By Mark Kenyon
One minute and fifteen seconds had passed. My shoulders were starting to burn, my back tingled, my palms were getting clammy with sweat. Still I didn’t move, holding at full draw for what seemed like forever, and neither did he.
And then, I lost control of my legs. Out of nowhere, my once stiff and straight limbs melted into spaghetti, shaking back and forth in the wind uncontrollably and so violently that I knew the buck could literally see them moving back and forth. Am I going to lose my second opportunity at Jawbreaker this season because my damn legs couldn’t stop shaking?
For most of you, the story of my hunt for the Ohio buck known as Jawbreaker is a familiar one. I’ve detailed it in several blog posts, a full podcast episode and a short video. But in short, I’ve hunted this giant for two years and about two weeks ago I finally got a shot at him. Unfortunately, my shot was a bit back and also deflected off a limb, resulting in the hit being far back and low. After two days of searching, we failed to recover him. I was crushed. The coming days and weeks were my lowest as a hunter and my regret and remorse over the missed opportunity and the wounding of this incredible buck had cast a dark cloud over my entire season.
Fast forward to last week, my lease partner Josh and I started hunting our Ohio property again for the first time since that October 16th hunt. On the way in to our stands on the first morning, I pulled our trail camera cards and as I checked photos I came across four images that had to be of Jawbreaker. He had survived.
I was on cloud nine, and driving back to the hotel that night I remarked to Josh that at this point, it was Jawbreaker or bust for me. I had to finish the hunt for this buck. I can’t describe the sense of relief and excitement I felt after knowing that Jawbreaker had made it and I couldn’t wait to get back in the woods and resume the hunt for this legendary deer.
That takes us to the next morning, November 6. I now was on a mission to find and finally kill Jawbreaker, and I had a plan in mind. I woke up at 3:30 AM in order to get in to our property early enough to sneak in and hang a portable stand before daylight. I had an absolute “money” set-up in mind. I knew that I wanted to hunt downwind of a major doe bedding area that was closest to one of Jawbreaker’s favorite hang-outs, and I knew that if I got on the downwind edge of it, I would have a deep ravine behind me that my wind could blow out over. Additionally, there was a section of downed barb wire fence that created a funneling effect along this downwind edge. It was a funnel, downwind of doe bedding, near one of Jawbreaker’s core areas, with no risk of getting winded. A bullet proof, textbook, absolutely perfect rut hunting hunting set-up.
That said, I got in well before dawn and found that there was only one available tree in the spot I wanted to be that could hold my stand. Unfortunately it was seriously lacking cover. None the less, after examining all my other options I decided it was still the best bet and I got to work hanging my stand. Because of the lack of cover, I did make sure to set my stand on the opposite side of the tree from where I thought I’d see any deer activity.
Daylight eventually came, light rain faded in and out, and I watched over the tall CRP and brush that stretched out ahead of me. Finally, at around 8:15 AM I spotted a crown of antlers rise out of the the brush about a hundred yards ahead. I quickly turned on my camera, zoomed in and found the buck in my LCD screen. Crab claw G4’s. Check. Shorter G2’s than the G3’s. Check. Taller right brow tine than the left. Check. All the characteristics matched, this was him. It was Jawbreaker!
The realization that I was going to get another shot at Jawbreaker was shocking, but deep down I knew I had a job to do and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that. I had my bow at the ready, I slowed my breathing and got ready for what would come next. At the time, I was cool as a cucumber.
At this point though Jawbreaker began angling to my right, heading the opposite way down the trail I needed him to follow towards me. Quickly, I grabbed my grunt tube and gave him a single, deep guttural grunt, almost a growl. And seconds later, he turned and headed right towards me. This was going to happen.
As the buck approached I turned the camera to point in the general direction I imagined my shot would come from, hit record and then forgot about it. Two weeks earlier, when my first opportunity at Jawbreaker presented itself, I wasted precious seconds messing with my camera while Jawbreaker was walking through my shooting lanes. If I hadn’t been working on the camera, I’m convinced I would have had the time and space needed to put a better shot on him, and I promised myself afterwards that I’d never let that happen again. I decided that if a quick shot opportunity presented itself in the future, I’d forget about the camera and focus on a shot. Only in a situation with lots of time would I mess with the camera, and even then, it would be secondary to the task at hand.
That said, this was one of those situations where I had time, so I got the camera rolling and then watched as the buck approached down the trail in front of me, and I stood ready and waiting. And then, as he came to about parallel to my location, he looked up at me in my tree. My heart sank. This lousy thin tree was going to be the death of me. I’d spent a long time that morning debating whether or not I should hunt this tree, which was in the right location, or search out a better tree in a less ideal area. In the end, I decided to risk the lack of cover to be in the right spot. And now, it seemed, I would come to see whether I’d made the right decision. For the next twenty or thirty seconds, the buck stared up at me in the tree, but was never able to peg exactly what the large shape was up in the air. I decided then that the next time he put his head down behind brush, if he did, I’d need to draw. And finally, figuring I wasn’t a threat, he finally did, so I took a deep breath, tensed my back and shoulders and pulled the bow back to full draw.
Just as soon as I’d done that though, his head popped back up and locked back on me. And so I held.
As I waited, frozen, I began thinking through everything I needed to do to make sure this hunt ended the way the last hadn’t. I would focus. I would take my time. I would slow it down. I would sink that pin behind his shoulder, take that extra second, and then kill him.
One minute and fifteen seconds. My arms began to ache, still at full draw, and then finally, my legs lost control, shaking like leaves in the wind.
Am I going to lose my second opportunity at Jawbreaker this season because my damn legs couldn’t stop shaking? I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and whispered quietly to myself.
With every ounce of strength left in me, I squeezed every muscle in my body as tight as possible, in an effort to stop the shaking. In my head, at the moment, I believed I needed to stop those legs from wavering or Jawbreaker would see me. And as I squeezed, my legs ceased their chaotic dance. I let a lungful of air out, rested my twenty yard pin just in front of the bucks’ brisket, and waited for him to take that one final step into my open shooting lane.
My mind flashed back to October 16th. Jawbreaker was at twenty five yards, and I was rushing to spin around the tree, grab my bow, draw, fix my peep sight and then find him in my sights before he disappeared behind the tangle of limbs that he approached. And as I finally got him in my sight picture, he began stepping behind a set of tree limbs, I bleated, and the arrow was on it’s way. Moments later I cringed as I saw the fletching of the arrow disappear through Jawbreaker’s paunch. It’s an image that has stuck with me every day since that moment. That arrow now rests in my barn, mounted on a wall where all my hunting gear is stored, so that every time I head in there to prepare for a hunt, I’ll see that arrow and remember that day. That moment. That mistake. I coudn’t let something like that happen again. I wouldn’t.
Now, here I was on November 6th, and Jawbreaker was six inches from again being in my sight picture. Breath. Breath. Breath.
And then, finally, he looked down away from me, turned back towards the trail and took another step.
It wouldn’t happen again. It couldn’t. I wouldn’t let it.
I looked down my nose, through the peep, along the arrow, through the sights, right to that one, small spot right behind his shoulder. I saw it, I willed it, and then I released. This time, my fletchings disappeared right behind the shoulder, right where they needed to be, right where they were supposed to two weeks prior. I had done it. I had just killed Jawbreaker.
As you might imagine, over the following few minutes, I melted down, as all the emotion from the past few weeks came spilling forth. Wounding Jawbreaker back in October had been my lowest point as a hunter, and now being able to redeem myself from that failure, I was experiencing the absolute highest of highs. I couldn’t believe it.
From here though, the story takes yet another turn. After waiting a few minutes, I checked my arrow and then backed out of the area, waiting for my two hunting partners to come meet me before picking up the trail. Eventually we watched the footage, confirmed it was indeed Jawbreaker and then a few hours later decided to pick up the trail.
Starting off, the blood was good, but the trail continued, and continued and continued. Eventually we reached the same standing corn field where we had lost Jawbreaker the first time, and my hopes started to falter as the blood took a right turn into the field. Still we walked on, pushing our way between rows, and finding blood here, and then there, and then here again. At this point we’d tracked this buck well over 300 or 400 yards and now blood was starting to get sparse. Worry washed over me and I started to think to myself, was this going to happen again? Could I seriously shoot the same buck twice and lose him both times? How could I have botched this up again!
Finally, we emerged out the other side of the corn field, now on the very border of my farm and we’d lost blood. A slowly spreading feeling of dread was settling in, when I saw it. A large wrapping, shiny piece of antler sticking out over the tall grass. There he was!
I simply collapsed down to my knees. Relief, excitement, shock all washing over me at once. But after a few seconds, I got myself together and ran over to see the buck I had obsessed over for the past two years. Huge main beams, awesome mass, tall curving tines. He was an absolute brute. But … something seemed off.
As I looked him over, something triggered in my head, and I began searching around his gut looking for a wound from where I had hit him a few weeks back. But there was nothing there. A shocking realization then dawned upon me …. this was not Jawbreaker.
After all of the ups and downs, this revelation hit me like a ton of bricks. This wasn’t him. I hadn’t righted my wrongs. I hadn’t finished the story. I hadn’t finally killed Jawbreaker.
To be honest, it was a weird moment. The past couple weeks, and then especially this morning, had been an unbelievable roller coaster. I hit Jawbreaker, I couldn’t find Jawbreaker, Jawbreaker’s probably dead, and then wait – Jawbreaker’s alive, and then I just shot Jawbreaker again, and now I’m worried I won’t find him again, and then I find him, and then I realize it’s actually not him! This whole thing was about enough to make me stroke out.
Realizing this wasn’t Jawbreaker really through me off for a bit, but eventually I came to terms with it and came around to the fact that I’d still killed an incredible whitetail, and I couldn’t be disappointed in that. Still though, we had been so sure this was Jawbreaker. And later that day we compared video of this buck with a photo I had of Jawbreaker, and you can see why it was easy to make the mistake in the moment! They look very, very similar.
To continue the drama, that evening after getting my buck out of the woods, I went back and looked at the trail camera images I had captured of “Jawbreaker” after the original shot and started studying them even more carefully. Unfortunately, I realized after closer examination that these images actually most likely aren’t him. Everything seemed to be just perfect, except his right side G2. On Jawbreaker that G2 should be shorter than the G3, but on the buck in these trail camera images it looked just as long if not longer. This was pretty disheartening. Just a day earlier I had celebrated that he was back and alive, and now, quite possibly, maybe he wasn’t.
So as you can see, the past few days have been a whirlwind of up and downs. The hunt for Jawbreaker has been a wild one and I’ve probably learned more from this set of experiences than any other in my life as a hunter. Plenty of mistakes were made, some successes were had, and a lot of lessons learned.
Jawbreaker “Junior”, as I suppose he is, is an incredible buck and I feel truly blessed to have had an opportunity to kill him. And from this day forward, he’ll forever serve as a reminder on my wall of the hunt for “Jawbreaker” and who I’ve become as a hunter because of it. And maybe, just maybe, Jawbreaker will be back in 2015.