It was October 7, 2012, and a cold front had pushed through the eastern Arkansas Delta, dropping the temperature into the mid-50s. The low country heat had hovered in the 70s and 80s for the previous weeks, and this was the break that Mike Miller, of Marion, Ark., was waiting for. Just 10 days prior, a familiar old buck had shown up on his trail camera, but, this year, the beast had sprung into an entirely new category of whitetail. The buck was a giant.
Perhaps this was the break that would mark a new era in Mike’s hunting career and his life. In a symbolic sense, it was a much-needed break for Mike after a decade of fighting for his life. He didn’t know it, but he was about to lay down Arkansas’ largest buck of the 2012-13 hunting season.
Two years earlier, in 2010, Mike had seen a narrow-racked buck with numerous stickers while hunting one of his favorite stands, located within 40 yards of the St. Francis River in Cross County. The buck passed through a shooting lane just minutes after Mike had shot a high 140-class class 9-pointer with his slug gun.
The unique buck got a free pass that day, but the image of the young deer stuck in Mike’s memory. He didn’t get any trail camera pictures of the deer that season, but in 2011 he recognized the buck as it tripped the trigger of his Bushnell camera more than once. However, the buck, which was an impressive 180-class whitetail at the time, was like a ghost, only appearing at night and randomly at that.
It was also during this time that Mike continued to live with the after effects of a body ravaged by leukemia. Diagnosed in 2002 at the age of 30, Mike fought for his life as the cancer relapsed three times after intense rounds of chemotherapy. During the struggle, the cancer spread through Mike’s bone marrow and into his spine, and his family began to fear for the worst.
In 2004, the doctors suggested a stem cell transplant in an attempt to save Mike’s life. This is a long and grueling process that is complicated by the difficulty in finding a perfect donor. However, God had figuratively given Mike an ace-in-the-hole—an identical twin brother! Mark was more than willing and was the perfect match for the life-saving treatment.
Growing up in Eastern Arkansas, Mike had always loved to hunt, even before he got sick. The doctors told him that he would likely be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life after the stem cell transplant. However, by God’s grace, Mike is able to walk on his own today and has been cancer-free since 2004.
However, the side effects of the battle have weakened him significantly, particularly in his physical stamina and eyesight, but this hasn’t kept him out the woods. Though his brother Mark is very much involved in his hunting, Mike scouts and hunts on his own. He has just been forced to find a new pace.
In 2012, the Arkansas bow opener fell on September 15, and Mike didn’t have a target buck picked out for the season. It wasn’t until late September that the narrow-racked-sticker buck would appear for the third year in a row. However, his 2012 appearance was notably more dramatic than the last two. Gnarly antlers filled the frames of the trail camera pictures, and Mike knew the buck had exploded.
He was hunting a large piece of private farm property located inside the levy of the St. Francis River. The property was owned by a close friend, and Mike had hunted it for the last 20 years. Much of the cleared ground inside the levy is now in CRP, planted in water oaks and overcup oaks—the perfect habitat to incubate the maturation process of a low-country monarch.
Mark knew that Mike was having a difficult time shooting his Mathews bow from elevated positions, and he suggested that he shoot a crossbow in 2012. Then, as if by providence, Mike won a drawing for a $1,000 Bass Pro Shops gift card at a bass tournament in May 2012! Mike used the money to buy a TenPoint Turbo XLT crossbow. Unbeknownst to him, the second time he would carry it to the tree, he would drop the string on a giant.
Mike had built a box stand along the timbered banks of the St. Francis River overlooking a 15-acre CRP field where he had seen the big buck the year before. They had strategically cleared three shooting lanes, each approximately 10 yards wide, through the CRP and planted them in Mossy Oak Biologic’s Full Draw blend. Mike could see 200 yards in three different directions from the stand.
In late September, Mike dumped several hundred pounds of culled sweet potatoes, a crop grown in eastern Arkansas, within bow range of the box stand. Hunting over bait is legal in Arkansas and is a common practice that is misunderstood by many. Killing a mature buck over supplemental feed is a significant challenge, period—just like any other style of fair chase hunting.
Unknown to many, deer absolutely love sweet potatoes! The first pictures of the buck appeared in late September 2012, just days after the potatoes hit the dirt.
Mike had hunted the sweet potato stand the day before, on October 6, and had only seen one deer. He planned to hunt another stand on the following day, not wanting to pressure the “Sweet Potato Buck.” Mike is not a novice hunter, and he understood that pressuring the deer would be a major mistake. However, because of the recent rains and Mike’s inability to walk long distances, he chose to hunt the stand that evening because of the ease of access. A high-pressure system had moved in and the evening just felt right.
Mike didn’t know it, but as he drove onto the property and unloaded his ATV that afternoon, the buck was making his first-ever daytime appearance in front of his camera. At 4:07 p.m. on October 7, the camera snapped a picture of the giant, trash-horned buck munching on sweet potatoes within 20 yards of the stand while Mike was less than a mile away getting his gear ready!
The deer on the property are familiar with human activity because of all the farming activity in the area. Mike uses this to his advantage and out of necessity, when he drives his ATV to the stand and parks within 40 yards. Behind the stand was a significant drop-off leading to the river. Mike parks out of sight and downwind of the stand.
Mike likely bumped the big deer back into the CRP when he drove in, but the familiar sound of the gas engine didn’t spook him very far. Mike climbed into his box stand at 4:20 p.m.
“It was about 5:30 p.m. when I heard two bucks sparring in the CRP,” Mike recalled. “Within a few minutes, a lone buck popped out into the shooting lane 100 yards away and made his way down the lane in front of the stand. Following the young buck was a second deer, and they made their way into the potatoes.”
By now, it was 5:45 p.m. and Mike noticed more movement about 200 yards away, straight in front of the stand. “My eyes aren’t that good, but I thought I saw a deer stick his head out of the CRP and look directly down the shooting lane toward the stand,” Mike said. “I was beginning to doubt myself after several minutes of the deer not moving, but then I saw his ear twitch. The deer then stepped out into the shooting lane followed by two more bucks and cautiously started to walk towards me. When he got to about 150 yards, I could tell that it was the big buck.”
The Sweet Potato Buck took his time covering the 150 yards down the open shooting lane.
“The buck was so cautious that I dipped my head and would occasionally look under the bill of my hat as he came in,” Mike said. “My crossbow was in my lap and I was afraid to move it.”
Finally, after a grueling 15 minutes, the buck made his way into shooting range, cautiously approaching the sweet potatoes while munching on the Biologic. However, Mike’s bow was still in his lap! The big buck had the two other smaller bucks with him and three pairs of cautious eyes had him afraid to move.
“I was sitting there with the buck in range but afraid to move,” Mike explained. “About that time, I heard gravel popping. A truck was driving down the levy several hundred yards in front of the stand. Every one of the deer stopped and turned to look back towards the noise, and when they did, they all turned broadside at 25 yards. I pulled up the crossbow and shot!”
The two-blade Rage broadhead hit slightly high but behind the shoulder. The shot looked good to Mike. He listened as the buck busted out into the CRP but never heard him fall. Immediately, Mike texted his brother Mark, who was hunting on the farm some distance away. Mark warned Mike to stay in the tree until he and Lance, a friend and the landowner, got there.
After they arrived and Mike climbed down, they immediately found the crossbow bolt stuck in the ground. “The arrow wasn’t coated in blood like you would like,” he said. “We started looking around and we couldn’t find any blood. Finally my brother found a speck going into the CRP.
It took him 30-40 minutes to trail 40 yards; the buck wasn’t bleeding at all. Finally, we got up to a spot 100 yards into the CRP and found where the buck had stopped and there was a pool of blood. From there, he ran another 50 yards and piled up. The shot was a little high and he had to fill up with blood.”
When the brothers and Lance reached the giant buck, they couldn’t believe their eyes. First of all, the buck had superb mass and the rack was covered in points! The brow tines were extremely tall and the buck had two droptines! However, the most notable trait was the buck’s main beams crossed each other in front. The buck was obviously mature, with a live weight of 219-pounds, 21 scorable points and a net non-typical score of 215 6/8 inches.
The flood of emotions that overtook the men as they admired the buck was overwhelming, especially, considering all the factors that played into the overarching picture of the hunt. The first and most significant factor was that Mike was still alive and healthy enough to hunt after his struggle with leukemia.
Secondly, it was extraordinary that a buck of this caliber even existed in the area Mike was hunting. The region is known for big deer, but this was by far the biggest they had ever hunted. Third, the buck, previously only seen at night, made his first daytime appearance in 2012 that very day! Finally, Mike was able to share the recovery with his twin brother, who had played a significant role in saving his life.
During Mike’s treatment, he spent 356 days in the hospital and had more than 50 spinal tap chemotherapy treatments. “I was just a normal 30-year-old,” Mike recalled. “Played golf, softball and hunted. Never went to the doctor and never got sick! I didn’t even really understand what leukemia was until I was diagnosed with it. My world changed over night.”
Despite the doctors’ predictions, Mike has overcome tremendous odds and gives all the credit for his life, his current stable health and the Sweet Potato Buck to God. Mike’s body may be weaker than it once was, but his mind and heart are strong and his attitude toward life is extremely positive. He is passionate about his family, his hunting and his faith. A 200-inch-plus whitetail has never fallen to a more deserving hunter.