If success is a product of hard work meeting opportunity, the story of Tennessee's new No. 1 archery typical is a great example.
Day-to-day responsibilities often get in the way of our hunting goals, and things were no different for Middle Tennessee resident Andy Bledsoe. As he puts it, "Life happens." But the distractions didn't stop this hunter. For Andy, everything finally worked out for the best. And then, it got even better!
The Right Land
Andy is an experienced hunter, having killed his first buck with a gun when he was just a boy. Growing up on a family farm at the end of a dirt road, he considers hunting a way of life. Since then he's shot many whitetails, growing more selective along the way. He's now tagged some 25 bucks, including a number of mature ones on video.
However, as the 2015 season approached, Andy was having trouble finding a good place to hunt. He'd begun looking for a new hunting spot in much the same way we all do: by asking around. He'd even asked his local UPS driver, who didn't have much to suggest.
Andy was persistent, though. And finally, six months after their first talk, the UPS guy had a lead. He suggested Andy talk to the owner of a small property in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. So Andy gave the guy a call. Not surprisingly, at first the landowner wasn't interested in letting him hunt.
"I backed off because I didn't want to pressure him," explains Andy. "I didn't want him to think I was overbearing. But he forgot to call me back. So I went and talked to him again."
The landowner explained to Andy that he frequently let people from his church hunt. He told Andy that if he were allowed to hunt on the property, it would have to be with a bow. Andy was more than happy to agree to that condition, as this area of Tennessee is known for producing trophy bucks.
"It is not uncommon when you talk about Williamson County to hear about big deer," Andy notes. "For us, a really big deer is 140 to 150 inches. Not many people kill deer of that size. Mature deer might score anywhere from 120 to 140 inches in the southern part of the state, but bigger ones are more common in Williamson County."
Scouting It Out
Other than what he'd seen from aerial photos, Andy didn't know what to expect when he began scouting the new property.
"Other than around the landowner's house, the property is almost exclusively timber," the hunter explains. "The ground has high concentrations of limestone, so there's a good bit of cedar. There's also a lot of what we call 'bow d'arc' (Osage orange). These are usually planted in windbreaks, but on this property they're just scattered, making for tight hunting. There are no crops on or around the property.
"I found a ridge running lengthwise with a big hollow," Andy says. "I walked the entire property line to see where deer come in and out. I found the best crossing was near the top of a ridge where, with the right wind, I could enter undetected. Another fence crossing was just out of bow range, so I blocked it with limbs to keep deer from using it."
Getting a portable stand to Andy's preferred height of 20 feet was going to be impossible in the scrub timber. So he made the decision to choose a tree with the correct location, rather than a tree with his desired height.
"I hung a stand for the first time ever in one of those bow d'arc," he remembers. "I was only 10-12 feet off the ground, and I had to cut a lot of junk limbs in order to allow myself room to draw my bow."
This location enabled Andy to walk to his stand with the wind in his face. To further boost his chances of arriving undetected, he also raked a quiet walking trail all the way to the tree.
Finding A Giant
In Tennessee it's not legal to hunt over bait, but you can use it when running trail cameras. Andy set about trying to figure out the deer population on the property. He set up several cameras and bait sites.
"I ran corn the whole month of September," he says. "I only got families of does and a few yearling bucks on camera. Bow season started the last weekend of September, so I promptly quit the corn. I kept running cameras on trails but didn't hunt yet. I checked cameras every week or so, and I could begin to see that things were ramping up.
Younger bucks were starting to exhibit pre-rut behavior. I came back the first week of November to check the camera and discovered photos of what appeared to be a Booner."
There was no record of this buck in Andy's earlier trail camera pictures; he'd just showed up during the first week of November. Now, on ground he'd just recently gained permission to bowhunt, Andy was looking at photos of the biggest deer he'd ever encountered.
"I got photos of him hitting the mock scrape regularly for the first couple days of November, but the pictures were at night," Andy explains. "Then he showed up during the day."
Responsibilities of life kept Andy from hunting the buck right away. For starters, he had to work every other weekend. And as luck would have it, whenever he could hunt, the wind wasn't right for his stand location. Finally, on Friday the 13th, Andy was able to go hunting. But again the wind wasn't right for the stand near the mock scrape.
"I instead decided to hunt a stand that was 50 or 60 yards from the scrape stand," he says. "I saw one doe, which blew a million times when the wind swirled, and a broken-up, small buck at dusk. The next morning we got up to go hunting, and the wind had switched in the night. I could finally hunt the stand I'd been waiting on."
Andy hoped to capture the hunt on video, as he's been taping his hunts for BuckVentures for the last several years, with his dad as his cameraman.
"Early on, my dad saw the importance of spending time with me and going hunting with me," Andy notes. "We've come a long way since we first started. I met Jeff Danker and the BuckVentures crew in Northwest Oklahoma on a hunt 10 or 12 years ago. My cousin Kelly and I both killed that week, so we gave them our footage. After that, my dad stepped in, and he's been my cameraman ever since. We don't get to hunt a lot, but when we do, it's always together."
Ready for anything, the bowhunters pressed on as muzzleloader season opened. Wearing their required orange hats and vests, Andy and his father settled into their stand as the morning temperature fell to the low 30s. A "bluebird" high-pressure system and light winds offered promising hunting conditions.
"We tried some blind calling after seeing some does and a spike," Andy says. "We tried a little bit of rattling, too. There wasn't much gun-hunting pressure in the area, but we did hear a few shots in the distance."
After sitting three hours without much action, the hunters prepared to depart: "Dad handed me the camera and started to climb down. He was just starting his descent when I heard a deer. I couldn't see him clearly, but when a deer is that big, it's easy to tell he's a shooter. I quickly told Dad to get back in the stand, and I handed him the camera.
"I'd already let my bow down, so I was trying to get it back up and get an arrow out of my quiver," Andy recalls. "I was watching the buck at 60 yards as he came down the trail toward the scrape. It was the same trail where I'd gotten pictures of him. The wind was blowing from the scrape toward me, and he was heading directly at us.
"After I handed Dad the camera, I went into kill mode. He was doing his best to get the camera rolling, and I was doing my best to get ready as fast as possible. I could see Dad had the camera up, so I assumed he had the buck in frame.
The deer was getting closer by the second, and things were a blur. When the buck was at 15 yards, I steadied my pin and shot him while he was walking. Just as his left leg eased forward, my arrow hit its mark. I thought the shot was perfect."
Andy and his dad watched the buck run 60 yards before stopping in a thicket. Upon reaching the thicket, the buck wobbled and bedded down; then he got back up.
"His head was wobbling the whole time, but then he got up he walked off," Andy recalls. "I still felt good, because I knew where my arrow hit, and the shot was a complete pass-through."
Although Andy had successfully arrowed the buck he'd been pursuing for months, putting his hands on the giant still would have to wait.
"I couldn't stay in the woods, because I had to take my son to a birthday party, and my wife had to go to work," Andy explains. "Life happened. Even though I'd just shot the biggest deer of my life, I couldn't completely enjoy it yet. I had other responsibilities to attend to.
"So, as we prepared to pack up (again), we started to calm down a bit. I finally asked my dad, 'Did you get it on film?' To which he replied, 'I don't think so.'
"I didn't want to make him feel bad, but I must admit that, even if I'd known prior to shooting that the buck wasn't on camera, I'd have probably shot him anyway," Andy says.
"I knew we needed to slip out and give him some time, but the fact I had to take my son to the birthday party certainly helped my resolve.
Six hours later, we returned to pick up the trail. The arrow looked good; it was soaked in blood. We then went to where the buck had bedded down, but we couldn't find any sign. After covering a few small circles without notice of any blood, I started walking in the direction the deer had gone. I still found no blood.
"Starting to worry, I stopped, bowed my head and said a prayer. Almost immediately, I turned and went the opposite direction toward a brush pile. I climbed over a log to get a better vantage point and still didn't see anything. But when I jumped off the log, I literally jumped in one of the buck's beds. And it was filled with good blood. From that point, I was able to follow his blood trail and found him only 50 yards in front of me.
"That's when his size really hit me," Andy says. "It was like he blew up! Grossing 184 4/8 inches, the buck was even bigger than I'd thought. We filmed the recovery and took lots of pictures. As it turned out, my shot had hit lung and liver, and the arrow came out back and low on the other side. If he'd been standing still, it would've been perfect broadside."
Even after the day's excitement started to wind down, Andy and his dad never took time to look at the footage of the hunt. They just assumed they'd not recorded the arrow's impact.
"Dad couldn't sleep that night," Andy says. "He was tossing and turning. We'd never even looked at the footage, because we thought there was no point. Dad was sure he'd not gotten the camera turned on in time. Finally, we both woke up and decided to look at the footage anyway. So at 2:00 Sunday morning, we finally checked it out.
"Lo and behold, we had actually gotten the kill on camera! It wasn't perfect, and there's not much of it, but Dad got 7 or 8 seconds of pre-roll before the shot. Regardless, it's pretty cool."
Andy had estimated the buck to be 4 1/2 years old, based on live photos. But the taxidermist who mounted the buck looked at his jaw and believes he was 6 1/2.
Since taking the deer, Andy has met three people who have trail camera pictures — and several were snapped miles from the kill site. Astoundingly, Andy also learned that he wasn't the only hunter to have had a chance at the buck.
"Folks were tight-lipped about this deer," Andy notes. "But deer that big are few and far between, and his characteristics are unmistakable. I heard one guy was rifle hunting and had him at 60 yards walking away with no clear shot. Another guy had him at 40 yards while bowhunting and wasn't comfortable with the shot. The buck winded the guy, and he never saw him again."
Their loss was of course Andy's gain. His tremendous trophy is now Tennessee's No. 1 Pope & Young typical, with a gross typical score of 184 4/8 and a net of 177 2/8.
"It all happened so fast," Andy says of the hunt. "And I realize a great number of things could have gone wrong. The end result could have been completely different. I am very blessed to have had Dad share the tree and the unbelievable experience with me.
I'm especially thankful to the landowners and to all of BuckVentures' sponsors for their support and partnership. Most importantly, though, I give all praise and glory to God, our Creator, for the opportunity to harvest my largest whitetail to date."