When Lane Zahrte, with a little encouragement from his father, Tim, ventured into the woods to test his appetite for bow hunting, there was an immediate connection.
And likely a lifelong one.
There was something totally different about pursuing a white-tail deer with a bow and arrow versus a gun. For Zahrte, it brought more challenges, including studying, documenting and photographing deer – specifically a buck – to understand its eating and sleeping habits.
Basically, it meant getting inside a deer’s head.
“My dad, he got me into hunting and it was mostly gun-hunting with a rifle. I wanted to hunt more (than the gun-deer season), so he said, ‘Well, I got a bow that I used when I was younger.’
“He got me jump-started and we still hunt together; he likes taking trips out West elk hunting.
“It was a passion right away. Once I got to see my first deer within 20 yards of me, it was such an adrenaline rush. It was so awesome and I wanted (so badly) to harvest my first deer.”
That was a dozen or so years ago, and the 27-year-old Zahrte — who grew up on Tomah and now lives in Onalaska — has harvested more than a dozen bucks since then.
None, however, compared to what happen this past bow-hunting season.
Zahrte bagged what many hunters would consider the buck of a lifetime when he shot a 12-point monster with a 17-inch spread that green-scored 170 1/8. Out of more than 50 entries, Zahrte’s buck was chosen as the winner of the Adult Male division of the River Valley Media’s 2016 Big Buck Scrapbook contest.
For Zahrte, a Tomah High School (2008) and UW-La Crosse (2014) graduate, it capped what was memorable hunt, but not why you might think. Each facet of the hunt required time, perseverance, planning and a pinch of luck.
“It was just kind of shocking, the culmination of the whole hunt from seeing him in August to finally seeing him (during hunting season), it was shocking and surreal,” Zahrte said. “The way it worked out, it was every hunter’s dream.”
To appreciate Zahrte’s end result, you have to walk through the journey with him. It was never easy, it was time consuming and it involved some sacrifices — if you can call hunting a “sacrifice.”
It started when Zahrte, who works for the Onalaska Parks and Recreation Department, was scouting for deer on a property he was going to be hunting for the first time.
“I was actually watching him (the 12-point buck) in August. I was sitting in a field just scouting in the summer with a spotting scope,” Zahrte said, “and I saw him come out. I got to go back out there the rest of the week, and sat there five or six days during the evening.
“I saw him four days straight, coming out in the field in the same spot, and got to know his primary (routes). I got a picture of him in the summer with velvet (on his antlers). I hung my (tree) stand in late August where I had seen him.”
Zahrte was careful to find the right spot for his treestand — one that was off the main deer trail, yet close enough to a good, unobstructed shot with shooting lanes.
“I was about 100 yards in the woods, where it kind of looked like a staging area for the deer where they would hang out before they come out into the field,” Zahrte said.
There he found just the right tree, used climbing sticks to reach a spot about 20 feet about the ground. Height is a key combatant against human scent, as Zahrte didn’t want to get busted by the buck’s — or any buck’s — keen sense of smell.
Everything was falling into place, or so Zahrte thought. When the Wisconsin bow-hunting season opened on Sept. 15, Zahrte was in his stand, ready for the monster buck to make his way to the staging area, then to the field — just like he did for most of the summer.
It didn’t happen.
September passed, then October. Then the first two weeks of November had gone by and Zahrte knew he was running out of time. The gun-deer season, where deer patterns are typically thrown to the wind because of increased hunter activity, was rapidly approaching on Nov. 19.
“I had seen him on (trail) camera… I had a lot of pictures of camera, but it was usually at night. He was always coming out in the evening, never in the morning,” Zahrte said.
“I was hoping to get (a shot at) him early in the (bow hunting) season, because that is how I patterned him. As the season started, he went nocturnal until mid-to-late October.”
Part of being a successful hunter, Zahrte knew, was being thorough and persistent. He knew his odds of bagging the big buck would decrease once the gun-hunting season started, so on Nov. 15, Zahrte hustled out into the woods once again.
“I had all my hunting clothes with me at work in Onalaska; I got done with work at 3:30, and quickly changed into my hunting clothes. I knew I had about 1 hour, 20 minutes (of daylight before the daily closing time).”
Zahrte was in this tree stand for about an hour when the 12-point buck finally made an appearance.
“He kind of came over the top of the ridge; I didn’t know what it was at first. I knew it was a deer, but I didn’t know if was the buck I passed the day before – I passed a 9-pointer the day before. I looked through the binoculars, but it was so thick,” Zahrte said.
“He started coming down the trail to me, and once he put his head down, I could see the curvature of his (antler) frame. I knew it wasn’t the same buck as the day before.”
So Zahrte said he “hunkered down” next to the tree, and let the buck walk to, then underneath, his stand. He knew he couldn’t move an inch, as any twitch would likely send the buck sprinting off.
“I didn’t want to move until he got passed me… It did cross my mind that he would keep walking straight away. Then he stopped right where the trail kind of turned…”
If the buck would have gone off the trail, Zahrte would not have had a shot. If he stayed on the trail, he would present Zahrte with a 20-yard, broadside shot.
The buck turned and Zahrte, who had already drawn his bow at this point, released the arrow.
“I knew it was a kill shot immediately.”
The buck ran 40 yards, then crashed into some trees.
“The first thing I did was call my dad. He didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voicemail. He told me later that I sounded like I was trembling and shaking on the phone,” Zahrte said.
“After that I started texting my friends. Then I decided to get down and get my emotions together and collect myself.”
One of Zahrte’s best friends, Mitchell Schmidt, and his girlfriend, Abby Schoonover, came out to the woods, helped Zahrte recover, then dragged the deer out of the woods.
“The thing about bow hunting, it is supposed to be a challenge and a deer like that really tests your patience,” Zahrte said. “It also gives you nightmares when you are not having any luck. To have it all work out, it is a gratifying experience.”
And when the taxidermist completes the head and shoulder mount, it is one Zahrte will look at and happily relive the experience over and over again.