After so much preparation, I entered my stand with confidence that morning. But I didn't see Heartbreaker. In fact, the same routine repeated itself morning and evening for the entire first week of the season without a sighting.
I saw does, a few small bucks and even the big 10-pointer, but never the deer I was after. By this point I was wondering if what I'd worked for all summer was going to happen after all.
I decided to use my second week of vacation. The routine of meticulous scent elimination and hunting every morning and evening was wearing on me, but I felt I had to keep on.
As the second week unfolded, one thing remained consistent: no sightings of Heartbreaker. But on the positive side, no one else had reported shooting such a huge deer, either.
Approaching the last three days of muzzleloader season with only one encounter with the big 10-pointer and none with Heartbreaker, I felt my chances were pretty bleak. A front was moving in, and I knew this was a good thing.
However, 30 mph winds on Friday made for unproductive, discouraging hunting. It now seemed likely I'd be chasing the buck with a bow during whatever free time I could find in November.
On Saturday, Sept. 28, conditions were much better. Dry-land soybeans were turning yellow, and farmers were cutting corn. The temperature was cool, the moon thin and the wind light. If there ever were a time for Heartbreaker to move, this day looked promising.
While the morning hunt was a flop, that didn't upset me; Heartbreaker traditionally moved better in the evenings. That afternoon I checked my Firefly and found the wind favorable for my ground blind. Once I got there, I turned on my Ozonics and began to wait.
About 7:10 I noticed movement downwind and saw two does standing about 50 yards out. They seemed alert but weren't looking at me. Then they blew and scattered into the trees.
My heart exploded with a rush of adrenaline and I thought, What's going on? Is someone trespassing, or what? As I began to lower another window of my blind, I noticed a coyote trotting around through plum thickets about 40 yards from where the does had been.
I thought, "It's the perfect time for deer movement, and I have a coyote running around spooking the deer." Worse yet, he went into the trees Heartbreaker and the big 10-pointer should be coming from.
I glassed anxiously but saw nothing. Well, this hunt is probably over, I said to myself as I glanced down at my watch. It was 7:23, and legal light would end at 7:45.
Then I heard the coyote howl.
I glanced back up and actually pondered getting out of the area before things could get any worse. But within seconds I changed my mind; I could see Heartbreaker coming out through the trees where the coyote had gone in, and the does were standing with him. That coyote was close and obviously causing problems.
The wind was blowing from me right to the deer, but they gave no indication of knowing I was there. Instead, Heartbreaker and the does were looking back, suggesting the coyote wasn't far behind.
With the deer under 50 yards from me, I reached for my muzzleloader. The deer were all walking away from the blind, but as long as the coyote didn't come out and spook them, I felt I had time to make a good shot. I lowered another window on my blind and slid the gun out. Heartbreaker was in my crosshairs for the first time at 50 yards and was standing broadside with his head up. I flipped the safety off and squeezed the trigger.
Ka-boom! Thanks to the fact I was using smokeless powder, I could clearly see Heartbreaker jump and mule kick. Then he took off running into heavy cover, back toward his bedding area.
It now was 7:25, and despite the fact light was quickly fading, I knew I needed to wait a bit before taking up the trail. I forced myself to wait a full 15 minutes, which seemed like a week. Then I climbed out and went to check for blood.
I immediately found some and started to follow it. As I approached an opening, I looked ahead and saw Heartbreaker lying on his side, dead. I sprinted over to him, fell to my knees and said out loud, "Thank God I finally got him."
I sat there admiring the deer for a few minutes, then reached for my phone to call my dad. Clint was out of town and couldn't be reached, but I called my mom, sister and Ryan and told them the news.
While awaiting my dad's arrival, I tagged my buck and called Sean Beck of Beck's Taxidermy. My brother and Ryan had done business with Sean and had told him he might be getting Heartbreaker if we got him killed. So when I asked Sean if he had room for the deer to come stay with him a few weeks, I could almost see the smile on his face.
As that conversation ended, I saw my dad come through the brush, grinning from ear to ear. We soon had recovered Heartbreaker, just as we had so many other deer together.
The next morning Ian Sparks shot photos of me with Heartbreaker. I'll never forget how good it felt to have my hands on that animal: a 21-pointer the size of which I never thought I'd ever even see on the hoof, much less have a chance to harvest.
I don't have much land to hunt, and like many of you, I work from sunup to sundown most days. Hunting is just a hobby. I'm a believer, though. And I was reminded of that when things seemed as if they couldn't get any worse. A coyote was chasing the deer around on what I'd felt was the perfect evening. I was watching what seemed a disaster unfolding in front of me. In the end, though, what seemed a worst-case scenario was a best-case scenario instead.
Some might say that coyote showing up when he did was a blessing in disguise. But to me, it was more a blessing from the skies!