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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Call it hunter's intuition, but John Lien had a good feeling about the day's bow-hunting prospects when he set out for his tree stand southwest of Park River, N.D., on Sept. 24.
His optimism wasn't unfounded; the spot has produced nice bucks, both for Lien and a buddy who owns the land. But never in his wildest imagination, Lien says, could he have envisioned the sight that greeted him when he walked up to the tree supporting his stand.
There, in a small creek about 10 yards from the base of the tree, lay what appeared to be a buck with a huge nontypical rack and completely covered with mud.
At first glance, Lien thought the buck had fallen into the water and drowned. The shallow water flowing through that stretch of the creek had been churned into a black, mucky froth, a sure sign that some kind of struggle had occurred.
A closer look revealed something much more striking: Two bucks, horns locked together in combat, lay in the mud - the smaller deer already dead, a twitching ear the only sign that the other still was clinging to life.
The bigger buck had a 5x4 rack, Lien says, the smaller a 5x5.
"I could see they had been in there for days," he said. "They were both black from head to toe."
Creeping toward the creek, Lien says his first instinct was to reach for his camera, but the buck that still was alive saw him and started thrashing in the mire.
Lien drew back and shot, putting an arrow through the buck's lungs and killing the struggling animal within seconds. His 2005 bow-hunting season was finished - barely 15 minutes after it started and before he'd even had a chance to climb into his stand.
"It was kind of a mercy killing," said Lien, 33, a construction manager for a Fargo development company. "It was really a depressing scene to see how they were. They were completely black, and they'd chewed up the little creek. It was pretty disheartening."

Stroke of luck
At the same time, though, Lien had just encountered something few hunters ever experience. If the struggle had occurred 50 yards in either direction from his stand, Lien says he probably wouldn't have seen the bucks. Standing at the edge of the creek and looking down at the two bucks, Lien says, is something he'll never forget.
"I just stood there in shock," he said. "Surreal is the word I like to use. You hear about it, and you see pictures, but to have it be right in front of you 10 yards away, and to be in the condition they were in with the muck and the mud. I can't imagine."
Lien still faced the formidable task of trying to extract the deer from the mud, so he used his cell phone to call the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Report All Poachers hot line, listed on his license, for advice on how to transport two bucks with one tag. The dispatcher contacted Gary Rankin, district game warden in Larimore, N.D.
He also tried to contact his hunting buddies to share the excitement. They all were hunting, but Lien managed to reach his wife.
"I was just babbling like an idiot," he said. "She didn't understand how rare something like this is."

The work begins
Rankin, who was on patrol near Niagara, N.D., arrived a short time later to issue a transport tag for the first buck and to help Lien drag the two deer out of the creek.
Big job would be an understatement, Lien says of dragging the two deer.
"If you can imagine trying to drag about a 320-pound animal soaking wet and full of slimy mud, it was not very easy," Lien said. "When I went in to get him, I'd sink almost to my knees in the muck and the mud."
Lien and Rankin used a Come-Along portable winch to pull the entangled bucks up two steep banks. From the time he shot the buck, until they dragged the deer to an accessible part of the trail about 75 yards from the creek, took nearly three hours, Lien says; he also field-dressed both animals.
Getting the bucks home that night wasn't an option because Lien had driven his small car from Fargo instead of taking his truck. It was his first bow hunt of the season, after all, and Lien hadn't planned to shoot a deer in September.
He drove back to Fargo that night and returned with a friend the next morning to pick up the two bucks - and proof that his story wasn't just another tall tale.
The heads, still entangled, will be made into a special corner mount, Lien says, and tentative plans call for displaying the trophy racks in the new Scheel's store set to open next summer in Fargo.
Photos of the mud-soaked bucks are striking, but given the circumstances, Lien says he had mixed feelings about posing with the deer while holding his bow. Still, he chose to do so in the end.
"I don't mean to act like it was some great hunt, but I was bow hunting, and I did kill one," he said. "It's just what hunters do - they take pictures."
Rankin says he received a similar report of bucks with entangled racks a couple of years ago near Fordville, N.D. Why the bucks Lien encountered became entangled is hard to say, Rankin says; the rut is still several weeks away.
"They'll push each other around and spar back and forth" before the rut, Rankin said. "I don't think they're very serious yet, but somehow, they got locked up."
Lien, whose story has been the hot topic in archery circles, says no hunting trip is likely to surp [no swearing please] the shortest bow season he ever experienced.
"It will be tough, but, by gosh, I'm sure going to try," he said. "I don't know what it would be that would top it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime find. There really wasn't anything I did. I just showed up at my tree stand, and God put these two deer in front of it."
Call it intuition.

 

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you did the right thing by putting him out of his misery. shame those magnificent bucks had to die in tangled up though covered in mud.
 

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Nick you said it. Definite mercy killing, but trophies none the less. No shame is posing when you do the right thing.
 
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