February 03, 2021
Certain events change our lives forever. I have faith that these defining moments can sometimes find us when we aren’t even looking, almost as if purposely brought upon by a higher power.
I experienced such a moment on a warm Thanksgiving day in 2012, when my younger brother, Cody, and I discovered our father’s 1968 Wing recurve bow. The relic had been stuffed away in our parents’ attic for over 40 years. Over the next couple months, that old bow ignited a spark in me that eventually spread to a full-out inferno.
Ultimately, the discovery led me to make a drastic change in my hunting style. Although I’d hunted for 20 years with a compound bow, traditional archery took hold of me and didn’t let go. Now it’s how I choose to hunt.
In the years since I made the switch to a recurve my shooting and hunting skills have become more fine-tuned, enabling me to harvest a few Pennsylvania whitetails. However, I couldn’t have guessed my traditional archery journey would lead me to where it did on the eve of Oct. 9, 2020. That’s when I harvested one of the largest typical whitetails ever taken in Pennsylvania — on public land. I arrowed the special buck after hunting him for three years, and it was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life.
The Journey Begins
There is probably no one who enjoys shooting a traditional bow more than I do. I have fallen in love with it. To achieve the accuracy I desire, it’s taken tens of thousands of loosed arrows. And for me, that challenge of striving for accuracy is where the fun is. It’s a want-to, not a have-to.
Those who visit our house comment on the worn “cow paths” that lead to the spread of 3-D targets spanning out across the yard. My love of shooting the recurve has led me to join the tournament trail, where I have been able to collect several International Bowhunting Organization world championship titles.
Better yet, traditional archery has changed the way I hunt. I now spend more time trying to figure out why deer do what they do. I’ve found that’s what it takes when getting super-close is the challenge.
Seven years ago, I added a companion to my springtime journeys: a chocolate Labrador retriever. My wife, Ashlee, and I named him “Mighty.” I began training Mighty to find shed antlers when he was eight weeks old, and he now sniffs out roughly a third of the 100 antlers we average each season. I can’t imagine spending a day in the spring mountains without him.
Over the last 16 years, I’ve come across some great bucks. Many I grew to know well, finding their sheds for several years. However, most of those old bucks eluded me when I hunted them. They disappeared, leaving with me only the antler and the memory that came with it.
But none of them can compare to the buck I came across in mid-September 2018, when I captured a trail camera photo of the largest whitetail I’d ever seen. Throughout the next couple months, I got several more photos of the mid-170s-class giant feeding on chestnut oak acorns and working primary scrapes. All pictures were taken under the cover of darkness.
I hunted the buck that entire season, but as Halloween approached, my trail camera indicated pressure from other bowhunters was escalating quickly. I continued after the buck, but with all the hunting activity, I suspected my chances of seeing him in daylight were slim. As feared, I never laid an eye on him that entire fall.
In the middle of November, the weather turned extremely cold and brought 18 inches of snow. The snow lasted the entire rifle season, which ended on Dec. 8. I was worried about the buck, as I knew the white carpet of snow would hurt his chances for survival, but I heard of no one killing him.
On Dec. 10 Mighty and I hiked in to hang some trail cameras, in hopes they’d confirm the buck was still alive. As we approached the area where I’d gotten photos of the buck previously, I could see deer still were feeding on chestnut oak acorns. This was indicated by the number of tracks in the snow covering the ground.
As I was looking for a tree to hang a camera on, something caught my eye about 30 yards out on the edge of the laurel. A look through my binoculars confirmed it was a large antler lying tines down. My excitement rose, and my first thought was, Could it be him?
Indeed, it was! The huge antler had fresh blood on the base, and in the snow I could still make out the buck’s bed. It was obvious the giant had just been there. I was surprised he’d shed so early; it was evident to me that the extremely cold temperatures of the past month had been stressing him.
For the next several months Ashlee, Mighty and my buddy Matt, who was hunting another mountain not far away and later would hunt the giant with me, helped search for the other side of the rack. Despite our efforts, we never found it.
Another Year Passes
In summer ’19, I hung several trail cameras in the buck’s area. In mid-August I was able to get a couple photos of him in full velvet, and he looked larger than life! I guessed he now would score in the mid-180s.
That fall, red oak acorns fell heavily. However, the highest numbers of acorns were at elevations lower than 1,800 feet above sea level. Using that information, I was able to capture a few trail camera photos of the buck in early fall. Around the middle of October, though, he disappeared.
Later the buck showed up on Matt’s camera, which was nearly a mile away. That mountain was at lower elevation, and it was loaded with acorns. Regardless of the buck’s change in location, though, he still appeared on trail camera only after dark. Cameras once again indicated pressure in the area from other hunters picked up around Halloween. Matt and I never saw the buck during the 6-week archery season.
I decided to bowhunt during gun season, which began Nov. 30. As I reached the gate at the entrance of the public land at 4:00 a.m. that day, there were already four vehicles parked. With my recurve in hand, I made the 1 1/2-mile trek to where I had a tree stand set.
As I reached the top of the mountain, to my amazement, all I could see were flashlights spread out across the area. I simply couldn’t believe the amount of hunting pressure. Witnessing that only increased my respect for the old buck I was after. It’s simply amazing what these animals have to endure to survive.
The season ended again, and I’d still heard no talk of anyone killing the buck. Hoping he was still alive, Matt and I laid plans to search for his sheds. The winter was mild, and with the heavy low-elevation acorn crop, we suspected the bucks would hold their antlers longer. So we held off on starting our shed hunts too early.
On our second trip out, on March 1, I found the left side on a south-facing slope. Again the antler was right in the buck’s bed. He’d been feeding on the heavy acorn crop only three-quarters of a mile from where I’d found his shed the previous year.
Matt and I spent the next three months looking hard for the rack’s other side. But again, the ruggedness of the terrain prevented us from finding it.
Closing the Gap
This past summer, neither Matt nor I got a trail camera photo of the buck. The acorns were spotty, but in mid-September I found an area on the south end of the mountain where they were heavy. Looking through my binoculars into the treetops, I could see huge clusters of mast. I hung a trail camera right under those oaks, figuring deer would show up when they started to drop. Hopefully, the giant buck would appear once again.
Archery season opened on Oct. 3, and I spent the day downstate hunting with Cody. Our hunt was unsuccessful, and I headed back home the following day. I then wasn’t able to check the camera I’d placed under the oaks until Oct. 7.
When I finally reached it, acorns were hitting me on the head! I pulled the card and headed home. It was evident the falling acorns were sucking deer in, judging by the number of photos. As I scrolled through them, I was amazed to see a shot of the giant buck standing in front of the camera, looking larger than ever! The photo had been taken near the end of September, under cover of darkness.
As I continued scrolling, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I came across a photo of him in daylight. It had been taken on Oct. 3 at 6:59 p.m. I had several more photos of him from that week, but all the others were at night. I suspected he was hanging close to those acorns, and the daylight photo fully convinced me to hunt him immediately.
I’d planned to hunt the buck only during the rut, as that’s when my past success with older bucks had come. But the wind for the next several days was predicted to be out of the south, which would work well for my planned approach.
The next day, I left my house at 2:30 p.m. I carefully found a tree near those oaks, hung a stand and was settled in by 4:00. At 6:30, two bucks appeared in front of me and began feeding on acorns. The first buck was an 8-pointer that looked to be 2 1/2 years old, and the other was a respectable 3 1/2-year-old 9-pointer. Just before dark, four does appeared and also began feeding on the abundant acorns.
I was worried about getting “stuck” in the tree and spooking deer on my exit. The last photo I’d captured of the giant had been taken at 8:00 p.m., so I knew he could be close.
Darkness fell, and I had to leave. On my way out, I spooked what I hoped were only those four does, as I heard one snort and run in the dry leaves. Regardless, I feared my only chance at the giant buck had just been shattered. But I still planned to hunt him the following evening.
I left my house again at 2:30 the following afternoon. The truck thermometer read 72 degrees, and I almost turned around and went home, figuring the deer would never move in the high temperatures. But my dad has always urged me to expect the unexpected. I continued on.
After the 45-minute hike in, I approached my stand. There were three does bedded close by, and they took off running. As they were upwind, I wasn’t so sure they knew what I was. My footsteps in the dry leaves might have spooked them. The wind was perfect, directly out of the south and never changing.
At 5:00, the same two bucks from the previous evening appeared, this time up to my right about 80 yards off. I watched them feed on acorns again. Then, at about 5:30, a doe and two fawns began feeding behind me. One of the fawns, a button buck, eventually fed downwind of me at 10 yards. When he caught my scent, he completely came out of his skin and took off, taking his mom and sister with him. I found it amazing for a deer of his age to already be so intelligent and on such high alert.
Things were calm for the next hour and 15 minutes. Then, at 6:50, it happened. I heard a steady walk in the leaves behind me. I turned to look, and my breath was literally taken away. The first thing I saw was huge antlers, and I knew it was him!
When my eyes locked on the buck, he was stopped 30 yards behind me. His head and ears turned left, then right. I had never in my life seen anything like what I was looking at. I wish every hunter could have a chance to witness it at least once.
Those moments that led to the shot were the most intense of my life, and there is no way I could have prepared for them. With my bow in hand and my heart racing, I watched the buck slowly and cautiously approach at my 7-o’clock position.
This route would lead him to an opening no more than 15 yards and upwind. Before he reached the opening, I came to full draw. When he stepped in the opening, I grunted to stop him. But he never stopped walking! He continued on, eventually stopping in the brush, offering me no shot. I thought it was over. I slowly let down and remember thinking, Oh, no. That was my only chance. But then the situation instantly went from 100 mph to 200 mph, and the panic button was pushed! The buck continued slowly walking toward another opening, this one at my 9-o’clock position.
I had to regroup, try to stay one step ahead of him and hope he’d still be in my 20-yard maximum range. The buck reached the edge of the opening and stopped, examining the area. After a few seconds, he stepped into the opening at 18 yards.
When I went to pull my 43-pound recurve, it became evident the state my body was in. I could hardly even pull the string back, as my arms felt powerless. Fighting something I’d never felt, I made it to full draw. When I reached anchor, I achieved my sight picture and let the arrow fly.
The brown feathers prevented me from following my arrow. The only thing I heard was a soft sound at impact. The buck took off running hard, headed straight down and over the 1,000-foot mountain. I remember thinking I’d hit him, due to the fact he’d taken off running hard.
I grabbed the tree and tried to settle myself down. I remember thinking of my wife; she knew where I was if I fell out of the tree. It’s amazing how the mind works, or at least, how mine did in that situation.
While climbing down, I began to think about that soft sound. The realization suddenly came to me that the sound could have been the arrow striking dirt, and I started to worry.
When my feet hit the ground, I fully convinced myself I’d missed. I slowly worked my way over to where the buck had been standing. My biggest fear was seeing an arrow sticking in the ground with nothing on it. But I found no arrow, no blood and no hair. Unsure, I backed out and headed home. It was a tough decision, but one that has to be made when hunting huge landscapes.
Finishing the Story
That night I talked to my dad. He assured me the buck had been hit, based on the way he’d reacted. My dad’s the best hunter I know, and I always go with his advice. Talking with him eased my mind a bit, but it was still a long night waiting to take up the trail.
I laid plans to meet Matt and Cody the next morning. Ashlee and I looked over maps that night. There was a large rock outcrop on the edge of the mountain in the direction the buck had run. Ashlee and I had taken a break there two years prior when looking for the buck’s shed antlers.
She went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep and stayed up. Ashlee awoke at 3:00 a.m., while I was in the kitchen making coffee. She told me to keep her informed of what was going on. She also informed me that she’d just had a dream that the buck was lying dead right by the rocks. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a sign.
At 6:30, Matt came to my house. Then we met up with Cody. At 8:00, we reached the spot where I’d shot the buck. There was no arrow sticking into the ground, which was a good sign.
After walking just 10 yards, Cody and Matt found blood — and it was heavy! They continued on the trail, but I went out ahead. I wanted to look down over the edge of the mountain where I’d last seen the buck.
As I reached the edge of the hill, I found a small piece of deer hide atop the leaves. My first thought was, Coyotes! Dead buck! I called the guys over, and we examined it. However, we were unsure of the hide’s age.
I then continued on, looking hard down over the mountain. I crested the rise, and that’s when I saw it: a white belly and huge antlers sticking up from the ground.
There are no words to describe the feelings I had walking up to this unbelievable sight. I hollered, “We got him! We got him!” All three of us ran down to the buck, not believing the experience that was unfolding. It was an event none of us will forget.
I called my wife, and when she answered I had a hard time finding my words. “We got him, and he’s 10 feet from the rock,” I told Ashlee. The shot had been through both lungs, and the buck had traveled only 70 yards. The coyotes had found him before we had, but luckily they’d eaten only a small piece of one hindquarter. We’d gotten there just in time, it seems.
After the mandatory 60-day drying period passed, I had the 6x5 typical rack officially measured for Boone & Crockett. The tape produced an impressive gross measurement of 190 4/8 inches and a final net of 181 7/8. The inside spread tallies 23 3/8 inches, and the main beams stretch to 31 6/8 and 32 1/8. The buck officially is Pennsylvania’s second-largest typical by bow, behind only the 184 4/8-inch 13-pointer shot by Ron Shaulis in ’17.
I can never fully express how grateful I am to have been able to hunt and harvest such a special deer. I have the utmost respect for these magnificent animals. I realize what they go through to survive on a daily basis. To have achieved this feat while hunting on public land with my recurve makes it even more special.
I hope the path of traditional archery will someday find you or someone you know. Who knows? Maybe it just did! I have faith that if you choose to walk this path, it will change your life forever.