Occasionally a diehard whitetail addict will encounter a buck that seems to stand out from all the rest. Whether it’s from a trail camera picture, a glimpse while scouting or a close call from a tree stand, if we’re lucky, a certain buck gets under our skin and obsession ensues. For Cody Butler, that journey would begin in summer 2014.
To Cody and his wife, Whitney, hunting whitetails is truly a way of life. They concentrate on it nearly every day of the year. Whether it’s setting up a farm, scouting, running cameras or rigorously hunting, this pursuit is at the center of their lives.
I met Cody on a video shoot in spring 2009. We instantly became close friends and made plans to turkey hunt later that spring and deer hunt close to his home in south-central Nebraska that fall. Being about the same age, and with our college lives coming to a close, we began to kick around the idea of starting a web show centered around our passion for whitetails and authentic, real-life storytelling. We share a limitless obsession for whitetails and feel filming our experiences in the deer woods and creating content around our deep respect and appreciation for these amazing animals God put on this earth for us to be stewards of is important and meaningful. And so, a year later, Dream Chasers was born.
In summer ’14 Cody and Whitney were on one of their common scouting missions when they glassed a typical 12-pointer with worlds of potential. Even though he was young, he stood out from the rest of the bachelor group with his impressive frame. Cody called the deer “Longhorn” because his rack looked so disproportionate to his body, much like the sweeping headgear of a big Texas steer.
Cody began putting together a plan to do everything he could to keep this incredible buck on his property. After seeing Longhorn multiple times throughout the ’14 season and finding his right antler early the next spring, he anxiously awaited the summer to see what kind of growth jump Longhorn would make.
As fall ’15 approached, Longhorn was again very visible on the family farm, with impressive growth from the previous year.
Again, the 3 1/2-year-old buck was seen often that fall, even bedding within bow range one November evening. Cody, family and friends were all amazed at the potential this buck had and couldn’t wait to see what ’16 would bring.
With the Dream Chasers team filming their hunts and Longhorn being so visible, the amazing thing is how well documented the deer was from a young age. Leading up to the ’16 season, he was filmed multiple times throughout summer and fall, and he appeared in hundreds of trail camera photos.
With the buck now approaching maturity, the next phase of the quest was to learn every inch of his home range, hoping to set up a game plan for fall. As Cody, Whitney, his dad Scott and good friend Ryan Cates targeted the deer, anticipation was high. Cody was confident of getting a chance to put Longhorn on the ground.
But then, as fall unfolded, the deer began behaving like a mature buck. His core area got smaller, he held in less penetrable cover and his movements became more sporadic. Cody would see Longhorn only a few times that season, with close encounters in late October and early November. The deer stuck close to thick cover and managed to stay out of bow range each time. But as the season closed, the hunter’s anticipation was already at an all-time high. The next fall Longhorn would be 5 1/2 and close to, if not at, his full antler potential.
The buck’s unpredictable movements continued as the ’17 season approached, with only a handful of trail camera pictures into late October. He was so unpredictable, in fact, Cody feared he might have shifted his home range. But then, my friend struck gold. On Oct. 21, a trail camera captured Longhorn on the edge of what Cody had believed all along to be his core area.
Waiting for the right wind, Cody hung a new stand in a travel corridor and climbed in on the afternoon of Oct. 30. The high barometric pressure and crisp temperatures had bucks moving early. After an hour in the stand, Cody spotted a doe heading his direction, followed by a big-framed buck.
The doe passed through a clearing, and the buck stopped right behind her. It was Longhorn. As they moved closer, Cody realized they were going to pass in bow range. He looked ahead at what would be his only opening for the trail they were on: 30 yards. As the doe walked through it, Longhorn stood on the edge and made a scrape. Cody came to full draw and waited.
After a few moments that seemed like hours, the giant buck lunged through the opening to catch up with the doe and followed her out of sight. Even though he was so close to getting his chance, only to have it vanish at the last second, Cody’s excitement and determination soared. He knew he was back in the game with Longhorn.
Warm temperatures and unfavorable winds allowed Cody to hunt the buck only a few more times over the next couple weeks. He saw Longhorn once more in thick cover for only a few moments.
Then, on Nov. 12, while I was filming Cody, we watched Longhorn check does in the middle of a crop field 300 yards away. As darkness fell and the great buck walked farther out into the field, Cody looked up and laughed.
“I wish I could say I was sick of hunting that deer. With how many times I’ve watched him walk away, it gets tougher and tougher. But at the same time, every time I see him, it’s like it’s for the first time. Just unreal, man.”
It was easy for me to see how special this buck was to Cody. Even with the struggles and close calls, he was loving every minute of the emotional roller coaster ride Longhorn was taking him on. My friend’s respect and admiration for this incredible deer were awesome to witness.
Cody and I have a running joke that whenever things seem to fall apart right before or during a hunt, that’s the day something will hit the dirt. The morning of Nov. 15, just three days after our last encounter with Longhorn, reinforced that belief. Cody finally got the wind he’d been waiting for to try a stand on the edge of Longhorn’s core area. After the warm weather of the two previous days, we felt as though we’d won the lottery when a cold front hit in the middle of the night, bringing high pressure and cooler temperatures behind it.
The plan was simple enough. Having received permission from a neighbor, we were going to slip through the edge of his picked corn field, cross the river and ease up into the edge of the timber on an inside corner that was at the edge of a thick bedding area. The goal was to sneak in the back door and catch Longhorn coming from the crop fields back to bed or cruising the edge for does.
On our way to the neighbor’s field, we talked about how we had a feeling about the morning. The conditions were a bowhunter’s dream. We turned into the pull-off on the field edge.
The week before, the neighbor had said he was going to be moving cattle into the field for the winter. Having forgotten this, Cody pulled in and cruised through the freshly strung electric fence, breaking it and sending a 40-yard section recoiling into the field — stakes and all.
Confused, we jumped out of the truck and quickly realized what had happened. We were about to call off the morning hunt and head to the landowner’s house when Cody finally reached him at 5:00 a.m. He told us there was nothing to worry about, as he wouldn’t be moving cows in for a few days. We could repair the fence later. Thankful and embarrassed, we got dressed for hunting, packed our gear and headed for the river.
It was one of those crisp, clear mornings we live for. It was so quiet that with every step we felt like a herd of elephants moving through the timber. We finally reached the tree and climbed in, still shaking our heads over the fence debacle.
Then, as I was getting the camera gear situated, I noticed Cody leaning over the edge of his stand, struggling with something. I whispered to ask what the issue was and realized Cody’s bow rope had caught on one of the climbing steps. His bow wouldn’t budge. I think it’s safe to say that’s something we’ve all experienced with an extreme level of frustration.
Finally conceding to the inevitable, Cody climbed down and unhooked his bow rope. Once his bow was up the tree and on its hook with an arrow nocked, we could do nothing but sit and chuckle about the morning’s events. We joked about how success had to happen, given everything that had gone wrong in just the first hour of the day.
We’d been set up all of 20 minutes when we caught movement between our tree and the cottonwood-lined river. A great buck that would score in the 150s was working toward us at a steady walk. We were still minutes from shooting light when he passed the tree at six yards and headed into thick cover. As luck would have it, he was the only known deer other than Longhorn Cody was willing to put his Kansas tag on.
After the buck was out of sight, we waited a few minutes until legal shooting light. Then things happened fast. Cody cracked his rattling antlers together with a short, loud sequence, hoping he could bring back the buck that had cruised through. We then scanned the cover in front of us for the slightest movement.
Just as Cody hung up the antlers, I looked behind us and caught movement in the crop field. Two deer were running toward us, quickly approaching the edge of the timber. I swung the camera around the tree as Cody threw up his binoculars.
“It’s him! It’s Longhorn!” my friend whispered, grabbing his bow just as the giant buck entered the timber.
Time seemed to stop as Longhorn stood 60 yards away, scanning the timber for the fight he’d heard. If he turned to our left he’d head up the river bank, directly downwind of us and into the cover. But if he turned to our right, the main trail led by our tree perfectly at 25 yards. He finally flicked his tail, turned right and began a steady walk.
Cody whispered, “It’s gonna happen, man. He’s gonna come right here.” I’d never seen him so focused.
My friend came to full draw just as the giant cleared the last few trees and stepped into the opening. He took two more steps, still looking for the fight he’d heard. Cody stopped him at 25 yards, paused and squeezed off the shot.
The orange lighted nock tracked as the broadhead found its mark: high in the lungs, right behind the shoulder. Longhorn whirled and ran back out into the field, making a wide turn before angling back toward the timber’s edge. There we lost sight of him through the thick cover.
The minutes that followed were a blur of uncontrollable shaking, tears, whisper-yelling and giving thanks to God for the unforgettable morning. Cody caught his breath and made two phone calls right away. The first was to his wife, Whitney, who was out of town for continuing education for her dental hygiene career. She’d been as much a part of this journey as anyone else, having filmed encounters with the buck and strategizing through countless hours of reviewing trail camera photos.
The second call was to Cody’s father, Scott, the man who’d raised him in the deer woods and has always been his biggest supporter. In fact, it was Scott who’d had the idea for the name Dream Chasers, which would evolve into Cody’s career. Hearing father and his son celebrate one of Cody’s most defining moments as a hunter will forever be etched into my memory.
Two hours after Longhorn went out of sight, Scott, Ryan, our good friend Nathan Wilt and my dad joined Cody and me at the head of the draw where the giant had disappeared. We looked back at the video footage to get a reference for the general area where we’d last seen him on the edge of the cover. Once we determined the spot, we began walking down the field edge toward the location, in hopes of taking up the blood trail from there. We got about 10 yards away from where we thought we’d last seen him when just ahead of us, we saw a giant 7-point side sticking up from the matted grass.
Cody stopped in his tracks and said, “Oh, my gosh, he’s right there! Right by my other stand!” The buck lay dead about 15 yards from the tree from which we’d seen him just three evenings before.
We spent the next hour looking at Longhorn’s incredible body, as well as examining every inch of character, tines and unbelievable mass on the rack. To finally hold those antlers was a humbling experience for all of us. Later the massive 13-pointer would be unofficially scored at 181 7/8 inches gross and 172 5/8 net.
Longhorn wasn’t just a deer — he was a representation of what we deer hunters stand for. He was a teacher and example of what’s right about this lifestyle we live and the legacy we dream of passing on to our children through seasons to come.
I’m not of the belief that we hunters harvest deer — we kill them. It’s a fine and sometimes even confusing line we walk to kill something we love so much. But it’s important for us to understand, respect and appreciate the weight and meaning of this process. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more proof of this than I did on that crisp November morning.