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It’s one thing to dream of killing a world-class deer, but another thing entirely to have the opportunity to do so.
Chasing mature whitetails has always been a passion of mine. However, growing up in Michigan, I’ve found the challenge of killing a mature deer is often overshadowed by the daunting task of even locating one.
Shooting my first trophy deer left me with not only a sense of achievement and an unexplainable adrenaline high but also an even deeper desire to do it again. I can still recall every detail of the hunt that led to my first Pope & Young whitetail. I was completely satisfied with tagging that 125-inch 8-pointer, but then quickly found myself raising the bar.
I’ve always felt antler size is a personal objective that resides only within the individual and shouldn’t be influenced by other people’s standards. This philosophy, coupled with my appetite for a greater challenge, is the reason I continue to expect more out of myself. The challenge is what drives me to the steep hills of southern Ohio, chasing what I consider to be the most elusive animal there is. A mile-plus hike up and over ridges several hours before normal human activity has begun seems required in this unending thirst to push myself.
Southern Ohio is also where I was standing when, in late October 2017, I received a texted photo of a deer that would not only consume most of my life one year later, but also hold the potential to rewrite the record books in the Wolverine State.
IN THE BEGINNING
I didn’t start hunting deer until my early teenage years. Close buddies and I watched every major hunting video production there was. We spent many nights watching all the big-name guys climb tree after tree and arrow one big buck after another. To this day, I credit most of my early whitetail ambition to those over-the-shoulder bowhunts caught on video.
But as exciting as hunts were to watch, what they didn’t show you was all the hard work and preparation that went into the hunt. I also realized early on that there were seldom, if ever, any hunts from Michigan.
Over the years, I became educated enough to know my home state has the potential to grow big-antlered deer. The problem is, it struggles to obtain the buck age necessary to do so, primarily because of the loose regulations and management style of our lawmakers and citizens alike. So when I found myself jaw-dropped and staring at a trail camera picture of a world-class deer said to be from my home state, whichever game plans for other deer I had in mind quickly became less important.
I spent the next few days enjoying a bowhunt with my wife, Katie, trying not to think about that photo. For all I knew, it was just another Internet rumor. But then, while trick-or-treating with our kids a few short days later, my wife and I watched the very same deer from the text message walk across a cut bean field on the outskirts of our rural community! Not only was he real and from Michigan, he was living right under my nose!
In an instant, I went from a bystander with nothing more than a pipe dream to a consumed detective needing answers to crack the biggest case of his career. To say the rest of the evening was a blur is an understatement. Countless thoughts raced through my head, and I repeatedly asked my wife, “Did that really just happen?”
DO YOU BELIEVE IN FATE?
It’s been said that some opportunities in life are hard to recognize, while others resemble a nagging fly that won’t go away on its own. Call it coincidence, call it luck, call it fate — I didn’t care. Seeing that deer ignited something inside me, something that wasn’t going to go away until he was dead.
I spent the next day locating the landowner from the previous evening’s sighting, and he gave me his blessing to bowhunt. I hunted the property on Nov. 1 to see if by chance the animal would do the same thing twice, but I knew the location he’d traveled through the day before couldn’t be his home.
Halloween was the only sighting I had that year of a deer we’d later nickname “Splits,” but he was anything but forgotten. Crossing paths with a target animal, mid-season, just on the front edge of the rut, in a location you know little about and lacking permissible land to hunt is a tough pill to swallow. My annual weeklong Ohio hunt was days away, and all the hard work for that year had already been focused there. The plan was to lie low around home and hunt hard in the Buckeye State.
I waited nervously the remainder of fall and early winter for word of a giant having been killed in the area, but neither that news nor other live photos surfaced. I knew in the back of my mind that a deer of such size couldn’t have been killed without people talking, so I was convinced he’d somehow survived another of Michigan’s month-long intense gun seasons.
But how? How had a deer this size survived this long in an area mixed with agriculture, CRP fields, small woodlots and expanding subdivisions? What was he doing differently to allow him to reach an age so many other deer in the area struggle to attain? Where was he going? Where was he hiding?
I had nine months to find out.
In spring 2018, I started getting more serious about the pursuit. I spent hours driving local backroads and studying aerial photos. I also knocked on the doors of every landowner in the area, seeking permission to bowhunt their land. I didn’t care how many acres they had. I was determined to find where this deer was holing up. I even went as far as paying for a background check to locate one landowner who didn’t live in the area. I then spent hours on a Sunday afternoon tracking him down and gaining written permission.
I didn’t mind the work or awkwardness that often comes when you approach a stranger’s door. However, I quickly learned from the stern answers and subtle hints from some people that I wasn’t alone in this chase. Fortunately, while some landowners pushed back, others welcomed the idea of my bowhunting.
I landed several small tracts in this way, but none of them had the “wow” factor I was looking for. Little did I know that the last door I’d knock on would hold all the corner pieces of the puzzle. Literally! It had only four acres that were huntable, and those were its corners.
It wasn’t easy to get permission. As I gave the woman who answered the door my well-rehearsed speech, I could tell she wasn’t interested. She even gave me a head shake paired with a stern, “Absolutely not! We don’t like hunting.”
I thanked her for her time and headed for my truck. But for whatever reason, we kept talking. In fact, over the next 45 minutes, we covered every topic from family to camping, diesel trucks and dogs. Then she gave me a serious thinking grin and asked, “You only wanna bowhunt, huh?”
I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Of course, I replied with a kind, “Yes, ma’am!” After the woman had discussed it with her husband that evening, I received a single text reply from her saying, “You’re in.”
From the first time I stepped onto the property, I could tell it had potential — not to hold deer, but to let a hunter catch them in transition. On one side lay 80 acres of everything needed to grow big bucks: standing corn, hidden bean fields and of course, gnarly thickets. The other side was a 6-acre swale just secluded enough to deter unwelcome guests and thick enough for a mature deer to feel safe. Positioned in the middle was my newly found “four-leaf clover.”
As you can imagine, this small property didn’t have much to speak of as far as habitat went. Its best features were the brushy thickets made up of mostly small timber and very few mature trees. These were 40-50 yards wide and ran to and from both neighboring properties. I could tell by that first quick walk of the land that deer used these thickets for travel, primarily because of seclusion.
By now it was midsummer. I quickly hung four cameras to cover as many trails as possible and exited with minimal intrusion. If the buck were still around, I knew it would be only a matter of time before I had my proof.
I spent the next month and a half strategizing my every move. If it wasn’t raining or the wind wasn’t perfect, I stayed away. I’d lie in bed at night dreaming of holding a deer of this size, but reality always brought me back to the facts. It was now hunting season, and though 11 months had passed since I’d seen this buck, I still had no confirmation he was even still alive.
FINALLY: A Photo
On Oct. 6, just before a rainstorm, I snuck out and swapped cards on all my trail cameras. Then back at my kitchen table, as I was clicking through image after image, BAM! There he was! The massive non-typical had triggered one of my cameras at 9:02 a.m. on Oct. 1 — just 10 yards from one of my setups.
As disheartening as it was to know I could have possibly killed the deer just a few short hours into the season, I was more excited to have finally found him. As I paced back and forth in my house that afternoon, there was a turning point in the chase. All the ‘’what ifs’’ suddenly became more real. I went from trying so hard to find this deer to obsessing over his every move.
I watched every weather front, every wind change. I knew everything from the average temperature to the expected barometric pressure for the next five days. I wanted to know if there was a traceable pattern. I was looking for a certain wind, time of night and all his possible travel directions. At one point, I was running five cameras on this small parcel. And he showed up on all of them, but with very little consistency. Daily, I studied the same aerial photos to make sure I hadn’t missed something obvious. It consumed me.
PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS
During a massive thunderstorm on Oct. 20, I snuck as close as I could to what I thought was the buck’s bedroom. I wasn’t there to hunt, but to hang a stand. I was convinced this was within 75 yards of one of the buck’s primary beds.
It was an aggressive move, but one I was confident in making only because of the weather. Through thunder, lightning, hail, high winds and rain, I prepped a setup in an oak. I quickly cut a few shooting lanes, hung a camera over a scrape and exited the property. The noise and rain from the storm were enough to cover any sound or scent.
My family thought I was crazy, and probably I was, but it was the type of attitude of having no regrets that pushed me to what I thought was a sane approach. I didn’t have time to play it safe. The rut was only days away, and it was time to make a move.
On Oct. 27, I tiptoed in to check cameras again. I knew testosterone was rising and scrapes were blowing up everywhere. My kids and wife were all staring at the screen with me as I inserted the SD cards into our home computer. We all gasped simultaneously as some of the first photos to appear were of Splits showing off his body and rack. Just one day after I’d prepped that new setup in the storm, he’d freshened a scrape line 30 yards from it.
HOW READY CAN YOU REALLY BE?
In the backyard is where I go to relieve stress. Flinging arrows over and over calms me down. It’s there that I, like many other bowhunters, try to envision a certain scenario. If by some chance I were to get the one opportunity I hoped for, how would it play out?
The time was right. I was as mentally and physically prepared as I could be, given the circumstances. Still, my mind would wander. Which direction would he come from? Would it be in early morning or maybe at last light? None of these details would matter, as no one, not even a dreamer like me, could imagine or fabricate what was about to happen.
Well before daylight, I climbed a tree and settled in for my first all-day sit of the year. My gut knew that at any moment this small piece of property could come alive — but as the morning continued, my mind said otherwise. It was Oct. 30, and overtime put in at work had granted me the opportunity to hunt during a workday.
The forecast was finally calling for the south wind I so desperately needed, but three hours into the hunt the cloud cover was low, and the air seemed thick. Deer movement was scant, as I’d seen only one small buck on his feet. I eventually decided to climb down and move a camera.
While walking down a mowed trail made by the landowner, I saw the sun start peeking through the clouds. I literally thought, Hmmm. I hope I didn’t screw up and climb down too soon.
Only seconds later, as if in a horror movie with its predictable scenes, I heard a deep grunt to my left. The thickness surrounding me prevented my seeing which deer was approaching until it was too late.
Fifty yards in front of me, a doe stepped out. And she was followed closely by you know who: Splits! Holding only the camera, I realized how unprepared I was. Worse, though, was knowing the pair had just crossed within 20 yards of the stand I’d climbed out of only 15 minutes earlier!
From my hidden position, I watched the giant chase the doe out of sight and back into the neighboring swale. My excitement elevated after the encounter, but my anger quickly took over. I realized I’d just blown what was possibly going to be my only opportunity.
Dejected, I waited several minutes before continuing on my way toward the new camera spot. I really considered the hunt to be over. It was now a little after 11 a.m. and a full hour since I’d lowered my bow to the ground.
But as I selected the tree to screw my camera into, I caught movement to my left. A quick glance and I realized I was 30 yards from and face to face with Splits. He’d somehow circled back around and was standing in the brush, moving his head from side to side, trying to pick a hole through which to look at me.
This standoff continued for over two minutes before he turned to his left and bounded once, then twice, and stopped. Neither of us was sure what he’d just seen, but I could tell the buck wasn’t spooked enough to leave the “hot” doe. Again my excitement and anger collided, but this time I decided the damage had probably been too great. It was time to get out of there.
Back home, I tried to relax but my stomach felt as if it were in my throat. My reasoning skills were gone, and my attitude was in the tank. I’d just blown it — twice! Rehashing the details from the morning with my wife only depressed me more, but her encouragement to “suck it up” was just what I needed to hear. So a few hours later I gathered my things and headed back to the woods.
GOING FOR BROKE
I knew Splits was in the area with a doe and that anything was possible. I decided to go for broke and head right back to the spot of the morning encounter. This was also the same location of my newest stand, and I was excited to finally hunt from it. I’m a firm believer in the old adage that the first or second time in a tree often provides your best opportunity to score.
Amazingly, in this case, not even the first sit ever happened.
The access to this location is incredible. I can stay out of sight while walking through a low-lying waterway and only have to be visible for the last 40 yards or so. As I got into view of the stand tree, I caught movement in the same spot as earlier in the day. I fell to my knees to hide my outline before dropping the hang-on stand from my back and shedding my pack. I then slipped on my release and nocked an arrow.
I looked up to see the doe wandering away from me, followed by a large-bodied deer. I knew it had to be Splits. Slowly I started creeping forward, crawling most of the way, till I was within 30 yards of them and only feet from the tree I’d prepped in the storm. I used the thickets as a natural wall between the deer and myself.
Visibility was mostly only 5-10 yards, but through a small window in the brush I watched Splits put his head into an opening and thrash a tree 25 yards in front of me. My nerves shot through the roof as I realized just how close I was to this world-class animal. For the next 8-10 minutes I watched and listened as he worked scrapes, snapped branches and small trees, and vocally tended the doe.
I remember talking myself down from the adrenaline high of the experience. Everything I’d worked for and dreamed of was within bow range. I knew this was as close as I was going to get and that it wasn’t the time to lose control.
Several times I thought the pair had moved on and left the area, but on each occasion I’d then catch another glimpse of antler. Finally I looked through the brush and could see the doe walking slowly from my right to left, and I knew he had to be close behind her. From a crouched position, I clipped on my release and quietly drew my bow.
As the doe entered the one shooting lane I had, I prepared for the shot at only 20 yards. Splits came into view but was still in too much brush for a shot.
What happened next is still unbelievable. In the center of a narrow opening, the doe stopped, hunched, folded her tail up and proceeded to let Splits breed her. As my internal autopilot took over, I settled the pin tight behind his shoulder and slowly pressed into the release.
WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED?
In a split-second, it was over; the bright-green Nocturnal faded through the deer, and I knew it was a double-lung shot. I stood up to try to watch Splits run off, but almost instantly he was out of sight. Then back to my knees I went, trying to make sense of it all. Repeatedly I asked myself, What the heck just happened? My dream of killing a world-class deer was becoming a reality. The past year rolled through my head like a time-lapse in fast-forward.
How was I going to explain this? My first call was to my biggest fan, my wife, who answered with hesitation.
“It’s over!” I told her. “He’s done!”
Her disbelief mirrored mine. “There’s no way, Corey!” she said. “It’s only 4:15!”
As confident as I was with the shot, I knew the wise move was to give the buck time. For years I’ve gone by the philosophy that “if a deer is dead now, he’ll still be dead in a few hours.” So I went home and started calling the few people who knew what I was chasing.
Thirty minutes before dark, we picked up the trail. It didn’t take long before first blood turned into hugs and high-fives. Splits had traveled only 40 yards before piling up in one of the thickest parts of the property.
I’d always imagined how I’d react if I somehow was ever able to take a deer of this caliber. Much like an actor who forgets his lines, though, I ended up speechless and numb. There are some things you just can’t fully prepare for, and holding Splits for the first time was one of those. I couldn’t believe it actually happened. In fact, I still can’t!
Many people have asked where the deer will rank in Michigan. As of now, he’s been officially scored by representatives of multiple organizations, with net scores ranging from the high 220s to low 230s. That means he could potentially claim the No. 2 spot in Michigan for archery. There are 24 scorable points (13x11) and 40 3/8 inches of abnormal antler growth. Six of the beam circumferences are 5 inches or larger.
Whatever the true score, Splits is the largest-racked deer killed in the state in 14 years. I just call him “my 228,” as that’s the number my buddies and I came up with while he was still in my truck. Besides, there’s only one book I really care to ever have my name in anyhow, and it’s not even on this earth.