March 17, 2021
Being in the military can make it challenging to find hunting properties. Usually, as soon as I figure out a property it is time to move, and the process restarts. As a result, I’m always willing to hunt public land. The North Dakota public refuge I hunted during 2020 is only accessible by foot. This vast open country took me 23 days to scout. I hunted thunderstorms, wind and frigid temperatures, but I couldn’t stop people from driving by, parking next to my truck, or just straight up walking past my location. The interference was frustrating.
Since I was willing to put in the hard miles to be left alone, I worked a 24-hour “panama shift” and never slept. I would lay awake at night constantly reading the wind directions, trying to decide how I could get into the deep timber without getting winded on my way in. Sometimes, I would change my entire day plans with the family and get up and leave on zero hours of sleep — all because the wind would hit out of the northwest.
With winter fast approaching, I frequently found myself deep in the timber. One particular evening, just before the edge of darkness set in, I heard a grunt. Right out of shooting distance, through the deep timber, I saw a large buck. He was cruising one of the several trails close by. I was stoked! I knew that soon he would step right by my stand.
But right behind him was another large buck. He joined the first buck, then they both turned and came right down the path I was hoping they’d travel. The second buck had a very dark face and antlers, something I had never seen before. The biological term for the buck’s rare color pattern is semi-melanism, a rare occurrence seldom seen in whitetails. My focus completely shifted onto his black blazed face.
The unique whitetail gave me only seconds to grab my bow. But before I could even draw, he looked straight up at me — just 40 yards out. He didn’t spook, but he turned and began walking parallel to me. I had a tiny window to stop him and make the shot. When the buck stopped, my arrow released. I watched the arrow trim hair off his belly as it nicked a tiny limb mid-flight! All that practice, all that time and headache was all wasted with a rushed shot. I was so upset, and I was bothered at the fact I could have wounded him! I disassembled my stand and climbing sticks and began the 35-minute hike back to the truck.
A week later, I found myself back in the same deep timber. But that morning I was late getting into my stand. Since I knew I wasn’t leaving until dark, I settled in for a long and uncomfortable day.
With just 10 minutes left until dark, I was feeling down. Then to my surprise a deer came busting down a trail — he was a large 10-point! I grabbed my bow and drew back. At that exact moment, I heard another grunt and movement in the leaves to my right. I just had to peak.
The other grunt came from that same black blazed buck I missed a week prior! I quickly shifted my focus and watched as he stopped for the perfect 20 yard shot. I came to full draw, but my peep was twisted! I didn’t shoot. The buck stepped forward. Then he stepped directly towards me. At 12 yards, I could clearly see his muscles and shoulder line. With my peep still twisted, I closed my eye, held my anchor point, opened my eye, positioned my pin and released.
SMACK! The buck jumped, hitting a tree, then turned and ran through the timber like a race horse.
I immediately hit up my friends and let them know that my Ironwill broadhead had struck a big buck! Unfortunately, there was little to no blood trail, so I backed out and headed home for a restless night.
The next morning my friend and I found the back half of my snapped arrow. We walked an additional 30 yards to find a massive blood trail, and there lay my uniquely dark-colored buck. I was ecstatic! I had put my arrow right though his heart!
For weeks I had told myself that I was tough enough to pack my deer out alone, but I could not have been happier to have my friend there to help me clean and carry the huge deer home.
After the harvest, I was happy. But the moment was bittersweet. I had completed my mission, but the season was over. I was more proud of doing it the hard way than I was of this deer’s rare dark complexion. I’d hunted public property, miles from where anyone else was willing to hike, and I’d punched the tag with my bow. Regardless of how tough things are, persistence pays off.
*FYI: To read the full story of Joe Knox’s hunt for this unique and stunning North Dakota public-land whitetail, be sure to check out the June 2020 issue of North American Whitetail magazine. More details from the hunt and additional photos of the rare semi-melanistic buck will be included in a full-length feature article. Stay tuned!