Jim Thome had a Hall of Fame-worthy career playing Major League Baseball, thanks in large part to an unrelenting work ethic that made the most of his natural talent.
Upon retirement, the man with 612 career home runs turned that same focus to his favorite pastime of the last 20 years: bowhunting whitetails. And when Jim decided to purchase land in western Illinois and start developing his own property for deer hunting, it was with a similar drive and dedication to purpose he'd had throughout his baseball career.
The basic elements needed to build your own "deer factory" are well documented. But the implementation of the plan and the determination to stay with it to achieve the best possible results are where the real work begins.
A Goal in Mind
Jim purchased property in his home state of Illinois for several reasons. First, he believed that with proper management, Illinois still could consistently produce some of the best bucks in North America. With this goal in mind, he set up his property with all of the necessary ingredients: great food plots, water sources, bedding cover, light hunting pressure and an established sanctuary in which the deer were never bothered.
Within a relatively short span of time, Jim began to see some very respectable bucks. He took several of these with his bow. Then, at the end of the 2014 season, Jim found some sign he thought had been made by a pretty good buck. But there was no visual confirmation of exactly which deer it was.
For a lot of avid whitetail hunters these days, Christmas seems to come around the end of July to the first part of August. That's when trail cameras really start picking up buck movement, and it becomes easier to identify individual deer. Sure enough, late last July Jim got his first good look at a real giant on his property.
"All bucks look huge in velvet, but this buck blew everything else away," the bowhunter remembers. Jim knew immediately this was one of the largest bucks he'd ever seen.
Aside from its sheer size, the rack's most impressive trait was that it appeared to be a totally clean 6x6 typical. Even though the buck looked to be a 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 years old, there were no apparent stickers or other non-typical points.
That's actually pretty rare. A high percentage of high-scoring typicals are only 3 1/2; as they reach full maturity, they often start to throw a lot of abnormal points that reduce the net typical score. But this giant showed no extra points of an inch or more in length.
A strategy started to develop. First, Jim decided no one would go into the area the buck seemed to call home. The last thing the hunter wanted to do was bump the buck and alert him to the fact someone would be hunting him.
Several ladder stands and box blinds were already in place, so there was no need to go anywhere near the deer's core area. Even when Jim checked his trail camera on a food plot, he did so after leaving the camera in place for a month. The hunter didn't want to bump the buck or leave extra human scent by checking it too often.
When Oct. 1's bow opener finally arrived, Jim waited until the afternoon to sneak into a box blind on an alfalfa food plot where he'd captured his first trail camera photo of the buck. Right away, it was clear the strategy of avoiding the area had worked; even at 3:30, when Jim entered the edge of the alfalfa field en route to his blind, he ran into other deer already feeding.
"I got lucky with a cold front coming through that dropped the temperature by about 15 degrees," Jim notes. He knew even a slight decrease in temperature at that time of year would have the bucks up and moving.
Within 10 minutes of Jim's entering the box blind, the deer he'd bumped off were back in the plot. Several does, fawns and small bucks began feeding on one side of the field. After a few minutes, Jim happened to look toward the opposite side of the field...and there stood the giant 6x6!
"Jim Thome experienced the rush of swatting a home run more than 600 times in his major league career. Last October, he traded his bat for a bow and made history of a different kind."
As is the norm for older bucks, he was standing slightly inside the timber, observing the other deer before venturing into the plot. Satisfied all was well, the monster finally walked into the alfalfa and started feeding. At this point, he was approximately 90 yards from the box blind.
Jim watched the huge buck for 40 minutes. Then, for no apparent reason, the whole group of deer on the other side of the blind walked off the field, heading toward an old road. The giant buck observed this and started to follow the other deer off the field.
By now Jim had his PSE Decree bow in hand, because the line of travel for the buck to follow the other deer looked as if it would bring him within bow range. Jim waited until the buck was within 50 yards before he opened a blind window on the side opposite from where the buck was approaching.
"As he got closer, he got really big," Jim remembers. The buck kept coming across in front of the blind and finally reached the open window. After ranging the deer at 34 yards, Jim came to full draw and grunted.
When the buck stopped, slightly quartering toward the blind, the archer sent a Rage-tipped arrow on its way. The carbon shaft hit slightly behind the shoulder and passed through the deer. As the huge buck bolted, Jim had a hard time maintaining his composure.
"Making a shot on a great buck like that gives you an adrenaline rush very similar to hitting a home run," he says. The buck ran hard for about 20 yards, but then just started walking off the field. Knowing the shot was a little farther back than he'd have liked, Jim waited 40 minutes, quietly got out of the blind and left the area. He didn't want to jump the buck and decided to wait until the next morning to look for him.
"I did not get much sleep that night," the hunter notes.
At about 7:00 a.m. Jim returned to the blind, retrieved his bow and started working the blood trail. He gradually moved toward the edge of the field where he'd lost sight of the buck. When Jim got to within 100 yards of where the buck had disappeared, he suddenly could smell him. Sure enough, only 20 yards off the alfalfa field, antlers were sticking up in the grass.
"Definitely no ground shrinkage," Jim recalls of his thoughts at the moment. "The closer I got, the bigger the antlers got."
After tagging the buck, Jim called a friend who came to the field with his truck. No dragging would be required. They took photos, loaded the deer and called Jim's favorite taxidermist, Locie Murphy of Murphy's Wildlife Art in Bushnell.
As the score sheet shows, this whitetail is both huge and exceptionally balanced. He has main beams of over 29 inches, G-3 tines exceeding 12 and a total of over 37 inches in the eight circumference measurements.
Put it all together and you get a gross typical score of 196 7/8 inches. There are just 3 5/8 total inches of deductions (all for asymmetry), an amazingly low total. The net typical score comes to 193 2/8, making the Thome buck an apparent top 15 all-time typical in Pope & Young.
Jim's story fits a pattern I've observed many times in over 25 years of writing about the largest bucks taken in Illinois. The two points I've heard most often are, "The buck came from some kind of a sanctuary, where he got the opportunity to live for a few extra years," and, "It was the first time I'd hunted that stand that year." Pressure, or lack thereof, is often the telling factor in success on huge whitetails.
Jim certainly realizes that, as a trophy whitetail hunter, you aren't going to hit it out of the park every time you step to the plate. But whether it comes together on a great kill or not, the real "home run" can be the satisfaction you feel when you put in the time and effort to develop your own deer land.