After a frustrating pursuit of a big buck nicknamed Walter, Missouri deer hunter Tim Phillips goes old school with grandpa's 30.30 lever action to tag huge non-typical.
Over the last quarter century, children on both sides of the Atlantic have been mesmerized by the search for a cartoonish character named Waldo (Wally on the eastern side of the ocean), a bespectacled fellow cast as the central figure in the Where's Waldo? series of books.
An in-print-version of hide-and-go-seek, the red-and-white striped shirt wearing Waldo mischievously hides in plain sight as others go about the various events of daily life.
St. Paul, Mo. hunter Tim Phillips is all too familiar with the concept, spending much of the last few years targeting a giant non-typical whitetail in eastern Missouri.
"I first saw the deer back in 2014," said the 32-year old Phillips, a real estate agent in the area. "I got wind of him through a buddy, who had gotten a photo of him on a game camera."
Knowing that his father-in-law Henry Hoff owned land in the same vicinity the buck was said to live in, Phillips talked to his father-in-law and put up a couple of cameras on the family land.
"I got him on camera just a couple of days before the Missouri rifle season started in 2014," said Phillips. "I threw a ground blind up on that Friday (before the season began)."
The next day, Phillips sat in that blind as long as he could.
"One of my best friends was getting married that day — he obviously isn't a deer hunter since the wedding day was on the opening day of Missouri's gun deer season — so I could only hunt for a couple of hours that morning," he recalled.
At some point, Phillips heard a deer snort wheeze and grunt, something that caused him to look out into the field that the blind was guarding.
"He had run out into the field, but he went behind a couple of trees and I couldn't get my scope on him for more than a second or two before he walked away," he said.
That began the hunter's ongoing quest for the deer, one that he and a hunting pal quickly put a nickname to.
"Me and my buddy Scott Dyer, one of my best friends, we just have kind of developed a habit of naming the big deer that we are chasing," said Phillips. "We usually just name them Walter, kind of a catch-all name.
"But ever since we got this one on camera, he became the one and only Walter," he added. "I'm not sure where the name came from, it just kind of stuck."
The problem was that after that initial encounter in 2014, Walter became a virtual ghost, tantalizing Phillips in a search that seemed to have no end.
"I never really saw him again while hunting over the next few years," said Phillips. "That's why this journey has been so long and tiring. I saw him from my truck as I was driving in a couple of times, but not from a stand. Other people around town would see him too, but not me. It was like he was haunting me almost."
As the buck continued to play hide-and-seek, Phillips kept being motivated by the 25 or so photos he had gotten from his Moultrie, Bushnell, and Wild Game Innovations game cameras.
"Before this year, I would only get a few photos of him each year along with a few that some of the neighbors would share," said Phillips. "I usually put my cameras up a little before October, but this year, I was so busy with work that I didn't have a chance to put my cameras out until October 4."
As work and family duties called — Phillips and his wife Monica have three daughters, 10-year old Audrina, four-year old Mariah, and 1 ½ year old Delta — Phillips wasn't in the woods too much during the month of October.
But on Nov. 2, everything changed when Phillips' 62-year old father Don had a close archery encounter with Walter, eventually getting a shot. But the shot wasn't perfect and the deer escaped recovery, despite a lengthy search with a tracking dog and friends and family combing the woods.
While both father and son were bummed out over not finding the deer, it didn't take long for them to confirm that Walter was still alive thanks to game camera photos that they quickly started getting.
After setting up a Big Game tripod stand in the area, Phillips let the area settle down for a couple of days, then started his chase again with his bow.
"Once I started hunting him again, I was at it practically all day long, all the way up to gun season," said Phillips. "On Wednesday (Nov. 8th), I had finished hunting, went back to my truck, loaded everything up, started the motor and turned to leave and there he was standing on a hillside 60-yards away just watching me."
By opening morning of the 2017 Missouri gun deer season (Nov. 11th), Phillips was growing tired, but still pressing on.
"I hunted from first light until about 9 a.m. that morning, then took a break to eat lunch before getting back in my stand at 10:30 a.m. for a (rest of the) day sit," said Phillips.
As he did so, he and a hunting buddy texted each other some words of encouragement.
"I texted him that I was burnt out, almost ready to be done hunting that deer," chuckled Phillips. "I had spent so much time, so many years hunting that deer that I was physically and mentally exhausted. I had reached the point where I wanted somebody to get him, even if that wasn't me."
By late afternoon, Phillips had endured a long day on stand with no deer sightings. As the afternoon waned, all of that changed in a heartbeat.
"The whole time, I'm thinking that I can't believe I'm still hunting this deer after four long years and maybe a couple of hundred hunts," said Phillips. "Then about 4:55 p.m., he came screaming across a hill, running about 200-yards away through a treeline."
When the buck disappeared into a honeysuckle patch, Phillips grabbed his grunt call, grunted about five times, and waited to see what would happen.
"To be honest, I wasn't expecting much because that had never really worked for me before," he said. "But by the grace of God, this time, it worked. I heard him grunt and coming my way, so I got the 30.30 up and waited."
Moments later, the giant whitetail partially emerged less than 100-yards away.
"When he came out, he actually had a couple of small tree branches in his antlers and it almost made me laugh," said Phillips. "But then he stopped, started stomping his hooves in the ground, and I knew he knew something was up."
At that moment, the hunter went on autopilot.
"I had replayed this moment over and over again in my head, almost like a little kid dreaming of winning a sporting event like the Super Bowl," said Phillips. "I had rehearsed this so many times and I just told myself not to look at his antlers."
When the shot was touched off, the buck tumbled into a small ditch. A finishing shot later and all was quiet in the Missouri woods as Phillips tried to absorb the ups and downs of a multi-year quest that had just ended.
After climbing down from his stand and texting some family and friends, the hunter made his way to the fallen monarch of the local whitetail woods.
"I told my wife that I almost cried when I got over the top of him," said Phillips. "I had so much time, so much energy, so much emotion that had built up over the years. To finally have gotten him, it was pretty crazy."
Almost as crazy as the buck's antlered numbers have proven to be. Estimated at 7 ½ years of age, a Boone and Crockett Club measurer has put a tape to the 31-point buck, coming up with a green gross score of 237 1/8-inches and a green net score of 228 1/8-inches. If those green score numbers verify after the mandatory 60-day drying period ends, the Phillips buck could become one of the Top 15 B & C non-typicals to ever come from Missouri.
As word spread around town, Phillips became almost an instant celebrity as hunters, area residents, local media, and even deer podcast interviewers and newsmen from around the country have inquired about the buck.
"He was definitely a well-known deer — just about everybody in town knew about it," said Phillips. "And there were more people hunting the buck than I knew — some had dubbed it the St. Paul Giant."
"It's been a whirlwind few days," said Phillips, noting that he had to change his Facebook page settings because of the crush of attention. "After some of the lows, this has been the highest of highs, although it has definitely been exhausting.
"I'm enjoying every minute of it," he added. "When I started hunting, I never imagined that I'd one day get a deer of this size. I'm appreciative and know how fortunate I am to get it."
Fortunate indeed, ending a long quest in the thick Missouri woods, finding a huge buck named Walter before anyone else could.