Saturday November 7th, dawn breaks to a clear sky and temperatures just below 30 degrees. A fresh frost litters the tops of our first attempt at a clover blend food plot. I'm on my favorite farm strapped into a walnut tree 20 feet up sitting this spot for the first time this year. I've got a freezer to fill, tags to burn, and an itchy trigger finger. Welcome to Deer Camp 2015!
To the bowhunter that loves to chase rutting whitetails the description above may be more exciting than anything the author of "50 Shades of Gray" has to throw at us. If you're like me you get pretty pumped up about the idea of the November rut waking up big bucks that seem to have fallen off the face of the earth since summer. You imagine that once-in-a-lifetime monster cruising through your favorite honey hole, stopping right in your shooting lane and watching your arrow hit the sweet spot. If you're like me you love the idea of showing the buck to your buddies, retelling the same stories a million times, and giving each other a hard time about anything and everything under the sun.
The game of hunting will never get old to me. I giggle uncontrollably, out loud like I'm on laughing gas and I still shake like I have hypothermia every time I release an arrow. I smile proudly after the realization that all the hours of hard work just paid off. That feeling is healthy medicine for the soul as is laughing and sharing those quality moments with quality people. That's what I call Deer Camp.
In my mind it'd be a crime to have all that joy and jubilation if you didn't have a few good buddies to share it with. Deer camp is about growing "No-Shave-November beards", breaking out your favorite recipes, packing entirely too much food for the short trip, and meeting up with your boys for a a few days to reconnect with mother nature. Deer camp is about flipping the other guys crap for overcooking, or under cooking anything. It's about making fun of a guy that thinks a fanny pack is an incredibly convenient way to carry just the right amount of gear to a stand (guilty). It's about paying up a pricey bottle of bourbon to last years' winner of whatever bet made sense at the time. Deer camp reminds me of a sleepover you had with your adolescent buddies when you all tried to stay up as late as possible and mess with whoever fell asleep first. Deer camp is like those carefree college years when time didn't matter and all you had to worry about were the difficulties of juggling your budget well enough to pay for rent and still go out at least 3 nights a week. Deer camp is the ultimate getaway for a guy like me, who blinked and suddenly has gray hair and a high school senior.
2015 Deer camp stared a little differently. After a couple of unfruitful seasons CJ Novak, Jay Canada and I decided we needed to push ourselves a little harder. We wanted to try our first attempts at using food plots. We wanted to learn our ground better, we wanted to hang new sets for all possible winds. We were committed to figuring out how to kill more deer. So it began with a well conceived plan in the groggy wee hours of the morning at the annual Nebraska Bowhunter's Association Convention in March. Like all good ideas fueled by testosterone and a good time we laid out the strategy. That strategy starting taking shape in late June. We drove 3 hours to deer camp, started clearing weeds with a weed eater and rakes, and sprayed weeds for our food plots. In late July we'd be back for another banzai weekend trip to clear the dead grass, plant the Whitetail Institute clover plot and hang some stands. In late August we returned to check cameras and our progress. It appeared the plots had been growing as we had a few lush areas of green clover, turnips, and rye sprouting up. The cameras were full of pictures and it was time to figure out which bucks to target. Funny thing happened along the way, the bucks forgot to show up. In 2014 I ended up with 15 different Pope and Young caliber bucks on my camera and arrowed exactly zero of them. What would that mean for 2015? Were there no bucks to hunt on ground that annually produces? Of course not, it just meant we had to trust our hard work, and hunt.
The week of Deer Camp reminds me a little of Homecoming week in high school. This week seems to have a little more buzz in the air. The 3 of us lose a little bit of focus on the work we are getting paid to do and spend a little more time emailing, texting, and calling each other to talk over the same set of plans we've had since 2010, when I reconnected with my high school buddy CJ and he introduced me to Jay. Each day is a new topic of conversation that is eerily similar to the day before. You'd think after a combined 50+ years of hunting experience there wouldn't be a need for a checklist and daily conversations about what everyone is bringing and not bringing but it's inevitable. Basically it's a way for buds to come up with an excuse to talk to each other. That's alright, it's Deer camp.
Finally it's here, we pull up to camp and greet each other with name calling and crude jokes about tardiness like manly men like to do. There's no hugging in this camp just the occasional fist bump if someone really did a good job. We all find our bunks and unpack our gear to figure out what we all forgot. I really need to start writing things down, how do you forget hashbrowns and sausage for breakfast? A few years ago we might've stayed up a hair longer but CJ thinks he has to be up at 4 when shooting like is at 640 so it's off to bed, no one really sleeps with that much snoring and anticipation but that's Deer Camp.
Morning 1 daylight breaks. I sit in the set up I mentioned above pondering what to do if a decent buck comes in the very first thing? I'm hoping for a monster so I don't have to make that decision. It's a taxing decision because in 2013 I spent 10 minutes watching a 160+" mule deer close from about 250 yards to just 30. I watched him stand perfectly still as he let me come to full draw & I continued watching him stand perfectly still as I released my arrow. I watched him trot about 15 yards and turn around and look back at me as he tried to figure out what projectile just whizzed over his back. I watched him trot off after his doe, unharmed, and none the wiser. It's a taxing decision because in 2014 I found a big buck standing by the side of the road as an early October cold front swept through Lancaster county. I was lucky enough to secure permission to his 40 acre fortress and set up a stand. I saw that same buck standing by the same road on Nov 4 as I drove to work. On Nov 6 I was in my treestand as the 150" stud trotted by bird-dogging a doe. Again, I missed. 320" of antler walked away unscathed in a two year stretch. As a bowhunter and mildly competitive man I was down on my luck. But I was back in the saddle, hunting my favorite farm with a fresh mindset. At 7:00 a.m. I tickled some rattling antlers together and waited. I had picked up my trail camera on the way in and had 5 pictures of the buck in the slideshow, a real nice 5x5, I was praying would show up. At 7:10 a.m. I caught movement. It was a buck, I could see tall G2's and got ready. He stepped out onto the food plot and looked for the fight. It was the moment I feared, he was a deer that wasn't going to go on my wall or break records, but he was a deer that had me pumped up and shaking to the core. It took me just a second to snap to reality and tell myself; "You're here because you love this stuff. You're here because you want some meat. You're here because it's Deer Camp. Shoot that deer, enjoy every second of it, and don't look back". At that the arrow was off and my deer was in trouble.
As is always the case I texted my buddies to let them know what happened, and as I figured it was high fives all the way around. These two guys are quick to offer a helping hand. They're quick to offer to crawl down from their own sets to come help drag a deer out. They're quick to let you know it's ok you missed two huge bucks in the previous two years and they're quick to rub it in that you missed two big bucks in two years. That's Deer Camp. I'm lucky to have good friends that know how to get it done in the woods and share those times with. I look forward to future camps with other friends as well like Tyler Fountain of Lincoln, Chewy Swatzell of New Mexico, and Jay Novak of Lincoln. The list of good buddies that make all life's adventures a blast isn't exclusive to just hunting either so here's a shout out to my buddies in "The Big 5", my 617 Pearl Street and other Wayne State crew, as well as my alumni golf and basketball buddies.
Saturday evening Jay would finish an all day sit and as last light would approach he would make a 30 yard shot on a great 140's class, 5 1/2 year old 9 point. He was his normal cocky self about it, and for good reason, the man already had a 156" spot and stalk mulie and 72" antelope on the ground for 2015. On Monday I took a doe at 20 yards and on Tuesday CJ would fill his buck tag on a very unique 3 1/2 year old buck that was still carrying velvet. Wednesday morning Jay filled a doe tag of his own. 3 guys, 3 bows, 5 deer, 5 days. What a hunt.
2015 was clearly our most successful Deer Camp together. But I never want that to be the reason this was our BEST Deer Camp. Every camp has to be our BEST. It has only taken me 20 years to figure out that I'll never play another high school football game. Or to figure out that my college days are over, although I've offered to come stay in the dorms with my son to show him ropes. He's now a senior and I miss the days when I used to tuck him in at night as a little boy. My 12 year old daughter is far too big to sit on my lap and rock in the chair on lazy Saturday mornings too. Time doesn't slow down for anything. But it sure allows us to make up excuses as to why we don't get together with important people in our lives. I remember being at the Nebraska Bowhunter's Association convention and listening to Fred Eichler speak. Someone asked him what his favorite hunt was and with a straight face he said "all of them." I want that to be the way I view the world. I want every day I wake up to be the best day. I want every hunt to be my best. I want every Deer Camp to be my best.
Whether your "Deer Camp" is in a treestand, or in church on Sunday morning, or on a Harley cruising through the Black Hills, or on a tee box on a warm summer morning, whatever you do think of it as your best Deer Camp. Grab your buddies, grab a beer, jump on a boat, go to a ballgame, play catch with your kids, do whatever it is in life that makes you smile and live in that moment. Don't wait to have the time of your life with good people, live everyday like it's Deer Camp.
The Budget Bowhunter