My youngest son Malcolm and I were greeted by light snow, a 10-20 mph northeast wind and a temperature of 19 degrees as we started the dark trek to our deer stands on the third morning of the 2014 Minnesota firearms season. Although it was Monday, school wasn't in session, due to it being a teacher workshop day. This pass from academics, combined with a recently concluded football season, meant Malcolm, a junior in high school, and I could hunt the entire day without interruption. Older son Boyd II, a senior, wasn't able to join us that day, due to other commitments.
The first two days of the season had been very windy, and while Malcolm had had the good fortune to see quite a number of deer on these days, Boyd II and I had spent a great deal of time staring at empty woods. Boyd II provided some humor in a text by noting, "The trees here are beautiful." Given the drab appearance of a November hardwood forest, I understood his good-natured sarcasm that gives one pause to wonder just how much of the same scenery a human eyeball can stand. No deer were taken opening weekend.
As we waited for first light that Monday morning, I had the chance to reflect on many things. With the blessing of my wife, Sharal, during the late summer of 2010 I'd purchased the 115 acres on which we were hunting. I'd done so for two major reasons. First, the acres were part of the original 160-acre Bradbury homestead of my great-great grandparents from the 1870s.
Not many properties have remained in one family for 140 years, but this was an exception. When my cousins decided to sell, I felt a strong pull to purchase the parcel, which contained not only a long history but also our family cemetery. Second, I needed to secure a tract of hunting land with some elbow space for my sons and me.
Although 115 acres would be considered a small tract by almost any measure, several characteristics of this particular parcel set it apart from others. The basic geographical features of the land lend themselves well to quality deer management. There are several hundred feet of frontage on a small, undeveloped lake. Around 84 acres of the property are rolling woodland with heavy stands of both red and bur oak throughout.
Approximately 12 1/2 acres of the property are tillable, and the remaining acreage is comprised of cattail sloughs and small ponds. There's minimal hunting pressure surrounding the parcel, and ample cropland exists just to the east of it. In a nutshell, I bought the property knowing there was dynamite potential to manage it for big deer.
Upon purchasing the parcel in 2010, I began to plan a management strategy. I walked the land with an area forester to solicit his opinion. Although he mentioned that selective logging could occur, it wasn't essential. He found some old-growth forest with an abundance of oaks. He suggested I cut small maples to give younger oaks a chance to grow.
Oaks grow much more slowly than maples. Moreover, maples are prolific seeders. The forester also noted the minimal value of ironwood for wildlife purposes. He suggested planting conifers for future bedding areas for deer and told me of several species of shrubs, such as chokecherry, that also would benefit wildlife.
After some deliberation, I chose not to disturb the parcel through logging. Although there was no evidence of any type of logging in decades — if ever — the age structure of oaks and other trees was varied. While it was evident some red oaks had succumbed to old age, younger oaks were present.
However, I could see maples were gaining a foothold on some parts of the property. As I had no interest in maple syrup production of any large scale, my sons and I began cutting smaller maples and saplings to ensure some openings in the canopy. These would provide adequate sunshine for small oaks to grow.
In 2011, I approached a neighbor who does some farming. I asked if he'd be willing to work the tillable acreage. He agreed to do so. In the process, I was able to set aside three smaller food plots for soybeans and corn. The remainder of the tillable acres (approximately 10) has now either been planted to alfalfa or is scheduled to be planted. While the soybeans tend to prove a draw for early-season bowhunting, the true attractant has been alfalfa. These fields draw deer well into late fall.
In addition to planting crops, my sons and I planted several hundred white spruce seedlings. We planted these on gradual slopes near sloughs where deer would have the option to bed, albeit in the distant future.
As legal shooting time approached on the season's third day, my thoughts turned from land management to deer. While I'd been fortunate to take three very nice bucks that grossed between 147 and 160 inches in the last three years, and while friends and family had alluded to a horseshoe lodged rather deeply inside a certain part of my anatomy, my real desire was to see my boys take mature bucks.
As light came, I started to scan my surroundings in religious fashion. I was in a two-man portable stand we primarily use for bowhunting. I chose the stand so that I could be close to Malcolm, who was in his permanent stand about 300 yards from me.
About 45 minutes into the hunt, I spotted a buck trailing a doe. Although he wasn't a monster, I did recognize him as a mature buck we had on trail camera. The deer was deep-chested with a Roman nose, but his rack didn't look to be more than 100 inches. While Minnesota only issues one buck tag per year, I made a quick decision to shoot this deer. I did just that, and I'm glad that I did so.
Tooth wear showed the buck to be 4 1/2 years old, and he scored 93 inches with about 2 inches of a G-2 tine missing. While I wanted to continue my streak of higher-scoring deer, I felt it more important to remove an older deer with weak genetic potential for big antlers.
A filled tag also meant I could hang with my son all day — if he'd let me. While our permanent stands are only 4x4 feet in size, he welcomed me as company for the day around 9 a.m.
We saw a fawn shortly after my arrival, but then nothing but trees and snow as the day progressed. Although the deer were scarce, our conversation was not. We whispered non-stop throughout the day, interspersing our conversations with occasional cold sandwiches, jerky and coffee.
I'd be a liar if I didn't confess that the wind, which during the day had shifted to the northwest, felt cold. I'm certain that with age comes less tolerance to the elements of nature. As a result, by 4:00 p.m. I'd donned a facemask and pulled my hat tightly over my ears.
Thankfully, though, Malcolm's hardier than am I. With half of each ear exposed, he heard some noise to the north and turned. He simply said "Deer" as he reached for his gun.
I turned my head over my right shoulder to see nothing short of a wall of tines and heavy mass attached to a trotting deer at 60 yards. There was no need to pull up the Nikon binoculars on this buck; it was a shooter. I wanted to reach for the camcorder in my right coat pocket, but there was little time and no room for extra commotion. I simply whispered "Shoot" about six times before I heard the discharge of the Ruger M77 and watched the buck drop in his tracks as the 150-grain .270 Win. Fusion bullet did its job.
As I recall, there was a quick high-five before I reminded Malcolm to put his crosshairs back on the fallen deer. More than once have I seen a supposedly dead deer emulate the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes.
After a minute of no movement, we descended the stairs and approached the buck in quick fashion. The buck was his. A hug and a fist bump were now in order.
We all know about ground shrinkage, but this buck didn't disappoint. If anything, there was ground growth. The rack sported considerable mass, and its darkness was only accentuated by the snow. Neither did tine length nor the number of points disappoint us. I told him right away that I was sure he'd just shot a "Booner." There are big deer — and I've had the good fortune to shoot some — and then there are big deer. This buck was in the latter category.
After twice counting points, we determined the buck was a true mainframe 6x6 with kickers off the right G-1 and G-2 tines. We then looked at each other with the same quizzical facial expression, wondering: "Where did he come from?" The largest buck we'd had on trail camera was a tall 10-pointer we estimated would push 150 inches.
We were aware that both my brother Lowell and nephew Josh had seen what they described as a "monster" with a "tree" on his head near our property a couple of days before firearms season had opened, but we had no evidence of his presence within our boundaries.
A few days later, we learned that hunters on a couple of nearby properties were aware of the huge deer through both trail camera photos and visual sightings over the last three years. One of those hunters was kind enough to send us trail camera pictures taken over that span.
After setting up the deer and snapping a few pictures with our cellphones, we sent out texts with attached pictures to my wife, Boyd II and relatives. We enlisted the help of Boyd II and my cousin, Troy, to help us get the buck out of the woods.
Once home, I put a quick tape to the rack and came up with 183 6/8 gross inches. I knew Malcolm's deer stood a good chance of netting above the 170-inch minimum for all-time Boone & Crockett status, but I also knew that the kickers were going to pose a problem for the final typical score.
The next day, we took the caped deer to Curt Kozitka, who is an official scorer for B&C. Curt couldn't have been nicer to Malcolm and highly encouraged him to enter the deer in the youth division of the Minnesota Deer Classic, which is held each March. Curt told us that he had scored 1,300 or more whitetails in his life, and that this was only the seventh or so true 6x6 he'd measured.
When Curt finished, Malcolm's buck green scored 185 0/8 gross and 166 7/8 net inches. With 6 0/8 inches of side-to-side difference and 6 1/8 inches of kicker deductions, Malcolm's buck missed B&C by just 3 1/8 inches on net score. However, the buck does qualify as a Booner at the Awards level. Tooth wear from the lower jaw placed the deer at 6 1/2 years of age or older.
While some would see Malcolm's accomplishment as simple luck, I beg to differ. I've taken my two boys hunting since they were 4 years old. I built a 4x8 permanent deer stand with elevated boat seats so they could see over the edge. I'd wrap them in sleeping bags, give them hot chocolate and let them take naps, if need be.
This sort of exposure instilled in them a desire to hunt. Moreover, they were exposed to seeing a lot of deer. Since their birthdates were only 14 months apart, they matured as deer hunters at roughly the same time. At ages 16 and 17, they've shot enough deer that they now hunt only for trophies, unless it comes down to the end of the muzzleloader season and they still have unfilled tags. At that point, they might opt for a mature doe for the freezer.
Malcolm shot this buck because we have a well-managed small tract, and he passes up numerous deer. Moreover, he makes his shots. I've heard people say we get lucky. Luck, however, is only part of the equation. We've put a great deal of effort into managing a small parcel. We plant food plots, cut and plant trees, keep pressure to a minimum and pass on young bucks.
In addition, we scout a lot and spend plenty of time in our stands during the season. I often hear people say they might as well shoot the young bucks before their neighbors do. That can and will happen. In fact, we had a very promising young buck (probably only 2 1/2 years of age) shot on a property not far from the one we own.
Although I was disappointed to hear the deer had been shot, it's beyond my control. What I can control is what we do on our own property. And so can others on their small parcels. If enough of us small-tract owners manage our lands for big deer, good things will happen. Just ask Malcolm.