Like those in many Midwest states in 2011, Illinois hunters dealt with warm temperatures and a lack of rain right from the get-go, and it lasted most of the season. On the bright side, the conditions were ideal for producing the mother lode of acorns. If you were one of the fortunate who had a couple of hardwood ridges and plenty of water, then you were likely better off than most.
Frank Nation was one of those lucky guys. A small satellite block of timber on his hunting property had everything a deer needed, and the lack of hunting pressure made it the likely spot to harbor a big buck. Nation’s persistence paid off in October when he arrowed a big non-typical. Not only was it Nation’s biggest buck ever, the giant ranks among the top five taken with a bow in Illinois during the 2011 season. Nation tells his story of the events leading up to that memorable day.
“The piece of ground is about 320 acres, and the terrain is typical to this part of Illinois,” Nation explained. “There might be 75 acres of timber, comprised of rolling hills, ravines, hardwood ridges and creek bottoms. The two main ridges are dominated by mature oaks and are good places to be when the acorns start dropping. The remaining acres are planted in corn and soybeans. With the exception of a CRP field, the property to the east and north is more or less big timber. To the South is pasture ground.”
“Unlike some who believe in constant scouting, I try to keep a safe distance and avoid educating the deer,” Nation said. “I typically begin setting out cameras in late summer and continue running them throughout the season. In doing so, I get a good idea of the bucks on the property and where they feed. I like glassing when the crops are still green, especially the soybean and alfalfa fields. The property lays out in such a way that it allows glassing from over a quarter mile away. From that distance, there’s little chance of disturbing deer travel and feeding patterns.
“Aerial photos also play a big role. Based on what’s learned from cameras and glassing, I map out where the deer feed and their travel routes on the aerial photo. From that I determine where to hang stands and the best wind condition for each. I’ve been hunting the property long enough to know where all the natural and manmade funnels are, but aerial photos help me visualize the best stand options for a given day.
“Paying close attention to the acorn crop is also important. In years of plenty, the deer seem to spend more time in the timber and less in the crop fields. And that’s exactly what happened last year.”
“I didn’t know this particular deer existed until October of 2010,” Nation recalled. “That’s when a hunter told me about a big buck he had seen and had a close encounter with on the neighboring ground. I hunted hard that season but didn’t see the deer.
“This past fall, I heard a rumor that the same guy had seen the deer again. And this time he had pictures to prove it. Knowing the deer was in the area, I was more determined than ever and spent considerable time glassing and running cameras. I had been monitoring the pattern of several bucks but hadn’t seen hide or hair of the big one. The buck was obviously smart and laying low. Given the facts, I’m guessing he was simply nocturnal.”
“I took the day off from work for the season opener,” Nation said. “It was warm that day, somewhere around 70 degrees. I didn’t see much until just before sunset. That’s when a half-dozen young bucks and does wandered into the field but none of them were shooters. Rumors were going around again about a giant seen on the ground north of me. Whether it was the same deer or not is anyone’s best guess. Knowing the buck was in the general area, I started hunting every chance I got.”
The Lost 40
“We had mostly north winds, and it was killing me for stand options,” Nation explained. “I spent most of my time rotating between stands to avoid burning any single one out. I had been hunting the creek bottom, not far from a small timber we call ‘The Lost 40,’ mainly because it’s rarely hunted. Parts of the timber are thick and gnarly, and the deer use it a lot. The ridge top consists of mostly oak trees and Multiflora Rose briars. The ridge drops off on one end, and below that is a primary bedding area. During the rut, a lot of bucks travel through the area looking for does, so I generally keep a safe distance until then. Before that, I hunt the periphery in the creek bottom.
“Over the next two weeks I saw a ton of deer, including several young bucks. My biggest deer to date was a 140-class 11-point, and I was holding out for something bigger. In the back of my mind, I was hoping the big non-typical would find his way onto our place.”
“It was really dry in Illinois and many of the water sources had dried up,” Nation said. “In some cases that meant the deer had to travel farther for water. In my area, a pattern started to develop early on. There was a large pasture on the neighboring ground to the south with three ponds. The majority of the deer were going to those ponds in the morning and then heading toward the bedding area on the Lost 40. In the afternoon they left the bedding area and went straight for the acorn ridge.
“By the third week of October, I started seeing a few young bucks chasing does, mostly on the ridge top. That clearly indicated that the rut wasn’t far off and the bigger bucks would soon start moving. My plan was to stick with the does, because it was just a matter of time before a mature buck came cruising to claim one.”
“I hunted Saturday morning (October 23) until about 10 a.m. and climbed down,” Nation said. “It was time to scout for a new stand location, a little closer to the action. A setup between the bedding area and the ridge top would be ideal.
“Trying to cause the least amount of disturbance, I slipped back in at midday to find a tree that would work for a north wind. There wasn’t any, so I ended up hanging the stand on the ridge top, anticipating the wind would soon change to some southerly direction.
“On Saturday afternoon the wind blew steady from the north, so I hunted the same stand in the bottom. I saw a ton of deer but not any shooters. Sunday morning the winds were basically a repeat of Saturday. However, the weatherman was predicting the wind would shift from north to south that afternoon. It was shortly after lunch that the wind began shifting directions.
“Around 2 p.m., I gathered my gear, sprayed everything down with scent eliminator and headed out. Temperatures hovered in the upper 60s, so I took my time to avoid sweating or making any noise that might alert any deer in the bedding area. It took nearly an hour to get there, but I hadn’t jumped any deer in the process. Before settling in, I took off my ScentBlocker jacket to air out, and once again sprayed down with scent eliminator.”
Moment of Truth
“The first hour was really quiet, but around 5 p.m. movement drew my attention toward something in the thick brush to the south,” Nation said. At first I couldn’t tell whether it was a deer or not, but then I saw it shake like a wet dog. It was a deer alright, but I still couldn’t tell whether it was a buck or doe. A few seconds later, it started rubbing a tree. I could see antlers at that point, but they didn’t appear to be very big. I gave a couple of soft grunts from the Buck Growler, and his head cranked around in my direction. I nearly had a heart attack.
“It was an absolute giant, with far too many points for a quick count. There was no doubt: I was looking at the biggest deer of my life. I grabbed my bow and got ready, but the buck went back to rubbing the tree. Another five minutes or so passed before he stopped to look around, apparently looking for the deer he heard grunting.
“All of the sudden he started moving down a trail that swung to the northeast. I figured he was trying to circle around and get downwind. I needed to turn the buck around, and I contemplated what to do next. He responded to the call once, so I felt he just might again. Directing the call behind me, I made one soft grunt. Much to my surprise, the buck spun completely around and started walking directly at me.
“That was great, but now I was questioning what to do next. He’s coming straight on, and I don’t want to chance a frontal or neck shot. As the buck cut the distance, he raised his head and licked his nose almost continuously. I’m guessing he was trying to catch the scent of the buck he heard grunting. The ridge dropped off behind the stand. When the buck got within 20 yards, he began to circle behind me. It was obvious he thought the intruder was down the ridge.
“Anticipating a shot, I brought the PSE X-Force to full draw and waited for an opportunity. That’s when he came to a sudden stop behind a Russian Olive bush. I’m not sure how long it was, but long enough that I couldn’t hold back any longer. As I started to ease the bow down, he made a couple of quick steps and exposed the vitals. It took everything I had to get the bow drawn again. I made a quick lip squeak to stop him, settled the pin and touched off the release. The buck ran for maybe 20 yards and stopped to look back. That’s when I saw the arrow sticking out of the shoulder. I couldn’t help but think I’d really messed up, and I prayed I hadn’t wounded the buck of a lifetime.
“The giant stood there for maybe 10 seconds, and then took off on a dead run. He hadn’t gone more than 25 yards before slamming headfirst into an oak tree. I was in total shock, and my knees and legs were shaking uncontrollably. I sat down to gather my composure.
“I wanted to give the deer plenty of time, so I started making calls. First I called my Dad to tell him that I shot a giant. Not sure why, but he didn’t believe me. Eventually I was able to convince him to come out and give me a hand. I called my fiance, Jessica, next. She didn’t seem to believe me either. I wanted her to bring out my son, Franky, who is totally into hunting. Eventually, she agreed. Next were my friends, Roy and Ryan. Like the others, they didn’t believe either. Truth is, everyone I called that night thought I was pulling their leg or joking around.
“Thirty minutes later, I climbed down for a closer look. People talk about ground shrinkage, but that wasn’t the case. The horns just kept getting bigger the closer I got. Even so, it wasn’t until I grabbed hold of the antlers that I was able to comprehend just how big the deer really was. I started counting points and came up with 23 in total.
“Dad met me at the creek crossing. He took one look and said, ‘My God, I’ve been hunting all my life and have never seen a deer that big, much less shot one.’ Judging from Dad’s initial reaction, it was apparent he was expecting to see an average deer and not a giant.
“When we got back to the truck, reality sunk in. I had taken the buck of a lifetime. People started showing up nonstop for a closer look and to take pictures. Overall, it was an amazing experience.”
A couple of days later, Nation went to speak with the neighbor, Rich Crawflin. He showed Crawflin pictures of his deer. There was no doubt it was the same buck his neighbor had pictures of. Ironically, the pictures came from a trail camera just east of where Nation had killed the buck. Considering the wise old warrior had only been seen once during the daylight hours, we can only assume he led a nocturnal life. Obviously there’s no way of knowing for sure, but chances are the buck found sanctuary in the Lost 40 and had been holding up there for quite some time.