ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- It was a little after 2 p.m. on Nov. 21 when I walked through the house with my bow and saw my 7-year-old daughter, Aubree, sitting at our island in the kitchen.
“Are you going to help me find my deer tonight if I shoot a doe?” I asked her. “Sure,” she said, “but I don’t think you’re going to get one.”
Tough crowd. I can’t blame her though.
For the past few years, I have struck out quite often after talking about my plans to shoot does during the archery season. Some of that was not getting the chances I thought I would. Some of it was my own doing where I didn’t want to use my tag in a one-deer zone or muck up a spot I figured would hold a good buck.
That’s typical for many hunters. We tend to think does will always be around late season if we need to fill the freezer, but nothing is a given. Mature does can be incredibly cagey in December after years of survival skills built up looking after themselves and their fawns.
The sun was shining and a 10 mph south wind was blowing with temperatures in the upper-30s when I pulled up to a small property near Alexandria that Saturday afternoon. This isn’t your classic habitat in area 213 with high deer densities, but it has good security cover that I thought might make it a good spot after the pressure of firearms season.
My plan was to scout my way in with the wind in my face. If I saw deer sign that blew me away, I would set up. If not, I had a tree prepared from this summer that was right up against thick bedding cover on the south end.
I was about 50 yards away from that tree when I saw the flash of a couple white flags through the timber. The deer weren’t bumped hard. They trotted off slowly into the cover, so I just stood and waited for about 10 minutes to let things settle down.
In all, it took me close to an hour to get set up that afternoon, but on small pieces like this that are so close to bedding, that attention to being quiet is a huge part of getting an opportunity.
I was in my saddle for only 10 minutes before I saw movement to my right about 40 yards away. I reached for my bow as a big doe and a yearling that looked filled out and ready for her first winter were making their way toward me. The yearling browsed right into an opening in front of me, but the doe was much more cautious.
My small foot platform was about 10 feet high in the tree. She seemed to catch a bit of my scent as she got to within five yards and saw my figure hanging away from the trunk. The doe looked up at me, bobbed her head up and down a few times but wasn’t able to discern what I was.
I drew my bow when she put her head down and trotted a few steps. It was so thick here that I needed her to come into that opening in front of me. She did, and I stopped her at 10 yards.
As I settled into my anchor, I noticed that my pin was positioned too low on her chest. This has been my failing in shots I have messed up the last couple years. My pin always wanted to settle low on deer -- bucks or does -- and my mind would not allow me to correct the problem before I instinctively punched the trigger.
This time, I fixed the problem in the moment. This sounds easy for someone who has never gone through target panic, but I can’t tell you how important it felt to be able to recognize the issue, put the pin where I wanted it and pull through the shot.
The doe was quartered away from me, so I put the arrow behind the front shoulder a bit. It zipped through both lungs before exiting through the backside shoulder. An hour later, Aubree was in the woods to make good on her promise of helping me make the recovery.
I have been fortunate to have a good season so far with this being my third deer between Minnesota and North Dakota. As I think about the steps I have taken to overcome target panic, I’ve asked myself what has helped the most?
I’ve got a new bow that I love because it fits me perfect. I’m using a front and rear stabilizer for the first time, and I’ve switched to a new tension-activated release instead of a trigger.
I believe that’s helped, but a big difference this year has been my mental approach in talking myself through the shot process to slow things down. I’ve also been able to eliminate some of the pressure I put on myself by focusing more on my own hunt.
How often do you scroll through Facebook or Instagram and see hunters posting pictures of does they shot? I follow enough whitetail accounts to know the answer is rarely. Big bucks sell, and if you follow this world closely enough it can leave a person feeling like they need to shoot a huge buck each year to have a season be considered a success.
My advice to new hunters or those going through a rut like I did the last couple years is to ignore all of that. Shoot the buck that makes you happy.
None of the properties I hunt have food plots planted for deer or are managed for whitetails. One way I like to use game cameras is to see what bucks are on a piece through the summer and then try to target the top 15-20% of those deer by age class. If that happens to be 3.5-year-old bucks that year, that’s fine with me.
Shoot does where bonus tags are an option. We are fortunate in much of Minnesota to have opportunities where taking multiple antlerless deer is legal and we can fill the freezer with some of the best meat available.
Nothing helps build confidence in archery hunting, or any hunting really, like filling tags and making good shots that lead to clean kills. To an extent, I lost sight of that in recent years, and it led to a less enjoyable hunting experience.
This doe on Nov. 21 was as important to me as either of the bucks I shot earlier this year. It was a fun hunt, another step toward building confidence in my shot, Aubree was there to share it with me, and it added more meat to our freezer.
Those are things that make a season a success. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.