By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame.”
— John Bon Jovi, 1984
It was one of those unbelievable experiences that almost defied description, on the very last day of archery season, before the long-anticipated opening of black-powder season for whitetail deer in my state. I had already harvested an eight-point buck with a crossbow on September 16th, 2023, and was looking forward to using my longer-range muzzleloader on October 19th. But I had also purchased a “bonus-buck” stamp, permitting me to take a second buck within the same weapon season, and as I walked for exercise in the early afternoon, I kept having this persistent feeling that I really needed to hunt that particular evening.
So, on Wednesday, October 18, 2023, I was up in a neighbor’s 18-foot tree stand, with his permission, at 4:42 PM, in the deep woods less than a half-mile from my home, and it was a very slow night, with no deer activity at all for over an hour. But at least three neighbors, and my wife, had seen a very big buck roving throughout the neighborhood at all hours of the day and night, although I’d never seen him myself. His bulky size and description began to assume mythical proportions as the stories spread like wildfire, and he was touted as a “monster buck” with “10 points,” both of which are nearly impossible in our severely overhunted area. They just don’t live long enough to exceed eight points for most bucks, and that was more than sufficient for my standards.
I was using a fairly new Killer Instinct Lethal 405 crossbow, loaded with a 20-inch, 415-grain, Barnett Headhunter arrow at about 370 feet per second, and sighted-in perfectly at 25 yards, straight through a one-inch bullseye on a target block.
The outdoor temperature was a very pleasant 56 degrees, and I was dressed in full camouflage, over warm clothing. Boredom was setting in after the first 45 minutes, with no deer activity whatsoever, and I sent my wife two cell phone photos of myself and my lofty view from the tree stand. My crossbow was 21 feet above the forest floor, and the little corn pile that I was using as legal bait was 24 yards to the north, with a slant range of exactly 25 yards to the target area, for pinpoint accuracy.
As six o’clock PM approached, there was still no movement in the forest, and my wife texted me that our corn feeder at home had just gone off, and there were already several does and fawns gathering around it, but no bucks, which were really all that I was after in my evening hunt. My cell phone reported the ambient temperature as 55 degrees, and I just sat very still and quietly, watching and listening.
At 6:02 PM, I heard deer footsteps approaching from behind me on the dry leaves upon the ground, and a modest-sized doe trotted past me on the right side, headed straight for my corn pile. But as she stopped at the corn, I heard more footsteps behind me to the right, and I turned my head and a shoulder, and instantly saw a large, healthy, eight-point buck, the biggest I’d ever seen in our area, so I reasoned that this had to be the fabled “monster buck” that the neighbors were reporting.
Unfortunately, my powerful crossbow was lying on the corners of the side rails of the tree stand, pointed toward the northwest, and the big buck was precisely in the opposite direction. He looked up and saw me, but I froze, realizing that if he detected any movement at all, he would run, and I’d lose this golden opportunity. Therefore, I couldn’t pick up the weapon and turn to fire, or he’d be gone before I could take the shot. So, I had to be very patient, and wait to see if he would follow the doe to my corn.
The cooling temperatures had already initiated deer rut activity, and it was a sure bet that he was interested in either the doe, or the corn, or both. I instinctively clicked the safety catch on my crossbow to “Off,” in anticipation of his next move. The buck eyed me cautiously one more time, and then it circled around to my right side, and angled directly toward the corn. While he was intent upon watching the food source and not me, I quietly raised the crossbow to my shoulder, and peered through the AimSports 4x32mm scope, which was focused sharply on the little pile of yellow corn in front of him.
The buck stepped up to the corn and lowered his head to eat, and the doe ran off toward the west, into the 45-foot-deep ravine immediately to my left. Now, I had a perfect, broadside view of the large buck, and I carefully centered the crosshairs of my scope just behind his front legs, and about two-thirds of the way down from his spine, right where the heart should be. I gently squeezed the trigger and let my arrow fly at 6:04 PM.
He reacted swiftly, kicked his hind legs back, and bolted away into the ravine, heading north. After about 10 seconds, I heard an enormous, crashing sound from below, in the dense woods, and knew that he was down. I texted my wife, “Just shot an 8-point.” Climbing down very slowly and carefully, I recovered the bloody arrow, proof that I had scored a good, solid hit, but the deer was nowhere in sight, so I texted my wife, “Might need help. Send Vince and dog.” Vince was the neighbor upon whose property I was hunting, since I’d seen no large bucks on my own property for over a month, and his dog, River, a four-year-old female Catahoula Leopard Dog mix, had helped to track deer before.
After slowly circling the heavily wooded ravine area once and detecting no fallen buck, I joined Vince and River near the tree stand as they arrived on-scene, and then we angled more steeply downhill, and soon located the buck’s body at the bottom of the ravine, in a tangled thicket of very small trees as it was beginning to get dark outside. His heavy body had crashed headlong into three trees on the way down, and his antlers were entangled among all three, which had to be removed before we could extricate the body.
I climbed back up the steep hillside and drove my Honda Rancher 420cc ATV to a point directly above the fallen deer, where I had to unwind all 100 feet of steel cable from my Warn winch, plus another 100 feet of green, nylon rope. But it still wasn’t long enough, and Vince had to drag the buck another 15 feet uphill before he could get the rope around its antlers. Working together, we winched and dragged the deer uphill to the ATV trail near the tree stand, and then dragged it about 220 yards to Vince’s back yard, at the edge of the forest, to be field-dressed. By this time, both of our wives had arrived in the back yard, and several photos were taken before the messy gutting process.
The most interesting revelation occurred as I reached deep inside the chest cavity and removed the buck’s massive heart, however. The arrow and its solid-steel broadhead had unerringly passed directly through the center of the heart!
On April 21st, 1918, German Captain Manfred von Richthofen, the famous “Red Baron,” was shot straight through the heart over northern France by an Australian machine gunner on the ground below him and far to the right, but he lived for long enough to safely crash-land his fighter aircraft and was still alive for a few seconds after Australian troops arrived. Modern FBI statistics show that a human being, or an animal of similar size, can live for up to eight to 20 seconds, even after being directly shot through the heart, which explains this big buck’s 10-second, mad dash down into the wooded ravine.
This was a fine, healthy specimen of a whitetail deer, certainly the largest deer I’ve ever taken, weighing in at 158.3 pounds field-dressed, or about 175 pounds in the wild. That’s almost as much as I weigh! He’ll provide a lot of tasty, nutritional venison for the next year to come for our family, and for the great neighbors who helped to bring him out of the forest and load him into our SUV. It literally took four people to lift him into the vehicle.
The ultimate goal of any responsible hunter is a quick, clean, humane kill, and with a crossbow, the fastest way to accomplish that is with a carefully aimed shot through the heart. This was certainly a very successful and unforgettable hunt, with the huge buck arriving unexpectedly, and adding an element of excitement on my very last day of crossbow hunting for the rest of the year.
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Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and deer hunter.