March 02, 2016
My two-year quest for this monster buck finally came to fruition during the 2015 Ohio bow season. In the end, my strategy led to a 10-yard shot at what's potentially the second-biggest archery whitetail ever.
Now that everything is said and done, I'm left wondering where the last two years have gone. The story starts with a buddy of mine, Josh Terry, who approached me in July 2014 and asked if I'd show him the ropes of bowhunting mature whitetails. Josh had bowhunted for years but had focused more on waterfowling. Now he wanted to find a lease with some prime deer habitat he and I could manage together. As a serious hunter, I couldn't help but say yes.
A Blurry Unveiling
Once November arrived, Josh brought me a trail camera photo he was very excited about. It was blurry, but you could tell the buck pictured had some serious bone on his head. I immediately checked my cameras but had no pictures of the buck. I remember telling Josh, "He's a rut buck. Don't get too excited yet. We may never see him again."
A week later, the same buck made a nighttime appearance on one of my cameras. But he was out of good photo range. He seemed determined to avoid having a clear picture taken.
During the third week of November, Josh was bowhunting over a thicket when he spotted the deer roughly 100 yards out. The buck was following a doe across the field, and they were headed toward a pinch point where Josh's dad was hunting. But no shot ever was offered. As the evening closed, we all gathered at the truck to hear just how big the buck was. Josh's dad explained he had tines going everywhere but seemed a little "weak" on the right side. It had to be the monster from the blurry photos.
We checked our trail cameras with newfound excitement, but there were no more photos of the buck. We never got another picture of him that November. To make matters worse, Josh sent me a disheartening photo of G-3 11: showing another hunter with the trophy buck. Happy as we were for the hunter who'd shot the deer, Josh and I were pretty disappointed. With our No. 1 hit-list buck killed and the giant buck missing, our 2014 season seemed like a bust.
2015 Season Opener
Shortly before bow season, I was in Canada on a bear hunt. But my mind was still on a deer back home. While in Canada, I made a call to local Ohio Department of Natural Resources agent Tony Zerkle. In an effort to avoid any unwarranted accusations against my potential harvest of this buck, I felt the need to make Tony aware of the situation. He agreed to be present for the recovery if I were to harvest the buck, so he could investigate the kill and clear my name of any rumors that might start. Tony was incredibly helpful, but I'm not sure he really believed me about the size of the buck.
I spent much of the long drive home from Canada studying my photos of Christmas Tree on DeerLab and thinking about the moon phase for the season opener. As soon as I got home, I picked up my son, Waylon, and we headed out to check cameras.
It wasn't until Sept. 29 that Christmas Tree reappeared on camera. But even then he seemed much harder to pattern than before. I finally got the idea he was catching my scent and skirting around my cameras, so I started making minor adjustments when I pulled my cards. I began to do it from my UTV without ever shutting it off, mimicking the habits of the farmer who frequented the property. Sure enough, I started getting more pictures. Still, it was hard to keep from prematurely checking cameras at this point, and I'm sure the buck saw me several times.
Closing In On a Giant
At 5 a.m. on Oct. 25, Josh's camera caught a photo of the deer. He was coming out of a brushy, grassy wetland area to lick on some mineral before heading right back in to bed. The photo made me think he might do exactly what he'd done the year before. I began to think that if I were to kill him, it was going to be in his bed.
I decided I needed to focus on hunting the thicket, during either the rut or the harsh weather of late season. So I accessed the backside of the thicket, across from the brushy field where he bedded, and hung a stand 80 yards downwind of the corn pile.
After hanging the new set, I headed home to shower before starting back out to hunt that evening. The moon was at 97 percent full, barometric pressure was stable, and the skies were clear. It was a little warmer than I wanted, but I knew I had a good wind to hunt. The buck was bedded in the CRP, so the strong northeast wind would give me the perfect upwind setup.
With about 15 minutes of legal shooting light left, I couldn't believe my eyes. I saw Christmas Tree heading my way, and I lost all nerve! He was coming from the thicket about 200 yards behind me, from dead downwind. I couldn't believe I'd actually been hanging a stand in the very woods where he'd been bedded that morning. After all the attention I'd given to playing the wind right, I was astounded to see him walking directly into my scent trail.
I watched the deer come down a funnel and right toward me. I'll bet I watched him for 100 yards before it crossed my mind to start filming. I got the camera on him and hoped he wouldn't wind me. I'll never be able to explain the feelings I was experiencing during those moments.
I watched him stop 100 yards away and start rubbing on some branches. I'd found the branches earlier and knew they had to be his doing. He rubbed the tree for a few seconds. My head was spinning, and I was trying to control my nerves enough to keep the camera running while waiting for the right moment to grab my bow.
Shot of a Lifetime
As the buck closed the distance, my nerves worsened. Once he stopped broadside at 30 yards in one of the spots I'd ranged for a shot. It was a decision almost every bowhunter has had to make: Shoot now, or wait? If he continued down the path he was on, I'd have a 10-yard shot. It was a call that would either make or break me.
I decided to wait — and thankfully, the deer played along with my plans. As he closed to a mere 10 yards, I had my bow in my left hand and was running the camera with my right.
Finally, my time had arrived. I let go of the camera and drew my bow. I didn't want to risk stopping the deer that close, so I put my pin on his vitals and squeezed off a shot as he walked. A fraction of a second later, I heard the sound every bowhunter loves to hear: that of an arrow hitting the chest cavity.
I'm not sure how I remembered, but I somehow got the camera back on the deer as he jetted out of the thicket. I watched him run about 80 yards into the field, my arrow with its blue lighted nock sticking out of him. Then he stopped.
As much as I'd love to say I kept my composure at this point, I didn't. I was getting hit with two years' worth of anxiety, and I couldn't even catch my breath to do a good post-shot interview. I was shaking so badly, and the tension was so extreme, that my stomach actually started to turn. I was overwhelmed with the realization I'd just shot the elusive monster that had consumed two years of my life.
Victory at Last
As I turned to look at the recovered buck, I nearly lost it. There he lay: the deer I'd chased with all of my heart for two seasons! I was finally able to put my hands on all that antler and quickly realized that our estimate of 300 inches wasn't off by much. Jeremy and I will never forget the feeling of accomplishment we had in that moment.
Few hunters ever will have an opportunity to pursue a buck of this caliber. For some reason, I was blessed with that chance and was able to make good on it. I'm beyond thankful for all I've learned, starting with the many lessons taught me by my dad, Don Groves, as I was just starting to hunt. I never could have been so successful without his help or that of my friends who supported me along the way. You guys know who you are, and I thank you for everything!