It was several summers ago that I bought a farm in the hunting country of central Minnesota.
After too many years living in town, I hungered to get away from it all-or was it to it? Anyway, I'd discovered I am a true country boy, and this was it: a secluded old farmstead at the end of a half-mile driveway, surrounded by fields home to ringneck pheasants, Canada geese and whitetail deer. It was a place for solitude and independence, with 80 acres of elbowroom for teaching dogs and boys how to hunt, and for generally goofing off. The buildings were turn-of-the-century and we had to renovate our way into the house, but the pastoral life was well worth the work.
I'd spotted a few deer in the hayfield beyond the barn, a 10-acre patch flanked by sharecrop corn. The deer spotted me, too, and after a few panicked encounters, seemed to get used to me. They kept their distance, but nervously tolerated my activities around the farmyard -- doing chores, playing with the kid and dog, shooting the bow.
Hunting In The Back 40
I became enamored with the idea of hunting my own deer on my own farm -- hunting free of long road trips and kissing up for permission. I could harvest some venison, and cut back on crop depredation -- the proverbial two birds with a single stone. I started to lay a plan.
A few different does and fawns were bedding in the high corn, coming out to graze on the succulent clover of the cutover field each dusk. Their unpredictable routes and lack of trees made stand hunting impractical, but that was OK. I'd been looking for a good situation to try my hand at stalking whitetails. It looked like I'd found one.
I regretfully missed out on the early part of the season. I'd been hunting Colorado buglers in late September, and the fact that my freezer was not brimming with elk meat as I'd planned made me even more interested in that venison store just out my back door.
My opportunity came on a brisk October evening, the kind that makes aspen leaves rattle and prompts you to take mental stock of your firewood supply. I had been getting ready for a hunting trip up north with friends when I paused at an upstairs window to gaze toward the field, as had become a habit, and noticed a lone doe munching wilted clover. I glanced at my watch, grabbed my Black Widow, a camo jacket, and hit the door.
First running hunkered, then creeping, I stopped at the fenceline rockpile to get my bearings. I eased my eyes up to the level of the wavering weed tops and spotted the deer, closer than I expected, at about 30 yards. I sank back down and weighed the pros and cons of trying a shot from there, or trying to sneak closer. Finally, I crawled on, carefully moving aside each crisp leaf and brittle stem in my path.
Gets In The Zone
When I knew I'd entered the deadly 20-yard zone, I plucked an arrow from my bow quiver, sidled up to a bush, and raised slowly into shooting position. The doe's head snapped erect. We stood, like two statues, waiting for the other to make a move. My eyes instinctively began to focus on the deer's elbow as fingers strained eagerly on the bowstring. Then, uncannily, the deer buried her face back into the grass!
At the snap, the deer's head yanked up again. But she didn't run. She munched. She didn't even seem frightened by the sound -- the sound of my arrow snapping back into the quiver.
The doe blinked at me with a big wad of clover hanging from both sides of her mouth, as if to say, "You've been acting strangely all summer. Now what are you up to?"
For some reason I couldn't bring myself to send a sharpened shaft into that peaceful scene. I realized then that this was an animal altogether different from any other game I'd encountered. It didn't view me as certain death on two legs. It knew me as the farmer she graciously shared her home with. This wasn't a matter of hunter and hunted, a full or empty freezer, or even life or death. It was a matter of trust.
In the farmhouse doorway, I paused to look back at the darkening field. The doe was still working over my hay, joined by another.
I turned and went inside to finish packing for the morning hunt.
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Mike Strandlund is the late editor of Bowhunting World Magazine and
bowhuntingworld.com, and is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame. We honor his memory by continuing to expose archery enthusiasts to his outstanding writing.