The 2009 Kansas whitetail season was barely fading from the rearview mirror, but my focus had already been placed squarely on the 2010 season -- just not in the way I had expected.
My outlook for the 2010 season first began to change with a visit to my taxidermist. I was dropping off a pair of deer heads for two clients at my Kansas-based whitetail guide service, Wheeler's Whitetails, when my taxidermist pointed out that if I could successfully harvest a Pope & Young buck in 2010, it would be my 25th consecutive year of doing so.
The comment was innocent enough, but from that moment on, things began to unravel.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 2, I tripped and fell, sustaining severe injuries to my right shoulder and moderate injuries to my left shoulder. In March, I had surgery on my right shoulder to repair a really bad rotator cuff tear, a detached bicep and two torn tendons. That translated into eight weeks in a pillow sling without moving my right arm, followed by four months of physical therapy.
By the time my right shoulder was feeling even remotely close to normal, it was August. Before long, I would have clients arriving, and there was simply too much work to be done on my property for a second round of surgery on my left shoulder to proceed. I told the doctors they'd have to wait until the off-season. Besides, I hadn't let go of the idea of claiming 25 consecutive years of Pope & Young success. Somehow, I had to figure out a way to hunt, busted shoulders or not'¦
Whitetail deer first began to alter the course of my life in 1982, when my father first took me deer hunting.
My Dad loved to hunt squirrels and rabbits, but he wasn't much of a deer hunter, to be honest. He just got too nervous when deer were in front of him, and he would panic. But that didn't keep him from introducing me to the sport.
That fall, my Dad and I hunted on my Uncle Jackie's property in northern Missouri. My uncle killed a nice buck on opening weekend, but a week into the season, my Dad and I had seen only does. On the last day of our hunt, my Dad and I were walking back to the truck around 11:30 a.m., when a nice buck busted out of the timber and took off up the hillside a good distance in front of us.
The shot was much too far for my slug gun, but Dad was carrying a .308 bolt-action rifle.
"Shoot him, Dad!" I yelled, as Dad shouldered the rifle and ejected a casing. He fired four rounds, and on the fourth shot, the buck went down. We ran up the hill about 350 yards, celebrating the whole way. It was a moment I will remember for as long as I live. To me, Dad was larger than life, and all I wanted was to kill a good buck of my own.
During the following summer, I bought my first bow. I couldn't bear the thought of waiting until the rifle opener in the second week of November to have a chance at my first buck.
As the early season progressed, I had patterned a decent buck, but I just couldn't get a good shot in bow range. With rifle season approaching my hopes were high, and I couldn't wait for my Dad to see my first trophy.
But as fate would have it, we never had the opportunity to share that experience. Two weeks before rifle season, my Dad was in a bad accident and passed away.
That year, I didn't hunt where my Dad and I had planned. I did travel to south Missouri with some friends, and harvested a nice 8-pointer on the second day of the season. I prayed to God that my Dad was in heaven watching the hunt.
LEARNING THE GAME
From that day on, I lived for hunting whitetails. But as quickly as my passion for deer hunting grew, my knowledge of pursuing them expanded with time.
At first, I thought all I had to do was put on some camouflage, hang a climbing stand on a tree and wait for the deer to show up. Needless to say, my first serious year of deer hunting was a slow, long season. Every once in a while, a doe or a fawn would stumble out of the brush in front of me, but I sure wasn't having much luck with mature bucks. Clearly, I needed to change a few things in my hunting strategy.
Over the next several years, I began experimenting with different stand setups, scent elimination and food plot strategies. By 1986, I was trying my hand at farming. I bought five pounds of clover seed and broadcast it at the end of a hayfield on the farmer's property I had permission to hunt. By September, the farmer had cut his hay three times, and the clover kept coming back even thicker.
The season started well. I was seeing a good number of does and fawns and a few small bucks, but the deer kept winding me. That's when it struck me that if the deer didn't like the way I smelled, then maybe I could smell like something else. I started pulling the purple berries of the cedar trees, mashing them and mixing with boiling water. Then, I sprayed the leftover mixture on my clothes and boots. Believe it or not, it worked!
That season, I harvested a 140-class 10-pointer -- my first Pope & Young buck!
During the late 80s, I began hearing about a product called Imperial Whitetail Clover. I called the Whitetail Institute of North America and a representative there explained to me how their clover had more protein in it than other varieties and that deer simply loved the taste of Imperial more than other clovers.
I thought I was being worked over by a slick salesman, but I agreed to buy a 10-pound bag and try it out.
I planted two 1/4-acre plots with a garden tiller and a rake, and I was impressed with how fast the Imperial clover grew. That year, I harvested a 21-pointer with a 13-inch drop tine that grossed 197 inches. I knew I had just discovered something that really attracted whitetails and helped the bucks grow bigger antlers.
Over the next few years, I moved to Kansas and continued to plant Imperial Whitetail Clover in more and larger food plots. In 1993, I gained permission to hunt 900 acres of land called the "Ranch." That summer, I planted a half-acre plot in Imperial clover -- again with my garden tiller and rake -- the rains came right after I seeded. I ended up with the perfect clover plot on a ridge top. The first time I sat in that spot, I called a monster buck and two does within 10 yards of my stand but simply couldn't get a shot with my bow.
For the next two seasons, I hunted that buck harder than any deer I've ever hunted. In August 1994, we hadn't had a drop of rain in six weeks, and I was worried that the buck would move off my land to find food and water if the clover plot burned up.
I visited several dollar stores and purchased 27 50-foot rolls of garden hose. I stretched the hoses from a hydrant all the way to my clover plot. It took two hours for the water to reach the end of the hose from the hydrant. The final two lengths were soaker hoses, and I moved them every 12 hours for three days. It worked.
Meanwhile, I made two other critical changes to my hunting strategy. I began mowing the paths to my stands, allowing me to walk to and from my stands without a flashlight and without making any noise. I also purchased a Scent-Lok suit to further cut down on any scent I was leaving in the woods.
My hard work and investment paid off on Oct. 26, 2004, when I arrowed the monster buck seven yards from the base of my tree. The 18-pointer carried 194 inches of antler.
DREAM COME TRUE
In 1996, I purchased 280 acres of prime hunting ground in Kansas, and my dream came true. I now had total control of the land I would hunt, and I could plant as many food plots as I wanted. I had dreams of producing the next world-record whitetail on my own land.
My step-father, Wayne, gave me a great deal on one of his tractors and let me borrow his disc to put in some food plots. Over the next four years, I continued to improve my acreage with food plots, and I saw a tangible improvement in the number of mature bucks -- and Pope & Young bucks -- on my land. The first year that I owned the property, I recorded seeing about 10 bucks that would make Pope & Young and one Boone & Crockett buck. In 2000, the fifth year I had owned the property, I was seeing between 18 and 20 Pope & Young bucks, along with three or four B&C bucks.
During the winter of 2002, I came to a sponsorship agreement with Superior, Wisconsin-based Field Logic that would allow me to quit my job and become a full-time guide. I was still going to manage my land the same way, just on a bigger scale. Soon after, I started Wheeler's Whitetails, my guiding operation, and leased an additional 3,000 acres of Kansas land.
In our first year of operation, 75 percent of my hunters bagged the biggest buck of the lives, and 100 percent had the opportunity to kill a Pope & Young buck!
Since then, our success rates have remained high, and we've continued to improve our food plots, mineral feeders and stand setups. In 2007, our hunters bagged one buck in the 180s, three 170-class deer, three 160s, two 150s and five 140s. I killed a 183-inch 10-pointer.
THE MISSING PIECE
Despite all of the good fortune I had experienced over the course of my hunting and guiding career, 2010 was not looking good. But I was determined to bag my 25th P&Y buck in as many years one way or another.
With only a few weeks left before the archery opener, I stopped by B&B Archery, the bow shop I've been visiting since 1986. Earl, the owner of the shop, immediately grabbed a bow with a 40-pound draw to see what I was capable of. I was able to draw the right-handed bow, but when I hit the trigger on the release, the pain was so intense I almost broke down in tears.
Earl suggested I try to draw a left-handed bow. Slowly, awkwardly, I pulled the bow back and shot an arrow with relatively little pain. Suddenly, everything I had taken for granted for more than 20 years I would have to re-learn left-handed!
For the next few weeks, I practiced as much as possible, though I was able to shoot only five arrows at a time. As the season neared, a client who works for Bear Archery was planning to hunt with me, and he offered to outfit me with a left-handed Bear Carnage with a 50-pound draw.
Meanwhile, my network of trail cameras was producing a number of photos of two mature bucks on my personal acreage. Long ago, I set a rule for myself that I do not hunt the land my clients can hunt, and I keep my original 260 acres for personal hunting when I have time.
I continued to shoot the bow that Earl had set up for me, and by late October, I started hunting. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to hunt out of a tree stand, I had already set up three different Double Bull ground blinds in three different food plots. On my second evening hunt, a 190-inch buck wandered to within 18 yards. I drew my bow, settled the pin behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger on my release.
I couldn't believe my eyes! I missed the buck by at least six feet. The buck was barely even scared, and I watched as he walked off about 35 yards, then turned and looked at the ground blind. It was then that I realized I had settled the pin using my right eye instead of my left. In the heat of the moment, instinct took over, and despite shooting left-handed, I automatically closed my left eye.
In the days that followed, I finally got set up with my new Bear Carnage, and I started to feel more comfortable shooting left-handed. Unfortunately, rifle season was rapidly approaching'¦
The thing I hate the most is when I haven't bagged my buck by the beginning of archery season. Now, I had to worry about the two bucks I was after leaving my property and being shot by rifle hunters.
Sure enough, the neighbor's son was waiting for me as I left church on the first Sunday of gun season.
"Mr Wheeler, I shot a buck this morning, and it jumped over onto your land," the boy said. "Can we go look for it?"
I told the boy to have his father call me, and we'd come up with a plan for tracking his buck. After talking to the father, I knew that the boy had shot the buck I missed earlier in the season. I was sick to my stomach.
Shortly after, I took my tracking dog, Lacy, into the woods and set after the missing buck. The boy and his father told me the shot was low and hit the buck in the leg. Lacy tracked the buck for a half-mile and lost the trail. Now all I could hope was that the buck somehow survived another year.
Two weeks later, on December 16, I spotted the buck coming through the timber headed for a food plot. He was still unable to use his right back leg, but all in all, he seemed to be in decent shape.
Every time I had seen the buck at this food plot, he had come around the left side of the ground blind, but this time he headed right. I scrambled to move my video camera and open another window in the blind before he got within range. With the buck at 9 yards, I drew my bow, settled the pin and released. I couldn't tell where the arrow hit, so I just listened carefully for a sign that the buck had crashed.
I waited for an hour before slipping out of the blind and heading home. I decided to come back about an hour before the following dawn in case there were coyotes fighting over the carcass or crows giving away his location. Flashlight in hand, I walked the trail through a high patch of CRP grass and neared the ground blind.
Suddenly, two growling, barking Saint Bernards darted out of the grass and took off after me. Somehow I managed to scare the dogs off, and I set off into the grass where they had appeared. Sure enough, 25 yards into the grass lay the body of my buck. A third of the body had been consumed by the dogs, but his perfect 16-point, 193-inch rack was untouched.
I sat down next to the buck, said a prayer and reflected for about 30 minutes on the season. It had been the most challenging year I'd ever had, but I had persevered. I had harvested a Pope & Young buck every season for 25 consecutive years!
After the season drew to a close, I went ahead and scheduled my left shoulder surgery for January 24. Hopefully that's early enough that it won't impact my 26th season!