December 15, 2020
Editor's Note: Active-duty U.S. Navy Chief Aaron Ritter of LIMB-Itless Outdoors is a right-leg amputee and a highly active outdoorsman and ultra-marathoner who focusses on inspiring others. He shares this story of a recent archery hunt in Maryland with a long-time friend who had never hunted before.
They call it "Buck Fever."
"20 yards, Tommy. Take the shot."
No sooner than I whispered the command, she stepped behind a tree. Tommy made his final move and the crossbow raised into position. I held my attention on the deer in case I needed to voice further instruction. She emerged into a shooting lane; head lowered to the ground. I turned my focus back to Tommy.
He was trembling with excitement. Buck fever had taken complete control of the man. The Mission Sub-1 was rocking like a small craft on heavy seas. I knew that holding the crosshairs steady, even at a short 20 yards, was impossible.
"Make sure the safety is off."
Bass Man's First Deer Hunt
Tommy DeWitt, a.k.a. Back Bay Bass Man, and I had been discussing his interest in hunting for two seasons. Last year, the opportunity did not present itself. This year, we did not discuss the idea until August and my big-game season was already jam-packed at that point. Our only option was to cross our fingers in hopes of matching schedules and free time on a "spur of the moment" weekend.
I had just wrapped up two weeks of hunting with my best friend, and mutual friend of Tommy's, and I cast the baited invite for the upcoming weekend. He bit. Tommy arrived at my house on a Thursday evening. A fresh new hunter, with little to no gear and uninfluenced in the world of big-game hunting.
New Oxford American Dictionary defines "fate" as three goddesses who preside over the birth and life of all humans. Each person's destiny was thought of as a thread; spun, measured and cut by the three fates.
1. Tommy had never attended a hunter safety course.
Maryland has an "Apprentice Hunter" program. The program requires a new hunter, or new to the state, to complete an online safety program when purchasing the discounted apprentice license and tag. The apprentice hunter is required to hunt within close vicinity of a licensed sponsor/hunter.
2. Tommy had never been hunting a day in his life.
A retired 23-year Navy Chief Corpsman, having served with the Marine Corps and an accomplished fisherman, he had never been hunting a single day in his life. I had two days to prepare Tommy, put him on a deer and influence his future interest as an outdoorsman.
3. Tommy did not have or own any camo, outside of some old military gortex.
Tommy historically outweighed me by a solid 40 pounds. One of the foundations of our friendship was running. Ultra-Marathon to be specific. A year ago, Tommy made a life change and reshaped his life; literally. Strength training, diet change, reduced alcohol intake and redirected his running ventures. In doing so, he lost over 40 pounds.
When he arrived at my house, he did not have any camo and was limited on warm hunting clothing. I have spent the past year moving toward Badlands brand of camo and had a fair amount of Scentlok and Predator camo stored in bins which now fit him. Score!
Tommy had completed the online apprentice course the evening prior to arriving and had his license and tags in hand. Southern Maryland region B was antlered and antlerless deer, both, and hunters are able to legally harvest multiple deer in one day.
To say the first evening was busy would be an understatement. We started by e-scouting the two areas in which I would be hosting him. He test-fired the crossbow, established his accuracy and found his comfort zone at no more than 40 yards. We also reviewed the cocking/de-cocking procedures and safety functions of the weapon. We discussed shot placement and what to do post-shot. We adjusted some of his gear and prepared his field bag and washed and treated his newly acquired camo through a fresh run of PhaZe scent-control detergent. We also discussed tree-stand safety and adjusted his harness.
I felt as if I was overloading him with information, but it was all critical to our safety and success. We wrapped things up by filming a pre-hunt video, devoured some venison tacos and shared a local craft beer.
The first day was perfect, outside of not harvesting a deer. The crisp, clear early morning made for an enjoyable half-mile walk to the stand. The leaves were moist and quiet as our red lights steered us clear of noisy sticks lying in wait. I watched Tommy ascend his ladder and lock in before I attached my Latitude Outdoors Method tree saddle to my tree 10 yards away. The climb was smooth and by the time I was set, we were approximately 20 minutes from shooting light. A barred owl sounded off and left its roost on the opposite tree line; the subtle morning light highlighting its features as it glided westward.
Legal shooting light had dawned on us and I knew Tommy was able to see across the power lines. It was time for me to put the Illusion System Black Rack and Extinguisher deer calls to work. My crescendoing grunts broke the silence. Quiet at first, increasing in volume and intensity over a three- to five-minute period. I cautiously observed our surroundings and keenly listened for the rhythmic sound of hooves in the leaves.
After about 30 minutes I added antlers to the mix. The first salvo was about a minute of rubbing followed by a solid grunt. Twenty minutes later, I kicked off some rattling with a contact grunt and ended the exchange with another emotion-filled grunt.
The big six-point heard and responded to my temptations. He broke the treeline and angled across the powerlines, 50 yards from my right. His head was on a swivel and his tall, impressive 6-point antler structure reflected the morning sun. I turned my attention to Tommy and knew instantly he had spied the buck.
He was leaned forward with the Vortex Ranger 1800 rangefinder pressed against his face. His body was tense and the obvious excitement was emanating from his elevated position. He slowly turned his body and adjusted the crossbow in his lap. The rangefinder returned to his face.
The buck stopped broadside about 40 yards directly to my right. I had a perfect shot through a pie plate hole in the branches concealing my silhouette. Tommy had yet to shoulder the crossbow; remaining fixated on the buck with the rangefinger. I reached for my Prime Black 3 and took a firm grip of the riser. The big six-point was oblivious to my movement and I began to lift the bow off the hook. Tommy had yet to switch from an observation to shooter posture and I was confident he was choosing not to shoot. The buck was still stationary. A perfect broadside presentation.
I stopped. I lowered the bow back down onto the hook. This was Tommy’s first morning hunting and I was not going to have him spend it tracking and processing a deer I harvested. Not the mission. Not the plan.
I transitioned back to camera man. As I attempted to slowly pull my phone from my cargo pocket the buck began to show signs of moving. I reached for the Extinguisher and waited for him to turn his head. A re-directed short grunt did not regain his attention. A second attempt confirmed he would not turn back our way. So I sent out the final message; a snort-wheeze. The sixer flew his flag and took three big bounding jumps into the hollies and disappeared from view. He was obviously not in the mood, or had previously learned his lesson.
Tommy signaled me with a fist bump and returned to his original posture in the stand. The wait continued.
The rest of Day One was a lesson in patience and doe observation. It was a beautiful weather and we saw several deer. Unfortunately, they were all out of range. During our lunch break we shared our individual views of the encounter with the buck and enjoyed reliving the excitement of the moment. The buck was ranged at 52 yards from Tommy's position and he did not feel confident in the shot.
A challenging scenario many hunters would have caved into, and at that moment I knew I would hunt with Tommy again. With the morning hunt fresh in his mind, Tommy took some time to send a few bolts downrange before returning to put the sun to sleep.
The morning of the second day was slightly different. We were traveling five miles down the road to a neighboring property for some time in a blind. Gear was staged the evening prior and we exchanged morning banter while we prepared our thermoses for the morning sit.
We settled into the blind with 30 minutes of darkness ahead of us. I eased into my chair, closed my eyes and focused on the early morning sounds. Tommy was restless with anticipation. He had arrived hungry for his first hunting experience and had been a knowledge sponge. We discussed and reviewed everything I thought I could share with him for two evenings, but I knew it could all be swiftly swept from his mind by the currents of buck fever. Hunting from a blind is not my preferred method and I do not call from blinds when I occasion them. So, we sat in silence.
Once the morning sun illuminated the timber we did not have to wait long. I was resting against the back of my chair, shifting my field of vision from window to window. Tommy was leaning slightly forward, trying desperately to be patient. I felt a rhythmic tapping on my thigh. I looked down and Tommy’s right hand was desperately seeking my attention. His view was focused out the window to my right. I slowly turned my head, seeing a timbered view void of animals.
I cautiously leaned forward and the spike came into view 15 yards from the blind. He was looking straight at us. Initially, the young deer was curious more than alarmed and returned to feeding. I whispered to Tommy to shift into a shooting position. Tommy's movements were very slow and controlled despite the excitement in the air.
As the spike alternated his focus from feeding to the blind, I whispered commands to stop and move to my shooter.
The young spike was close enough he could hear Tommy twisting in his seat and his curiosity began to steer to concern as Tommy attempted to improve his shooting angle. I had decided to pack my Primos Trigger Sticks in the chance Tommy was presented with a longer shot through the timber. It was set up and staged in front of him.
As he slowly swung the crossbow around, maintaining focus on his target, he hit a leg of the tripod with the Veteran Innovative Products Combat Veteran 4-blade mechanical. The sound, although slight, was like a bomb going off and the spike reacted with immediate explosiveness. Just like that, Tommy's first "in range" opportunity was over. To say he was disappointed is an understatement. The tripod was stowed immediately.
We whispered "lessons learned" for a few minutes, enjoyed the false, warming sensation of our coffee and hunkered back into a comfortable sit. At 0844, I had staved off the need to void the morning beverage long enough and whispered to Tommy "I really need to pee.” Tommy's response was without hesitation, "Bro, I've been holding it back for over an hour." I presented him with two options:
- Sit until 0900. Pack up, relieve ourselves and head home to prep for some Ohio State football and the afternoon hunt.
- Exit the tent for a quick relief and continue the hunt until 1000.
Tommy chose option two.
'I Think It's a Doe'
As we positioned ourselves back into the confines of the pop-up, Tommy's attention strayed to the abnormal number of spiders navigating the ceiling of the tent. Mostly the jumping type, a web slinger descended directly in front of his face. The arachnid was swiftly launched toward the front-facing window by the flick of his finger. At 0927, I decided to end the morning sit. Tommy's attention and focus had surrendered to the spider scene and I figured it was time for a late breakfast. Again, I leaned over to whisper my intentions to Tommy.
As he oriented his focus from the small, yet burly jumping spider, which was poised in striking distance to his left, to my intended whisper of "Let's shut it down," his right hand began to hammer at my thigh exactly as it had earlier in the morning.
This time he accompanied the hand signal with whispers of, "I see a buck. I see a buck!"
I slowly looked back to my right. Before I could find and focus in on the approaching deer, he altered his intel to "It's a doe. I think it's a doe." She was navigating toward us from my 2 o’clock, head down and feeding. She had emerged from a pine thicket and was working her way through some deadfall. I immediately began whispering instructions again.
I first ranged her at 30 yards. At this distance, she displayed little concern for the tent, continuing to feed slowly at an angle toward my 4 o’clock. Tommy was desperately trying to control his excitement as he began to adjust his shot angle.
"Stop. Move. Thirty yards out. She's broadside. Take the safety off and shoot her," I whispered.
Nothing. Tommy was not comfortable and stable. He began transitioning from the chair to a kneeling posture. The doe was now gaining more interest in the activity inside the tent. She raised a hoof and dropped it harshly on the woodland floor. The damp leaves stifled the alarm, but it was obvious she was concerned.
”Twenty yards, Tommy. Take the shot." No sooner had I whispered the command, she stepped behind a tree. Tommy made his final move and the crossbow raised into position. I held my attention on the deer in case I needed to voice further instruction. She emerged into a shooting lane; head lowered to the ground. I turned my focus back to Tommy. He was trembling with excitement. Buck fever had taken complete control of the man. The Mission Sub-1 was rocking like a small craft on heavy seas. I knew that holding the crosshairs steady, even at a short 20 yards, was impossible.
The last whispered direction was "Make sure the safety is off..."
His First Harvested Deer
The limbs slammed forward with a commanding retort. I watched the young deer hunch and launch forward; the vanes of the bolt still visible in her side. The shot placement was not ideal, appearing high and back. However, within 20 yards of initial penetration, her attempt to egress halted as her back legs buckled. She began to wobble and fell to the ground. Within 30 seconds all movement had ceased. A sense of relief washed over me, with a question of confusion. I knew the shot was off and not what Tommy had intended. I also knew a perceived "gut shot" should not have ended so swiftly. With the deer confirmed down, I turned to Tommy.
He was awash with "the fever." The congratulations, fist bumps, whispered excitement and post-shot instructions filled the blind. The young girl was down hard and we could have exited the tent immediately, but I wanted Tommy to enjoy the much-sought-after "hunter's high" before transitioning into his next topics of learning.
Fifteen minutes later, we emerged from the small opening of the blind. I could smell her as the familiar scent of a deer filled the air. Tommy was still overwhelmed and I was enjoying every aspect of the moment. I walked him over to the impact site and we began tracking toward his prize, searching for blood. I wanted him to begin his big-game journey touching as many learning points and highlights as possible. Initially, we found a drop here and a drop there. When we had covered the short distance she had traveled, we were presented with a scene contrary to a gut shot. There was blood everywhere.
I instructed Tommy to place the crossbow on the ground at a safe distance from our work area and I removed the bolt from the deer. Next, I set up my packable photo equipment and staged some photos and videos. After the photo session, several hugs and fist bumps were exchanged again.
Now, I began instructing Tommy on his first-ever "field dressing" experience. My initial confusion was laid to rest by the blood sign and clues uncovered after she was dressed. He had hit her back and high, as suspected, but fortunately the broadhead had severed the major artery running along her spine with the bolt coming to rest in her opposing hind quarter. What I thought had been a shot scenario we should have waited for hours to track had turned into a very fortunate fatal hit.
Tommy tagged his first-ever harvest while I cleaned up and reorganized before beginning the drag back to the truck. He was ecstatic!
We returned to the house. Ohio State football was sidelined. I chose to have Tommy observe and assist while I skinned, quartered and trimmed the doe so we would be able to shift into an evening sit back on the power lines.
The new RTIC 65-quart cooler had been pre-chilled with ice and the doe was now in the cooling-out phase. A few slices of pizza, a celebratory beverage and a few social media posts later, we were on our way for the final sit of the hunt.
Whitetail Jitters Gone, Prepare for More
The walk to the stand was filled with lingering conversation from the morning harvest and rehearsing the upcoming sit. Tommy was certain he had worked out his "new hunter" jitters and given the opportunity, he would be "Cool Hand Luke."
We both began the climb. Tommy was harnessed in and roosted into a comfortable position as I set my single climbing stick for the last move. My perch was in the same tree I had been in the day prior — 10 yards from the double ladder stand Tommy was seated in, about seven feet above him. My Method saddle allowed me to shift and move 360 degrees around the tree, using my stick and a Tethrd Predator platform as a multiple position set-up.
I had communicated to Tommy I was more of a morning "rattle" type of guy, but we were focused on bringing in a buck, so I told him to stand by as I was going to put on an afternoon rattling clinic. I waited for about 20 minutes to allow our sounds and movements to fade into the natural surroundings before beginning the show. My calling plan was going to be similar to the previous morning's program. However, this particular afternoon was going to contain more emotion.
It was just before 1400 and the Extinguisher was ready to break silence. Beginning short and low, my initial grunts were intended for any buck in close vicinity. I allowed a couple minutes to pass before increasing volume, directing the vocals to the four cardinals. A few minutes later, I let it rip one more time. Around 20 minutes later I started a rubbing sequence. Using the tree trunk I was tethered to and the surrounding limbs, I executed a fairly aggressive rub down; finishing it off with a volley of grunts.
My head was on a slow, methodical swivel for the next 30 minutes. Not having detected sound or movement I unleashed the Black Rack again. This round was the full monty. Grunting, rubbing, raking and rattling. The entire run was nearly nine minutes long, pausing for observation and transition throughout the session.
I slowly and quietly stowed the antlers and settled in for a rest. It seemed like only a few short minutes, but in reality it was about 15, when I heard the rhythmic rustling of leaves. At first, my mind communicated, "Squirrels, Aaron. It's just those squirrels, again." But within seconds of the initial audible input, the message changed. My "hunter" senses tuned in on the sound and my interpretation shifted to, "Deer inbound. It's go time!"
I looked over at Tommy. He was just beginning to lean forward. Although I had less than two total days hunting with him, at this point I had already picked up on some of his "tells" and body language. He had heard it, too. I returned my view to the treeline and saw legs and a body, about 10 yards in, paralleling the open ground.
'Big Buck Down'
The next 45 seconds happened so fast, yet sooooooo slow.
He did not even finish his forward-leaning movement. He catapulted back to a straight-up position and snapped the rangefinder to his face like a recruit firing off a salute in boot camp. I cringed. His movements were swift and abrupt and I thought for sure the deer would see him. The crossbow still in his lap, he continued to raise and lower the rangefinder.
I was busy running cameras, watching Tommy and the deer and hoping the deer emerging from the tree line was what its mannerisms were advertising it to be. The deer made a 90-degree left turn and broke cover. It was a buck.
Cameras were running and I was shifting from buck to shooter and back. Despite my previous fears, the buck was on a methodical stroll, looking for any of the previous fighters.
I knew the yardage to be roughly 40 yards. Tommy now had the crossbow resting on the rail. It was shouldered and he was transitioning between scope and rangefinder. The excitement was radiating off of him. My fingers were crossed, hoping he would recall a fraction of what we had pre-gamed and the rail rest would produce a more controlled shot. He was poised and in position.
The buck put his head down into the tall grass. My mind was racing, "Shoot, Tommy. Take the shot!" I glanced over and watched him take the safety off. The buck, standing nearly broadside to Tommy, raised his head and looked in our direction.
The shot cut through the mist of anticipation, immediately followed by the deafening smack of impact. The buck jumped, kicked and hit the ground running; his tail straight up as he ran a half-moon pattern back toward his previous location of cover. I watched his run slow to a halt. For a moment, I thought I had lost visual and then I observed him rock back on his hind legs into a full-length standing position and fall over sideways.
"Big Buck Down!!!" (Truth be told, Tommy and I both thought he was a small five- or six-point.)
Tommy was fist-pumping in the stand, like a child trying to catch the attention of a trucker for a coveted horn blast. We made eye contact and his famous "hang loose" hand signal waved with an ear to ear grin. A few texts were exchanged and we sat the rest of the evening at elevation.
'Buck Fever' Breaks
Shortly after the buck went down, a spike made a visit. Following a similar path from Tommy's buck, he crossed over to our side and loitered for nearly 10 minutes; several being spent about 12 yards from the base of my tree. After ample time for photos and video, he slowly returned the way he had come in. I was ready to descend and enjoy Tommy's harvest, so I gave the deer a snort-wheeze to help expedite his departure. It worked like a champ.
Once on the ground, Tommy's excitement truly took hold. His energy was so intense I myself began to feel the fever. Similar to the morning harvest, we walked the blood trail and searched for the path the buck had traveled. As we approached his trophy we both realized the buck was much larger than what we both had presumed. (I have watched the video over and over. Even knowing how big the buck actually turned out to be, the footage still appears to be smaller antler structure.)
Tommy approached the beautiful animal, knelt down and respectfully placed his hand on its side. Watching him absorb the moment and connect with his harvest was a very emotional peak to our adventure. It was an extremely reverend encounter. We repeated our song and dance from the morning harvest and the work ensued. I had a cart staged on the property and I retrieved the transport for the trip home. Following Tommy out of the woods, listening to the chattering wheels of the cart is a sound I will never forget.
I was introduced to the world of hunting by my father and late-grandfather at a very young age. I have had the privilege of hunting multiple states and overseas for a host of species, big game and birds, both. Outside of the excitement of my own first deer harvest; hosting Tommy was one of the most exciting and rewarding adventures I have ever experienced in the outdoors.
All aspects of this hunt fell into place, as if "fate" was threading the needle; stitching Tommy into the world of hunting and the ethical pursuit of big game. To say I am humbled and honored to be the person he entrusted with this process and experience does not capture the true feelings I share.
Thank you Mother Nature and Tommy DeWitt for the opportunity of a lifetime.