December 07, 2016
It never ceases to amaze me just how elusive a giant whitetail buck can be, even when you know exactly where he lives.
By the time he's survived to the age of 5 1/2, I truly believe he's a different creature than most other deer in the woods. His ability to remain undetected — yes, even by trail cameras — is enough to leave the most seasoned veteran of the whitetail woods scratching his head in frustration and disbelief.
The older a buck gets, the less traveling he'll do, and the fewer mistakes he'll make. In part, this sometimes is because his home range consists of only a few acres. These reclusive ghosts of the timber can become almost unkillable, leaving you to wonder if they're still in your hunting area — or even alive, for that matter.
What follows is an account of chasing one such animal. It's a true testament to a mature buck's ability to remain virtually undetected for years. And it offers a good lesson in why we must avoid falling into the trap of relying too much on the intel from our scouting cameras.
2013 Starts the Story
My good friend and hunting partner David Fischer is no stranger to big deer. He lives in Ohio, and he takes the game as seriously as any other hunter you might meet. David's almost religious about scent control and won't hunt without his Ozonics unit.
He keeps his Hoyt cranked up to 82 pounds for elk and whitetails and normally runs a couple dozen trail cameras to keep tabs on deer in his hunting area.
David came to know of this particular buck's existence back in 2013, when he captured his first trail camera photo of him still in velvet.
"I'm guessing he was 3-4 years old then and probably in the mid-150s," David says. He's fairly certain this was the same animal he shot in 2015 because of the split G-2 tine the buck grew on his left side. He carried it for the last three seasons of his life.
"I was pleasantly surprised to get a picture of him," David says, "even though he wasn't a buck I had planned on targeting that year. I knew he needed another year or two. Even though I'm on the farm very regularly year-round, at least a few times per week and hunt there almost exclusively, I only saw the buck on the hoof one time that year."
2014: MORE OF THE SAME
The next year, David never laid eyes on the buck again until the rut. Then he managed to capture one more picture. This photo was snapped in November.
"I managed to catch a glimpse of him a couple times last year during the rut, and he looked to be pushing the 170-inch mark," David recalls.
While this whitetail was obviously of trophy class, the bowhunter was on the trail of an even larger buck — and with Ohio allowing a person to harvest just one buck per year, that bought the reclusive deer a reprieve.
Still, David made a mental note that the only two camera images he'd managed to acquire, along with his own quick visual sightings of the buck, had come from the same 10- to 12-acre section of the farm over the past two years. This clearly wasn't a buck that ranged widely or was interested in posing for portraits.
"I'm on that property all the time and have the entire farm wired for sound with cameras everywhere," my friend notes. "That buck was just a ghost!"
Although David kept a close eye on the farm for the remainder of the season, the big 11-pointer vanished. Had he succumbed to the leg injury visible in the photo? Feeling that if the buck had survived he potentially could now score 180-190 inches, my friend certainly hoped to verify he was still alive.
But with no personal sightings throughout summer and not a single trail camera photo, David was less than optimistic.
On the morning of Oct. 8, all of that changed. David finally laid eyes on the deer he'd been waiting almost a year to see. And man, had he grown!
Each year I publish a new version of Moon Guide, which uses lunar information to predict the season's best days and times for deer movement. David uses this information in his own hunting, with a particular focus on being afield when we'll have what's called a "red moon" early or late in the day. This signifies one of those rare days when mature bucks will actually move appreciably in daylight outside the rut.
"You normally don't see a mature buck moving during daylight in October, let alone in the morning," David notes. "But I knew I had a red moon on my Moon Guide that day. And after my morning hunt, I spotted him all alone, feeding in the wide open on some soybeans that were still green. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was the biggest whitetail I'd ever seen!"
When the non-typical exited the field that morning, he headed into a thick bedding area David knew well. Now the game was on.
"I wasn't able to hunt that evening, with prior commitments for work," David notes. "But I knew just where I wanted to be on the next evening's hunt."
OCT. 9, 2015
Having intimate knowledge of his hunting area, David had a pretty good idea where the buck was bedding and where he might be able to catch him entering the lush food plot the following evening. The soybeans were in a secluded 10-acre field that's rectangular in shape, running west to east with that thick bedding area just off the west end. The timber is fairly open just off the field's edge, but a short distance into the cover a very deep, thick ravine wraps around the south and west sides of the field.
"Inside the woods there's about 50 yards between the field edge and the ravine that runs the length of the field — except near the southwest corner of the field," David says. "That's where the ravine almost meets the bean field, choking the spot down to an area about 10 yards wide, creating quite a pinch point for any deer that wants to avoid crossing the deep ravine. This pinch point is where the deer enter the beans, and my stand is located on the field edge maybe 35 yards to the east. It's a dynamite spot, and anything that enters the field or remains in the timber skirting the field edge comes right by my stand."
The only catch was, David had been monitoring this trail, the bedding area and the soybean field with no less than eight cameras — and none had taken a single picture of the giant. The stand was about 150 yards from where David had seen him the day before.
"He showed up that night about 45 minutes before dark, right in the corner of the field and 85 yards from my stand," David says. "And he never moved! All I could do was sit there and watch in amazement. I couldn't believe the number of points he had or the incredible mass at his bases! I had to wait until total darkness before leaving the stand, as I could hear deer in the beans and was very concerned I would spook the deer off.
"I called my buddy Dr. Gayland Jones on the way home that evening and told him I was hunting the biggest buck I'd ever seen, and that it had to go over 200 inches with at least 17 points. His only advice was, 'Don't screw it up!'"
OCT. 11, 2015
"My son had a hockey game the next day, so I was unable to hunt on Saturday," David continues. "But Sunday afternoon found me anxious to get in the stand early."
The southwest wind blew David's scent out into the field, but away from the corner where most deer entered it. With an hour of shooting light left, three does made their way into the beans and worked their way to within 25 yards of David's stand, directly downwind.
"They knew something wasn't quite right," he says. "But they never really got totally alert and finally settled down and began feeding. Thank goodness for my Ozonics. I'm convinced I'd have never had a chance that night without it.
"About 15 minutes before shooting light was gone, my buck appeared in the southwest corner of the bean field, just inside the woods. He scanned the field but opted to stay inside the woods and turned to walk directly to me! As he crossed the head of the ravine 35 yards from my stand, I reached for my bow and in one fluid motion clipped on my release and came to full draw, hoping not to alert the does that fed in the beans right behind me.
"Once he cleared the head of the ravine he began angling to my left, not following the well-used path that passed by my stand 15 yards to the south and just skirting my trail camera. At 22 yards he stopped in a small clearing, and I released. In the low light I saw my Easton Axis find its mark just at the top of the heart.
"I knew the hit was lethal but still waited 20 minutes before climbing down," David recalls. "The blood trail was easy to follow, but unfortunately, he made it to the bottom of the ravine before expiring."
David hasn't measured his buck officially, but the giant has 18 scorable points, three beams on the right side, an outside spread of 26 4/8 inches and bases measuring a whopping 11 1/2 and 9 inches: truly a world-class animal!
Big deer are survival experts with the uncanny ability to survive right under our noses without being seen — sometimes even with trail cameras seemingly hanging on every other tree! So remember this story the next time you're debating whether or not to hunt a certain area based on photos, or lack thereof. Even if you don't have a specific monster on camera, he still could be living right there.