You need only skim the pages of the Boone & Crockett Club record book to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe.
But the early season can be just as rewarding, provided you’ve located a couple mega bucks beforehand and hunt them while travel patterns are still somewhat predictable. Such was the case for Fred Swihart, and his efforts paid off with a giant 16-point non-typical that grossed 221 inches and netted 215 3/8 inches. The Swihart buck ranks among the top five killed with a bow in Iowa in 2012 and is very likely the largest taken on public land too.
When Swihart first started hunting with his father 18 years ago, shooting a record-book buck may have been on his mind, but it certainly wasn’t a priority. That all changed when he hooked up with a couple of whitetail fanatics at Iowa State University. Sure, the majority of Swihart’s time was devoted to his study of chemical engineering, but any spare time was spent hunting or scouting for next year’s buck. He didn’t have the luxury of driving home every weekend, so he relied on nearby public lands.
At first, Swihart’s goal was to shoot a Pope & Young buck, but it wasn’t long before the goal post was raised to a much higher level. He set his sights on shooting a buck that would make the Boone & Crockett Club record book, a feat that few accomplish in a lifetime.
Over a 10-year span, Swihart had taken six bucks that grossed over the B&C minimum. Unfortunately, they all fell short of making the record book after deductions. Most interesting is the fact that all but one was taken on public hunting ground. Did he give up? Nope. Swihart’s quest continued, and his goal became a reality last October.
“Most of my scouting is done during the post-season, running trail cameras and searching for shed antlers,” Swihart said. “In February, I spend a fair amount of time combing the fields and bedding areas for dropped antlers. This particular piece of public ground I’ve been hunting for several years, and I pretty much know where the bucks winter. In February of 2011, I found a shed antler that measured 81 6/8 inches. Based on that, I was fairly confident the buck would easily push 180 inches or more the following season. Finding sheds of that size certainly warrants hunting the area the following season. That’s exactly what I did.”
Swihart hung a stand in the general area where that shed and several others had been found. On opening day of the 2011 season, he caught a glimpse of a big buck within a few yards from where the 81 6/8-inch shed was found. He was almost certain it was the same deer, only much bigger. Swihart hunted the deer all season, but he wasn’t able to close the distance.
“In February of 2012, I went back to the same area, hoping to find the buck’s sheds,” Swihart said. “I didn’t find either antler from that buck, but I found a 74-inch shed from another deer. That day alone I picked up 14 sheds within (200 yards).”
“On opening day of the 2012 season, I jumped a huge buck again in the vicinity of where the sheds were found,” Swihart recalled. “Based on the visual sightings and sheds over a two-year span, I was confident there were at least two B&C bucks in the area and set sights on shooting one of them. The plan was to concentrate my efforts on two areas.
“The primary area consisted of a large block of timber surrounded by both corn and alfalfa. A deep draw runs north and south through the timber, and the saddle is close to the timber edge. The draw is so deep the deer really can’t get downwind, but instead they follow the edge to a flat in the corner of the timber. A cedar thicket nearby is a bedding area and also where the majority of the sheds were discovered. I was fairly confident it was the core area of the two bucks I had sheds from. To hunt the corner, I would need some sort of north wind, preferably northeast.
“The secondary area was a half mile to the south and much flatter ground. It was the same spot where I had seen a really big buck the year before on opening day, and within 100 yards of where another guy had picked up an 85-inch shed last spring. The plan was to hunt this spot when the winds prevailed from a southerly direction.
“Based on the wind direction, I would alternate between the two places to avoid burning either one out. Although some leave their stands up all season, I prefer to carry my Lone Wolf and sticks in each day. It’s quiet and only takes about 10 minutes to setup.”
“October 5 is actually the first time I hunted (in 2012),” Swihart continued. “The wind wasn’t ideal that afternoon for the primary area, so I opted to hunt the secondary spot where the big buck was seen the year before. In the back of my mind, I was hoping for a repeat appearance, but I didn’t see a single buck that evening.
“The next morning, the wind blew steady from the southwest, so I chose to hunt the same area again. I arrived early and was set up before sunrise. Over the course of the next four hours, a dozen does passed through but nothing with antlers.
“Shortly after lunch, the wind began to shift from Southwest to Northeast. It would be near perfect conditions for my primary area. With that in mind, around 2:30 p.m., I headed toward the corner of the timber where the alfalfa field butted up. I figured it would be the ideal spot to intercept a buck skirting the deep draw and going to the alfalfa.”
“There weren’t any straight trees in the corner, so I settled on a gnarly old choke cherry that was twisted like a snake. I couldn’t get more than 12 feet off the ground but figured it would do.”
Moment of Truth
“An hour before dark, the wind died down but started swirling,” Swihart said. “About that same time a couple deer filtered out of the timber and fed across the alfalfa field. A short time later, two small bucks meandered out and headed toward the cornfield.
“A half-hour before sunset, a doe, fawn and 4-pointer walked right out in front of the stand. It was the exact spot where I expected them to come out. That’s when I felt a slight breeze hitting the back of my neck. It wasn’t long after that that the doe and yearling started getting really nervous and stomping around. The small buck jerked his head up and stared directly at me. I hadn’t made a move but was almost certain he had picked me off. Seconds later, he ran back into the timber. The does continued walking around stiff-legged. They knew something wasn’t quite right.
“The old doe was just standing there looking around. Suddenly, she snapped her head back and stared toward the cornfield. I glanced in that direction and spotted a buck walking out of the corn. I was so stunned that it took a second to register. The buck was a giant with massive antlers. The does freaked out and ran back into the timber. At that point I really thought it was all over. The buck was probably 50 yards away, just standing there looking in my direction.
“I was caught off guard. The bow was still hanging on the hook on my opposite side. The buck’s body began to tense, and he was acting really nervous. With him staring my way, it would be impossible to get my bow without being seen. For whatever reason, he turned and looked the opposite way. That’s when I snatched the bow from the hook and got into position for a shot. The buck turned and started walking at an angle across the field. It was obvious he wasn’t coming any closer, so I drew and mouthed a grunt to stop him. At that instant, I settled the 40-yard pin and squeezed the release.
“Although I had no idea where the arrow hit, the buck took off running like a bat out of hell across the field and went crashing into the timber. I could hear him busting brush for 100 yards or more, then it got quiet.
“I was pretty excited, but I knew enough to wait a few minutes before climbing down to look for blood. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find a single drop where the buck was standing. Knowing the approximate angle that he ran across the field, I crisscrossed back and forth but didn’t find anything.
“It was getting dark when I decided to search the spot where the buck entered the timber. It was there I found one little spec of blood on a leaf, but nothing else after that. Considering the facts, I decided to mark last blood with an arrow and return in the morning.”
Tough Blood Trail
“My friend, Justin, came along the next morning to help track the deer,” continued Swihart. “We arrived just after daylight and went to the spot where I marked last blood and found a couple sprays right away. It wasn’t heavy by any means. There weren’t any bubbles in the blood, so it didn’t appear either lung was hit. And that had me a bit concerned.
“We followed blood for another 300 yards to a creek and lost the trail. Thinking the buck had crossed the creek, we looked for over an hour before realizing he had doubled back and headed up the ridge. We followed him to a cedar thicket and found four or five places where he had bedded down. By then he wasn’t bleeding much, just a drop or two every 20 or 30 yards.
The trail led to another creek. Justin was standing in the creek looking around, while I stood on the bank trying to figure out which way the buck might have gone. That’s when I spotted my arrow shaft standing up in a brushpile 15 yards away. I was just about to say something, when the shaft started moving and saw the buck lift his head from the brush. Instinctively, I dropped to the ground and started flagging my hands at Justin to get down. Thinking back, it was kind of funny watching Justin flop down in the creek.
“I could see the antlers moving in the brush and was anticipating the buck was about to take off. I rolled over on my back, nocked an arrow and drew the bow. In one fluid motion, I rocked to my knees and stood up. At the same instant, the buck stood up and looked my way. I could see one small patch of brown hair through the brush and figured it was the vitals. I settled the pin on that spot and hit the release. On impact the buck took off running and disappeared from sight.
“Going to the spot where the deer was standing, it took about 20 minutes to find the arrow buried beneath the leafs. Even though it was a complete pass through, we sat for over an hour before taking up the trail. There weren’t any problems following the second trail. The two-blade Rage had done the job.”
“Having just cleared the timber edge, I spotted him lying on the edge of the cornfield. I ran up to the buck and just stood there, more or less speechless. Justin started jumping up and down, screaming, ‘You got him! You got him!’
“Lifting the rack up for the first time, I couldn’t believe how heavy and massive the antlers were. He was so much bigger than I had originally thought. Prior to that, I thought he was a big 10-pointer. There was no doubt he would definitely go over 200 inches. He was the buck of a lifetime.
“The spot where the buck dropped was a long way from the truck, and I couldn’t drive any closer. That’s one of the pitfalls of hunting public land. Knowing it would take a long time to drag the buck out ourselves, I called my buddy, Michael Owens, and asked him to bring a deer cart. Even with the cart, it took nearly three hours to get the buck back to the truck.”
Swihart’s success on public lands in the past 10 years is proof that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to shoot the trophy of a lifetime. No doubt you won’t find a Boone & Crockett whitetail behind every Iowa bush, but time spent scouting now could payoff big for you as well!