Figuring out the Learning Curve of Whitetail Hunting
Just as in bass fishing, there are always lessons to be learned from most deer hunts, so says BASS and MLF pro Brent Chapman; the question is whether hunters pay attention to those lessons and profit by them when big buck opportunity finally arrives
It really wasn't all that surprising recently when my phone buzzed and I discovered a text telling me about more autumn big buck success.
After all, that's an occupational hazard as an outdoor writer in a world that seems to go whitetail crazy in the final months of the year.
That being said, it also wasn't surprising that the text came from Bassmaster Elite Series and Major League Fishing pro Brent Chapman, one of the more serious deer hunters that I know.
As long as a fishing tournament isn't getting in the way, that is.
As a land owning resident of Lake Quivira, Kan., Chapman is no stranger to tagging big Midwestern bucks, something that he started doing more than a dozen years ago when a passing interest turned into a full-fledged off-season hobby.
That first year out with a bow in his hand, the 2012 BASS Angler of the Year tagged a whopper whitetail scoring into the 180s, a buck that sparked a bowhunting passion in Chapman that hasn't waned in the years since.
Including this particular season when he ended up tagging another large buck pushing up towards the magical 170-inch mark.
When Chapman's deer processing chores were complete - and the big rack had been dropped off to a local taxidermist - I gave him a call.
"You're always telling me when we're talking bass fishing that every fish you catch has a lesson to teach," I said. "So I'm wondering, since you've got a wall full of big Midwestern whitetails, does that same idea apply to deer hunting?"
"You bet it does," laughed Chapman.
"I guess the first and the biggest thing that I learned from this buck is that you can't kill one if you aren't out there on a stand," he added.
"To be honest, I wasn't excited about my chances. In fact, I was down and frustrated because it had been a difficult season given fishing demands, the warm weather, etc."
It wasn't that Chapman had not hunted hard, mind you, because he works as hard at this sport as just about anyone I know.
Still, after days of getting up dutifully at 4 a.m., the big whitetails were little more than ghostly apparitions in Eastern Kansas, moving in front of Chapman's trail cameras at night but not past his treestands during daylight hours in what has turned out to be one of the warmest autumn seasons on record.
What's the biggest lesson from Brent Chapman's huge 2016 Kansas buck? That it really doesn't matter how a hunt starts as much as it matters how it all ends. (Photo courtesy of Brent Chapman)
Which leads to Chapman's second lesson - don't ever play down the effects of a significant weather change.
"I had had a bad hunt the night before where I didn't see much of anything and I was really thinking 'Why am I going to drive all the way down there for another bad hunt?,'" he said.
"But then I thought 'No, I have to go because a front has finally pushed through and the first frost of the year would be happening the next morning. Plus, it was lingering in my mind that this was the time of year in deer hunting where you just have to keep pushing through because anything can happen."
Fast forward to the next morning where Chapman admits that he punched the snooze button one too many times, learning a third lesson of ignoring fatigue, getting up and getting going to the deer woods.
"I was running a little late, about 20 minutes to be exact," said Chapman. "When I pulled into my neighbor's house where I park and walk in, I got a glimpse of a nice buck however."
That buoyed Chapman's spirit, hoping that the buck sighting would mean some visible deer movement as the day unfolded.
But a few hours later, on a chilly and still dawn that left frost everywhere across the landscape, Chapman was down after only seeing a few deer on their feet.
When a pack of coyotes howled nearby, his spirits sank even further and he began to consider that maybe this hunt wasn't going to turn out the way he had hoped that it would.
But around mid-morning, that all changed in a hurry.
"About 9 o'clock, I looked up and could see a big deer bird dogging a long ways off with his nose to the ground," said Chapman. "First, I bleated at him but he didn't hear it. Next, I hit my grunt call but he still didn't hear it. Then I blew my grunt call like a trumpet, but still nothing. Then I snort wheezed and he still didn't hear it."
After emptying his bag of calling tricks with no visible reaction, Chapman reached into his backpack.
"Because I was running late, my Knight & Hale Rack Pack was still buried in my pack," said the Kansas bass pro. "By the time I finally got it wrestled out, the buck had disappeared into the timber.
"But I thought, 'Hey, it's that time of the year, so why not?' I hit it together and rattled for 20 seconds or so. And then I saw a deer jump the fence 50 yards closer to my position."
Which leads to lesson number four, the one of always emptying your bag of deer hunting tricks to see how things might play out.
In this case, as the deer closed ranks at a full trot, Chapman went into autopilot mode and came to full draw with his Elite bow.
"He came in fast and was quartering towards me at about 30 yards away and I was thinking, 'Man, that's a good deer, I'm going to shoot him!,'" said Chapman. "He stopped and started looking. When he stepped to where I needed him to be, I grunted, stopped him in his tracks and let the shot go."
Which leads to a fifth lesson, the one about being practiced up and ready to make a lethal shot on demand.
Something that explains why you'll often see Chapman shooting his bow on the tournament road during the summer months as he hones skills that won't be needed until months later.
After Chapman cut the shot, he initially feared that it might be a hair too far back. When he found little in the way of blood a half-hour later, he decided to back out and give the deer time to expire.
Which is a sixth lesson to be learned - when in doubt, back out.
But when Chapman, his wife Bobbi and his children Mason and Makayla took up the search again a few hours later, it was obvious there was no need for worry.
Why? Because Chapman found the huge buck expired mere yards from where it had last been seen.
That led to plenty of hugs, back slaps, Smartphone photos and the process of getting the deer broken down and taken care of.
Sometime later, a friend of Brent's produced a tape measure to see just how big the buck really was.
"My buddy green scored him at around 168 inches," said Chapman. "He'll end up netting somewhere in the mid-160s I think."
Which leads to Chapman's seventh and final lesson here - persevere to the end and never give up, a trait that has always served him well in bass fishing.
And not too many days ago, it did the same thing for him in his deer hunting endeavors too.
"It was amazing to have that type of start to the day and then have it all play out so well," said Chapman.
"I guess that just goes to prove that like in fishing, even if you're not feeling it, you've still got to be there," he added. "Because it really is amazing what can finally happen once you're finally out there."
Even if you've hit the snooze button one too many times.