Not only was the author hunting an extremely woods-wise buck that was known to be nocturnal, but he compounded the challenge of the task by hunting the elusive buck with a traditional longbow.
The Coal Mine Monarch had a 7x6 typical frame with three additional abnormal points. The heavy rack grossed 174 2/8 inches and netted 163 4/8 typical points after deductions. The author had been hunting this crafty buck for two seasons. The Monarch was 5 or 6 years old and weighed around 275 pounds!
The dawn broke heavy with the promise of rain. A steady drizzle had been falling all night long. With the exception of one brief respite as I climbed into my tree stand, there was no reason to believe that I would not be facing another soaking day in the woods. I had just settled in when a light drizzle began. I was certain that this was a precursor of bigger things to come.
I heard him before I saw him. To my right I could hear the sound of a buck polishing his antlers on a nearby tree. It sounded like a big deer. Approximately 30 yards off through the brush, I could just make out the outline of the deer through the mist. I held my breath.
For two years I had stalked, photographed, videotaped and studied this monarch of the forest. He had roamed within 500 yards of our cabin and left ample sign and evidence of his domain. However, had I not had the pictures and video to prove that this giant of a buck did, in fact, exist, I might have thought him to be merely a hunter's mirage. When I first saw the buck that I would come to know as the "Coal Mine Monarch," I estimated his weight to be in excess of 275 pounds and his rack to contain at least 13 points.
A WORTHY ADVERSARY
His sign began to show up in 2007, but the nocturnal giant was nowhere to be found during daylight hours. I quickly realized that the Monarch would be a big challenge for any hunter -- whether using a gun or bow. That year the Monarch had outfoxed me at every turn. He had always avoided my stand, and I suspected that he moved mostly under the cover of darkness. Almost as if he knew that I was after him, this Buckeye State bruiser seemed to taunt me by leaving a continuous string of sign.
Our cabin is located in southeastern Ohio in the heart of coal country. Rural Belmont and Harrison counties have long been big-time coal producers. Huge coal shovels known locally as "The Gem of Egypt" and "The Silver Spade" are the biggest coal shovels in the world, and these technological mining marvels have shaped and molded the areas within these two counties.
The ground that the Coal Mine Monarch called home is right in the middle of numerous old mines, and he roamed that land unmolested until that warm September day in 2008 when he met his fate with my 350-grain Snuffer.
TAKING HIS TIME
Now the big buck was almost in range as he moved away from his rub. Directly to my front I had cleared an area about 10 yards wide. The trail he was taking would put him 17 yards in front of me, well within the capability of my bow and my skill level. But he was moving slowly through the thick underbrush. My heart was pounding in my ears and my forehead was growing warm. Tunnel vision clouded my peripheral vision as every ounce of my attention came to bear on my quarry.
I readied my bow. The buck took another step forward. "Breathe. . . . Relax. . . ." I told myself over and over again.
It had been over three years since I had laid aside the trappings of technology. With a compound bow or a shotgun in my hands, the shot would have been much easier. But being committed to the ways of the ancient hunters who had gone before me, I was holding a traditional 60-inch Thunder Stick longbow in my hand.
I knew I had to be absolutely sure of my shot. I had no desire to wound this majestic creature, and I knew that an arrow shot out of range, or a shot taken too slowly or too fast, would certainly send the buck on a cross-country run that could result in a slow, painful death. A white-tailed deer is too worthy an adversary to allow one to die in such a manner.
A LOST OPPORTUNITY
Another step. . . . His next step would bring him out and into my clearing. His head emerged. I drew my bow, ready for the shot. Then I heard the sound to my right. My eyes and my head turned reflexively to see the source of the sound. It was another buck, a much smaller buck. His rack was nice and he was following in the exact hoof prints of my buck. I cursed myself for this rookie mistake. I quickly snapped my head back to my intended target. He was gone!
I cursed to myself as I lowered the bow. It was all I could do to stifle an exasperated scream as disappointment and anger over my mistake rose within me. To my left, I could make out the outline of the big buck in brush too thick for me to take a safe shot. I smiled. He had outsmarted me yet again. To my right I heard the oncoming smaller buck.
I looked again to the clearing where the Monarch had stood, and now I could see his head up and looking back over his shoulder.
He had not realized that the second buck was following him. Now, whether by sight, smell or sound -- or by some other sixth sense known to beasts of the woods -- he detected something behind him. He began to back up. He never turned around. Instead, with his head looking back over his shoulder, he slowly backed out into the clearing. His full attention was on the smaller buck. It was more than I had a right to ask for.
SECOND CHANCES COME SO RARELY
On this day, the hunting gods would be exceedingly kind to me for reasons I could not imagine. He backed out almost dead center into my shooting lane. For the past three years I had made it a point to practice with my bow five days a week. I practiced the basics -- drawing my bow, positioning my fingers and the arrow, working on my eye-hand coordination, and firing many arrows per day into my targets from different angles.
Like a lot of traditional shooters, the author uses a very heavy broadhead for better penetration. He shoots a 125-grain Snuffer broadhead. To this, he adds a 125-grain steel broadhead insert and a 100-grain brass arrow insert for a total of 350 grains up front! You can't knock success!
I had developed my muscle memory to the point of automatic reflex, and now it was about to pay off.
In less than a heartbeat, my bow came up smoothly to my cheek as I pulled the string to its full extension. My eyes sighted in to a point no larger than a pin's head in the animal's rib cage where I would place my arrow. My heart stopped, my breathing stilled, everything slowed. There was no rain, no other buck, nothing that I could feel or see except the arrow in the grasp of my fingers and the heartbeat of the buck in front of me.
I released the 650-grain arrow tipped with a Snuffer broadhead. I heard the dull thud as the arrow struck dead center where I had intended it to hit. The buck gave a startled jump and then shot off down the trail in the direction he had originally been moving. The calm was over. Adrenaline surged into my body, and my knees and hands began to shake. I followed the running buck with my eyes as far as I could, until I lost him as he went crashing through the brush.
A GOOD BLOOD TRAIL
Climbing down from my tree stand, I stood looking off in the direction the Monarch had run. I knew my arrow had found its mark and driven deep. I knew the shot had been a kill shot, and that the big buck could not possibly go far. My immediate thought was to chase the deer down. But slowly, as the adrenaline abated and my mind began to regain control over my body, I realized that I needed to remember my basics. I had almost lost my trophy once due to a novice mistake, and I had no intention now to lose him due to my lack of patience.
I took a deep breath, allowing the cool air to clear my head and calm my body. I called my cousin Rob Hilt and my hunting partner Mike Rizzo. Not only were these two hunters expert trackers, but I knew if they were present they would both prove to be sound voices of reason. Besides, from what I could tell, there was a solid blood trail that indicated the wound was mortal. If I pursued him too soon, I might spook him while he still had the ability to run. I had no desire to track him into the next county. Time was my ally.
Two hours later, with my partners by my side, we had followed the blood trail about 150 yards. I was incredulous that the big buck could have traveled so far with such a wound. I began to doubt my own shot. We reached a spot where the buck had doubled back toward my tree stand.
This is a great start for a budding career as a whitetail hunter! Six-year-old Hayden Hilt shot his first buck ever with a shotgun several weeks before his father arrowed the Monarch. "I hope Hayden someday has a chance to arrow a buck like the Monarch," the proud father commented.
A TRYING RECOVERY
Following the trail another 25 yards, Mike said excitedly, "There he is!"
Directly in front of us the Monarch lay on the ground, his eyes watching our movements.
To my astonishment, he rose from the ground next to a large tree. He was still alive! He looked at us with arrogant disdain. We all stopped in our tracks in utter disbelief as the big buck turned and began walking away from us, his head lowered, seemingly knowing his time was short.
I stepped forward to follow, and Mike placed a hand on my forearm to stop me. "Wait, let him go. He's just looking for a place to lay down and die."
I hunkered down on my heels, watching the proud buck move away from us. I was eager to tag my trophy. The buck moved off about 25 more feet and dropped out of sight. Still, Mike and Rob held me in check. For 45 long minutes we waited. Since taking up the craft and art of traditional archery and shunning the ways of the modern hunter, I had bloodied my bow on rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs and deer. I had sharpened my skills as a stalker and developed a newfound respect for the people who had sustained their families and civilizations on no more than the skill of the bow.
I had developed a new respect for the woods, as terrain, distance and the lay of the land could no longer be compensated for by technological means. Now those elements had to be handled through my own skill alone, and I had also developed a newfound respect for the game that suddenly seemed more elusive, more aware of my presence and more personal.
AT LAST, TRAIL'S END
We walked in the direction of the deer. He was by far the biggest buck I had ever taken a shot at. We found him a short distance down the trail. At last the Monarch was mine!
Even in death he had a distinguished look about him. Excitement about my kill and pride in my trophy gave way to a temporary sense of melancholy and despondency. Where would I go from here? How would I ever top this hunt?
Suddenly the answer was clear and apparent. My 6-six-year-old son, Hayden, had just killed his first buck earlier in the season, a nice 8-pointer. I knew we had many exciting seasons ahead of us, many more years of hunting together. And I felt confident that someday, Hayden, too, would get a chance to arrow a true Coal Mine Monarch!