January 08, 2024
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With his late grandpa’s wooden stand beneath him, Mike Clarson trusted his instincts and played the waiting game. “Had grandpa not passed away unexpectedly in May of 2022 while turkey hunting, I bet my life savings he would’ve killed this deer on October 19 when he fi rst daylighted on our land,” Mike says. “He usually hunted this stand before the rut; I just know he would’ve gotten a chance at him.”
Mike Clarson’s journey for a 200-plus-inch buck he nicknamed “Mr. E” was an emotional one. The multiyear quest was full of highs and lows while dealing with loss and heartbreak. The long road for this massive giant began well before Clarson’s arrow found its mark last October while perched high on a ridge in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin. Similar to the stories of other trophy bucks Mike has killed, this tale began years prior. It just so happens the biggest buck of his life took Mike, and his family, on a ride he never expected.
THE EMERGENCE OF A GIANT
The Clarson family manages their land intensely, and they are always on the lookout for the next target buck and candidates with potential. Mike, along with a close friend and neighbors, first spotted one very special buck during the fall of 2019. Although the buck was young, it caught his eye and was a buck worth noting. “In 2019, he was a 2 1/2-year-old with a bladed G2,” Mike remembers. “It was obvious the young buck had real potential, as he already sported good mass and brow tines over the 5-inch mark.”
While Mike was after more mature bucks in 2019, he kept a close eye on this young deer that appeared to have genetic lottery potential. The 2019 Wisconsin deer season came and went without any knowledge that the young stud had been killed. During the 2020 season, the buck was both secretive and distant from other deer. Mike had a few photos of the buck during the 2020 season, but the then 3 1/2-year-old was showing more consistently on the surrounding properties.
At age 3 1/2, the buck was beginning to display the true shape of his eventual world-class rack. The buck was forming splits on his G2s, and wide sweeping beams took form. And the brow tines were both near 8 inches in length, with a split beginning on his left side. While the young phenom hung out on the neighbor’s during most of the 2020 season, Mike’s season wrapped up successfully as he downed a mature 170-inch buck. Headed into 2021, Mike knew the young buck stood a chance at blowing up when he reached 4 1/2 years old.
Not unlike other dedicated whitetail hunters, Mike and his nearby neighbors keep tabs on deer year-round. Much like the buck had done in past years, he kept to himself and avoided bachelor groups and socializing for much of the 2021 deer season. “He always kept to himself for the most part, but he was pretty busted up as a 4 1/2-year-old, 17-pointer in fall of 2021,” Mike says. In fact, the big buck had gone from a 17-pointer down to a 10-pointer from late October to November. Mike suspects one of the older bucks on the property was responsible for Mr. E’s damaged rack.
During peak rut in 2021, Mike’s grandpa, Jim Harris, hunted his favorite stand and let the 4 1/2-yearold buck walk, since he had busted up a good portion of tines on his right side. “Grandpa Harris came down to the shed and said: ‘I’m pretty sure I passed him.’” Mike recalls. “I remember replying with an ‘Are you kidding me?’ I just never thought that he would pass up a 4 1/2-year-old buck, but grandpa said he was pretty busted up.” Despite a few encounters and Mike’s grandpa passing the deer, the 2021 season came and went without Mr. E being killed. After a few postseason shed hunts, Mike and a neighboring family friend were able to find the matched set of antlers from the gnarly non-typical. The 2022 hunt was on, despite the season still being months away.
TRAGEDY, AND DIALING IN ON MR. E
Green-up in Wisconsin had arrived, and despite it only being April of 2022, Mike was already scouting and kick-starting his all-in approach for finding Mr. E come fall. After finding his matched set just a month or so earlier, Mike was itching to lay eyes on the buck during the early stages of velvet growth. During one evening in April, Mike spotted a big-bodied deer from the road. Mike says, “It just looked like pop cans were coming out of the buck’s bases.” Mike knew it had to be him.
Despite laying eyes on the buck, Mike’s scouting and whitetail plans were sadly interrupted in May of 2022. His family was jarred with the unexpected passing of his grandpa and hunting influence, Jim Harris. His grandpa passed away while in the woods doing what he loved, turkey hunting. Despite this loss, Mike pressed on towards fall and began another chase for a mature buck. With the passing of his grandpa, Mike was motivated now more than ever. Especially since his grandpa had passed the busted-up giant the fall prior. After obtaining a few trail camera photos from neighbors in early summer, Mike estimated the giant to have around 45 inches of mass measurements.
Even with having another 50-60 days left to grow, it was obvious the buck was quite literally inching towards world-class status. “He had such a unique rack that you really couldn’t mistake him for any other buck,” says Mike. The hunter’s neighbors were getting regular photos of the buck all summer. It wasn’t until August 22 that Mike got his first photo of the magnum 5 1/2-year-old buck. Heading into the opener of the Wisconsin archery season, the buck was still very inconsistent in making appearances on trail camera for Mike. Early portions of Wisconsin’s archery season came and went without anyone harvesting the buck on his summer pattern.
AGGRESSIVE MOVES PAY OFF
It wasn’t until early October that Mike received more photos of the buck from his CuddeLink trail camera system. Combining historical trail camera data with near real-time intel, Mike had a good idea of where this giant was spending most of his time. Clarson told me: “My grandpa’s 80 acres that connects to our land is where I knew I would eventually see him. The buck was there when he was a younger deer, also at 4 1/2, and now at 5 1/2 years old.”
Mike is a master electrician and was staying busy with work right up until his ‘rut-cation’ began on October 22. He was anxious to start his vacation time, especially since the buck seemed to finally be expanding his core range. Mike received a daylight photo at 6:20 p.m. on October 19, just 25 yards from his grandpa’s favorite ladder stand. The buck was using a trail on the leeward side of a ridge beginning his search for does. Mike believes had his grandpa not passed away in May, he would’ve been in the woods and killed the buck that evening.
Not 24 hours later, the buck was moving in daylight again. On October 20, he entered a field not far from the previous evening’s photo. Mike was beginning to piece together a plan of attack. “For the first few days when I started my vacation on October 22, I bounced around between my grandpa’s ladder stands. But after seeing some of the deer react to me being in those stands, if the giant were to come through, I knew it wasn’t going to work.” The ladder stands were in the area where Mike needed to be, but they weren’t high enough or providing enough cover to get away with beating the eyes of a mature buck when drawing his Hoyt bow. “The last day I sat in one of his ladders, I spent the final hours of the day on stand searching for a potential spot for my Lone Wolf Climber,” Mike explains.
Before the sun went down that evening, Mike had picked out a great tree just yards from his late grandpa’s current ladder stand. Well before light the next morning, Mike settled into his new tree he picked out the evening prior, looked down as it was getting light, and saw the remnants of his grandpa’s old wooden tree stand he had built back in the late 70s. Little did Mike know, he had chosen the exact tree his grandpa Harris had hand-picked decades ago. “I looked down at first light, and the stand he built out of 2x4’s is underneath me; it definitely brought a tear to my eye,” Mike says. Mike was emotional, yet invigorated and ready to lay eyes on this giant.
How many times have you heard the phrase “the first sit is the best sit” in a tree stand? Despite the “first time in” school of thought playing in his mind, Mike was convinced this location would produce at least a sighting of the giant, so he sat this climber location under his grandpa’s old stand three days in a row. Mike told me: “I was watching the wind, but it was the right wind for me to sit there three days in a row. On top of that, I wasn’t going to keep waiting for trail cameras to send me daylight photos, I wanted to be there when he showed.”
The morning of October 29 was calm and cool, but temperatures quickly rose above normal for this time of year. By early afternoon, Mike had two separate doe groups come through who had brought young bucks along with them. Before Mike knew it, early evening had arrived and nearly 10 does and a half dozen bucks had passed by his tree. What happened next spiked my heart rate when interviewing Mike for the article.
Mike said: “I was filming deer chasing and a nice 3 1/2-year-old 9-point came through. To this day, I cannot remember if I heard something else or if I felt like something was staring at me — but I turned around nonchalantly to look at the base of the ridge, and the giant is right there staring at me from about 75 yards out.” Mike thought he blew his opportunity on Mr. E. He remembers: “I’m like okay, there he is, and he just busted me; there’s no way I’m getting a shot.” But after what felt like an eternity, the giant eventually turned his attention elsewhere. Mike pulled up his bow, but also began filming since the buck was still well outside of archery range.
“I filmed him for over 90 seconds, and the 3 1/2-year-old buck took Mr. E’s attention off me as both deer inched closer,” says Mike. The hunter captured amazing footage of the giant from his iPhone before realizing a shot would likely present itself. Mike continues: “The 3 1/2-year-old was walking my direction, and the giant decided to follow him. Mr. E stopped in an opening at 38 yards, and I started to pull back.” When he drew back, Mike’s bottom limb and cam weren’t clear of the front rail on his climbing tree stand, so he took a step further out on his platform and settled in on him again. Mike says out of the dozen or so other deer he has on the wall, this was the first archery shot where he remembers squeezing off a surprise release like he would on a tournament archery floor.
“I don’t know what came over me,” Mike remembers. “I had already calmed down, and I wasn’t going through normal buck fever. I was pulled back and just making sure everything was perfect before I let that arrow go, because I knew I had just one opportunity at this.” Mike let the arrow fly. The giant mule-kicked and went about 20 yards before coming to a halt. The buck slowly took a step every 30 seconds or so, as he worked across the ridge. Mike was anxiously waiting for the monster to get wobbly and tip over, but he didn’t. Despite Mike being able to clearly see the entry hole, the 5 1/2-year-old brute bedded about 80 yards away. Mike explains, “I watched him bed down in two more spots. At that point, he was about 150 yards away, so I climbed out slowly once it got dark.”
Typically, when Mike arrives back at the shed after a hunt, his dad is there already and anxious to summarize their hunts. This time, Mike was first to arrive back, however. And he was greeted by his mother Jodi pulling into the drive. When she saw her son waiting near the shed as temperatures continued to drop that evening, his mother simply asked: “How was the hunt?” Mike replied, “I just shot the biggest buck of my life!” And he gave his mother a hug. Mike was adamant about letting the buck lay overnight. So, the crew waited impatiently until daybreak on the morning of October 30th to retrieve his giant. Mike gathered his family, his fiancé Jamie, along with some neighbors — and together they made the trek up the steep southwest Wisconsin ridges to the buck’s last known location. There he laid. He never got up from his last bed.
After the mandatory drying period, the non-typical giant taped out at 220 2/8 gross, and 208 3/8 net. Regarding the scoring and media hoopla surrounding this deer, everything was a local affair. I grew up in the same town and attended the same high school as Mike. The official scorer, Jerry Gander, owned the archery shop where Mike began his bowhunting journey. When I asked Mike to summarize his emotions surrounding his deer, he said: “I kept thinking, grandpa was with me that day. I couldn’t stop thinking about how grateful I was to be able to shoot that buck from my grandpa’s old tree — it’s just unbelievable.”