June 28, 2016
Everyone's heard the advice, "Don't put all of your eggs into one basket." In general I'm sure that's good advice, but putting all of my eggs into one basket is exactly what I do when it comes to hunting mature bucks.
I decided years ago that instead of hunting various game species or having other hobbies, I'd put all of my energy, focus and resources into killing a specific whitetail each season.
Considering the preparation required to fulfill that goal, having another hobby just isn't an option for me anyway. Tagging a specific animal is the result of sleepless nights spent wondering where he's traveling at any particular moment.
Any extra time or income I have to put toward a hobby goes toward hunting mature bucks. The reward is certainly worth the sacrifice to me, and that's why I continue to put in the effort.
With most bucks I've killed there are many chapters, but the story seems to be never-ending. The preparation is continuous; before one chapter closes, another already has begun to open. And there are perhaps no better examples than my 2013 and 2014 trophies.
On a blistering summer day in 2011 I pulled a memory card from a trail camera on an Ohio property I'd gained permission to hunt. Among the photos, I saw a massive 7-pointer was frequenting the area. Little did I know at the time, but it was the beginning of what would turn out to be a multi-year obsession.
Over time I dubbed this buck "Old No. 7." And he was no youngster; from the photos, I was guessing him to be 5 1/2 years old. At the time we put him on the "hit list," mainly from a management standpoint. However, the more I got to know the deer, the more I viewed him as a real trophy and less an animal that needed to be removed due to poor antler genetics.
In 2011, I didn't put a ton of energy into hunting him. But I didn't mind, because I ended up harvesting a great 162-inch 9-pointer. When the summer of 2012 rolled around, I started to get just enough photos to know Old No. 7 was still in the same area as the previous year. I was also happy to see that he'd now grown a nice 8-point frame.
Going into the fall of 2012 there were several higher-scoring deer I could have hunted, but by this point I was obsessed with Old No. 7 and had decided to put all of my energy into killing him. There's just something about a truly mature buck that's like a drug to me. Their unique personalities and ghostly reclusiveness are just some of the traits that make them so fascinating. Killing one of these creatures with a bow is the ultimate challenge, in my opinion.
History had shown the buck rarely moved in daylight before November, so I waited until then to hunt him. I live in Virginia, so I try to time my trips when conditions are prime. I headed out on the morning of Nov. 2, hoping to hunt Ohio that afternoon. However, with a fair amount of traffic, I couldn't reach the farm in time for a hunt.
Fortunately, I was able to do some scouting before night fell, glassing a large CRP field I knew Old No. 7 used as a sanctuary. Lo and behold, after a few minutes I managed to spot him in the CRP with a doe. Despite a quickly sinking sun, I remained glued to his position, where he stood frozen over her until darkness set in.
Well before daylight the next morning, I sneaked into a stand on an inside corner of the timber, with part of the CRP field in sight. Around 8:00 a.m., I saw Old No. 7 chase a doe out of the timber and into the CRP. I knew the doe was in heat, and that he wasn't about to leave her. With that in mind, I decided to pack it up around lunchtime and get into a stand on the edge of the CRP field.
As soon as I settled into the stand, Old No. 7 and the doe stood up from the CRP about 80 yards away. But they then didn't move more than a few yards all evening. He'd pace around but seemed determined not to leave the security of the CRP until dark.
Over the next 15 days of hard hunting, I'd end up having few more encounters; I just didn't get a chance to release an arrow at him. With the better part of the rut now over, I waited until late season to go back after him. I knew the old buck well enough to know I'd pushed my limits with pressuring him.
As colder temperatures and snow swept across Ohio during the last week of bow season, I felt conditions were perfect for big bucks to be on their feet in daylight. Sure enough, on each of the last two evenings of the season I ended up seeing Old No. 7 grazing in a cut corn field. But there was no shot.
With the season over, I was determined to find his sheds. With my dog, Tine, by my side, our road trip back to the farm in March proved to be successful. After covering hundreds of acres and combing large CRP fields, we found one of the buck's antlers! Finally, a part of the deer that had managed to elude me all season was in my hands.
The following summer, I strategically placed several trail cameras in Old No. 7's core area. While I was able to capture only a handful of photos of him, I was happy to see he was alive and still in the area. Interestingly enough, each camera that took his picture never got another. It was as if he were sending a message that he was too smart to walk past any trail camera a second time. (In fact, I never did get a single daylight picture of Old No. 7.)
With hunting season right around the corner, I was strategizing how to take down this deer. I felt a sense of urgency, as I knew with him being 7 1/2 or 8 1/2 years old, he was likely to go downhill soon.
One day over the summer, the pieces of the puzzle came together in my mind. I realized that every time I'd seen the buck in a certain area of the CRP, it was on a south or east wind. So my plan was really pretty simple: I'd set a stand just downwind of where I thought he'd bed with a southeast wind. Within a day or two of things finally "clicking" in my mind, I rushed to Ohio and hung a stand in just such a spot.
On opening day of the 2013 archery season, I was greeted with that much-needed southeast wind. It was time to hunt Old No. 7. My plan was to set up for him once during early season and then stay away until November (if I didn't see him on that first sit). If I was right, he was bedded in the CRP and as he left his bed would walk right by me on his way to the staging area. My stand overlooked some clover I felt he'd hit on his way out for the night.
And for once, the plan worked. An hour or so before dark, the buck I'd been chasing for three years popped out of the CRP like a ghost. He was just 40 yards from me. The deer casually fed on clover as I waited for him to turn broadside.
Old No. 7 eventually would give me a 37-yard shot, and I gently touched my release. Instantly my bow sent an arrow racing toward the deer's vitals. The shot was perfect, and I watched him fall. Finally the deer of my dreams was on the ground.
I'd almost started to feel the old buck was supernatural and couldn't be killed. But now he was mine, the result of a game plan that finally had come together. To top off the thrill of it all, I had my family in town with me, and they joined me to recover the buck.
2014 GAME PLAN
With one chapter now closed, I was eager to find my next target. Ohio has a single-buck annual limit, regardless of weapon, which meant I now had an entire season — minus one day — left to prepare for my next trophy.
I immediately began looking at trail camera photos from before the season. I knew of a few bucks I could hunt that were higher-scoring than Old No. 7, but none was as old. However, one buck in particular caught my attention. He was a big 9-pointer that lived on a farm a few miles away. I had several photos of the buck over the summer, but I'd been so focused on Old No. 7 that I'd basically overlooked this one. After thoroughly evaluating the known deer inventory, I decided he'd likely be my focus for the 2014 Ohio archery season.
I continued monitoring cameras that fall and had a pretty good idea of where the deer was living. So in March 2014, Tine and I searched his home range with a fine-toothed comb, looking for his antlers. After several days and dozens of miles, we stumbled upon them. The deer was much bigger than I'd realized — in fact, even with a conservative spread credit, he'd have been over 170 inches!
Due to this buck's incredible 7-inch bases, I decided to call him "Bud" (named for his beer-can mass). Throughout the rest of the spring and summer, I obtained hundreds of photos of him and had patterned him about as well as I've ever patterned a deer. I felt I knew where he'd be at almost any time of year, and I had a stand hung in a narrow pinch point. I felt really good about my chances of harvesting Bud from that particular stand during the pre-rut.
Based on several factors, I didn't think early season was my best time to capitalize, so I planned to wait until at least late October before going after this brute. Little did I know at the time, but I'd never get the chance to hunt Bud in 2014. My Ohio plans were about to drastically change!
One evening during opening week I hunted the same stand where I'd killed Old No. 7 the previous year. It was about an hour before dark when I saw a mature buck start feeding on the clover.
Although he was much larger than the last time I'd seen him (two years prior), I immediately recognized the deer. "Texas" had been a 3 1/2-year-old in 2012 and was put on a "strictly off limits," list. He had the potential to be a giant one day. In 2012 we'd had sightings and trail camera pictures, and a neighbor found one of his sheds. But after that, Texas simply had disappeared. There was no history with him whatsoever in 2013, so I was very excited with the sighting after his being gone for so long.
Texas was feeding on a clover strip that required an east wind for me to hunt. With the now 5 1/2-year-old using the area in daylight, I had every thought of being right there the next evening central Ohio had an east wind.
I returned home to Virginia and waited three long weeks before there was such a wind in the forecast. On Monday, Oct. 20, I woke up at 5 a.m., checked the weather...and sure enough, a southeast wind was expected to blow into Ohio that day. Wasting no time, I immediately loaded up the truck and began the seven-hour trip.
When I arrived at my hunting location, though, I was very disappointed to be greeted with a southwest wind. Since going after Texas was now out of the question, I decided to give a small turnip plot a try. It was much more conducive to hunting under such conditions.
"Living seven hours from my Ohio hunting area makes bowhunting bucks there a real challenge. But I've found big reasons to keep going."
As I was walking to my stand, I ended up spotting a buck a mere 50 yards from me, walking the edge of the plot. I could tell it was a good buck but couldn't make out just how good. I lost sight of the deer for a moment, but then picked him back up as he started rubbing a small sapling. There was thick cover between the two of us, so I knew as long as he was rubbing the tree it would increase my chances to stalk closer to him.
With damp ground from the misting rain, I started crawling toward the buck and managed to get within 15 yards. Much to my surprise, he was still rubbing the tree, so I raised my binoculars in an effort to get a better look. I finally saw enough to tell that he was a great mature buck and a deer I wanted to harvest! Ever so slowly, I clipped my release onto the bowstring and drew.
But the buck had stopped rubbing the tree and saw me draw. My heart sank as I watched one of the biggest deer I'd ever seen run off into the thicket. I was sick! I'd just ruined an opportunity at what I thought to be a 180-class deer by taking too long to judge him.
Despite my failed attempt, I climbed into the stand anyway. The only other encounters I had the rest of the evening were does and fawns, which fed casually in the plot until dark. I strategized that as long as all of those does were hitting the plot and bedding nearby, the giant buck shouldn't be far and likely would be back. I was hoping he'd check that plot often for the first doe in heat, and that this would give me a chance at redemption.
The next day, Oct. 21, I headed to the other side of the farm to check a camera over a primary scrape, in hopes he'd been by there. Sure enough, I had two photos of him! I headed back home to Virginia the next day to catch my son's baseball game, but I'd be ready to return to Ohio with the next south wind.
Exactly one week later, conditions were as good as they were going to get. For obvious reasons I hadn't slept very much that week, but at 5 a.m. on Oct. 27 I awoke to confirm the predicted southwest wind was indeed blowing true. It would be warm, but I needed to go anyway; a cold front a couple days away would bring the wrong wind. So I threw my already packed bags into the truck and once again made the seven-hour drive.
I got in the stand around 2 o'clock that afternoon, and by 4:30 a few does and fawns had entered the plot to feed. Around 5 o'clock I could hear the unmistakable sound of a buck chasing a doe toward the plot. She popped out — but then, as mature does often will, she keyed in on my figure in the tree.
The giant buck was just about to enter the plot when the doe decided something wasn't right and ran back into the thicket. Of course, the buck followed. I was upset, but I kept up my confidence that he'd be back.
About an hour later, the sun had faded and the plot was full of does casually feeding. Out of nowhere the buck entered the plot! He chased a doe into a thicket, then back into the plot. He walked over to a scrape and started to refresh it, then began to chase does again. The buck was really putting on a show, tearing up the scrapes along the edge of the plot and thrashing branches hard with his antlers.
Needless to say, I was pretty shaken from the show he was putting on. He then proceeded to casually walk out of the plot. Although I couldn't see him, I could tell that he didn't go far. Soon he came back into the plot and started walking directly to a big scrape I'd pre-ranged at 25 yards.
The giant passed through an opening just before getting to the scrape. Immediately after stopping him with a gentle "brrr," I was watching my arrow slice through his chest! A few minutes later, I climbed down to retrieve my arrow from the ground.
Even though I was fairly confident of the shot, I decided to back out. I drove into town, where I met up with good friend Jim Cogar. After dinner, we headed back to the farm for the recovery.
After trailing blood for three hours, we finally found my buck. Walking up on him was a moment I'll never forget. The unique rack ended up with a gross score of 211 7/8 inches, my biggest ever.
Tagging a great whitetail after knowing of him for only a week isn't typical for me. However, this magnificent deer got under my skin and caused me to lose just as much sleep as ones I've had tons of history with.
Living as far as I do from central Ohio of course adds to the challenge of bowhunting there. But it's an exciting quest to undertake — whether the buck I end up with is one I've been after for several years or has only recently walked into my life.