Caleb Gillespie's Kansas Buck: 208-Inch Giant

Caleb Gillespie's Kansas Buck: 208-Inch Giant

kansas buckDuring my early years of deer hunting here in Kansas with my dad, Dan, and my older brother, Clint, we all hunted the same 40 acres. And more years than not, we got deer. Eventually Clint began looking for another place, because the tract we hunted was getting too crowded for all of us. But my dad and I kept hunting it.

I'd always dreamed of taking a huge buck. And in June 2013, that dream began to materialize in an unexpected way.

Early that month I put out some Bushnell trail cameras. There were cows around, so I wasn't sure just how many deer I'd see — if any. Even so, when I pulled the SD cards on June 29, I was excited to check them. And I discovered that on June 22 a special buck had passed in front of one camera. In fact, he was special enough to change my entire summer plan — and maybe even my life.

I showed my dad and brother the photo, and they were as excited as I was. We decided to keep quiet and see what the buck would turn into. I also decided to put up a small fence to keep cows out of my corn pile.

Over the July 4th weekend I put up a fence and purchased a muzzleloader with mixed feelings of what might come of it. I'd never hunted with a muzzleloader; nor had any of my family members. My brother-in- law Ryan Warden had, but he owns Misty Morning Outfitters Guide Service in this area, and we hadn't told him about the buck.

My mom, looking out for my best interest, asked Ryan if he could teach me to shoot a muzzleloader. A red flag went up for Ryan, and the questions started coming from him. What was I seeing? But I didn't give away my secret. This was the deer of my dreams, a once-in-a-lifetime buck.

By July 13, the possibility of someone else finding out about the buck had become the least of my problems. The huge deer hadn't appeared on camera since I'd put up the fence to keep the cows out. I thought I'd made a major mistake and had moved him out of the area.

When I checked the camera again on July 20, the results were the same: no big deer. Now panic was an understatement; my dream deer might have just slid through my hands like water. I spoke with my dad and brother about removing the fence. Clint told me the damage had been done and the buck was probably still in the area. He'd just have to get used to the fence. So I left things as they were.

On July 27, I checked my camera again. This time the monster was on it, and another big one had showed up as well. This second buck, a mainframe 5x5, was inside the fence and eating corn. However, the non-typical my family and I now called "Heartbreaker" wasn't so eager to enter.

But I had an idea. This time I had with me not only corn but also some C'Mere Deer 3-Day Harvest and Corn Coat. I'd bought these products to try to provide a bit more enticement, just in case the buck was still missing. The good news was that he was back on camera, but while the big 10 fed inside the fence, Heartbreaker just paced back and forth, never coming in. So I placed the C'Mere Deer and Corn Coat inside the fence and hoped for the best.

I'd now become more obsessed with the deer, as I could see what he was developing into. His disappearing for three weeks made my hunger for him even greater. I began to worry that someone else in the area might know of the deer. But if they did, no one was talking about him.

Every Saturday at midday, my dad and I would check our camera. When Aug. 3 came around, we went to see if the new attractant had worked. We arrived with our corn and more C'mere Deer, but as we approached the fence, we found something was out of place: The camera was missing. Someone had stolen it!

My secret was exposed for sure now, and the sinking feeling was enough to make me want to puke. My dad and I went to my brother's house and borrowed two more cameras. One was to replace the stolen camera; the other we hid nearby to observe the one watching the feed.

After a few nights of no sleep and phone calls looking for my lost camera, I decided it wasn't coming back. Clint and Ryan had been out of town when it was stolen, and I decided when they returned it was time to fill Ryan in on the secret before he found out from someone else. Ryan listened as my story unfolded and informed me he'd help anyway he could.

Weeks went by, and Heartbreaker continued to show up on camera. Possible bedding locations, movements according to moon phases and travel patterns all were studied and discussed. Hours were spent studying him by photos and glassing.

Then, on Aug. 8, through my Steiner binoculars I saw the great deer for the first time. He was on the edge of a bean field. Heartbreaker looked magnificent, and I was shaking watching him. My addiction to this buck was being fed.

As this surveillance was going on, Ryan contacted Bob Hart with Hart Custom Rifles and made arrangements to take a close look at one of his smokeless muzzleloaders, which have had confirmed kills at over 600 yards. On Aug. 25, Ryan flew to Pennsylvania to attend a long-range shooting school and learn the ins and outs of these muzzleloaders. When he returned, he had good news: Bob himself would be flying out with a muzzleloader for me to use in my quest for Heartbreaker.

Clint, Ryan, my dad and I meanwhile continued to study the deer's movements. There were a few more sightings and some tweaking of cameras to better determine where he was coming from. Three weeks before the opener, things were looking up.

But then we came to another fork in the road: I checked the cameras and Heartbreaker was gone again. The big 10-pointer was still around and acting as if everything were the same as always. But just as had happened after I put up the fence, the deer I really wanted was missing.

Ryan had mentioned that when bucks come out of velvet they sometimes vanish for a while or even switch bedding areas. Because I had to work all week every week, sometimes sun- up to sundown, I didn't have the time to track the deer again.

Ryan, on the other hand, had a little more free time. For nine days he watched for the deer, in that time logging three sightings of him. Based on this new info, I tweaked the Bushnells once again — and it paid off. The buck was still in the area, just using a different path and not coming in as regularly as before.

A week before the Sept. 16 season opener, Heartbreaker was bedding just 150 yards from my Maverick ground blind and still walking by it every morning and evening. The trap appeared to be set.

Bob Hart arrived right before the opener, and we checked to make sure the muzzleloader he'd brought was still zeroed. We were flat to 150 yards with a 300-grain Parker bullet flying 200 feet per second faster than a .300 Win. Mag. round. I was ready for the chance of a lifetime.

By this point, rumors of a big deer were being whispered throughout the area. Was it the same buck? I really couldn't worry about that.

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. on the opener. It was time to put everything together. At my parking spot I sprayed down my base layers again and slipped into my ScentBlocker suit I'd activated the day before.

I pulled out my Firefly wind detector to confirm the wind; however, I planned to use my Ozonics unit anyway, just in case the wind shifted or the deer didn't read the script.

After so much preparation, I entered my stand with confidence that morning. But I didn't see Heartbreaker. In fact, the same routine repeated itself morning and evening for the entire first week of the season without a sighting.

I saw does, a few small bucks and even the big 10-pointer, but never the deer I was after. By this point I was wondering if what I'd worked for all summer was going to happen after all.

I decided to use my second week of vacation. The routine of meticulous scent elimination and hunting every morning and evening was wearing on me, but I felt I had to keep on.

As the second week unfolded, one thing remained consistent: no sightings of Heartbreaker. But on the positive side, no one else had reported shooting such a huge deer, either.

Approaching the last three days of muzzleloader season with only one encounter with the big 10-pointer and none with Heartbreaker, I felt my chances were pretty bleak. A front was moving in, and I knew this was a good thing.

However, 30 mph winds on Friday made for unproductive, discouraging hunting. It now seemed likely I'd be chasing the buck with a bow during whatever free time I could find in November.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, conditions were much better. Dry-land soybeans were turning yellow, and farmers were cutting corn. The temperature was cool, the moon thin and the wind light. If there ever were a time for Heartbreaker to move, this day looked promising.

While the morning hunt was a flop, that didn't upset me; Heartbreaker traditionally moved better in the evenings. That afternoon I checked my Firefly and found the wind favorable for my ground blind. Once I got there, I turned on my Ozonics and began to wait.

About 7:10 I noticed movement downwind and saw two does standing about 50 yards out. They seemed alert but weren't looking at me. Then they blew and scattered into the trees.

My heart exploded with a rush of adrenaline and I thought, What's going on? Is someone trespassing, or what? As I began to lower another window of my blind, I noticed a coyote trotting around through plum thickets about 40 yards from where the does had been.

I thought, "It's the perfect time for deer movement, and I have a coyote running around spooking the deer." Worse yet, he went into the trees Heartbreaker and the big 10-pointer should be coming from.

I glassed anxiously but saw nothing. Well, this hunt is probably over, I said to myself as I glanced down at my watch. It was 7:23, and legal light would end at 7:45.

Then I heard the coyote howl.

I glanced back up and actually pondered getting out of the area before things could get any worse. But within seconds I changed my mind; I could see Heartbreaker coming out through the trees where the coyote had gone in, and the does were standing with him. That coyote was close and obviously causing problems.

The wind was blowing from me right to the deer, but they gave no indication of knowing I was there. Instead, Heartbreaker and the does were looking back, suggesting the coyote wasn't far behind.

With the deer under 50 yards from me, I reached for my muzzleloader. The deer were all walking away from the blind, but as long as the coyote didn't come out and spook them, I felt I had time to make a good shot. I lowered another window on my blind and slid the gun out. Heartbreaker was in my crosshairs for the first time at 50 yards and was standing broadside with his head up. I flipped the safety off and squeezed the trigger.

Ka-boom! Thanks to the fact I was using smokeless powder, I could clearly see Heartbreaker jump and mule kick. Then he took off running into heavy cover, back toward his bedding area.

It now was 7:25, and despite the fact light was quickly fading, I knew I needed to wait a bit before taking up the trail. I forced myself to wait a full 15 minutes, which seemed like a week. Then I climbed out and went to check for blood.

I immediately found some and started to follow it. As I approached an opening, I looked ahead and saw Heartbreaker lying on his side, dead. I sprinted over to him, fell to my knees and said out loud, "Thank God I finally got him."

I sat there admiring the deer for a few minutes, then reached for my phone to call my dad. Clint was out of town and couldn't be reached, but I called my mom, sister and Ryan and told them the news.

While awaiting my dad's arrival, I tagged my buck and called Sean Beck of Beck's Taxidermy. My brother and Ryan had done business with Sean and had told him he might be getting Heartbreaker if we got him killed. So when I asked Sean if he had room for the deer to come stay with him a few weeks, I could almost see the smile on his face.

As that conversation ended, I saw my dad come through the brush, grinning from ear to ear. We soon had recovered Heartbreaker, just as we had so many other deer together.

The next morning Ian Sparks shot photos of me with Heartbreaker. I'll never forget how good it felt to have my hands on that animal: a 21-pointer the size of which I never thought I'd ever even see on the hoof, much less have a chance to harvest.

I don't have much land to hunt, and like many of you, I work from sunup to sundown most days. Hunting is just a hobby. I'm a believer, though. And I was reminded of that when things seemed as if they couldn't get any worse. A coyote was chasing the deer around on what I'd felt was the perfect evening. I was watching what seemed a disaster unfolding in front of me. In the end, though, what seemed a worst-case scenario was a best-case scenario instead.

Some might say that coyote showing up when he did was a blessing in disguise. But to me, it was more a blessing from the skies!

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