inching my way up the treestand. I had become used to pushing through this fear, and I’d do it here too. I took things “one limb at a time,” and kept three points of contact with every step—both hands and the left foot on the sticks, then move the right foot, both hands and the right foot on the stick, then move the left foot, etc. It was slow going but I got there eventually, and the hardest step was at the top, when I had to move away from the ladder and onto the perch of the stand itself. I was hugging that tree like it was my brother who just came back from a war.

Scanning the Forest Floor, aka “I Am One with Nature”

Once we got up there, my heart rate settled back down to normal—down from its “watching-a-horror-movie” levels—and the guide whispered some instructions to me. He gave me the rangefinder and told me to scout out distances to spots on the trails where deer would likely stop. Most were in the range of 20 to 30 yards away—a challenge, but definitely inside my comfort zone—and it took a few minutes to remember each spot. The scope on a crossbow is so much easier to use than most bow sites, so I felt some confidence.

And then… we started hunting. Which is to say, we did nothing, and we did that nothing as quietly as we could. I expected it to be kind of boring, but after about a half-an-hour, the most amazing thing happened: the forest sprang to life. It just… clicked, somehow, and I could suddenly see the entire environment as a single organism: small birds were popping up off the forest floor like popcorn bursting off the bottom of a pan, and I realized that the squirrels I had been ignoring a moment earlier had been collecting hard mast and putting it into a pile near the base of a tree (thanks, guys!). A couple of chipmunks found each other from the odd sides of a log and started flirting, and the butterflies who bopped up and down below me darted back and forth in an intricate mating dance. The scene burst into life, and I was overwhelmed by how active it was. We always think of city life as very busy, but the scene I was observing was just as frenetic. It was just a little bit quieter—and certainly much smaller—but just as busy.

It’s “Go Time…” (After Somebody Takes a Nap)

The forest floor buzzed on for about an hour, and eventually settled down. My guide and I just waited patiently, and eventually, we saw our first opportunity: a young buck. He appeared just off one of the trails behind us, and I could see him juuuuuuuuuuuuust out of the corner of my eye. My heartbeat skyrocketed and I got that surge of adrenaline I’d heard so much about. Even though we were way the heck up in a treestand, I felt just as amped as if I were on the ground and the buck was charging me. I thought to myself, “Wow, I guess this is going to happen,” but I let that thought pass so I could focus.

I tried to calm myself, and took a few slow breaths. I turned, crossbow in hand, to get my scope on him—but no matter how far I stretched, I was simply couldn’t set up a good shot. Either the crossbow limb was too close to the tree, or the buck moseyed behind a scraggly bush, or he was quartering-towards and the shot wasn’t worth taking. I sat watching him for about ten minutes, and he eventually shuffled further off trail—about 35 yards away—and stopped behind another bush, where… he sat down. And got comfy. And took a nap. For 45 minutes.

In retrospect, I found this really funny—I went on a hunting expedition, only to find a buck, and then watch it take nap. But from where we were, I just simply wouldn’t be able to get a shot off, and it would be unethical to do so. My mood went from excitement, to mild disappointment, to—after about 35 minutes—irritation. Get up! Get out of here! Either do something near me or get moving!

I didn’t say any of that, of course, and I kept my cool, and eventually I managed my get my emotions back to “mild disappointment.” And as soon as I got my head in check, my guide whispered to me, “Second deer—11 o’clock,” and sure enough, there was another deer about 60 yards in front of us. So now we had one in front and one behind. 

The first deer—the sleepy fella—had been about 35 yards to our rear, and he wandered forward to go over and say hello to his new friend. I clicked my safety off and positioned myself, and the two of them crept slowly to within 30 yards of us, right out in the open. And, then, all of a sudden…

The first deer took off running, and the sleepy fella darted off with him. Just like that, out of nowhere, they were both gone. It turns out a dog had gotten off one of the adjacent properties, and just at that moment, had started barking at the bucks. They were out of sight before we could really figure out what happened, and I was amazed at how slow the afternoon had passed, only for everything to fall apart so quickly.

Earlier in the day, my guide—who seemed wise beyond his years—said hunting has its moments of glory, but it’s largely about managing disappointment and staying true to your goal. I reminded myself of that, and rubbed my legs to get some blood in them. I hadn’t sat this still, for this long, in years.

OK, Maybe This Time Will Be “Go Time…”

The rest of the afternoon dragged on. It was quieter than it had been, but still pleasant—there was less critter activity, but the colors had changed from all the crimsons and auburns of mid-day to the greys and greens you see all winter. Even if that was all I got today, it was still a great experience, and I had a really pleasant afternoon. And as many of my friends had told me, you’re not really supposed to get a buck on your first hunting trip, because it’ll totally distort any realistic expectation you have of hunting for years to come.

So we stayed for a few hours longer, and eventually it neared dusk. I was starting to feel the chill, and was very grateful for all the gear I’d brought, because I’d have been miserable without it. I began to do the math in my head about how much longer we could be out, and then fate smiled on us: a medium-sized doe, a pretty decent size, wandered right onto our trail. Following behind her was a buck, between two and three years old. Not a full-grown beast, but a sexually mature male. The two of them were at about 11 o’clock in front of us, just to the right of the tree I had ranged at 27 yards. The doe was out in the open and presenting broadside, and the buck was about ten years behind her, at about 10 o’clock. 

I carefully, silently clicked my safety off and took aim. I could see him clearly, with the light that was left, and I steadied the crosshairs on his vitals. Oddly, that surge of adrenaline I had felt—that rocket fuel that cranked me up to 11 earlier in the day—didn’t come this time around, and that kind of made me feel… well, like a psycho, to be honest! I just sat there, getting ready, like a cold-blooded lunatic. Why isn’t my heart beating fast and my blood pumping? I wondered. Why wasn’t I on pins and needles? Had that hour spent watching a buck nap calmed me down? I don’t know, and I still can’t figure it out—but I guess I should be grateful, but that calmness made it a lot easier to aim.

The buck was broadside, but from our angle, I’d have to shoot through some branches to get to him. I needed him to take a few steps forward, and I waited, crossbow in hand, for about three minutes. Those three minutes seemed like an absolutely eternity, and that bow/crossbow became the heaviest thing I ever held in my life.

Finally, the buck took a step forward. He was still behind some branches, but I could see the shot, and I carefully (as my guide had instructed me), pulled the trigger and let off the bolt.


Lots of noises… and only a little bit of motion. Over the last few minutes, the light had fallen, and I struggled to see what had happened.

And what happened was… nothing. The bolt had ricocheted off the branches and shot off to the left, and I’d missed entirely. I had taken my shot, and I had missed. I was ready to process that in my mind—and that was OK with me; I’d rather miss entirely that inflict a non-lethal wound—but to my amazement…

They Stuck Around!

The buck—and the doe—were still there! Not only had they not bolted, they had moved, unbelievably, closer into view, and I had an unobstructed broadside view of both. I sat there for a full beat, spellbound, until I heard a quick whisper—”Reload! Reload!”—from behind me. My guide was jolting me back into action, because somehow we now had a better shot opportunity than we had a moment ago.

I’d ask him later, “Why didn’t they run off?” and my guide told me that it was a little bit of luck and a little bit of circumstance: the buck was young enough to not know too much better, but old enough to really want to spend time with the doe—and it was early enough in the season where they weren’t too pressured yet.

Luckily, I had the cocking rope over my shoulders, and we didn’t have to go searching for it, and I loaded another bolt and pulled the cocking rope back. On the ground, cocking a crossbow takes some effort, but it’s not that hard. Cocking the crossbow in the treestand, using legs that had been asleep for hours, felt like it was impossible. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was, and I gave it all my strength, but I couldn’t get the crossbow string to latch. I gave it all I had, and then gave it my reserve, and NOTHING… and then I gave it the “grunter,” and finally the serving was set. I loaded the bolt and looked down, and somehow the deer were still there. I couldn’t see them—it hadn’t gotten much darker in just the last few minutes, and I had to adjust the sight settings to green to see them—and I took aim again.

I still think a lot about the shot I took. I don’t remember thinking, “OK, I’m clear, I’m going to take the shot,” I just got a line on the vitals and pulled the trigger. That felt weird, afterward, because it all happened so quick. I would have liked to have felt more confident—I would have liked to think, This will do it, but maybe that’s just how it goes. I aimed, pulled the trigger, and loosed the bolt into the darkness, and just hoped for the best.

Earlier in the day, my guide had told me that you don’t often know what’s going on after loosing your arrow or bolt. That, when you’re there, live, you rarely see an arrow enter game, and it almost never expires in front of you—but that you can get clues from how the deer reacts. If he jumps HIGH and kicks and then runs off with his tail tucked and his head low, chances are you’ve connected with the vitals, and he won’t go far before he’s down. That’s the best-case scenario, because the deer will expire quickly and with as little pain as possible.

I saw nothing, but my guide said that’s what he saw—a high jump and a lot of mid-air kicking—but we couldn’t tell where the deer was, because by this time, it was fully dark. We sat in the tree for another 15 to 30 minutes in order to let the deer fully expire, because if you begin to track it while it’s still able to run away, it may get further afield and you’ll have a hard time finding it (here’s a good explanation of all that, if you’re unfamiliar).

We waited—now in the full dark—and honestly, I started to feel sick. All the adrenaline from the day, combined with little food and little water (I had been so “in the moment” all day, that I hadn’t really taken photos and didn’t drink enough), and I started worrying that I was going to throw up.

That actually got me a little panicky—when I throw up, my blood pressure drops *really* low, and I often pass out—and I really, really didn’t want that to happen. It’s been a problem in the past, where I’ll throw up and fall over and hit my head, and if I were to puke and pass out up in the treestand, that would not be a good thing. In fact, that would be a very, very bad thing, and it hadn’t even occurred to me before I got up there. I was all strapped in, but still.

So I got a little jumpy. I wish I could say I was John Q. Cool up there, but it had been a long day, and I asked my guide if we could get down a little early. He said that because he was confident I’d made a good hit, that would be OK.

So down we went, back down the treestand, one limb at a time. I can report that my fear of heights is still alive and well, because going down was just as rough as going up, but finally we were down on the ground. I searched for the bolt that had ricocheted off the branches and my guide… honestly, I forget what he was doing. I got a little fuzzy at that point, so I drank some water and wolfed down a protein bar, and I felt a LOT better almost immediately.

Tracking in Total Darkness

So, to sum up: I had let loose a bolt and we thought it connected, but we didn’t know how well it connected. I felt an incredible responsibility, and the idea of simply wounding an animal—well, I began to feel that deeply. It occurred to me how odd it is that I’m OK with harvesting an animal, but I’m not OK with it suffering.  

But that was a thought for later. I tucked it away and got my head together, because the buck had run off, and we needed to find it. We went to the location of the shot, and looked outward in foot-wide rings. First ring, nothing, second ring, nothing. Third, fourth, fifth, nothing. I was beginning to get worried that I hadn’t connected with any vitals—that I’d created a wound that wouldn’t bleed much, and that not only would we not find the animal, but that he’d suffer for a long time.

Finally, about six feet from where we remembered the buck to be standing, we saw the teeniest, tiniest, smallest little droplet of red. I still can’t believe my guide found it—it was on the edge of a tiny brown leaf, curdled on the outer rim—but as he said later, “That’s my job,” and I imagined that sort of thing gets easier to spot with more practice. Still, it was so small—maybe half the size of a button on a dress shirt.

From there, he found another drop the same size. And then one a little bit bigger. And then two, then three, and then a few the size of walnuts. After that they seemed to be everywhere, until we found a full trail, and after that, the deer was down about 50 yards from where I had aimed at him. To my relief, it was a great shot: through the lung, heart, and other lung, which put him down within seconds. The bolt was still with him, and the mechanical blade was bent back on itself.

I took a good long look at him: he was a good size, with two smallish/medium-sized antlers, and two points on each one. I studied him for a while, and my guide said to me, “I like that you’re a little subdued. I get a lot of young guys out here, and they just want to shoot something. I don’t like that attitude.” He stroked the buck between the ears. “We have to get moving, so if you want to pay your respects, now’s the time.”

Truth is, that was a great word for what I was feeling—subdued. I didn’t feel elated, and I didn’t feel boisterous, and I didn’t feel celebratory. I was grateful, and I was relieved—and I was sad, in a way, as well. I’d explore my thoughts in that moment later on, and it occurred to me that when I added all those feelings together, what I was actually feeling was respect: respect for the animal, respect for the traditions of a hunt, and respect for an experience that was hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old.

I’m very grateful, sitting here typing this, that those were my feelings. I have nothing against those who celebrate and hoot and holler, because I get it—more than ever, I get it. But my experience was different, and I think I felt the oldness, or the worldliness, of the event. It sounds silly in a way, but I felt like I’d joined some ancient society, and passed some ancient rite, that connected me to people all around the world and ages past. Exuberance is a fine reaction to it, but so is gravity, or reverie. I’m very grateful for that feeling I had, even if it was heavy at the moment.

My guide was great. I took my minute and he waited and let me do my thing. And then he said, “OK, field dressing time,” and we got down to the dirty work. Again, more honestly—he did most of it—or, OK, full honesty: he did all of it. I was looking at 9 months of meat in my freezer, and I didn’t want to puncture an organ and mess it all up. I’ll be more involved next time around.

What I was a part of was hauling that beast through the woods. Hands down, no two ways about it, THAT was the toughest part of this whole thing! My guide had brought a thick branch, maybe two-and-a-half inches thick and 18 inches long, and he tied a rope around the antlers and to the stick—I don’t know what kind of knot he used—and that enabled me to drag the buck through what seemed to be every sticker bush in North America. By the time I we got to the edge of the forest, I was deeply grateful that my clothes were sturdy enough to protect me from all those burrs and thorns.

And after that, dragged the buck across the stream, and onto the back of the guide’s truck, and to the butcher’s.

Pics or It Didn’t Happen

Unfortunately, I’m not going to include photos of the harvest—we have a lot of advertising partners here on Complete Guide to Archery, and they frown upon those kinds of images, so we’ll need to work with that—but I can give you one more of myself, where I look like The Punisher:

I don’t look like that in real life—in fact, I look a lot more like a librarian in real life—so I like that picture a whole bunch.

Will I Be Heading Out Again?

This was—no two ways about it—a fantastic experience, and one I deeply value. It’s been a few months now, and I still think about it every single day (and I also think about it at dinnertime, as I cook our way through the venison). I knew it would be an important experience, but I had no idea it would mean so much to me. 

As for “what’s next,” I’ll be heading out in the Spring for a turkey hunt, most likely with the same guide, who I’ve thanked a hundred times. I can’t wait.

So that’s it—the whole enchilada. If you’re still here, I want to thank you for reading. This was a long post, and as I said, it was probably as much for me as it was for anybody reading it. But I’m grateful you did, and if you’re a new hunter, I hope it helps you—and if you’re a veteran hunter, I hope it reminds you of your first hunting adventure!

This article is written by:

Gregory Johnson

Gregory Johnson

With almost 20 years of archery experience under his belt, Gregory founded the Complete Guide to Archery website in 2017. His purpose has been to spread knowledge about the hobby and sport to anyone willing to learn.
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