Buck of the draw
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the past couple of weeks, Dave Arnold has alternated between patting himself on the back and kicking himself in the rear.
Arnold, managing partner of one of West Virginia's largest outdoor adventure companies, recently shot one of the biggest white-tailed bucks he'd ever seen - and then promptly yielded the buck to another hunter.
"I felt good about it at the time," Arnold said. "Now I'm thinking, 'Did I really do that? Was I crazy?'"
The adventure began when Arnold and former Division of Natural Resources director Ed Hamrick traveled to Arnold's family farm in Ohio for the opening of the Ohio buck season.
The two men knew an exceptional buck might be roaming the property because Hamrick had seen it earlier in the fall while bowhunting.
"I was using a seated climbing stand, and was halfway up the tree when I saw this huge buck coming through the woods," Hamrick recalled. "I froze. The buck came within 5 yards of the stand and stared straight at me. Fortunately the wind was right and the sun was in the buck's eyes. Eventually he angled away and bedded down exactly 48 yards away."
Slowly and laboriously, Hamrick inched his stand up the tree and then hauled up his bow and pack by rope.
"It took me a half hour to do all that," he said. "And then I watched that deer lie there for close to 3 hours. I even took pictures of it. When it got up, though, it moved off the opposite way and I never got a shot."
The buck remained unseen until the opening day of the buck firearm season, just minutes after Arnold climbed into his tree stand.
"I didn't even have my gloves on," Arnold said. "I looked out through an opening in the brush, and there was this buck, 40 yards away and staring right at me."
To keep the deer from seeing the whites of his eyes, Arnold narrowed his eyes to slits and engaged the buck in a minute-and-a-half stare-down.
"It eventually decided I was part of the tree and started walking," Arnold said. "I had about three seconds to raise my gun and shoot before the deer moved out of that window in the brush."
The shot hit the buck solidly in one of its front shoulders but didn't put it down. It charged off into the underbrush.
"I went to the spot where I shot him, but couldn't find any blood. But then I heard him through the brush, trying to get up a steep creek bank about 20 yards away. I didn't want to push him, so I laid down and waited," Arnold said.
An hour later he got up and started tracking the deer.
"I was looking at the ground, and as I came up close to the fence line of a neighboring farm, I must have jumped the buck up again," he said. "All of a sudden, I hear this BOOM and I just about jumped out of my pants."
A neighbor, Jim Ballenger, had shot the deer after it crossed from Arnold's property onto his own.
"I asked Jim if he minded if I crossed the fence, and he told me to go ahead," Arnold said. "I asked him if the deer he'd shot was a big one, and if it was injured. He said it was. I told him I had hit the deer before he shot it."
The two men decided to trail the deer to see where it had gone down.
"It had died about 15 feet back onto my property," Arnold said. "In Ohio, where the deer dies determines who can claim it. So by the letter of the law, the deer was mine."
"Neither of us wanted to give the deer up," Ballenger said.
Arnold came up with the solution.
"Jim's a young guy, and he was really excited," Arnold said. "He asked what we were going to do. I told him his family had always been good to mine, and that our grandfathers were good friends, so the only thing I knew to do was to draw straws for it.
"Jim said, 'You've got to be kidding.' I said, 'Do you have a better way to do it?'"
Before they drew straws, Ballenger and Arnold took cellphone pictures of each other with the buck.
"Then Dave snapped off a couple of sticks and held them in his hand," Ballenger said. "I pulled the long straw."
"Jim looked at me like, 'Are you really going to do this?' I told him, 'A deal is a deal, buddy. Congratulations."
Later, when Ballenger field-dressed the buck, he found that Arnold's shot had missed the animal's heart by a scant inch and a half.
"He was that close to having that deer for himself," Ballenger said.
Later, when he'd had time to reflect, Arnold wondered what might have been.
"A couple of thoughts came to me," he said. "If I'd shot a little higher, that deer would have died within yards of where it was shot.
"Also, If Jim hadn't been in that tree, would I have got the deer? It was cutting through a small corner of his property when he shot it. I'd like to think that the buck would have cut across the corner and headed for cover on my property, not run around in Jim's field like an idiot."
Arnold hopes yielding the trophy will give him, as he put it, "some good karma."
Based on others' reactions, karmic rewards aren't exactly a sure thing. As Arnold puts it, "People either say I did a really good thing, or they say I did the dumbest thing they've ever heard of in their lives."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.