Although January's not a time typically associated with killing huge bucks, many Midwestern states have whitetail seasons that reach well into that month. At this time of the year, bucks are focused on finding available food, which often makes their patterns quite predictable.
Generally, the worse the weather, the better the deer hunting. Despite this correlation, braving the harsh conditions isn't something every hunter is willing to do. Steve Niemerg and cousin Justin Roepke decided to tough out the weather during the 2014-15 Illinois season, and they were rewarded with a buck scoring 197 total inches.
The story of this January giant is one of hardship and grit, with a little luck mixed in. On Jan. 6, 2014, Steve and Justin were working to improve deer habitat on one of their customers' properties. Steve and Justin have their own land-management business, Wildlife Management Trees, which they started with the intent of maximizing deer habitat for their customers.
Steve recently got out of the Army, and Justin graduated college with a degree in forestry. "I have dedicated my life to learning and doing more to provide a superior quality of habitat," Steve says."I am so passionate about it that I had no other choice than to make it my career."
Facing the Elements
While working that particular farm in January, Steve and Justin noticed the weather quickly taking a turn for the worse. Knowing their attempts at working through the storm were growing increasingly futile, the men began thinking about leaving work to hunt on their lease in Fayette County. Steve and Justin had been very successful in improving the quality of the hunting on that lease. In fact, they'd created what they like to call a "hunting paradise."
As the storm strengthened, Steve and Justin finally decided they couldn't work in the woods. But they could hunt. Knowing big bucks on their property were likely to gravitate toward a soybean food plot in the nasty weather, they had high hopes.
The area they decided to hunt spanned a couple soybean plots adjacent to a bedding area Steve and Justin had built the previous spring. Having had the farm leased for four years, their combined efforts towards land management were starting to really pay off.
"I don't think anyone had killed anything bigger than a 130 there before we started the lease," Steve notes. "But in just four years, we had a 165 and one we estimated to be close to 180 on the farm."
No. 1 on the Hit List
Steve and Justin had utilized trail cameras as an integral part of the scouting process. They accredit the cameras to helping them get an accurate view of their deer herd. Among the bucks they had on camera, the biggest, which they had judged near 180 inches, was No. 1 on the hit list for that year. They'd named him "Hog Wild." But despite having quite a few trail camera photos of him, the hunters had had very few actual sightings.
As Steve and Justin sat in their stands that evening, snow came down in sheets and the wind drove the chill factor well below zero. Rather than sit together and try to shoot video, they decided to hunt separately that evening.
Each bowhunter saw several does and smaller bucks. Then, Justin had an encounter with a 165-class buck named "High & Tight." This deer was a trail camera star, and he often ran with Hog Wild. However, when High and Tight entered the field it was getting dark, and Justin didn't feel comfortable taking a shot. Battling low light and high winds, Justin made the tough choice to let him walk.
"Generally, the worse the weather, the better the deer hunting. Despite this correlation, braving the harsh conditions isn't something every hunter is willing to do."
After getting down from their stands, the bowhunters made their way back to the truck. Arriving there, they found it drifted in. Steve and Justin shoveled and shoveled, but to no avail. They were stuck. Growing worried, the men realized that, even if they could get the truck freed from its parking spot, they weren't sure they could even drive home. The entire road was covered in huge snowdrifts, and a call to the road department confirmed that the roads were all closed. Not even a tow truck would be able to reach them. Steve and Justin were stranded.
Thinking on their feet, they decided to walk to the nearest farmhouse and see if someone would be willing to help. As they finally arrived at the nearest house, Steve and Justin knocked on the door — and were pleasantly surprised. The fellow answering the door invited them in with a smile and a simple statement: "Jesus wouldn't leave you out in this, and neither would I!"
The man who answered the door, Mr. Nichols, he turned out to be a great host. Steve and Justin not only were greeted with a warm meal, but also a place to sleep. The next morning the storm raged on, but Steve and Justin weren't fazed. Instead, they were eating breakfast and lunch with their good Samaritan. In total, the men were at the Nichols house nearly 24 hours.
By that afternoon, the storm finally began letting up. So, did Steve and Justin go home? No — they headed back out to hunt!
Despite the snow having subsided, the wind continued to howl, and temperatures remained below 0. As diehard as they come, Steve and Justin remained optimistic the nasty conditions would be worth toughing out for a few hours.
The soybean plot was again the target for the evening hunt, and the action started to build as does and small bucks piled into the field. Suddenly, Steve saw High & Tight coming toward him...followed by Hog Wild!
Steve turned on his camera, but the battery was flashing "low." Being strictly dedicated to getting his hunts on video, Steve won't shoot unless the camera is rolling. Luckily, it began to record. From there, it all happened just as they'd drawn it up: Steve let High and Tight walk, and then drew on Hog Wild. Steve settled the pin and released.
"I thought the shot looked good, maybe just a touch low," the bowhunter recalls. "The field cleared of deer, so I rendezvoused with Justin, and we reviewed the footage. We decided to recover the deer and then began tracking in the snow. The blood trail was good, but surprisingly, after 200 yards of tracking, we jumped the buck and he ran off."
It wasn't until close examination of the video that Steve and Justin realized the shot had hit a twig and entered the buck a bit lower and farther back than originally thought. Now Steve had a difficult choice to make. The drifting snow could easily cover up the blood trail if he decided to leave the buck overnight. But then, if the men were to accidentally bump the deer, there was clearly more risk of never finding him.
Lost and Found
Steve and Justin decided to back out for the night. By now the roads had been plowed, and they were finally able to dig the truck out and head home.
"That 45-mile drive took us over six hours," Steve says, "including a two-hour dead stop just two miles shy of our exit. It was terrible! We probably should have stayed at Mr. Nichols' house again that night.
"I arrived home after 1:00 in the morning, but I still laid there with my eyes open," Steve continues. "The drive back only took two hours the next morning. We trudged through snow that was knee-deep to crotch- deep and followed an easy trail of the buck until he entered a bedding area, where his tracks were lost among the others. We decided to split up and do a ground search."
Soon Justin called Steve over to where he was standing, saying he'd found blood.
"I made my way to Justin's location," Steve recalls. "He began directing me to where he thought my best chances were of getting back on the trail. Unbeknownst to me, he'd sent me to the exact location where he'd already discovered my giant. Justin merely wanted to see my reaction upon uncovering him.
"All my prayers had been answered as I walked within 15 feet of my buck before spotting him. He had been laid to rest right under the limb of a large cedar tree. I immediately began to feel the years of dedication, passion and hard work pay off as I put a firm grasp on the antlers of my first Boone & Crockett archery buck. It was a proud moment for both of us."
Steve and Justin's earlier guess of 180 inches turned out to be low. The rack was "green" scored by four measurers, with all four tallies being between 197 and 198 1/8 inches. His mass measurements brought the score up tremendously. The right antler scored 84 1/8 and the left scored 92 1/8. When the greatest spread of 20 6/8 was added, the final score came in at 197 0/8.
It's safe to say very few people were bowhunting in Illinois on Jan. 6-7, 2014. But for a couple guys who toughed it out, the hardship was well worth it.
"I had been called crazy multiple times throughout those two days for sitting in such awful conditions," Steve says. "However, I knew in the bottom of my heart that laying my hands on this giant was going require an even greater dedication to my sport than ever before. From the experience, I have not only gained a new trophy on my wall, but also proof that habitat-improvement projects will pay off with time and dedication.
"More importantly though, I've gained the reward of knowing I'd put in countless hours of hard work to accomplish this task. I have memories with Justin I know I'll forever cherish, and I've once again realized how truly blessed I am. Each and every day we should make an attempt to show God's love to others, just as Mr. Nichols showed to us the night we needed warmth and shelter."