December 22, 2015
Big bucks can show up almost anywhere. But when you look closely at the areas that regularly produce them, common threads emerge. Everything from available habitat and nutrition to herd population and balance is a contributing variable. It's not luck that these animals appear where they do, or at least not just luck; the right circumstances and hard work combine to improve the odds that a trophy will live in a given area.
Our family farm in northern Kentucky is a perfect example. Passed from generation to generation, the farm was a place where, as a kid, I spent time fishing in streams and walking the woods with my grandmother. She taught me the names of plants, birds and other wildlife.
But it wasn't a sanctuary by any stretch. Decades of commercial cattle grazing had taken a toll on the land. The stream banks were eroded; the pastures held only fescue. And the woodlots had just enough deer, rabbits and quail to keep me walking every weekend to barely reward my hopes of seeing something. As stark as it was, though, it did create memories — not to mention my passionate drive to restore and enhance the land to a more productive state.
When I was 10, my father took me deer hunting on the farm. It was my first chance to hunt on my own after several seasons of sitting with him. I remember it vividly. The rusting tin banging on the barn in the cold November wind. The smell of skunk cover spray on us (the latest in scent technology). The single-shot 20 gauge loaded with a slug that ultimately never was fired.
It was hard hunting. In fact, several fruitless years passed before I finally killed my first deer on the farm. He was a button buck, and I took him with a Marlin .30-30 I'd received for Christmas. I shot that little deer from an old wooden stand by a pond. I was thrilled with the experience, and that deer was a true trophy to me. But little could I have imagined that 30 years later, and just 30 yards from that exact spot, I'd stand over a whitetail so large he'd leave me speechless.
Restoring the Land
With my interest sparked by those childhood encounters, I began to turn my thoughts toward improving the farm. I spent every weekend and all of my summers throughout high school and college working on projects on the property.
When my grandmother wanted to sell the farm, I begged my mother to buy it — with my promise to make it a working, profitable farm again. Secretly, I also had dreams of making it a wildlife paradise: something that seemed impossible, given the condition of the property at the time.
When the farm's management passed to a new generation, I set to work in earnest. After reading every article I could on food plots and other management practices, meeting with local National Resources Conservation Service personnel and biologists from Kentucky Fish & Wildlife, I began to draw up plans. My goal remained clear: to repair the land and combine a profitable farm with productive wildlife management.
We enrolled much of the damaged land in CRP and WHIP programs, planting thousands of seedling trees and acres of native warm-season grasses. We intensively grazed the cattle in designated areas and grew alfalfa for winter feed. We planted row crops and added food plots in selected pockets. Woodlots were managed better to the benefit of all species, and generations of cattle damage was slowly repaired. Mineral licks and early film-type trail cameras were used to monitor deer. We worked with neighbors and agreed to harvest more does while passing up younger bucks with potential.
Slowly but surely, improvement was made. I finally started harvesting healthy deer. Bucks' racks were gaining in size and mass, and they'd even started sporting "character" points.
Hunting a World-Class Whitetail
Kentucky's liberal seasons, combined with the rigors of winter, diseases and other factors, mean a manager never really knows which deer will make it from one season to the next. But when we found a shed off the non-typical early in 2015, we knew he'd survived and was still in the area.
With trail cameras posted on mineral licks in June, we can begin to see exactly what can be expected come fall. I almost collapsed the day a friend sent me a picture from one of the cameras. It was the non-typical, but now he was unlike any other deer I'd ever seen. While in early velvet, he already had points forming everywhere, plus a huge drop tine.
The intensity of our program immediately reached new heights. We poured over all of the data on the deer as a 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old, then created a Google map of where we had found sheds, had obtained trail camera pictures and had seen the deer. We outlined an estimated home range and his known favorite bedding areas. From mid-June to mid-August, trail cameras revealed a pattern and strengthened our understanding of the animal.
We noticed he often appeared in an alfalfa field almost magically. A horseshoe-shaped piece of bedding cover encompassed the field and provided an ideal place for a wise buck to take up residence. The most consistent place we picked him up was in the middle of the field — but how he got there, we didn't know. We moved cameras around in an attempt to figure it out, and in doing so found he seemingly appeared in the middle by using a small ridge in the field to conceal himself.
As an early-season tactic, we opted not to enter the woods but to allow him to reach his preferred spot in the center of the alfalfa. With the haying of the field, we decided to buy a Redneck hay bale blind and blend it into real bales on the farm. We even stacked bales around the blind and set up a line of others into the field to conceal our entry and exit.
When opening day arrived, I piled into the bale blind with Glenn, who hoped to videotape the action. For a week we never saw the non-typical while enduring hot temperatures, a thunderstorm and variable winds that allowed what deer were present to on several occasions wind us. Camera checks revealed that the big buck still was coming in after dark. We could only hope he wasn't onto us.
Finally, on Sept. 12, after more than a week, a high-pressure system pushed a consistent wind from the proper direction. We felt it was our best chance and made our way to the blind early in the afternoon. Glenn and I joked about the big non-typical coming into the field while it was still light.
Then, a few minutes later, the joke proved not to be one at all.
"I see a buck," Glenn said, looking out of a flap on the blind. "It's him!"
Glenn began shaking with excitement. Instead of trying to see the deer, I just focused on the blind's main shooting hole, bow at the ready. I was taking deep breaths like a pregnant woman trying to remain calm during labor.
The wise buck zigzagged his way to his favorite knoll of alfalfa, scent-checking the entire way. At one point I peeked through Glenn's viewing hole and saw enough of the monster to make me even more nervous than I already was. I looked away and resumed my breathing exercises.
Finally, after the giant had spent 20 minutes grazing cautiously through the field, Glenn whispered he was coming our way. As the giant came into view through the main shooting hole, the other deer moved away. A few more steps and he'd surely wind us.
The non-typical was at 30 yards and spooky. When he finally lowered his head to feed, I drew. I knew it was now or never; whether due to instinct or scent, he wasn't going to stick around much longer. Aiming a bit forward, I let the arrow fly.
When it hit, the big buck bolted over the field's rise in a flash. Almost instantly, doubt set in. Did I hit the shoulder? Maybe the leg?
We looked at the video, but due to the small screen were still unsure. After waiting for a bit, we quietly backed out of the field and went to the farmhouse to review the footage on the TV screen. We all agreed that the arrow had gone halfway in and that it was a mortal hit, but that we should take our time in trailing.
After several hours, we began to search. There was little blood, but we trailed the specks of crimson to the top of the rise the buck had disappeared over. And then, as I shined the light ahead, the white belly of a bedded deer appeared in the tall alfalfa. A flood of emotions hit me as I realized what I was seeing wasn't a bedded deer — it was my buck! Excitement crackled among us as we walked up to the most magnificent deer any of us had ever seen.
After a celebration in the field, we loaded the trophy onto the truck. And then I shined my light toward the now-fallen oak and tattered wood stand from which I'd killed my first buck over 30 years earlier. I couldn't help but think of my life and how deer had become such a huge part of it. That button buck and this giant were changing points in my life, and I had to feel my grandparents were looking down on me at that moment. Whether killing a young buck as a kid or a 250 — plus-inch deer after years of hunting, the love of whitetails and whitetail hunting can only be understood by those who do it.
Tale of the Tape
At this writing, the mandatory 60-day drying period for officially scoring the antlers hasn't elapsed. The measurements we took shortly after the hunt of course will change, but they suggest the deer is as big on paper as he is on camera.
We counted 22 scorable points on the right side and 11 on the left, with 25 of the 33 total being non-typical. Abnormal growth totaled 123 6/8 inches, which is phenomenal even on a huge non-typical. And for the right antler we got a gross total (including the main beam, four typical points and four mass measurements) of 156 5/8 inches. It appears to be one of the largest whitetail antlers ever.
Adding it all up, we got 267 0/8 inches. Subtracting 16 0/8 inches for asymmetry on the 4x4 typical frame put the deer at an unofficial net "green" score at 251 0/8. Whatever the official score turns out to be, he's among the biggest wild whitetails ever taken on video.