By Bernie Barringer
The young buck that turned up on Minnesota hunter Leo Van Beck’s trail camera back in 2017 clearly had potential.
“He was either two or three years old, but he’d score 140-145,” Leo remembers. “He was on heavily pressured state land, and we only got photos of him in October and November.”
When Leo says, “we,” he’s referring to his extended family. That includes his father, Marti, brothers, uncles and cousins: an entire clan of successful deer hunters living near the Stearns County town of Sauk Centre, in the central part of the state.
In ‘18, Leo’s camera revealed that the buck had blown up into a 6x6 the young hunter figured would score around 170.
“Bucks that size are not common around here, especially on public land,” Leo points out. “This deer was really sporadic. We’d get photos of him from time to time in October and November. In early November, he broke off his entire left side right above the brow tine.” Mainly for that reason, the guys didn’t target the buck for the remainder of the season.
The deer appeared regularly on trail camera at Leo’s Uncle Chad’s place about four miles away. A few other people in the area now were becoming aware of the deer, and another landowner near Chad’s property happened upon his right-side shed antler that winter. Now everyone in Leo’s group knew he’d survived another hunting season, and they expected him to be even bigger in ’19.
Leo’s a mobile hunter who mostly uses a hang-and-hunt approach to state land. Going into last season he’d shot some decent bucks, but nothing mature — and for sure nothing close to the size of this one. Being a college student, he has limited time to hunt, so he makes the most of it by chasing deer on the weekends. His goal last fall was to shoot a buck at least 4 ½ years old.
“The next summer I spent a lot of hours looking for that buck,” Leo says. “I decided he would be my No. 1 target. I drove around in the evenings, glassing fields trying to find him, but I never laid eyes on him.”
On Oct. 7, though, the deer again showed up on camera at Uncle Chad’s place. And it was obvious he’d made an even bigger jump in size. Now the family was playing a guessing game about how big the rack might actually be. Most of the guesses were around 190 inches — but they’d later discover they were way underestimating the buck.
On Oct. 19, the deer was again on camera near Leo’s home, so the young hunter decided to make an all-out effort to get him. However, over the course of three hunts on private and public land — none of which produced a sighting — Leo became convinced the deer was using areas most hunters didn’t enter.
He decided to look for it the following weekend, and to do so on nearby public land. It was an area bordered by a swamp with thick cover all around. Leo hadn’t been in there for years, but knowing the area was too thick and nasty for any pheasant hunter to navigate, he figured hunting pressure would be minimal.
The afternoon of the last Sunday in October, he headed into the area with a portable tree stand on his back. He struggled his way through thick cover, looking for deer sign.
“It was a jungle, covered in buckthorn with downed trees at every angle,” Leo says. “There’s no way to walk anything close to a straight line. I remember wondering how a deer could even walk through this stuff.”
But then the hunter found exactly what he was looking for. Penetrating about 200 yards into the mess, he came to a small opening and found an area all torn up with fresh buck sign. It was loaded with big scrapes and rubs, including some on bigger trees. Trails intersected the area, and one scrape had a big track right in it.
After spending some time really analyzing the area, Leo found where the swamp funneled the deer traffic into a predictable pattern. Here the young hunter hung his stand and sat for the remainder of the day. The big buck didn’t show. However, when other deer started moving through, it gave Leo confidence in the spot.
“I had nine antlerless deer go through that evening, and they all went by within shooting range,” he recalls.
There were more trail cam photos of the big deer near home that next week. With firearms season rapidly approaching, Leo decided to make an all-day hunt the following Friday, when he wouldn’t have any classes.
“I decided to go in way before daylight and packed some things to eat for the day,” he says. “Using a headlight, I was picking my way through the jungle when I came across a big community scrape I had seen on the way out of the previous hunt.
“I knew I was in the wrong area, so I looked at my map and got myself oriented and started moving again. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back at that same scrape.”
Leo eventually made his way to the right tree, but by then it was almost daylight, and he was soaking wet with sweat. Not a good way to start a cold November day in the deer woods. But the hunter kept his head and wisely took his time proceeding.
“I stripped down, and my T-shirt was so wet it was steaming in the cold air,” Leo notes. “It took a few minutes to cool off.”
Soon enough, he had his stand hung and had settled in for the remaining 15 minutes of gray light before legal shooting time. It was dead calm, and for the first time all morning, the hunter finally was able to relax a little.
Not long after daybreak, that relaxation ended.
“I could see a doe and two fawns working their way toward me,” Leo recalls. “As I was watching them browse, I heard heavy footsteps coming from the opposite direction.
Because it was overcast, the light was low. It was hard to see. But at 80 yards, I could see glimpses of the deer and knew it was a buck.”
As the buck slowly closed the distance, Leo could see that the animal was mature enough to meet his personal goal of a 4 1/2-year-old. So the archer calmed himself and readied for a shot.
“Then the buck walked through an opening, and I realized it wasn’t just a nice buck — it was him!” Leo says. “He walked to within 10 yards of the base of my tree. If I had known it was him for all that time, I wouldn’t have been able to calm myself down.
“When he got close, I watched his eye to make sure he wasn’t looking at me,” the hunter continues. The buck was quartering away, but when Leo drew his bow in the dead calm, the deer still detected something that mildly spooked him.
“He made a few bounds directly away from me and stopped at 40 yards,” Leo says. “I’d pre-ranged everything around me, so I knew the distance exactly.”
When the big buck looked back, Leo shot. Unfortunately, his lighted nock failed to trigger, and in the low light he couldn’t see the arrow’s impact.
“It sounded like a hit, but I didn’t know for sure,” the hunter explains. “I started texting my family.”
Their advice was to wait awhile, then let them help with the trailing job. Leo asked them to pray in the meantime.
“I was shaking so bad that a 6-point buck came by and busted me,” he says. “After 30 minutes, I went to the point of impact. I could see where his tracks dug in, and within 10 yards from there I found sprayed blood.”
Leo packed out his gear and waited for help to arrive. At noon, quite an assemblage of family showed up, ready to help. His father, brothers, uncles and a cousin — nine people in all — headed back into the woods.
Their job would be easy. “It was a red carpet,” Leo remembers. “We walked right to him.” The shot turned out to have cut the heart.
They experienced the joy of sharing this moment together. “Everyone was just as excited as I was,” Leo remembers. “There was a sense of awe putting my hands on that deer for the first time. I was speechless. This was a gift from God.”
Taking turns dragging, the crew spent two hours getting the buck out of the woods.
A friend who is an official measurer put a tape to the deer and quickly dispelled all the speculation about just how big it was. After 60 days of drying, the antlers officially netted 209 5/8. Total asymmetry deductions came to only 3 2/8 inches, which is amazing for a 200-inch whitetail.
The buck’s 8x8 rack now ranks as one of Minnesota’s top public-land archery trophies of all time. But as Leo is quick to point out, the credit for this kill should be spread around.
“My dad and uncles have taught me to hunt and they deserve some credit for this deer,” he says.