By Meredith Murray
Five years. Three misses. Two non-fatal shots. One last chance. On Saturday, November 18, 2017, I bundled up and smeared the war paint on my face for my last hunt of the season in Kansas. This was my second trip to Cedar Vale with Radventures (Rob Engster) - more than I was usually able to swing as a student at Texas A&M. However, I was finishing my last semester and knew I wouldn’t get to return the next year because of my job. Yet, here I was again, down to the last hunt with no tags filled. It felt eerily familiar and as if favor would never be on my side. I was well versed in the amount of chance this sport carries. Whether it was “your bow isn’t dialled in,” “use an expandable broadhead,” “once we get your kinetic energy right,” “increase your poundage,” “your jacket didn’t allow full range of motion,” “that stand is a steep angle,” or even the brutal truth of, “it was an indian problem,” I had heard it all during the last five years of misses, bad shots, and bad luck. “It happens” encompassed all of the reasons or lack thereof, because it’s true. It happens. What matters is what you do after “it happens” then happens again. And again. And again.
I was 16 years old when I bow hunted (with a compound bow) for the first time on October 12, 2012. My dad and I were in a ground blind on a grey Saturday morning when a doe walked out, giving me a clear fifteen yard shot. I struggled to draw and missed far high. She barely flinched. Dad whispers to me, “Knock another arrow.” I do as he says and try to draw but can’t do it. After dad helps me draw, I let the arrow fly and miss again. I vividly remember turning to him and saying, “This isn’t fun” with frustrated tears threatening to spill down my face. Growing up rifle hunting and seeing nearly every deer I shot drop in its tracks, I had not experienced this kind of failure. I can’t help but laugh now at this first bow hunt, as it seems like it was foreshadowing what was to come.
The first time my arrow connected with a deer, it was the biggest buck I have ever witnessed in my life. My dad and I were in lock on stands right next to each other at the aptly named “magic tree.” The massive ten point walked right under us and parked it at the feeder preparing to challenge a younger buck. I’m pretty sure I blacked out when I stood to shoot, but I let one loose and it looked promising. We blood trailed him for two miles over the following 48 hours and our hope shifted into the opposite direction - that he would live. Thankfully, he greeted us on the trail camera weeks later with a suspicious scar on his hind quarter.
A few days later, I shot a doe and the blood trail fizzled out. The next year I missed a nine point far high. Two years with Kansas tags left empty. As a Texas native, drawing tags in Kansas is always a privilege. Having the opportunity to hunt in a place with different wildlife, sights, terrain, weather, people, and witnessing the unique attributes of Kansas deer is an experience in itself. However, I was ready to fill a tag and I believed 2017 was my year.
I made my first trip to Cedar Vale in October 2017 and my dad picked me up from the Tulsa airport, which is our usual routine. He introduced me to hunting as a little girl and there will never be words adequate enough to describe the impact that it has had on my life. From our prayers before every hunt for safety, fun, and an ethical harvest to teaching me how to identify a bird by its song - he led me to develop my own unique appreciation for God’s creation. Every time he has picked me up from that airport, my heart grows with anticipation for the time ahead of me that I will spend outdoors and with him.
Every year when I arrive in Cedar Vale, I am usually greeted by my three favorite guys who have been in my corner throughout every hunt and shared all of my highs and lows - Uncle Jay, Rob, and Jeff. We looked at trail camera pictures and they pointed out the shooters at every stand. My first hunt, one of the shooters walked out and gave me a perfect broadside shot. I went through my routine, sent an arrow, and sent a text to my Dad afterwards letting him know I was confident I had just broken the curse. When we found my arrow, it had only penetrated about two inches and no blood - I had made a perfect shot into the big bone of the shoulder that caused my arrow to bounce right off. As I stood with my Dad in the woods, arrow in hand, realizing what had happened, I allowed myself a short pity party then moved on, thankful the buck was going to live. A few hunts later, I had a clean miss at a different stand.
I returned to College Station and informed my buddies at Live Oak Archery where I practiced every week of what happened. They encouraged me and wished me good luck on my next trip. I made my way back to Cedar Vale in mid-November and the rut was in full force. Rob had been sending me repeatedly to a stand called “the 80” where you have to be half monkey and unbothered my coon crap to make it up the tree. I had mastered the route up the tree; however, my knees and shins were badly bruised by this time of the week. We fashioned some makeshift knee pads out of chair cushions that we bound with electrical tape to my legs. On that Saturday evening of my last hunt, I easily made my way up the tree, filled with a mixture of emotions. I was hopeful for an opportunity but fearful of adding another tally to my record. I sent a text letting my dad know I was locked and loaded, to which he responded, “Hunt hard.” An hour and a half into my hunt I spotted a doe and her yearling on my right, making their way to the feeder on my left. As they began to cross in front of me, I noticed the doe’s behavior indicated she was in heat and my heart began to race. Suddenly, I hear aggressive footsteps crunching the leaves behind my stand in a way that made me want to vomit. I knew I was about to have a shooter and tried to remember to breathe. A beautiful, mature 8 point walked right under me and confirmed my gut feeling. Within minutes, he was in my shooting window, keeping in close proximity to the doe. He wasn’t standing in a position I felt comfortable to shoot at, so I waited. What felt like hours later, I stood, drew my bow, anchored, took a breath, and released. In slow motion, I saw him run off with my arrow stuck in him for a few seconds, then falling out. It was exactly where I aimed, but I thought I had made a second shoulder hit. Beginning to cry, I called my dad telling him everything saying, “I did it again, I did it again, I did it again. Please come get me, all the deer hear me crying anyway, I’m not going to see anything.”
I had thankfully turned on my Tactacam to video my shot and upon return to the cabin, I waited to hear the guys’ inevitable news that I had done it again after they watched. However, Rob, Jeff, my Dad, and two other hunters sounded hopeful and thought there was a good chance my arrow had enough penetration. A few hours later, the biggest blood trailing search party I’ve ever witnessed set out to find my deer. Rob, Jeff, my Dad, brother, two other hunters, and a blood trailing weenie dog named Lulu began tracking a surprisingly good blood trail. A couple times when we’d lose it, Lulu would pick it right back up. Navigating under a barb wire fence that led to an open pasture, my buck’s trail began heading downhill. I was frequently asking “Is this a good sign?” and when I offered the question this time - my Dad smiled at me as the blood trail got heavier and he said, “He’s heading downhill, baby!” Our search party was practically running downhill following blood when my Dad yelled, “I see him!” shining his flashlight twenty yards in front of us in the pasture. I was quick to question, “Are you serious?” and stopped walking. Jeff, my Dad, and Lulu broke out in a full sprint towards what they thought was my buck, and sure enough, it was him. I could barely talk with tears filling my eyes. Emotions running high, I placed my hands on my first bow harvest and felt overwhelming gratitude. If not for my four guys (Dad, Uncle Jay, Rob, and Jeff) who were a constant source of encouragement and never allowed me to give up, I would not have experienced the unforgettable feeling of victory that night.
To every hunter whose season didn’t end or isn’t winding up the way you envisioned, please believe that your year is coming. It’s already written in the books and I promise it will be a story worthy of the wait, the exhaustion, the emotional rollercoaster, and patience. Though I am thankful for my buck and the meat he provided, I am even more grateful for the journey and people that led up to that moment of success. I had 28 total sits in Kansas before I finally filled a tag. Whether you are in the middle of that journey or have experienced it tenfold, never lose hope and take time to discover what you are learning in the process... from both the outdoors and the people in your corner.