When the eight-point buck stepped into his shooting lane, Thomas Washburn, 14, of Woodbury instantly recognized the deer. It was Mr. Lucky, so named because he had eluded Thomas and his father several times during the bow season. In fact, the big buck had narrowly dodged no fewer than four arrows they had zipped his way.
Just three years ago, being this close to a big buck was the stuff of dreams for Thomas. All he knew at the start of the 2008 season was that he wanted to be a deer hunter. A good one. He and his dad, Christian Washburn, readily admitted they were starting from a zero knowledge base. So they dubbed their first season Deer Hunting 101 and dedicated themselves to learning all they could about their prey and the many intricacies of the sport.
Reading about whitetails was interesting, but they decided learning-by-doing was a better strategy. On their first several outings to public lands, they found many hunters and no deer. So they networked with other hunters and landowners in northern Washington County and gained access to some private woodlots.
They found the deer-hunting learning curve steep and fraught with frustrating, deer-costing mistakes. They were astonished at the hearing ability of their prey. A tiny unnatural noise in the woods, such as a pair of binoculars bouncing off a metal coat button as they walked to stands, would send deer high-tailing away.
Once, Thomas had a large doe feeding right under his stand. But when he pulled the trigger on his Connecticut Valley Arms muzzleloader, instead of a roaring bang all he heard was pffft. "My dad and I figured out when we brought our powder into our warm house from the cold it was collecting condensation," Thomas explained.
On another occasion, Thomas drew his bow on a buck, chose the wrong sight pin and arched his arrow right over the back of the deer. When his broadhead clattered into bushes it was goodbye buck. "I don't own a range finder," Thomas says, "so I've had to become more accurate at judging distances."
Thomas is certain his lack of understanding about the scent-broadcasting effect of even a light breeze cost him opportunities in his first year. But now that he knows the extraordinary ability of deer to smell, he situates himself to make the wind his friend in the woods.
"My dad and I don't wear scent-free clothing, but we wash our hunting stuff using scent-free detergent and use scent-free spray on ourselves before going into the woods," Thomas said.
Besides his bow and gun, Thomas considers his deer call his most important piece of gear. "I can change it from doe to buck, and I have seen it allay the suspicions of deer that act like they think something isn't right," Thomas said.
Thomas is motivated to hunt deer by his love of being in the woods, spending time with his dad and the potential for venison. After watching an experienced hunter skin, quarter and butcher a deer, Thomas now feels comfortable processing his deer with his family's help. He reports it takes them about 3 1/2 hours from hoof to freezer.
Now in his third year of deer hunting and with four whitetails in the bag, Thomas credits patience and the ability to get out often for his success. "I'm never disappointed when we don't see deer because I learn something new every time I hunt," he said.
So, on a recent outing, there was Mr. Lucky, the big buck. Thomas had done a lot of things right to put himself in this position. The deer was clearly in range but not yet broadside. Patience, Thomas whispered to himself. Then he steadied his muzzleloader, looked along the iron sights and squeezed the trigger. When the black powder smoke cleared, Thomas reached for his cell phone, punched up a speed-dial number, and when his dad answered in a nearby tree stand he proudly announced, "Dad, Mr. Lucky just ran out of luck."