As I sat there reflecting on the events of this season, I was slowly starting to face the harsh reality that for the first time in 20 years, I just might not put a buck on the ground. For the past three years I had been chasing a buck that I had dubbed “the Ghost.” That old buck made a regular habit of making a fool out of me, and it was looking like this year would be no exception. While I was busy compiling a list of good excuses for not getting a buck this year, little did I know as the darkness began to fall in the quietness of the frosty, fog-filled forest, that the final chapter to my three-year quest was about to be written.
It all began four years ago, in the summer of 2008. On a routine scouting trip I spotted a tremendous young whitetail that looked to be a 140-class buck, and I guessed him to be only 3 years old. He was hanging in a bachelor group with several other nice young bucks and a couple great older ones. That winter I was able to take a 10-year-old buck that had regressed back to 130 inches. I had extremely high hopes for several of the young deer we had passed that season and especially for that 140-class youngster.
The summer of 2009 started out slow. The deer were mostly nocturnal until July, and even then the bucks were coming out pretty late in the evening and getting back into the timber before sun up. Around mid-July I spotted a big buck high on the hill at last light. I was fairly certain I knew which deer it was and was sitting in the same spot the next night waiting for him to come back out. That very next night he came out low on the hillside with seven other bucks. He was by far the largest in the group but definitely not the oldest. He was well on his way to being a 170-class buck, and with North American Whitetail Editor in Chief Gordon Whittington scheduled to hunt with me the first week of September, I planned to have that buck all but tied to a tree for him.
As the summer progressed, the bucks became more and more visible and the Ghost (a name he hadn’t yet earned!) was a regular in the summer bachelor group. Gordon and videographer Mike Clerkin arrived August 31. Unfortunately, the last sighting of the Ghost was on August 28. Gordon’s hunt passed without even a glimpse of the old buck, and in true big buck fashion, he made an appearance right under Gordon’s stand two days after they had flown out. I made several attempts to catch him coming out to eat apples but to no avail. The rest of the season passed without me, or anyone else, even catching a glimpse of him. I was wondering whether or not he had survived the season, but I had a hunch he did.
It was July 3, 2010. Although scouting had begun a long time ago, the only evidence I had that the Ghost was still around were a couple of trail camera pictures of a mature buck with a split brow tine in mid-April. By now he had definitely earned his nickname. I was having serious doubts I was going to find him until that evening, when my wife and I stopped to glass a group of deer feeding in a winter wheat field. There were at least 20 deer in the field, including 7 or more good bucks, several of which were definite shooters for the upcoming season. Then, I noticed one very large-bodied deer in a low spot in the field. I was certain it was a buck, but he had his head down grazing. When he finally lifted his head, my jaw hit the floorboard of my truck. It was the Ghost, and he made everything in the field look small.
For the remainder of the summer, I was able to spot him every other day or so, until hunting season rolled around. He dropped off the map on August 29, not to be seen again until later that year. I was never able to catch him on camera before the late archery season opened, so I pulled all of the stands and cameras except one that I had planned to have Shannon Alwine hunt for a management buck later in the season.
Then the snow hit in full force. The deep snow made accessing the area extremely difficult, so I had Shannon hunt another fairly good setup I had. Later that winter, I was able to go retrieve my camera and stands and guess what—the Ghost made an appearance. And not just one. He came into the setup in the daylight on the second day of the season and was there in the daylight for three subsequent days.
If I had hunted that spot one time during that span, I would have probably gotten him. Despite a tremendous effort on my part, as well as several of my buddies, we were never able to find any of his sheds from that year or years past. I crossed my fingers, said my prayers and hoped that he would make it through the winter in good shape.
By now, the old boy had made me look rather foolish several times and had me questioning myself about what I actually knew about him. So the next summer I expanded the search area, started up a couple new mineral licks, and put out five more trail cameras to help locate the Ghost. The extra cameras and mineral sites paid off. I began getting pictures of him in June and continued getting pictures all summer.
He was not visible in the evenings like he had been the previous summer, but, boy, was he photogenic. I was able to get hundreds of pictures of him hitting the mineral sites, water holes, and even the old apple tree Gordon had hunted in ‘09.
The pictures and the layout of my trail cameras helped me get a very clear idea of his travel patterns, and I had a hunch I might be able to catch him out in the daylight first thing opening morning. So, to make a long story short, I was able to spot him and several other bucks moving back along the fence line below me but was unable to head them off before they got into the timber. I hunted the apple tree stand a couple of times hoping the Ghost might make a mistake and show up late in the evening, but he never did.
Matt Alwine and I had spent the entire summer drooling over the many trail camera pictures I had of the Ghost. On September 9, Matt came down with Mark Luster of The Legends of the Fall television show to try to capture a hunt on film. I put them up in a stand in a staging area I knew several shooter bucks—and possibly the Ghost—were using.
The first night they were in the stand, the Ghost walked out at last light, but with does directly under the stand, Matt couldn’t move to film him and Mark couldn’t maneuver to make the long shot. So, the old boy got lucky the first time he made a mistake. The next evening, Mark was able to take a great, old 5×5 that was still in velvet.
The next client in camp was Gary Stanley of One Shot Outdoors. After a few tough days of hunting, it was looking like things might finally come together on the fourth night of the hunt. After checking trail cameras, I had a big 5×6 on a fairly steady pattern coming in earlier each evening. This was the exact same stand where Mark and Matt had their encounter with the Ghost, but he had not shown up on any of the trail cameras.
After getting Gary set up for the afternoon, I headed out for an evening elk hunt. Right about dark, Gary sent me a text message saying he thought he had arrowed the target buck. He thought he made a good shot but wasn’t 100 percent sure, so we decided to meet up and head back to the house and review the footage. After meeting up, Gary asked me if that big 5×6 had a split brow tine and I told him that the only buck over there with a split brow was the Ghost. He said that the buck he shot was not that big, maybe a 150-inch deer at best.
Well, as soon as I looked at the video I knew he had arrowed the Ghost. At first glance, the footage showed what looked like a high, forward lung hit. We gave the deer a couple hours and then headed out to take up the trail. After less than 200 yards and a very weak blood trail, I made the tough decision to pull out and go back to the house to take a closer look at the footage and give the buck longer to expire.
After taking a closer look at the footage by analyzing it frame by frame in my editing program, it was clear that the shot hit higher and more forward than we first thought. So after a very long, sleepless night we headed back out shortly after first light to resume the search. After an exhaustive search with no additional sign to go on, we made the tough, sickening decision that no hunter wants to make. We ended the search and hoped that the buck would be able to recover from the wound.
I spent the next three weeks glassing and searching every nook and cranny on the mountain for any signs of scavengers but never spotted any activity that made me think the old buck had died. Gary and I kept in contact, and I let him know that there had been no sign of the buck dying.
I am sure that it was of little comfort to Gary that I had not found the buck dead, but I knew that I needed to get some trail camera pictures or see him with my own eyes to be positive he had survived. After more than two months with no sign of the Ghost, on November 20 he finally showed up.
While going through all the SD cards I had pulled that day, I had high hopes of having captured some big bucks on camera that we had been seeing and maybe having some new ones show up. By now I had resigned myself to the fact that the Ghost—even if he was still alive—had disappeared for the remainder of the season. When that first picture of him popped up on my computer screen I am pretty sure that I about did a back flip out of my chair. It was game on.
With several days to wait until the season opened and with clients scheduled to show up, I knew I was going to have to be very smart about when I hunted that setup and how often I hunted it. I planned on waiting until he was showing up on a regular basis, which for the better part of the season he never did. Not until December 8 did I get any more pictures of him, and those were in the middle of the night. I decided to hunt another setup on December 10 for another big buck I had on camera. Big mistake.
That day, he showed up on camera in the daylight three different times. So, on December 11, after getting Gordon and videographer Ross Smilko set up for the day, I headed the stand to hunt one last time for the Ghost. This was going to be the last day I had to hunt for the season since I had to go back to work the following day. I got to my stand around 8 a.m. and busted several deer out of the area, including one buck that looked particularly big. I hoped it wasn’t the Ghost.
It was a bitter cold and very frosty day and absolutely dead calm. Early that afternoon, I had five does and a young 5×6 show up. I had a doe tag in my pocket and was seriously considering taking the one big doe that didn’t have a fawn, but every little move I made, they would all look up at me. Thankfully my camouflage did its job and they never really busted me. After about an hour they moved off to the north and the woods went quiet—too quiet.
By 4 p.m. I was frozen. Nothing else had showed up and it was looking like I was going to go without a deer for the first time in 20 years. While I was busy sulking and compiling a long list of good excuses for getting skunked, I heard a deer cross the fence to the south of my stand, and that first crossing was promptly followed by two more subtle twangs of the loose barbed wire.
A spike and nice young 4×4 showed up right below me shortly after, but the third deer seemed to be lagging behind. I had seen both of these little guys multiple times, and they were almost always with an older 5×5. I had decided that if he showed up I would take him. He was old and heavy and was a solid P&Y buck. The fog had rolled in and light was fading fast.
It was still dead calm, and both those little bucks would look up every time I made the slightest move. To make matters worse, I had set my camera up on my left side and hung my bow up on my right, opposite of what I normally do, but it was much easier to film from this particular setup that way.
Then it happened, the moment I had waited three years for, the Ghost just materialized in one of my shooting lanes at 30 yards. He walked straight through the lane and came around behind a small clump of fir trees and stepped out broadside at 25 yards. At best, I only had 15 minutes of shooting time left and I still had to figure out how to get my bow off the hanger, across my lap and into my left hand to shoot! The viewfinder on my camera was black so I just pointed it in the right general direction and hit record.
With all three deer in, I could get away with a little more movement, but not much. I slowly managed to get my bow off the hanger and into my hand to shoot, but the little bucks were starting to get a bit edgy. I had to give them a couple minutes to settle down. I finally managed to get my release hooked up and shift my legs around to prepare for the shot. As I started to draw, all three bucks pegged me. I only had my bow back a few inches, but I was stuck. I couldn’t continue to draw and I couldn’t let down. I held it there until they put their head down and continued to feed.
This happened two or three more times; each time I would manage to get my bow back just a bit further and then have to stop and wait! I was finally holding it at the break-over point and was starting to shake. I shoot 80 pounds and this had taken at least two minutes to get to this point, and I knew I couldn’t hold it much longer. They finally quit looking in my direction and I made the decision to go for it.
I hauled the string back fast and hard and anchored as quickly as I could. Both the little bucks bugged out to the north and the Ghost, who was still at 25 yards, spun around and took a few steps back down the hill from where he came and stopped. He gave me just enough time to center his vitals between my 20- and 30-yard pins.
I don’t remember thinking about touching the release; the shot just went off. It was getting dark enough that I couldn’t see the arrow but it sounded like a hit, and the buck lunged forward and went crashing straight down the hill for several seconds. After a loud crash and a snap that sounded like an antler breaking, all was quiet. Now, I am usually a pretty calm guy. I have been lucky enough to take some great bucks over the years, but I was shaking like a leaf after this. I wasn’t even positive I hit him.
I spun the camera around and talked for a minute about what just happened. I stayed in the stand for a bit to get myself calmed down and gather my gear. I put my pack on, dug out my headlamp, lowered my bow and climbed out to survey the scene. I turned on the green LED light to see if I could spot my arrow on the ground. The green light makes the fletching I shoot glow at night and makes my arrows pretty easy to spot.
I couldn’t see my arrow anywhere, so I switched over to the bright white light to look for blood. In the frost only a few yards in front of me was the confirmation I wanted. Two huge sprays of blood on the frost ground and on the brush. When I shined the light down the hill and could see the heavy blood trail, I knew then that the shot was perfect. I made a couple quick calls on my cell phone and headed back to the house to share the good news and bring Gordon and Ross back to recover the deer with me.
The blood trail was the heaviest I had ever seen, and it didn’t take long to follow the blood a short distance down the hill to where he expired. He had crashed into a small ponderosa pine and snapped about three inches off the end of his left main beam and after a few seconds of panic I found it lying right behind the tree.
A three-year quest had come to an end. It was a special evening for me. Not only was this my personal best buck to date and the end of a great story, but I also got to share the recovery of this great buck on video with Gordon Whittington. The Ghost wound up being a bit smaller than we thought he was, but who cares? He still grossed just over 172 inches and had one heck of a story behind him. There are many great bucks taken each year, but not many with a story like this.
Maybe I am getting kind of soft as I get older, but after all the congratulations, handshakes and back slaps, in the end, to see the chase for this old buck finally come to an end felt less like taking a magnificent buck and more like the loss of an old friend.