feature By: Darron McDougal | January, 20
Daylight was quickly fading as 16 mule deer trotted across the snow-layered landscape toward a standing cornfield – a pattern I had identified while scouting and hunting for a few days on land I’d gained permission to hunt that borders Nebraska’s legendary Pine Ridge region. I clutched my muzzleloader a bit tighter as I watched the deer from a Double Bull blind I had set up a couple of days earlier.
The December air was dense with moisture, imposing a chilling bite and causing thick vapor with each exhalation. Shivers set in as I waited for a specific buck to appear. Light was fading fast, and doubt was creeping in. My only hope was a last-light opportunity.
Then the chosen buck suddenly appeared. I raised the muzzleloader to acquire the deer in the scope, and as it paralleled the blind 183 yards away, I grunted to stop it, exhaled and took aim. Just as I began applying pressure to the trigger, the buck started moving again. I relaxed my finger then repeated the steps. This time, the big buck paused a bit longer and the rifle fired – smoke engulfing my otherwise unobstructed view.
This Nebraska deer hunt began a few months earlier in September, during archery season. It was my first time hunting the Pine Ridge area, so I familiarized myself with the public lands within reasonable proximity to the campground where my wife and I parked our fifth-wheel camper. After several scouting outings, we located a big whitetail buck and two solid mule deer bucks. Things were looking great. I hunted for a week, but fickle winds prevented me from hunting my chosen spots.
My cousins were hunting elk in Idaho, and they reported that action was beginning to increase, so we left Nebraska. However, we would be back. Idaho came and went; despite many encounters, I didn’t hang my tag on an elk. Likewise, a Kansas deer hunt ended without a buck. It was now the beginning of December and I had yet to secure any meat for the freezer, epitomizing a difficult season.
When we arrived in the Cornhusker State, the landscape was clear of snow. I hunted the same field where we’d seen the big whitetail back in September. Since it’s a large field, I carried my muzzleloader. A beautiful 3½-year-old 8-pointer tempted me that first evening, but I let it walk. I also saw numerous does.
Then, snow and below-zero temperatures arrived. This was our first cold weather camping experience. Our furnace worked continually to heat the camper, so we bought an electric heater for supplemental heat. We stayed mostly comfortable, but a question lingered: What if our furnace suddenly quit working? We prayed it wouldn’t.
During the September outing, I met a man who granted permission to hunt on his property. He also introduced us to his father, who also gave us permission to hunt on his land. This turned out to be our ace in the hole since the public land hunting had been unproductive.
The older fellow showed us around his property, pointing out a standing cornfield where both whitetails and mule deer were regularly feeding. The deer were bedding in the adjacent Pine Ridge hills and were coming down each evening to feed on corn. As we drove by the cornfield, mule deer fled from it and disappeared into a draw with tall pine trees surrounded by gentle prairie hills.
I felt sure those pines were my opportunity to punch my archery tag. However, I didn’t want to get too aggressive too quickly. I sat on some haybales in the distance with my muzzleloader to observe the deer. Sure enough, a big muley buck came up through the pine draw and worked right toward the cornfield.
The following afternoon, I returned to the property with my bow and a tree stand. Winds were gusting to 25 miles per hour as I sawed off a few limbs and positioned the tree stand for the evening hunt. I dressed as warm as possible and used chemical warmer packs all over my body. Even at that, I struggled to stay warm.
Less than two hours later, I caught movement in my peripheral vision. It was a mule deer fawn working uphill toward the stand. It walked directly beneath my platform. Then I spotted more movement. It was the large buck I’d seen the previous evening. It was less than 15 yards away, but completely obstructed. The buck then switched routes and walked out into the wide open in front of the stand. I couldn’t move to use my rangefinder because the deer was entering my downwind airstream, so I estimated the distance at 30 yards, drew my bow, aimed and sent a carbon arrow on its way. It sailed just above the deer’s back. The buck bolted and was gone.
I hunted near the cornfield for the next two mornings and evenings but didn’t see the big buck. Still, I knew the field was the best food source in the area so continued hunting around it. The buck would return sooner or later.
The next move was to position a ground blind just less than 200 yards from where the deer were typically entering the field. I popped it up one morning after hunting. Then I watched the forecast, waiting for the right wind direction to hunt the blind. The ideal wind showed up two afternoons later. I jumped into the blind by 2 p.m. that afternoon. Within a few hours, a string of 14 mule deer does and two small bucks appeared in a single-file procession heading toward the cornfield. I propped the muzzleloader’s barrel on my shooting sticks, but the large buck wasn’t in the group.
The rifle’s bark echoed throughout the Pine Ridge hills, and smoke filled the air. The smoke soon dissipated and revealed that my prize had fallen dead in its tracks. I thanked God for the opportunity to hunt this buck, then took a few moments to calm down before walking over to the buck.
Taking an animal is always an emotional event for me. I have nothing but respect for every animal I take, and the meat feeds my family for months. I’m humbled whenever I’m fortunate enough to participate in this natural pursuit. Though the season had been painfully long and very unsuccessful, I’d finally shot a Nebraska buck, and a good one at that. The stunning deer sported an impressive 4x4 antler configuration. Regardless, it isn’t about the antlers. It’s about the experience, and more importantly, the perfectly organic meat.
Certainly, the loud report and plume of smoke my muzzleloader sent toward the Pine Ridge hills that evening signaled a well-deserved conclusion to my trying Nebraska hunting season. The buck outsmarted me a few times, but I was ultimately able to do what I came to do.