The Ones That Got Away

The first bugle rings through the trees in the early evening. The chill of fall has already turned the aspen leaves golden and has me bundled up in my jacket. My head snaps toward the source of the bugle and I feel that surge of adrenaline. Another bugle rings out and I answer with a call of my own and immediately get a response. The high-pitched scream courses through my body as the bull moves closer. My legs tremble as I stalk through aspens and lodgepole pines to the edge of a clearing and answer with another bugle of my own.

My voice goes hoarse as we call back and forth for 30 minutes. Then, the woods go eerily silent. The silence confuses me. The situation reminds me of when a jake turkey comes into a setup in the spring, so I kneel down and knock an arrow. Minutes go by before I hear twigs snapping from a drainage. I look over to see antler tips coming up from the drainage—the bull has walked up from the drainage 40 or so yards away, looks right at me and bugles in my face.

He walks across the clearing and when he passes behind a downed tree I draw back. He sees the motion and jumps into the woods, but a quick cow call, warily, brings him back. He stands 20 yards in front of me, quartering away.

I release my arrow and watch it sail over the bull’s back and clutter into the dirt down a hill. The bull is gone in a flash and I slump to the ground.

That bull still keeps me awake at night and I remember almost every aspect of that hunt more vividly than successful hunts.

Close calls and the one that got away are important stories for all hunters. Burned into our memories, they remind us of how difficult hunting can be while providing a deep respect for the game we chase.

Below onXs pro staff share their most memorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking close calls with the one that got away.

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Close Calls in Kansas

Matt Palmquist's large buck, seen in a field with a harem of does.

Above: Palmquist’s buck

Matt Palmquist first noticed the mule deer buck in the fields of Kansas during the summer. It was early, but he looked promising in velvet. Palmquist didn’t realize he was about to start a game of cat and mouse with the biggest mule deer buck of his life. When Kansas’ archery season rolled around, Palmquist said he, maybe, missed one day chasing the Kansas monster.

Palmquist said he could find the buck like clockwork, but closing the deal on him was a different story.

They don’t grow big by being stupid.

One evening into the season Palmquist found the buck in an agriculture field and began a stalk. The light was fading fast, but to Palmquist’s surprise, the buck started walking toward him. The buck inched his way closer, but took its sweet time in doing so. As legal shooting light passed, however, Palmquist found himself well within bow range of the monster.

Another morning Palmquist spotted the buck in the harvested section of a cornfield. Palmquist jumped into the unharvested corn and closed the distance. When he came out of the corn, though, the buck was gone.

Looking across the field Palmquist spotted the buck again. It moved 200 yards away, feeding along the edge of the field in the weeds. Palmquist started moving fast to cut the buck off. The plan worked and he waited on his knees as the goliath fed toward him.

As the buck got closer, however, he realized the weeds were blocking his shot. To get a clean view, he stood up and drew his bow back, thinking the buck would freeze as he came out of the weeds and present a perfect shot. The buck stepped out, into the open and without a half a second of hesitation took off, leaving a cloud behind him.

Palmquist’s last chance came the day before rifle season opened. Palmquist knew once the rifles came out his odds at getting the buck would tank. He set out toward the fields on opening morning and, as if on cue, there the buck was.

From the road, Palmquist watched the buck move to a fence line and bed down in the weeds. He let the buck get comfortable and stalked within 35 yards, but couldn’t get the right angle for a shot. A war of attrition began, as Palmquist waited in the weeds for the buck to move from its bed.

The wind howled through the weeds and blew tumbleweeds over the buck and himself as he waited hour after hour for the right chance. He left his phone in his truck and had no way of letting his wife know his situation.

Breaking the monotony, the buck finally stood, stretched, and bedded down again. The sun was starting to set after almost 12 hours of waiting and Palmquist had to make a move. He closed some distance on the buck and needed only one more yard to get past a weed and have a perfect shot, when the buck stood again.

He had no way of raising his bow with the deer so close.

The buck walked into the field and saw him, but didn’t spook. Thinking the buck might circle around him he drew back his bow, thinking “this is going to work,”

“Well, it didn’t.”

The buck erupted across the field, and Palmquist couldn’t help but throw his hands in the air and laugh at the whole situation.

As the light faded on the Kansas fields, Palmquist had a long walk back to the truck, and an explanation to his wife, who thought he was dead.

Pinned Down in the Bitterroots

Tyson Woods was creeping through the drainages of Montana’s Bitterroot mountains looking for the elk filling the woods with bugling. The bugling took Wood through scattered lodgepole and ponderosa pines to the bottom of a drainage and up the other side of the mountain. He followed the bull and bedded him. He crept closer, knowing there were a few cows hanging out as well. It took Wood an hour to close a gap of 200 yards and get within 35 yards of the bull’s three cows.

Image of hunter in full camouflage sneaking through the woods with bow in hand.

Woods couldn’t get any closer to the bull, as the cows acted as sentries. He tucked into the trees and started the waiting game. After a while the cow’s got up and began feeding across the opening and as soon as they passed, Woods made his move toward the bull, which was on the other side of a hill.

He crept up to the hill, popped his head up to lay eyes on the bull. It was a six-point and Woods said it was easily 300 inches. But it might as well have been on another continent, because between the bull and Woods was an additional 13 cows ready to sound the alarm.

Round two of the waiting game began.

After what seemed like days of waiting, the cows got up and began feeding toward him and the bull sounded off.

The cows kept feeding toward him though and for five minutes the whole herd fed only three yards away from Woods’ pinned position.

“That’s one of those times when you feel every itch on your nose and you can’t do anything,” Woods said.

Eventually the cows fed away from the hidden hunter and fed over the top of the ridge and Woods waited for the bull to follow. This was the chance he’d been waiting for. But the bull didn’t walk by.

Woods carefully got up and peered around looking for the 300 class monster. On the other side of the ridge, he saw white antler tips. Instead of following the cows, the bull circumnavigated the ridgeline and snuck away without ever stepping out.

Woods snuck around and started a bugling war with the big bull. He crept up to within 40 yards as the enraged bull raked a tree, but a strand of alders blocked any shot and Woods couldn’t close any more distance.

At that point, the bull had enough of the war. It gathered the cows and in a flash was down a drainage and up the other side.

Woods had no choice, but to walk away, laughing as the bull stood on the far side of the canyon, bugling in triumph.

A Buck To Keep You up at Night

Rob Harrell spent most of his hunting career hunting small parcels of land in Michigan. His dream of hunting a large tract of wilderness came true one day, though, when he got permission to hunt a 1,700 acre from the company he worked for, in exchange for setting up no trespassing signs and fences.

5x5 whitetail buck in the woods.

The property consisted of large bean fields surrounded by thick woods. Harrell had never seen so many deer in his life.

Opening morning came and Harrell watched the sunrise from a treestand set along a game trail, on the edge of the woods and beanfield.

After the sun rose and legal shooting light began, Harrell heard loud snorts coming from behind his tree stand. The snorts were so loud Harrell was sure a herd of wild pigs was rooting around behind him.

Peering around the tree, however, Harrell laid eyes on a 5×5 whitetail buck. The largest buck he’s ever seen was trotting behind him and grunting piglike.

“He was wide, he was tall with mass, he just had it all,” Harrell said.

Harrell sat in the tree stand, holding his breath as the buck crept within 15 yards behind him. All it had to do was take one or two steps to be in the range of Harrell’s bow.

Harrell doesn’t lose sleep over this buck because he shot it though.

The buck, of course, took the wrong path, away from the tree stand and away from Harrell’s dinner table, but forever in his memory.

Too Shaken To Draw Back

Female bowhunter with onX Hunt cap with camouflage backpack.

Sadie Kennel had been on hunts before, but never as the hunter. She had never experienced bugling bulls either, but in late September, when she set foot in the Idaho backcountry, she found herself in the middle of an elk warzone.

It was the mid-afternoon of her first hunt and she was cow calling at two bulls that were in the middle of a bugling war.

Kennel and her partner cow called and got one bull to pause the war and turn his attention toward the lovely young cow calling to him in the trees. The bull worked his way into Kennel’s setup and tried to bugle, but his war from earlier left his voice hoarse. The only bulls it could make were raspy, ragged attempts.

The bull worked its way through the trees and went broadside at 38 yards, but covered its vitals with a tree. Standard operating procedure for a bull elk during hunting season and Kennel had no shot.

The bull worked its way through the trees and toward Kennel’s caller, before losing interest and trotting away.

During the close call, however, the second bull was still resilient in screaming his head off. A few cow calls had the new bull charging in.

Kennel situated herself along a game trail and the woods got quiet for the first time that afternoon. could hear the thunder of hooves along the trail. The silence was broken by the sound of hooves on the trail. Fifty yards away, Kennel saw the bull emerge from the woods, still obscured by trees. A quick series of cow calls had him trotting back down the trail though.

Kennel couldn’t find an open shot on the bull, though, and the calling only got him running in faster, instead of freezing.

The bull worked its way into the setup until it stood only four feet away at Kennel’s feet and bent over to smell the estrus she splashed on her boots.

Antler tines sat mere inches from Kennel’s face as she managed to control her shaking and sit still. The bull, nose dripping and eyes watered over, lifted its head and let out a bugle in Kennel’s face.

“I thought about stabbing him in the neck with an arrow,” Kennel said

The bull walked five yards away and presented a perfect broadside shot, but Kennel’s frazzled nerves wouldn’t allow her to draw her bow back. The estrus on her boots kept the bull around, however.

Her arms started shaking so bad her arrow fell off the rest and the noise made the bull finally trot off another five yards. The bull offered 10, 20 and 30-yard shots on its way out of the woods and all Kennel could do was shake.

The bull walked back into the woods and as Kennel came back to earth her anger was masked by her continued shaking. Her caller tried to talk about the amazing moment she just witnessed, but on her way back to the rig all Kennel could do was cross her arms and pout like a toddler that didn’t get the bull she wanted.

Last updated July 2018.

Written by Cavan Williams