By Alex Comstock
It's so cliche, but it really is true. Time flies. As I sit here and start to realize my 2016 deer season is coming to a close sooner than I'd like, it's hard not to reflect on this past season, and the ups and downs that came with it. I firmly believe that this past hunting season was my toughest year that I've experienced, but in the same breath I can confidently say it was the best season I've ever had. How so you might ask? Throughout the rest of this journal post, my goal will be to answer that question as clearly as possible, and what this season meant to me, and ultimately what it has taught me.
New Goals: Coming into the 2016 season, I headed in a new direction as a whitetail hunter. In years past, I hunted hard and targeted mature bucks, but the attention to detail, and level of work wasn't there. I basically just spent a lot of time in the woods hoping to run into a big buck. This season was different. Once the 2015 season ended, I dove deeper into learning as much as I could about not just deer hunting, but starting to target truly mature bucks. I became obsessed with figuring out how to target the most mature bucks in an area, and put an arrow through one. I read more, listened to podcasts, and studied as much as I could about mature bucks, looking to pick up any little thing from people whom I looked up to. With that as the goal, I was looking for this year to be the start of my quest to consistently harvest mature bucks.
Spring/Summer: This past spring I spent more time than I ever had scouting and shed hunting. I put on miles upon miles trying to learn spots better that I had hunted the year prior, and find new ground. I can remember one day putting on over 14 miles looking for antlers, and finding new areas to hunt. Most of my scouting in the spring was geared towards finding good areas to hunt the rut, as I was waiting for summer to try and locate particular bucks on food sources to hunt in the early season.
After about the middle of July, I spent numerous evenings driving around and glassing bean field after bean field, on top of running twenty plus trail cameras. I was determined to shoot an early season buck in North Dakota, and then focus my efforts the rest of the season on Nebraska, and Minnesota, where I also had tags. I'll be honest, I was really confident about my early season chances. I had probably somewhere in the range of 10-15 bucks either on trail camera, or through personal sightings that I had on my hit list, and I thought I could get it done in the first week of season.
Early Season: North Dakota's September 2nd season opener came, and I was pumped as could be. I do all of my hunting in North Dakota with my friend Tyler, and we were sure that by the end of the first week of season we would have a good buck down. Except, things didn't quite turn out as we wanted. That first week we did have multiple encounters with shooter bucks, but nothing in bow range. And then the next week went on, and the next one, and the next one. Before we knew it, we went from having encounters out of bow range to not seeing any mature bucks at all. Once October hit, everything went dead. I'm not one to stay home and use the "October Lull" as an excuse to not hunt, but boy was October a rough month of hunting. I don't think I even saw a mature buck the whole entire month.
Doubts start to creep into your head when you think you are doing everything right, but have nothing to show for it. I thought I had played my cards perfectly in September, and after not getting a shooter in range, I thought if I hunted smart, I could make it happen in October. Not only did that not happen, but not even seeing a mature buck throughout the whole month, my confidence was at an all time low. I went about how I was doing everything from how I was playing the wind to what stands I sat so meticulously, it made me feel like I was failing. I was putting unrealistic expectations on myself, and it had me down in the dumps. I was still getting a number of mature bucks on camera, but by now it was 99.9% at night.
The Rut: Once November hit, I started to notice an uptick in deer movement. Throughout the first week and half, I actually witnessed the most rutting activity of my life, and it had me feeling better. I still couldn't get a buck I wanted in range - that is until November 17th.
November 17th will be a day that I think down the road I'll look back on, and will be able to point to it as a major turning point in my hunting "career" if you will. I did everything right that day. I had learned where does were bedding, hypothesized how bucks would travel searching for those last does in estrus, and put all the pieces of the puzzle together. That day was a day where many hunters would have stayed home. The wind was easily gusting 30-40mph, but I was in the stand by 1:30pm, and less than an hour later, I had the biggest main frame eight pointer I'd ever seen within forty yards of me. What I failed to do was execute the shot. Buck fever got the best of me, and it wasn't the first time. I rushed the shot, hit the buck too far forward, and never recovered him. I went from the top of the roller coaster to below the bottom in a matter of seconds.
Learning from this encounter and opportunity was critical for me as I develop as a bowhunter. This situation taught me two things. First of all, it almost confirmed to me that I could do "it". This buck was one I had on trail camera, and I was able to put the puzzle pieces together, and give myself a shot opportunity. On the other side of the spectrum, I needed to realize that if I wanted to start sealing the deal, I needed to become better at performing during the moment of truth. Taking just an extra second during the shot to make sure I had the pin right where I wanted it would have made the ultimate difference in me making it happen that day. This stuck with me, as I watched the video of the encounter day after day after day, wishing I could have another chance at that opportunity.
As November, and the rut came to an end, I felt defeated. My goal was to harvest a North Dakota buck early on, and then be selective while hunting Minnesota and Nebraska, and I hadn't sealed the deal in ND, resulting in spending very little time in the other two states. I spent a lot of time thinking about the buck that I had let slip through my fingers, and honestly beat myself up about it. Friends were telling me to forget about it and move on, but truth be told I couldn't. Shoot, I even left the arrow I shot that buck with in my quiver as a reminder to not let it happen again.
Late Season: My first true late season hunt was on December 9th, and it was quite the day. After scouting out a prime late season food source, I was able to successfully do a run and gun setup with a ground blind, and had one of the most epic hunts of my life. I saw over 70 deer, including multiple mature bucks. I was able to finally take my first North Dakota buck that night, and I couldn't have been more proud. You can read the full story about that hunt here. What stands out to me more than anything about that hunt though, was the fact that I can remember taking that extra second to make sure that pin was right where I wanted it, and my shot couldn't have been more perfect. I thought back to the buck I had wounded earlier in the year, and had I not failed then, I'm not so sure I would have been successful on my late season hunt.
Conclusion: 2016 is more or less in the books. Today I'll head out on my last hunt of the season. As I look back on this season, it definitely didn't go as planned. It was a tough year, even with the success of putting down a mature buck. How was it the toughest year of my life? - I thought I was going to get more production with the amount of hours I spent throughout the year on being so careful, and hunting so hard/smart. I had a major mishap, and wounded a buck. Though I don't believe it to be fatal, it kept me up at night. I obsessed over what I could have done differently. This season drained me at times, but in some weird round a bout way, I needed a season like this. I was humbled. Hunting mature bucks doesn't go according to plan (most of the time). There is no "always" and "never". I was able to realize this, and that is why it was the best season of my life.
It wasn't the best season of my life because I ultimately accomplished my goal of harvesting a mature buck, that was simply icing on the cake. Through all of the downs, and the mishaps, I learned more about mature bucks, and hunting them this year than I had in my entire life. This season has made me a better bowhunter, and has taught me how to hunt mature bucks more effectively. Success doesn't always come in the form of a harvest. The failures from 2016 will ultimately help shape me as a deer hunter going forward, and will be the backbone of success in the future.