BOW & ARROW MAGAZINE’S
BOWHUNTER’S ANNUAL 1979

The Tree, Buck Fever and Me ~ By Jim Dougherty

Does an experience bowhunter ever feel the effects of buck fever? Dougherty still does, and he’s glad that he does!

SOMEONE ASKED ME recently, toward the end of the last season, if I still got leg—wobbling nervous when big bucks and I happened to cross trails.
He assumed that because I had taken quite a few deer, among them some
highly respectable bucks, that perhaps the malady of buck fever was a thing
long gone. I was reminded by the question of an encounter not quite a year
old and used it as the base for my
answer.

It was A morning as clear and stiff as plate crystal when I wormed my
way into a favorite old oak, at the juncture of a bulge in the woods where
it gave way to the yearly Spring urgings of a creek bank. The Tree, and I
call it that with respect, was losing its battle with parasites and age but still
provided cover in a natural cup formed by a uniform four—way separation of
its trunk some eight feet high. From the almost natural fortress it covered
the intersection of four major trails. More important, it was to the thick—set
little bulge that big bucks on many days herded their does with just plain
sex on their minds.

There comes a time within each season when nothing else will do but to
spend the days in The Tree. This time historically has been the middle of November, and I know that sometime, something is going to take place here that I do not want to miss.
With the first breaking of day I was brought to rigid attention by the sound of approaching game, nature’s clattering signal provided by the ankle-deep leaves. It reminded me again how
extremely important one’s ears be- come when hunting from a blind.

My bow was hanging from the convenient broken stub of a once sturdy branch. The arrow was nocked, held in place by an arrow holder, a piece of equipment I consider as important as
the bow itself. I planted my feet firmly, grasped the bow and brought the string to my shooting hand with a positive, carefully controlled move.

The rustling in the leaves grew louder and then, in the morning’s gray gloom,
a round-sided, roly-poly doe slid into view less than ten yards from my hideout. Caught up in anticipation and suspense I slowly let out the breath that I had gulped down involuntarily when I
knew I was about to be visited, relaxing somewhat as I enjoyed the lady searching among the leaves for the bountiful mast crop that recent frosts and winds had allowed to shower the
floor of the woods.

The doe’s glands at her hocks were black and she carried her tail with
those cute come—on little motions a gal uses to capture a guy’s attention. The
lady was not alone, for somewhere on her back track, either very close or
soon to be hot on her trail would be a buck, I started gulping breaths again,
hoping to still the sound of my own breathing in order to better read audibly what might be behind. To my right some thirty yards was a well used scrape, one of four in a
twenty—five-yard square area. All about the creek bed and across the long
grassy flat I crossed to reach the bulge signs of individual bucks were evidenced by the rubs they had made on the little cherry trees and the bigger cedars. It has been said that age classes
of bucks can be determined by these rubs; that the bigger the tree the older and stouter, and therefore more desirable the buck. I do not know this to be fact, but I feel it is true.

On occasion I have watched bucks go through the routine of rubbing and there does seem to be a correlation of tree size to age class or rank in the hierarchy of the resident buck herd. I have not necessarily found this to be true of scrapes. One of the biggest bucks I have ever pursued (unsuccessfully so far) leaves runty little scrapes when his qualities are considered. I know they are his because I’ve watched him do it, otherwise I would never be convinced. Conversely, what he does to a cedar tree is awesome to behold. and I suspect that the mauling they take is often fatal. Cedar trees in my part of the country are hardy rascals, and he picks on the bigger ones.

The doe continued her prowling for nuts, drifting by me lazily without a
care in the world. Only once did she flick her tail quickly and punch up her
head for a long look-see of the area. Soon she was almost lost to my view
although still quite close, the thicket of the bulge and the faint early light
almost swallowing her up. I could mark her location by the rustling of leaves and. in the sharp quiet of the morning the occasional sounds as she chewed up an acorn. She was now to
my right. As the minutes passed I could see parts of her occasionally and noted that she was working with apparent purpose toward the scrape.

Minutes later she was there and her entire personality changed. No longer was she the relaxed lady of the forest. With her entire body stretched taut as the string on my hunting bow she advanced to the scrape, neck fully extended in a line that ran through to her tail, now fanned out and flickering but held parallel with her back. She investigated the scrape with her nose for some time, then quickly squatted and urinated, whether in it or by it I could not tell. The ritual completed she suddenly pranced off into the gloom of the woods, stopping only once before lost from sight.

There was no question in my mind that sometime during the course of this day I would have a chance at one of the four truly good bucks inthis area. Maybe I would not get a shot, but certainly I would see the big one or his slightly smaller brothers; that would be good enough. A chance begins to move in the right direction after game has been sighted.

Such situations do not, as a rule, begin to fall into place for the hunter who haphazardly takes to the woods and jumps into the first likely looking tree. They are the result of patient observation, of considerable scouting and numerous errors in judgment. The Tree and I had met five seasons previous, but before it all fell together I had hunted the area incorrectly on many days before I realized the significance of the thicket in the bulge and all the ingredients that made it a hot spot.

Once in the thicket, visibility is significantly reduced. Game can be in your lap without warning when the wind is blowing lightly, reducing the important sense of hearing. I learned the hard way that being ready was of the utmost importance when hunting here. Do not be misled, a deer can be too close. If you’re caught flat-foot you have to pay the piper.

I replaced my bow on its convenient natural hanger and relaxed, but
only slightly. I could reach the bow with a movement of less than six
inches of my bow hand,—its weight would swing the string to my fingers
and by straightening my knees I could be ready to shoot through any of the
openings by simply turning my feet encased in rubber-soled boots. My bow
quiver was removed to provide total clearance and reduce the possibilityof
unnecessary noise. I was as ready as can be and charged to the bursting
point.

A chunky fox squirrel ran through the overhead branches. At the first
rustle I started,·then relaxed and paid him no further mind. Only last season,
while watching a pair race with incredible abandon and agility through the
same branches a big ten point caught me cold. I had looked down, and he
was there, not twenty feet away. I could not move and, in short, he ate
my lunch. The lesson learned was clear, on those perfect mornings during the rut one’s mind and attention should not wander from the main objective. To do so was to invite disaster.

I was mid-point in shifting my weight for comfort when I picked up the unmistakable rustle of a deer traveling purposefully through the leaves.
From left to right it was coming, and my mind and body knew instinctively
it would be a buck.

What a buck he was. Like a thoroughbred bird dog he came at that purposeful trot, bulging neck low to the ground as his keen nose coursed the trail of the doe. He was the fourteen-pointed King of the Creekbot— tom, albeit two of the points branched from the long tined number two
point making him less than perfect in the score department, but symmetrical nonetheless. His mind and attention never wandered. He coursed the trail in a mile-eating gait, his heart and head
full of lust, and he went by The Tree so quick that my bow, while up, never rolled over the eccentric hump, he was past, leaving me at an awkward half-draw. Such moments are the height of excitement, and anxiety. What happened over the next twenty minutes was the epitome of all things that make bowhunting a most rewarding, and frustrating, pastime.

Within scant seconds the buck had passed from sight, hardly hesitating at the scrape. With a crashing commotion the doe hurtled into view coming in my direction, stiff legged, tail twitching with a provocative air designed to drive the most aloof of bucks wild.
The fourteen pointer was not aloof — he was in full, love—struck pursuit. Where the rest of the deer came from I do not know but, as though the commotion in the forest was a signal, another fine buck appeared on the scene and amidst the chaos two yearlings
bounded about, dashing in and out of the thicket. For fully ten minutes all the deer raced in a circular pattern through the thicket, around The Tree. The second buck was a dandy twelve point, less than perfect in conformation, although I am not a perfectionist when it comes to twelve point bucks.

But my eyes and heart were set on the bigger buck. There were lulls in the race when all involved stopped for a breather, all save yours truly poised in The Tree, bow up and half out, drawing hand firmly in place, turning slowly on the quiet rubber soles to follow the big buck’s course.
The two bucks never clashed, the smaller staying close but never totally entering the race. The big buck had served notice once, stalking bullishly to a scrubby little oak he quite literally demolished it amidst much growling and pawing. Three times his trotting pursuit of the fine old doe brought him within mere feet of my spot. The bow at full draw became a physical enemy itself, but a clear good shot was never quite offered.

I became aware of the increasing rustle of trembling leaves on The Tree
almost subconsciously. The branches that swept out from my spot reached
as far as ten feet, sloping down from years of age toward the ground. As yet
the old girl had not given up all her leaves to the urgings of Fall. As I became aware of the almost violent shaking it occurred to me that, as yet on this crisp clean morning, not a breath of air had stirred. The stirring was caused by the involuntary trembling that began in my knees, relayed down my legs to the soles of my feet perched less and less firmly on the main branches that gave birth to the now offending vibrations. Much worse, that same shattering vibration was racing
up through my chest in a violent attempt to strangle me.

Now the battle took on new dimension, a war with nerves and the fickle
racing of the doe. Would she lead the buck to a clear path for my arrow before I was reduced to inept shambles.

Buck fever, if that’s what you choose to call it, takes many strange
forms. In answer to the question, my story is stark answer, I am not immune
to such emotions and hope I never am. Big bucks, be they muleys or whitetails, blow my composure more than any other wild thing. The fine line between being able to remain somewhat
functional and totally wasted is in direct proportion to the length of time I am faced with the target before I have to react.

I spend countless hours developing a place to lie in wait for a big buck
whitetail. If he shows suddenly and I am ready then the odds are on my
side; if he diddles and dawdles in his approach the odds slip dramatically to
his side of the ledger. Ihave tried all sorts of tricks in an attempt to climb
into my mind and sort it out when such an event is in the making. I talk
to myself, I close my eyes, I ignore the buck, I try never (it’s impossible) to
look too much at his headgear. None of it really works, for in the framework of your head, banging kettle drums and cymbals sound the clanging message that He is coming. I am reminded of a darn nice Oklahoma buck my number two son took this past season. We placed his stand
after patient observation of a thicket the bucks were using. On the second morning the snapping of a twig advertised the approach of game and Kelly turned to peek over his left shoulder.

A matronly doe was being prodded into the thicket by a buck with headgear far better than Kelly had ever had close. His heart leaped up between his ears and it seemed to become unusually warm. He solved the problem by relying solely on his ears, never once again looking.
“No way was I going to look at him again,” he said. As the rustling in the
leaves grew louder Kelly drew his bow, and when all seemed right and the
strain of sixty-five pounds began to tell he pivoted, found the buck’s chest and popped him all in one motion at fifteen feet. The buck collapsed on the spot. So, too, did Kelly.
In The Tree the shaking of the leaves did not abate as the buck tried to close with the doe. She would allow him to come close, then dash off on a wild plunge through the thicket. Huffing, puffing and growling deep in his chest the buck would follow, stopping occasionally to shake his head or hook a low hanging branch. Eventually the pattern shifted, the big deer were gone, the two yearlings still pouncing about trying to figure what were the changes that had taken place amongst
the old folks. I suspect the yearlings. fawns of the year actually, belonged to the doe. They would be pushed aside until after the courtship was consummated, and then perhaps they would
all join together until the following Spring when new responsibilities would cause her to chase them off to fend for themselves.

The incident was over for now. For almost a half hour I had one of the best whitetails I’ve ever seen within twenty yards. I had witnessed an interesting, exciting ritual among our most
popular and elusive game animals. For the entire time I was at full, muscle-straining alert, and I had been subjected to a satisfying attack of the malady called buck fever.

Satisfying? Sure it was. I was dishrag limp and feeling more alive than I had in months. Hunting, for man, is a natural and emotional thing. We are the ultimate predator, but we are human and should experience emotion unlike the dispassionate killing for survival as done by a coyote or cougar. I marvel at the man who tells me he feels none of the tremblings in knees or the shortness of breath, and I feel sorry for him.

Yes, I still get leg-wobbling nervous when big bucks and I cross trails. I did the following morning when I caught the twelve pointer mid—stride and watched him go down in ten short yards. Sometimes the ol’ fever gets me. and sometimes I beat it. I hope it
never changes. <—<<

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