A bowhunter’s first deer is a rite of passage. It takes work, patience and lessons from past failures.
In Part 1 of Zach Davis’ story, we learned that he worked all summer preparing for Utah’s archery mule deer season. He dialed in his equipment at a nearby archery shop and practiced out to 100 yards. Drawing a tag was challenging, but thorough research helped him succeed. His story resumes three months into the hunting season.
Until Nov. 22, Zach Davis’ bowhunt for mule deer involved long hikes and close calls. His season changed early that morning.
He had set his alarm for 2:30 a.m., but slept through it. His brother, Nick, woke him up at 4:30 a.m. Still in a sleepy daze, Zach quickly packed his bag, and then they drove 45 minutes to the trailhead. When they arrived, Zach hesitated.
“I was really tired and I didn’t really want to hike up the mountain,” he said. “We had been doing it since August. Waking up early and hiking up there all the time was wearing me out.”
But despite his fatigue and the long miles of discouragement, Zach and his brother pushed up the mountain. They hiked to an elevated point where they could look for deer with binoculars and spotting scopes. They hoped to spot a distant deer and stalk in close for a shot.
Unfortunately, when they arrived at the overlook, another hunter was already there. Zach and Nick recognized him as Martin Chagnovich, a well-known local bowhunter. The protocol on public lands required the brothers to give up the spot and move on, but Martin insisted they share it. Martin had already spotted a couple of nice deer. A short time later they found a buck for Zach to pursue.
Zach’s stalk required a grueling four-hour trek across the mountain, which meant traversing steep snow-covered ridges to reach the deer. Low-hanging clouds helped conceal his movements along the ridge’s peak. As Zach approached the site where he expected to find the buck, he encountered a young buck. Using his laser rangefinder, he determined the buck’s distance, adjusted his sight, and drew his bow. He didn’t intend to shoot, however. He just went through the motions to help calm himself and prepare for the mature buck he was after.
Zach sneaked closer to where he spotted the buck that morning, and was soon on the edge of a steep ridge, looking down at a group of does milling around in thick cover less than 100 yards away. Deer often use thick cover during daylight to hide from predators. These does might also be trying to avoid bucks, because this was the deer’s breeding season, called the rut. In fact, the rut was in full swing, so Zach knew a buck was likely nearby.
As Zach intently watched the does, he spotted antlers moving through the brush. “My buck kept walking back and forth through a 5-foot opening in the trees, but never offered a good shot,” he said. “I drew back seven times before I was able to get a shot. Finally, it all came together. He stood broadside right in that 5-foot clearing. I ranged the tree next to him and then ranged him, just to be sure. He was exactly at 80 yards, but thanks to my angle-compensating rangefinder, I knew to set my sight for 60 yards.”
Why’s that? When shooting at steep angles uphill or downhill, a little geometry and gravity come into play. In Zach’s case, he was shooting at a steep downhill angle. Although the distance from him to the buck was 80 yards, that measurement includes several yards of elevation. If the buck and Zach were standing at the same elevation, the distance to the target would only be 60 yards.
In other words, picture a triangle with Zach atop its tallest leg, and the triangle’s hypotenuse running from Zach to the buck, which was at the end of the triangle’s shortest leg. Gravity’s effect on the shot covers only the distance of the triangle’s 60-yard leg, not its 80-yard hypotenuse. Confused? Don’t be. The quickest way to calculate the true shooting distance is with an angle-compensating laser rangefinder, which Zach used.
“I drew back, settled my pin right behind the shoulder and I let it rip,” Zach said. “The arrow made a distinct thwack when it hit the deer.”
Each bowhunter’s effective range is a personal decision they determine through practice and the hunting conditions they encounter. Zach’s long-range practice during the offseason and favorable conditions while hunting that day gave him confidence. Plus, the deer was relaxed and unaware of him.
Shortly after shooting, Zach received a message from Martin, saying he was right behind him. Martin had been stalking another buck in the same area but decided not to shoot it. Instead, he offered to help Zach find his buck.
Zach and Martin began that task by finding his arrow. “My arrow was sticking out of the snow, and it was covered in blood from the broadhead to the nock,” he said. “That’s when it all hit me. I had shot an awesome buck, and all this hard work had paid off.”
The arrow had passed though the buck, which is ideal because it created an open wound to bleed freely from both sides of body. Arrows often provide clues to where the deer was hit. Bubbles in plain-red blood means a lung hit, while deep-dark red blood indicates a liver hit. A funky-smelling arrow smeared with partially digested food likely means a stomach hit.
All signs on the snow and arrow signaled a good hit, with a quick recovery to follow. “We started down the blood trail, and there was blood everywhere in the snow,” Zach said. “Ten yards farther down the trail there was even more blood. All of a sudden, I looked down and my deer was right there, piled up in the bushes.”
Nick soon joined Zach and Martin. He had been watching from a distance, and had to hike two hours to reach them. The three bowhunters took pictures and began processing Zach’s deer. They skinned, quartered and loaded the buck into a backpack.
After a full day of hunting in the mountains, Zach’s work wasn’t over. He had to carry the precious venison off the mountain and back home. “It was 15 degrees and only getting colder,” he said. “I was trying to get down this hillside, and I was slipping and sliding.” At least he had Nick and Martin to help.
Darkness settled in as they descended the mountains, but their headlamps lighted their path. When they were halfway to the trailhead, they saw two men approaching from below. Zach’s dad and uncle were hiking up to help. That was a welcomed surprise ending after a long day of hunting.
The story behind a first deer is always exciting and memorable, but Zach Davis’ first deer was an epic experience. In fact, it required three years of hard work, countless miles in the mountains, a heart-pounding four-hour stalk, and then one arrow and a short blood trail.
That also explains why hunting memories shared with family and friends endure like brilliant sunrises. When the season ends and all the venison is grilled and eaten, the hunt’s stories, photos and memories remain. Zach and those closest to him will tell his first-deer story for years.
To get started in bowhunting, follow Zach’s advice and visit your local archery shop. Then, join our community of bowhunters on Facebook. It’s a safe space to celebrate your success stories, and learn from likeminded people.