November 09, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
If there’s one thing that the modern version of deer hunting often seems to have all but eliminated, it’s the element of surprise, a component of hunting tales from a few generations ago.
But every once in a while, despite all of the modern gadgetry that hunters now have at their disposal, that element of surprise—and even the miraculous answer to a woodsy prayer—can still suddenly show itself in the local deer woods.
That was the case earlier this season when West Virginia bowhunter Gabriel Smith, a nurse practitioner at a busy cardiologist office, came back to the Mountain State after an early season Ohio bowhunting trip that came up empty.
Knowing that his hopes had been temporarily dashed in the Buckeye State, and also knowing that his Wildgame Innovation and SPYPOINT game cameras were showing little in the way of mature buck activity in his local woods, Smith thought he had reason to be a little glum. After all, despite a bowhunting career that began at age 17 and has seen him take a few dozen deer, prospects were slim as the 2020 season began.
Even if he sports the name of Gabriel, one of the most prominent angels in Biblical Sunday School stories.
Slim as those prospects might have seemed heading into the first few weeks of the West Virginia bow season, Smith saw all of that begin to change thanks to a random conversation with a friend. A friend who was hunting a patch of ground not far from a new property that Smith had recently gained hunting permission on heading into the 2020 season.
“When I came back from Ohio, I ran into a friend of mine who hunts on a nearby property, and he told me that last year he had seen an extraordinary large piebald buck,” said Smith, who is married to Lorena, a nursing educator in West Virginia. “ To be honest, I didn’t think anything else about it after our conversation.”
Until the 44-year old father—Smith and his wife have an eight year old son Tristan, along with raising their niece Lillian after her parents passed away several years ago—went to the deer woods an pulled cards from his game cameras and saw that same buck staring back a him on the computer screen.
“I had never seen him prior to getting those pictures, but he had been coming in every day for the previous two weeks, both during the day and at night, pretty much every single day,” said Smith.
Smith was now suddenly intrigued by the buck, which seemed to have almost divinely showed up out of the blue.
“My friend has pictures of him back in 2017,” said Smith. “But he didn’t want to burn his buck tag on him, because honestly, he wasn’t old enough or big enough back then. And even though a piebald is something to see and a trophy for some to take, I’ll be honest, if he hadn’t been as big as he was and not had the horns that he had, I wouldn’t have shot him this year either.”
The problem was that working in a busy cardiologist practice—and being a minister at a non-denominational church—the bowhunter didn’t have a lot of upcoming opportunity to get in the woods.
“The chances for me to hunt much during the week are pretty slim,” said Smith. “When I saw this deer on camera, I knew that I would get to hunt that Thursday evening and, if I didn’t see him that evening, the only other day I was going to get to hunt on would be that Saturday morning since we had a church function that evening (and church on Sunday).”
After Thursday evening came and went with no sighting of the buck, Smith was back up a tall oak tree on Saturday morning as he waited in his Summit Goliath climbing stand. On a morning where the low temperature dipped into the 40s, the longtime archer burrowed a little deeper into his Realtree camo and enjoyed a foggy morning with little wind as he hunted on a flat below a ridgeline.
As the morning went along, there was some occasional action including a deer that Smith thought was a buck, although he couldn’t tell for sure due to the heavy foliage still on the trees and a few doe sightings as well. Sitting in an area with several new rubs, he was still hopeful as the hours ticked by.
But as the fog gave way and nothing else showed, the quiet scene led to a resignation that his trophy that morning might have to be simply getting into the fall woods where we’ve all learned to be a little more grateful for things often taken for granted.
When Smith’s wife texted him and asked when he was leaving and if he had seen anything, he responded he would head out at his customary 11 a.m. departure time and that no, he had not seen much to get excited about.
“I told my wife in that text that just being out in God’s creation and being at peace and being able to get out into the woods and away from everything else, if I didn’t see another deer that day, that would be ok with me.”
A short while later, that all changed as Smith stood and prepared to descend the tree in his climber. When he did, he took one final look around…and felt his own heart skip a beat when he suddenly saw a large bodied deer on the hillside above him.
“I just happened to look up on the ridge and I saw a deer standing there,” said Smith, who then sat back down in his treestand’s seat. “I just sat there and watched him for a few minutes, although I didn’t know it was actually him until he stepped out of the cover and I saw the white on his side.”
Clutching his Pearson Legend compound bow—he had actually bought a new BowTech bow earlier in the year, but then decided to hunt this particular deer with something he was skilled with and familiar with—Smith waited breathlessly as the buck began to slowly make his way down the ridge.
“Within about a five minute period, he had made his way down behind me,” said the archer. “I’m not one that likes to shoot standing up, so I was really hoping that he would come by and give me a sitting shot on my left side.”
Unfortunately, the buck didn’t read the script, opting to come on the right side. So, Smith stood up and came to full draw as the deer disappeared behind a tree not too many yards away.
At that point, the buck needed to take only a couple of more steps. But instead, perhaps alerted to just a little whiff of human scent, he stopped without exposing his boiler room as Smith watched and waited. The situation was made even more tense since, even though Smith was 20-feet above the ground, the deer was almost directly behind him at eye-level 15-yards away on the slope.
“When he paused, it was like he wanted to hunker down,” said Smith. “But instead of going back the direction he had come from; he actually turned and came right towards me.”
With a slight quartering shot presented, when the deer finally cleared the last couple of limbs, Smith cut the shot and the Grim Reaper tipped arrow was on its way downrange. Upon impact, there was a crack that Smith thought must have been the shoulder blade, as he watched the deer run away low to the ground.
“I knew he was hurt pretty good,” said Smith, who never heard the deer go down and waited a little while before climbing down to the ground.” When I got to where he was standing when I shot, there was no arrow and I found only a few drops of blood.”
But Smith needn’t have worried because he could readily see the torn up turf and vegetation as the deer had bolted from the spot. About 75 yards later, the bowhunter found the buck expired on his side with the arrow quartering through the body cavity after getting portions of the lung and heart area.
When the deer was tagged and recovered using the landowner’s four-wheeler, Smith decided that this unique buck was worthy of a trip to the taxidermist for a full body mount. Already, he’s had inquiries about bringing the buck to outdoor shows in the coming months, COVID-19 virus conditions allowing for that, of course.
“I honestly don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger piebald buck killed in this state,” said Smith. “The fact that he was a mature buck in the 130s, there may have been a handful of bigger ones like this, but not many.”
Piebald deer, which the taking of can sometimes create controversy from non-hunters or anti-hunters, are indeed rare thanks to the recessive genetic trait being found in only a small percentage of deer nationwide. But every year, a few stories are told about piebald deer being taken by hunters, including a piebald doe that legendary North American Whitetail editor Gordon Whittington took a number of years ago in Georgia.
There are also occasional stories of wall hanger piebald bucks getting taken, including one from Wisconsin a few years back. But occasional annual hunting tale or not, Smith knows that what he experienced this month was rare, the deer hunting equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle.
Or maybe, an answer to a prayer delivered high up in a treestand.
While that might seem a stretch for some, for Smith, in a pandemic year that has proven difficult with plenty of uncertainty and work in the medical field; the sadness of not being able to gather around family, friends, and church members as much as the bowhunter would like; and the challenge of simply finding time to get into the woods; this piebald buck was just what the doctor ordered.
And maybe it was even a little bit more, a gift of woodsy grace from somewhere up above.
“Yes sir, I’ll admit that when I saw this one, I just looked up to the Good Lord and said ‘Please, just let me get this one!’” said Smith, a man who obviously believes in the power of prayer.
A prayer that was answered with the unusual buck of a lifetime, a big supply of lean venison for the freezer, and a unique mount that will stir up fond memories for years to come.
Thanks to a woodsy prayer that got answered, even if it came in an unexpected manner during a year that no one will ever forget.
Even for a bowhunter who just so happens to be named after an angel.