For bowhunter Jim Hill, of Hebron, Ky., the 2011 season had been somewhat frustrating. Although he had seen numerous deer and taken several does, closing the deal on a mature buck had proved to be a difficult proposition.
“In early December, I began getting trail camera photos of an impressive 10-pointer with a super-wide spread that I estimated to be over 20 inches,” Hill recalled. “The buck was located on a farm I was quite familiar with, but because of other opportunities, I hadn’t spent any time hunting there that fall. The photos pointed out an obvious glitch in my strategy.”
Several days later, the hunter was positioned in a treestand along the edge of a very large, brushy thicket not far from the trail camera location. Often utilized as a bedding area, the thicket’s dense undergrowth included a mixture of honeysuckle, grapevines, sawbriars, saplings and cedars.
“About two hours after getting settled, I spotted antlers moving through the maze of limbs and leaves, heading in my direction,” Hill said. “As the buck got closer, I immediately recognized the wide 10-point rack. Walking straight toward me with its head lowered, the deer was an imposing sight. However, at 24 yards, the buck abruptly stopped, as its right antler became hung in a grapevine. Twisting its head from side to side in an attempt to free the antler, the deer only managed to entangle the opposite side.
“I could see the buck’s body stiffen and bow up as he strained to back up,” Hill said. “It was really an amazing sight, with the treetops swaying back and forth and branches and other debris falling everywhere. The struggle seemed to last a long time, but I’m sure it was probably only a matter of seconds. Eventually, one side of the rack broke free and the deer quickly twisted the other antler loose. Afterward, the buck stopped momentarily, alertly looked around, and then briskly walking back into the thicket.”
It would be an understatement to say that Hill experienced a unique and unforgettable observation of whitetail behavior. But perhaps more importantly, it also provided an opportunity for the hunter to more accurately gauge the buck’s age.
“I had every intention of taking the deer that day,” Hill said, “and probably would have, if its antler hadn’t gotten hung in the grapevine. No doubt, the buck was a great trophy, but after getting a close-up view of its body size and shape, it was readily apparent that the deer was younger than I had initially believed.”
Having observed numerous bucks during 25 years of bowhunting, Hill was convinced the buck’s potential for future growth was substantial. That belief ultimately swayed his decision to discontinue hunting the deer.
“There were other considerations that influenced my decision,” Hill said. “Gun season was over and only a few weeks of bow season remained. Additionally, the buck’s location was on a farm that was somewhat isolated, particularly from surrounding hunting pressure. While there was no guarantee the buck would be around the following fall, I was pretty confident of my chances.”
During the spring and summer of 2012, Hill limited his activities on the farm to widely spaced short visits. He particularly avoided entering the buck’s core area surrounding the big thicket.
“Basically, the only time I ever walked into the area around the thicket was to freshen a mineral lick I had established near a small creek or to change batteries and memory cards in the trail cameras,” Hill noted. “On those occasions, I always waited for a rainy day so that any scent I might leave would be quickly washed away.”
An early July photo of the buck, which Hill had aptly named the “Grapevine 10,” laid to rest any reservations he might have had about his December decision to stop hunting the deer. The image revealed a wide-antlered 10-point frame, similar to the 2011 rack. However, with several weeks remaining in the growing cycle, it was obvious the antlers were going to be much larger. In fact, the velvet rack already appeared as big as the deer’s shed antlers, which the hunter had found in late January.
“Photos taken about a month later in mid-August revealed a really amazing jump in rack size,” Hill said. “Obviously, all antlers look bigger in the velvet stage, but the additional growth in this case was definitely exceptional. Knowing the buck’s sheds had scored approximately 150, I estimated the rack to be approaching the 180-inch class.”
During the two weeks leading up to the opening of bow season on September 1, Grapevine 10 settled into a fairly predictable movement pattern. On approximately half of those mornings, the big whitetail was photographed at the same location, entering the thicket at daybreak.
“The buck was obviously feeding during the night in one of the agricultural fields on a nearby farm and then returning to the thicket at daybreak to bed down for the day,” Hill noted. “Everything really looked positive, and I had high hopes that I could take the deer within a few days.”
As many hunters have learned over the years, the only thing predictable about whitetails is that they are unpredictable. After a week of hunting, Hill hadn’t managed to get even a glimpse of the buck.
“It was frustrating because on several of the mornings, trail camera photos showed the buck at the same location shortly before daybreak,” Hill said. “The deer’s sudden change to a nocturnal movement pattern could not have come at a worse time.”
Unfortunately, the bowhunter’s frustration was only just beginning. Following the opening week of the season, the big deer completely disappeared. Days faded into weeks without a sighting or any additional trail camera photos.
“Under those types of situations, it’s only human nature to begin second-guessing what might have happened,” Hill said. “I am very meticulous about scent control and wind conditions, but I decided the deer must have somehow detected me. I moved completely out of the area surrounding the thicket and began sitting along the bordering field edges. The main idea was to spot the buck so I would have a better idea where to concentrate my efforts.
“Amazingly, over a two-week period, every other buck recorded by my trail cameras made an appearance, plus a couple more that were new deer. But the Grapevine 10 remained missing.”
Realizing it was entirely possible the buck had moved onto another farm, Hill spent a few sleepless nights around the middle of October. That’s when the statewide special two-day youth-only firearms season and two-day early muzzleloader season were held on back-to-back weekends.
“Because of the buck’s size, I knew the news would spread quickly if the deer was taken,” Hill noted. “Both weekends were agonizing but thankfully uneventful.”
Despite the fact that there had been no sign of the buck for nearly two months, Hill believed the deer was still using the area in and around the big thicket. He felt that, in all likelihood, the buck had maintained its nocturnal movement pattern. The sudden avoidance of trail camera locations was hard to explain but might have involved scent problems.
“Around the end of October, I began noticing a marked increase in buck movements,” Hill said. “Since early September, I had purposely stayed away from the big thicket, but with rut activity on the rise, I knew this would be the time to find out whether or not the buck was still in the area.
“During one of my rainy day outings in June, I placed a hang-on stand along a hillside bench, a short distance from where the buck had gotten hung in the grapevine. At the time, I honestly didn’t think I would use the stand, but I wanted to have another option in the event that I had not taken the deer prior to the rut. The only stipulation was that the site required a northerly wind.”
On October 28, after a fast moving weather system produced the steady north-northeasterly winds he was waiting for, Hill arrived at the farm early in the afternoon. Using a small rocky creek bed as a pathway up the densely wooded hillside, he made his way to the stand location on the bench.
“I was in position by about 3 p.m.,” Hill noted. “The undergrowth was much thicker than I remembered. I only had two shooting lanes out to approximately 18 yards. Everything else was out of the question.”
Shortly after Hill got settled, three does came up the hillside and passed directly under the stand. Thirty minutes later, the hunter spotted another doe as it emerged from the tangle of vines and honeysuckle about 30 yards down the hillside. Within seconds, directly behind the doe, there was additional movement as part of a large rack became visible in the brush.
“Initially, I could only see two or three tines and wasn’t really sure it was Grapevine 10,” Hill said. “But once I was able to determine the rack’s spread, there was no doubt in my mind. At 24 yards, the doe paused and the buck briefly mounted her. Afterward, she walked to within 7 yards of the stand and stopped, completely in the open. At that time, the buck was only 10 yards away, but there was no way I could get an arrow through the maze of limbs and vines.”
At full draw, the hunter waited for the buck to step into the open behind the doe. But neither deer exhibited any sign of moving, and Hill eventually had to ease the bow down.
“I continued to focus my attention on the doe because I knew she was the key to triggering the buck’s next move,” Hill said. “After what seemed like an eternity, the doe slowly turned and began to walk. I immediately drew the bow as the buck stepped forward to follow her. After waiting for just a moment until the deer entered the small opening where the doe had been standing, I softly mouth bleated to stop him, aimed and released.
“Because of all the branches and brush, I couldn’t see where the arrow hit, but the buck mule-kicked straight up, took a couple of steps and stopped, still watching the doe. Surprisingly, neither deer spooked, I suppose because of the thick cover. By then, I could see the hole in the buck’s shoulder and, as he continued walking toward the doe, a very visible blood trail.”
Amazingly, Hill had managed to remain relatively calm throughout the entire hunt, but with the successful end of a two-month quest within sight, his nerves began to unravel. Knowing he needed to wait a while before checking on the buck, he decided to call his wife, Nicole, but at that point, even operating a cell phone proved to be difficult.
After enduring another 30 minutes in the stand, Hill climbed down, picked up his arrow, and slowly began following the blood trail. Not surprisingly, it was a short walk of barely 60 yards to where the big whitetail was lying. Kneeling down and grasping the huge rack was an incredible moment the bowhunter will always remember.
In terms of both appearance and statistics, Hill’s great buck has a tremendous combination of width, tine length and antler mass. For example, main beams of over 27 inches form an antler spread of 23 4/8 inches outside and 21 1/8 inches inside. Four tines measure between 11 2/8 and 10 inches, and the eight circumference measurements average over 4 4/8 inches.
In regard to scoring, the symmetrical 10-point frame grosses 182 3/8, before netting a final outstanding typical Pope & Young score of 177 3/8. The buck stands as Kentucky’s top typical bow kill of 2012 and moves into fifth place on the state’s all-time list of Pope & Young typical whitetails.