Gone are the days when the trail camera was considered a novelty. It's now about as common in the deer woods as camouflage clothing. All hunters seem to have their own ideas regarding when, where and how to use them, but few question the importance of the data they provide. And the information gathered over time can add special insight into the taking of a particular trophy buck.
Last season, two dedicated Kentucky bowhunters found out just how much help cameras can be in taking record-class bucks.
EDGE OF THE MOUNTAINS
Approximately 60 miles east of Lexington, between Kentucky's famed Bluegrass and the mountainous Cumberland Plateau, lies a narrow strip of land that's part of the Knobs Region. Here, a series of high, rocky-topped forested hills are separated by flat to rolling bottomlands. Where possible, farmers utilize the fertile lowlands for small agricultural plantings. Not surprisingly, these fields act like magnets in attracting local whitetails.
Jason Egan and his older brother, Justin, grew up bowhunting this country under the tutelage of their dad, Jeff. While the Egans have encountered their share of bucks, nothing ever compared to the one that started appearing on their trail cameras two years ago.
"We began getting the photos during the season, and they continued at regular intervals for the remainder of the year," Jason says. "Unfortunately, they were all recorded at night, and the buck was never sighted."
The live photos ultimately ceased, but weeks later the buck's record-class sheds were discovered. And they were huge. Four tines on the set measured 9-15 inches in length!
Jason was hopeful the deer would reappear the following fall, but that didn't prove to be the case.
"I assumed something must have happened to the buck," he notes. "However, last summer, shortly after setting out trail cameras, I began receiving photos of another huge buck. Except for two big abnormal points, the shape and appearance of the deer's rack strongly resembled the earlier buck's sheds. Considering size alone, it was hard for me to believe it wasn't the same deer."
The hunter continued getting photos, all at night, throughout August. But around the end of the month, with bow season only days away, Jason discovered once again the unpredictable nature of whitetails. The big deer mysteriously disappeared from his trail cameras.
That fact, plus extremely hot weather, kept Jason from even hunting until the end of bow season's opening week. Thankfully, the weekend brought more moderate temperatures — plus new photos of the buck. And these had been recorded during daylight.
Jason's primary hunting location was a large, ridgetop soybean field bordering a deep, wooded hollow. Monday afternoon he was in a climber, 20 feet above the ground, and a few yards inside the woods line.
"There was no activity at all until nearly dark, when several deer suddenly appeared and began to slowly move out into the beans," Jason says. "One of the deer, a buck with a weirdly shaped rack, immediately got my attention, because it was often with the giant whitetail in many of the trail camera photos. But in this instance, with only a few minutes of remaining daylight, I never saw the big deer."
Unable to hunt the following day, Jason was back in his stand by early Wednesday afternoon. The weather was very warm, and for several hours the only activity was a passing coyote. However, shortly after 7:00 a doe walked out of the woods — followed minutes later by the buck with the weird rack.
"I barely had time to get nervous before the big buck suddenly trotted into view. And then I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest," Jason recalls. "At that point the deer were slightly over 50 yards away, but fortunately, after several minutes they began to slowly feed in my direction."
The huge buck remained a few steps behind the other deer as they continued their approach. With shooting light beginning to fade, the target animal finally closed to within 40 yards.
"I had only one shooting lane the buck would cross," the bowhunter remembers. "Once past that point, overhanging tree limbs and leaves would eliminate any other shot possibility. Also, because of my stand's position, I had to maneuver around the tree's trunk to fully draw the bow. Despite my nerves, I knew this was a now-or-never opportunity. Luckily, the buck was in no hurry, and I wasn't forced into rushing my shot."
Upon the impact of the arrow, the big deer spun sideways, circled out through the field and disappeared into the woods. Confident of his shot but emotionally drained, Jason practically collapsed into his seat. His first thought was to call his dad and brother.
"I wasn't able to reach Dad, but I did finally contact Justin," he says. "I knew he could tell I was a nervous wreck, but talking to him about the hunt allowed me to gradually calm down.
"I remained in the stand until it was completely dark before heading to the house," Jason continues. "Dad had arrived by the time I got there, and after waiting a couple of hours, the three of us headed out to begin trailing the deer."
Although the blood trail was fairly steady, the going was slow in the dark, particularly through several hillside thickets. The men paused a couple of times and discussed if it might be best to leave the deer until morning, but each time they decided to continue on — and their efforts were ultimately successful. It was a special shared moment.
"We honestly didn't say much," Jason recalls. "I'm not sure how long we stood there just staring at the buck, simply in awe of its size."
Dragging the big deer back up the wooded hillside in the dark wasn't easy. That ended up taking most of the night, but there were no complaints.
The huge rack is awesome, with great height that's only accentuated by the extreme mass. The main beams exceed 27 inches, and there are four tines of between 10 and 13 inches. Seven of the eight circumference measurements are from 6 5/8 to 5 3/8. The rack grosses 203 7/8 inches, but significant asymmetry deductions on the unbalanced typical frame drop the final non-typical score to 187 7/8.
CAVE COUNTRY BEAST
Bowhunter Stephen Young lives and hunts several miles west of Mammoth Cave, in the central part of Kentucky. Here, rolling farmland and pasture are interspersed with forested hills and stream drainages, such as the Green and Barren rivers.
"This has always been a pretty good area for whitetails," Stephen says. "But another favorable trend over the last several years has been the continued conversion of open acreage into the Conservation Reserve Program. In addition to improving the habitat, the increased cover has given bucks a little better chance to get a year or two older."
Last October, while making a check of the images on his trail camera, the hunter was impressed — but not surprised — to find several photos of a record-class buck. Stephen had experienced this same scenario in each of the past three deer seasons. And in each case, the situation was the same: the buck was in an area of dense timber and impenetrable thickets; all photos were recorded at night; and the deer remained an unsighted phantom.
Nevertheless, for Stephen, the animal's amazing size more than justified expending plenty of hunting effort. And in that regard the bowhunter picked up some support on the home front. Stephen's daughter, Kelsea, who was about to turn 5, had developed a keen interest in helping her dad check out the latest trail camera photos. Not surprisingly, her favorite deer was this big whitetail, which she nicknamed "Old Brow" because of his exceptionally long brow tines.
Perhaps Kelsea was a good luck charm. But regardless of the reason, in late October Stephen was shocked to get the first-ever daylight photos of the deer. Knowing the significance of this sudden shift in the buck's activity pattern, he began hunting the area at every opportunity.
"Getting the daylight photos was a pretty dramatic development," Stephen emphasizes. "I have two buddies who hunt with me, plus hunters on bordering properties were also aware of the buck. Yet the deer had never been seen by anyone, and until now had never been photographed during the day."
On the morning of Nov. 8, Stephen was watching a narrow travel corridor within a thickly wooded 8-year-old timber cut when the huge buck suddenly walked into view. Unfortunately, the encounter was brief and offered no shooting opportunity. But that didn't diminish the bowhunter's excitement over finally getting a glimpse of the magnificent deer.
Stephen utilized three stand sites about 300 yards apart in the thick timber. Wind direction, time of day and ease of getting to a given stand determined where he'd sit on any particular hunt. Still, four days passed without any further sighting.
On the final morning before gun season, Stephen perched in a large cedar overlooking the junction of two hillside trails. Shortly after daybreak, a doe moved silently past his stand, eventually disappearing into the timber. Minutes later, an impressive 140-class 10-pointer walked into view.
"The buck spent some time meandering about in a nearby thicket before continuing on down the hillside," Stephen recalls. "Almost immediately, I heard another deer approaching from my left. The trees and undergrowth were so dense on that side I didn't realize it was the big deer until it had closed to within 35 yards."
With no time to stand, the archer quickly came to full draw, tracking the buck as he moved through the cover. When he paused at 20 yards, Stephen released.
"I saw the arrow hit and felt pretty good about the shot," he says. "To be honest, I was really fortunate to get an arrow through an opening in the thick cover."
Stephen left the area for most of the morning, returning with several friends around 11 o'clock. Trailing proved to be an arduous task through the old timber cut, but around mid-afternoon they found the buck dead at the base of a 10-foot rock cliff.
"It was a special moment, to say the least," Stephen says. "I've never had such a long history of hunting one buck — particularly one I was beginning to think would never be seen."
The 12-point rack features truly exceptionally long tines; eight of them, including the brows, measure 9-11 inches. After grossing 187 2/8, the highly symmetrical buck received a final typical score of 182 0/8.
As for young Kelsea, the score might not matter. What's likely more important to her is that Old Brow now occupies a special spot in her house!