January 19, 2017
It was late November 2014, and Eleanor Henry and her father, Martin, were hunting the stand they call "the beaver hut." The location of this cypress box stand had become legendary to the family for producing large-antlered results over the years. Places you can come to depend on to produce mature bucks are few and far between, so to have one within a 30-minute drive of home epitomizes the beauty of "local" whitetail hunting.
This November evening would apply the finishing touches for Eleanor's young whitetail-hunting career to be titled as extraordinary — even if the then-17-year-old never hunted another day.
The temperature was very warm in Jefferson County, Arkansas, on the evening of Nov. 24. Eleanor was out of school for the Thanksgiving holiday, and it was prime time for deer hunting. In areas influenced by the flooding of the big rivers of the delta, fawning dates are typically later than those in the state's highland regions or in the Midwest. That translates to a somewhat delayed rut.
"The last week of November is the best time for seeing big bucks where we hunt," Martin says.
The Henrys hunt a good-sized block of private land that's intensely managed for trophy whitetail bucks. (There are no high fences.) Some hunters are envious of such properties, but who better to reap the benefits of great whitetail hunting than the farm families who cultivate this land year-round? The Henrys are longtime farmers living in the Desha County town of Dumas.
The area they hunt is enrolled in the Deer Management Assistance Program, which is offered to private landowners by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The Henrys work hard every year to dramatically reduce doe numbers, resulting in a buck:doe ratio now close to 1:1.
"The doe harvest is the most important thing we've done," Martin claims. "That's when we started killing big bucks."
And they let bucks reach maturity. To say the hunting culture in this part of Arkansas frowns on immature bucks being killed is an understatement. And they don't just frown — they put action behind their management goals. These hunters are after bucks at least 4 1/2 years old.
Additionally, in recent years the Henrys have chosen to only shoot 10-pointers scoring over 155 inches. They've seen that 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old 10-pointers scoring 130-150 can often blow up into true giants, adding inches in the double digits as they reach full maturity. Bucks with access to great nutrition often don't express their full antler potential until they're 5 1/2 or older. Deer with the most antler potential get taken out of the herd when they're 3 1/2, simply because they already have impressive headgear. If you're truly managing for trophies, these are exactly the deer that need to live a little longer.
Like many other hunters in southern Arkansas, Eleanor started when she was young. Martin's a veteran outdoorsman, and when his eldest daughter came of age to start holding a rifle, his hunting turned toward helping her.
She shot her first deer, a doe, when she was 8 years old. In 2009, at the age of 10, she killed her first mature buck: a 145-incher.
At the time, this deer was a giant. Truth be known, the last five years have been phenomenal for the delta region in terms of producing trophy whitetails. Southeastern Arkansas has always been known for big deer, but there were times in the not-so-distant past that a 130-inch buck was well worth shooting. But as noted, management practices have changed for the better, and many hunters are reaping the benefits.
Needless to say, killing that first big buck ignited in Eleanor a passion: a passion that has put her on a streak of amazingly good fortune. In fact, over the next four years, she'd continue her streak by killing bucks with gross scores of 160, 167 and 179 inches.
And then, in 2014, she'd kill a buck that would blow them all away.
Some might get the impression that these deer were coming to timed deer feeders while prancing around in front of game cameras, recording their exact arrival times and making for easy hunting. If this were the case, it wouldn't be hard to bring in a hunter for an easy kill, probably on the first sit. But that isn't the case with Eleanor's bucks. Clearly, the Henrys hunt an area that holds trophy deer, but they aren't being handed to her on a silver platter. It's still fair-chase hunting for wild deer. Mature bucks are mature bucks no matter where they are, and they grow old by being smart. Eleanor is known for passing on impressive deer.
"Many times throughout the years there would be a good 150-inch buck she wouldn't shoot," Martin recalls. This is where Eleanor's hunting begins to separate from that of many of her peers.
Second, she simply loves to go and is known for sitting long hours in the stand. As another hunter from the area notes, "You'd better pack a lunch if you're hunting with Eleanor."
Even on well-managed lands, you must hunt hard to consistently kill good deer. Those who've never hunted such places often have an impression that it's easy. Well, it's basically the same as attempting to kill a top-end buck in the region you hunt, regardless of his age or size. When you're after the type of deer that makes up less than 5 percent of the total deer herd, you're going to have to put in your time to make it happen. You're going to have to pass on a lot of lesser deer.
Perhaps the most enlightening point to be gleaned from Eleanor's success is this: Only one of the five trophies she's killed had been captured on trail camera. Supplemental feeding is part of the management strategy on this property, and there are numerous deer feeders with trail cameras running almost year-round. But as far as the Henrys can tell, four of these five mature delta bucks never stepped under a deer feeder the year they were shot. Perhaps they did when they were younger, but as they matured, it's as if they knew better.
Whitetails of course don't have the capacity for abstract thought, but they do have a keen instinct for staying alive. Anyone who's hunted over a feeder knows ample opportunity is given to deer to become educated to the human influence in these areas. Four of the bucks Eleanor has shot wouldn't even come to a feeder at night!
In a time in which trail cameras have become the backbone of many hunters' scouting procedures, it's a breath of fresh air to realize some bucks can even outsmart cameras capable of sensing motion and/or body heat! Needless to say, Eleanor's bucks weren't killed underneath a feeder.
Four of these five deer were killed from the "beaver hut." This stand is located overlooking a classic staging area. A peninsula of timber juts out from a larger block of timber. The peninsula curls around, creating a secluded cove in which are planted winter wheat and oats. The big timber offers bedding cover. The area surrounding the large block of timber is primarily CRP grass. Out from the peninsula is a large agriculture field also planted in wheat and oats.
"The deer want to be out in the bigger fields, but not until right at dark," Martin explains. "This stand is a great staging area." And it's great the week of Thanksgiving. "That is prime time for us in the delta. The bucks are going crazy. Sometimes it's almost dangerous to be in the woods," Martin says.
The temperatures were nearing 70 degrees as Martin and Eleanor climbed into the cypress box stand. Sticking with tradition, they both kissed the bullet as a symbolic act of good luck. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon. They had hunted the morning but hadn't seen a buck that Eleanor was interested in shooting. From the stand they could see the peninsula of timber, a wheat and oat food plot, and several shooting lanes cut through the CRP grass.
Soon after their arrival, they began to see deer funneling into the food plot. After about 15 deer filtered through the areas they could see, they saw a mature doe burst through one of the mowed strips in the CRP grass. It was 4:30 p.m. and behind the doe was a heavy-horned non-typical that made both of the Henrys' jaws drop. "We had never seen the deer before," Martin points out. And it was the biggest buck they'd ever seen.
The sun was in the hunters' eyes as the giant stood there in the grass 100 yards away. They could see his head and rack, but not his body. Luckily, the buck was far enough away from the woodsline that the Henrys felt sure there would be a shot. They just had to be patient. To help calm her nerves Eleanor repeated to herself out loud, "It's just a doe, it's just a doe."
As the buck moved he stepped into a clearing. With the deer slightly quartering away, she squeezed the trigger on her Browning .243 Win. The 95 grains of copper and lead struck the buck behind the shoulder, and he dropped. Eleanor immediately chambered another round and fired again, hitting within three-quarters inch of the first shot.
The father-daughter team celebrated, still in disbelief at the size of the huge buck and how quickly it all had happened. But they stayed on stand for the better part of 30 minutes, watching the motionless buck like a hawk over its prey, before Martin climbed down to check the fallen monarch.
When he arrived at the buck, he turned back towards the blind with two hands raised holding the gun in the air to indicate just how big the buck was. Eleanor admits she was having trouble breathing and was in disbelief as she approached the buck. The rack later would receive an official gross non-typical score of 188 5/8 and a net of 172 5/8.
That night the town of Dumas lit up, as people came from all over to see the great buck at the Henry house. The driveway was lined with muddy trucks as grown men gawked at the deer and marveled that Eleanor had killed another giant.
Early on, after every big buck she'd taken, people would tell this young hunter, "You'll never kill another buck that big in your life." Well, folks around Dumas have quit saying that to Eleanor Henry. She's still just in her teens and has a lot of deer hunting left.