Sitting in your stand, gripping your muzzleloader as the biggest buck of your life walks straight toward you from 250 yards out, is tense under any circumstances. When the buck in question has one of the largest frames of any whitetail in history, that tension is all but unbearable.
I know, because this is precisely the situation in which I found myself Nov. 30, 2009 as the buck of a lifetime plodded toward my tree stand in Highland County, Ohio.
The weeks prior to the 2009 gun opener, I was busy packing, buying last-minute odds and ends, and dreaming of monster bucks and good weather. The previous few years the weather had not cooperated with us for the first few days of the Ohio season, but this time around the conditions were great. Every year I anxiously await the arrival of the season. Deer season is a revival of stories (mostly lies) and friendships, and a time to catch up on another year gone by.
Every year since 1975, a group of guys has converged on my grandparents' farm in Highland County. My grandpa purchased the farm many years ago as a place for our family and friends to gather and enjoy the outdoors. Even today, I usually have sleepless nights in anticipation of going to the farm for a weekend.
Our hunting crew includes some interesting characters. It is a tradition of sorts for each member of the party to be given a nickname. We have Mike "Bear" Bryant. It should have been "Teddy Bear," as he is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Every year we give over/under odds on what time on Sunday night Bear will arrive. He usually rolls in anywhere from 9 to 11 p.m., and he almost always forgets something (gun, knife, camo, boots). It's usually a different item each year. Bear comes to tell stories, joke around and catch up with everyone. I could go on and on with stories about Bear, but I don't want to steal his thunder for his own book of short stories.
We also have Mike "Buck" Deaton. He is usually responsible for giving out the nicknames. That said, I still haven't figured out how he became Buck. I usually tease him and call him "Doe" Deaton. He is currently trying to fend off a long buck drought, during which he has gone from being "big buck" selective to shooting anything with four legs. We are all pulling for a slump-buster for Buck this year. Buck is a longtime family friend, and is also one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Every year Buck's wife Kathy sends a big pot of beef stew or cabbage rolls for our Sunday pre-hunt dinner. Buck lies every year and tells us he slaved over a hot stove all day preparing the meal. We all know Buck couldn't boil a pot of water. Buck is our dishwasher. Every year he threatens to bring paper plates and plastic cups, so he doesn't have to wash dishes.
The newest member of the crew is my brother-in-law Kyle Robinson. Originally Kyle had been known as "Rookie," but he finally killed a deer, so that nickname no longer fits. After a several-year layoff due to his work schedule and military service, he returned this year and was christened "Possum." (Apparently, several years ago he shot a possum, and the name stuck.) Possum is our "stat" guy; we can always count on him for some useless piece of information.
My dad, Rocky "Raccoon" Stephens, is the leader of the crew. He spends most weekends at the farm. He tells us stories of the big bucks he has seen, the times he has seen them and any tendencies they have. (His scouting advice actually worked once for me.)
Dad wakes up at about 5 a.m. and gets breakfast going every morning. Over the years, he has killed more deer than any of us. In fact, on the last day of the 1996 gun season, he killed the biggest buck I had ever seen. (This huge main-frame 10-pointer has yet to be scored.) Every year Dad heads to the same stand, and it usually pays off with a nice whitetail.
As for me, I have two nicknames: one ("Baby Raccoon") from my childhood, and the other ("Cookie") because of my culinary talents. I am responsible for preparing lunch and dinner, so Cookie seems to be more the norm these days.
Over the years we have had a number of other characters join the crew: Keith Stephens, Brad "Long Briar" Stephens, Rick "Tricky Dicky" Snow, John Bryant, Glenn Ward, Tom Kilbaso and Fred Jackson. Each brings his own unique qualities to this group of misfits.
Ohio's gun season always opens the Monday after Thanksgiving, so Sunday night is filled with anticipation. Talk of being really selective dominates the conversation, though we all know any decent buck that comes within range is in trouble. It never fails that the really selective hunter goes home empty-handed.
After dinner, we all watch Sunday night football. Several of the older guys get tired of the stories and fall asleep in their chairs. The rest of us talk about the big bucks we have seen and the weather. Buck always asks how many pairs of longjohns he should wear on opening day. We are convinced he carries a propane heater in his hunting coat, because it weighs 80 pounds.
Sleep is always hard to come by that night; I am just too excited. Even so, at 5:15 a.m. we all roll out of bed, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Dad cooks breakfast, we eat, Buck does the dishes and we all head out.
The last few years, my stand has been within easy walking distance of the house. Scouting before the 2009 gun season had led me to believe there were deer moving in this area. I loaded my Thompson/Center Black Diamond .50-caliber muzzleloader, left the house and made the walk across the pasture to my stand in the edge of the woods above some pines. My stand sits in a major travel corridor about 70 yards back off the edge of a CRP field.
That Monday morning, the action started early for me. Just after first light, I heard rustling over to my left (east of my stand). A few branches cracked . . . then a small doe popped out. Before I even had a chance to get a good view of her, I spotted a huge buck in tow. They ran straight at my tree stand and then stopped about 50 yards out and slightly downwind.
I am sure the two deer winded me, as they stood motionless behind a greenbriar thicket that allowed for no shot. While the light was too dim for me to count points on the buck's rack, I thought he was the biggest I had ever seen in the woods.
The doe turned and walked directly away from me to the northeast, up the hill, with the buck following closely behind. I watched the biggest buck I had ever seen walk out of sight. I was sick, knowing my chance had just vanished.
Within about five minutes, seven bucks -- yes, seven -- trotted in from the same direction the doe and big boy had come previously. There were two nice 8-pointers, a nice 10- pointer and four smaller bucks, all following the path the doe and big buck had taken. They all walked out of sight, with none of the bucks ever offering me a shot.
The rest of my morning was filled with thoughts of the giant. The more I reflected on what I'd seen, the bigger he got. I knew no one back at the house would believe my story. Yeah, right -- a monster buck and seven other bucks within 50 yards, but no shots. Just another lunchtime lie!
I stayed in the stand until 11:30 and then climbed down, as discouraged as any hunter could be. I made the slow walk back to the house, trying to find the right words to describe my incredible encounter.
As I approached, I noticed Possum and neighbor Glenn Ward standing outside the barn. Glenn had shot a really nice 8-pointer. We had set him up in a great spot with a lot of sign on the top of the hill.
I told my story, but it was clearly written off as a deer version of a "fish tale." For some reason, these guys think I exaggerate from time to time. (Hey, not me. I am a straight shooter. I tell it like it is. My wife is laughing hysterically as I write this.)
We all exchanged stories over lunch. Buck had shot at a nice 8-pointer, but was unable to bust his slump. The Possum and my dad both had had encounters with several bucks, but neither was able to get a shot. My story again was pushed aside as, "Yeah, right!"
After lunch, I headed back to my stand at about 1 p.m. Within five minutes of climbing in, I saw movement off to my right. A female coyote was slinking down the hill behind me. I lost sight of her as she dropped into a small ravine, but she reappeared on other side. When she paused, I dropped the hammer on her. My hunt had just gotten exciting again. A coyote kill is almost as good as a buck kill in our camp.
My thoughts once again turned to the big buck I'd seen in the morning. In my mind, I kept seeing him over and over. About 10 minutes after the coyote encounter, two does came down the hill behind me. They walked within 10 feet of the dead coyote but never seemed to care. The does then walked out of sight off to my left.
Things got quiet for a while. I even broke out my son's hand-me-down iPod and listed to a few tunes: Hank Williams Jr., Alan Jackson, Kenney Chesney and Kid Rock songs.
Things started to heat up at about 3:30. I heard some crunching on the hill behind me. I stood up and spotted a doe slinking though the woods. I could see movement behind her, and I knew the big boy was coming back. And I repeated that thought for all eight does that followed her. At one point I saw a flash of antler and got excited, but it was just a 4-pointer.
The deer all moved off to my left (east). They seemed to linger a bit just out of sight. I heard a few grunts and a lot of rustling but never saw them again.
Things were calm for about 15 minutes . . . then I saw movement about 250 yards out, along the edge of the field. I could see a deer coming into it, and immediately I knew it was the big buck from that morning. He had a swagger to his walk, as though he knew he was top dog.
I told myself to relax and be patient, to let him keep coming. I can still see it in my mind. It seemed it took forever for him to cover 180 yards, but he kept walking straight at me.
I just knew the deer was going to come to the edge of the woods and turn left, right in front of me. Well, he must have read the script; he turned at 80 yards. After again telling myself to relax and be patient, I picked out a shooting lane. The buck briefly disappeared behind some greenbrier and other brush as I raised my T/C and clicked off the safety. A few more steps, I told myself. Breathe. Relax.
I waited, and the deer stopped right in the lane I had picked. Finding him in the Simmons scope, I put the cross hairs right behind his shoulder, took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
Boom! Smoke was everywhere! And when it cleared, the giant was gone.
It seemed to take me forever to find him again. He now was running straight away in the field. I still felt good about the shot, but I wasn't feeling too good about the fact he was running hard.
The buck ran about 100 to 120 yards out in the field and stopped on a knoll. I could tell he was hurt, as his legs were shaky. Then, as I watched, he fell.
I pulled the spent cap from my gun, sat down, took a drink of water and ate a bite of my apple. I tried to relax and stay calm. I still didn't know just how big the buck was, only that he was the biggest I had ever shot.
After waiting roughly a half-hour, I climbed down from my stand at 4:15. As I made the walk over to the dead deer, I approached him from behind. While I couldn't see the antlers well at first, as I neared the animal, I began to get a better view.
This isn't real, I told myself as my knees buckled. I walked up beside the deer and knelt. I thanked God for the opportunity to have shot such an animal, and I thanked my two grandpas for looking down on me. (I know they were both watching.) This was truly the buck of a lifetime . . . and the hunt of two lifetimes.
Once I got the buck back to the house, I tried calling my wife Kelley, but cell service at the farm is awful. I finally was able to get a call through to my mom. "I just had to tell someone," I said to her. She could tell by the excitement in my voice that this buck was a monster.
Moments such as this are made extra special when we are given the opportunity to share them with our friends and family. I enjoyed the look on Dad's face when he saw the buck as much as I enjoyed the hunt itself.
I have truly been blessed with a great wife, two outstanding kids (Shelby and Cole) and the most supportive parents anybody could have. I am surrounded by an incredible number of good people. And that includes so many I have met since taking this buck. Their willingness to help and give advice has been truly amazing.
At this writing, I have known Rick Busse (master taxidermist in Piqua, Ohio) for only a few weeks, but I feel I have known him my whole life. Jeff Davis has offered great advice and friendship, as well as some outstanding video footage. Mike Wendel, who measures for the Boone and Crockett Club, the Buckeye Big Buck Club and the Longhunter Society (muzzleloader record book), has been as nice as anyone could be. And I have spoken with many more people from newspapers and magazines, as well as fellow hunters and just curious folks, who have added to what was already a great experience.
Hunting really is about friends, family and the outdoors. We hunters share a bond I can't explain. It makes me proud to be a member of the fraternity. And if the journey ends today, I have enjoyed every minute of it.
The significance of the Stephens buck goes far beyond his 232 5/8-inch net
score or ranking in any record book. What makes him so historic is his incredible frame, which is arguably the biggest of any known whitetail.
Totaling measurements of this giant's main beams (35 1/8 and 34 1/8 inches) and inside spread (24 3/8) gives us 93 5/8 inches. In whitetail history, the only other deer to even approach that total is the Brian Damery buck, taken by shotgun in Macon County, Illinois, in 1993.
Adding up that deer's beams of 32 2/8 and 32 0/8 inches and spread of 28 3/8 yields 92 7/8. Those figure to exceed those of any other whitetail -- ever!
As if all of this weren't enough to make the Stephens buck an all-time great, consider his left G-2 tine. At a stunning 17 7/8 inches, it ranks among the lengthiest on record. Put it all together, and you have a gross typical score of 218 1/8, which is downright scary for what amounts to a basic 9-pointer. Were there no abnormal points, this deer would have a net typical score well in excess of 200 -- as a 4x4. He'd be history's top 8-pointer by nearly 20 inches! 209 5/8 inches.
A special "thank you" goes out to Piqua taxidermist Rick Busse, who called us about the Stephens buck and shot the great photos on our cover and in this feature. Rick has mounted some of the biggest deer ever, including Ohio's Mike Beatty buck, the Pope and Young world-record non-typical.