Clinehens, 29, has taken a half-dozen or so deer during the Buckeye State’s shotgun and muzzleloader seasons, but he has endured a run of bad luck that left him feeling snakebit when it comes to bowhunting. Last year he hit a tree limb while shooting at a buck. He clanged a piece of gear off his stand during another whitetail encounter and endured several close calls where bucks caught his wind or spooked for other reasons before he could draw his bow and close the deal.
On Oct. 28, Clinehens climbed into his stand near Jackson Center, Ohio, for an afternoon sit. After enduring 90 minutes of 30 mile-per-hour gusts without spotting any deer, he was thinking of calling it a day when he spied something 300 yards to his left. “I couldn’t tell how big the rack was, but it definitely had a good-sized body,” Clinehens recalls. “I watched him walk down a fence row for about 200 yards and then he just disappeared.”
Thirty minutes later the buck popped into view in a recently harvested cornfield on the other side of the fence. “I got a good look at his antlers, and my heart was beating like crazy because I could see how big he was,” Clinehens said. “And he was coming straight to me. I hardly had time to stand up and get my bow off the hanger.” By the time Clinehens grabbed the bow and adjusted his sight, the buck was right behind him and moving away. The rattled hunter grunted and the buck stopped.
“He stood there at 20 yards quartering away. I could see his tail. He wasn’t even looking at me; he had no idea I was there. I drew back and thought I could sneak the shot in right behind the front shoulder. But as soon as I released he took another step.”
With so little margin of error in the angle, that one step was enough to close Clinehens’ already narrow window of opportunity. The arrow hit the buck in the back leg. “He took off running, and I couldn’t believe it. I’d just missed a good buck last year, and now I was sure I’d blown a chance at another big one. I threw my hat down off the stand, threw my release. I was disgusted. My heart sank to the bottom, and I was seriously thinking of hanging up my bow for good. It was bad.”
As he sat in his stand for the next 40 minutes, running over in his mind what had gone wrong, Clinehens clung to one thin strand of hope: As the buck fled into the thick woods behind the tree stand, he thought he heard a crash. “I couldn’t tell if he’d fallen or just run on through the thicket, but I’d heard deer crash like that before, and I thought there was at least a chance that he was down.”
“I got to where he was standing when I hit him, and there was no blood, no arrow. I walked another 50 to 60 yards without finding blood, and I was really starting to get discouraged, thinking I’d missed out on the buck of a lifetime.” Instead of giving up, though, Clinehens continued on, carefully following the line he thought the buck had taken. Finally, he saw it: two small crimson splotches on a green leaf.
Clinehens was able to string together several more faint spatters until the blood trail thickened. The femoral artery, which runs through the back leg, is a major highway in the whitetail deer’s circulatory system and its presence is the one reason that a shot to the hams is worth every bit of a blood-trailer’s best efforts. “All of a sudden there was piles of blood, and I thought maybe I’d hit that main artery in the back leg,” Clinehens says. He followed the trail until it reached a creek 140 yards from his stand–and disappeared completely.
“I thought, oh, crap, I’ve lost him.” Finding no sign of a blood trail on the opposite bank, Clinehens calmed himself down and started looking up and down the creek. “I finally spotted something 30 yards to the right: Antlers sticking out of the water.”
Looking back, Clinehens could have done several things differently. First, he could have prepared himself for the buck’s sudden reappearance at close range, standing ready with bow in hand to act quickly. “I probably would have gotten a much better shot if I’d been ready to pull the trigger sooner,” he says. Second, shooting at a full-body deer target positioned to simulate tough shots like a hard quartering away angle can impress upon a bowhunter the unforgiving nature of such a shot on a wary deer. Even though the buck hadn’t winded Clinehens, it had stopped at his grunt and thus was on full alert. A buck with its head up, trying to home in on a suspicious noise, presents a more uncertain target than one that’s relaxed and stopped on its own. Finally, another grunt might have caused the buck to turn toward the sound, giving Clinehens a more forgiving angle.
That’s all Monday morning quarterbacking, of course. “I was too nervous,” Clinehens admits, noting that bucks that gross 199 7/8 inches and sport foot-long brow tines (as this one does) are few and far between, even in a big-buck state like Ohio. “You don’t see too many deer like that one, and when you do you’re not thinking straight.”
Credit him for persevering–not only in the five-year pursuit that finally led to his first archery buck, but also in the careful trailing that helped him recover a true trophy. After seeing where the arrow hit, “I was sure I’d only wounded him,” Clinehens says. “But I wasn’t going to take the chance that I would leave him laying there if he was down.” It’s a lesson we all know, but which bears repeating: Even the most marginal of shots deserves the full measure of diligence to exhaust every last chance of recovery. “I went from the lowest low to the highest high,” Clinehens says, “and it felt great to hang in there and get it done.”
After dedicating five frustrating years to bowhunting without filling his archery tag, Mark Clinehens faced a decision many hunters have to grapple with sooner or later: Take a less-than-perfect shot on the biggest buck you’ve ever seen, or watch the deer of a lifetime walk out of sight–probably forever. Clinehens took the shot on a 200-class Ohio nontypical, and what happened next offers some potential lessons for bowhunters new to the game and those who think they’ve seen it all.