There was as much skill and hard work as good fortune involved in taking Heath Kinder's trophy whitetail, but a bag of lucky acorns certainly didn't hurt matters.
Heath Kinder's Randolph County, Illinois, non-typical amassed a net score of 209 4/8 thanks in part to 15-inch G2s and 12-inch G3s. Photo courtesy of Heath Kinder.
llinois has always been known for being a big buck state, with the best bucks historically coming from the west-central part of the state. However, the southern part of the state is starting to gain notoriety as a producer of top-end bucks. Randolph County, located in southwest Illinois, is no exception. With its fertile farmlands, relatively low hunting pressure and thousands of acres of reclaimed strip mining ground, all of the ingredients are present for a big buck paradise. It is also a beautiful area to hunt.
Fortunately, my father owns some property in this area. This is where I found myself on Nov. 20, 2009, opening day of Illinois' firearms season, with a pocket full of lucky acorns. My 3-year-old son, Zeke, had picked up a grocery bag full of acorns at his grandparents' house. He told me they were lucky acorns and that I should take them deer hunting with me, so I did.
My brother, Chris, and I had been monitoring the property all summer with trail cameras and by glassing a bean field. We had caught some great bucks on camera and had seen a few shooters in the field, all of which had fueled our excitement for the upcoming season. We had bowhunted the property several times earlier in the fall, including the weekend before gun season. We saw a lot of action that weekend, including some of the bucks that we had been studying. It appeared the rut was in full gear.
Still, as gun season approached, neither of us had been able to close the deal despite some close encounters with mature bucks. I was beginning to question the luckiness of the acorns Zeke had given me. I would never tell him this of course, and I held out hope, putting the acorns in the pocket of my Scent-Lok suit every morning. We left camp Sunday night excited for the upcoming gun season only a week away.
Even though we were tired from all the hunting we had been doing, Chris and I were excited and recharged as we got settled into my father's deer camp back in Randolph County a week later. As most firearms hunters know, there is always a feeling of nervous anticipation around deer camp the night before the opener. We studied the trail photos one more time before the big hunt. We had three or four shooter bucks that we would be looking for the next day, all measuring over 140 inches and one we estimated at around 160. The weather forecast called for a gentle west wind with heavy fog for the next morning. The rain had finally stopped. We had good reason to be excited as we went to bed early that night.
My brother and I woke extra early the next morning. We quickly showered and got dressed in our cold-weather gear, as we planned to sit all day, if necessary. We were determined to wait for a mature buck. After spraying down with scent killer and loading up with the lucky acorns, we wished each other good luck and headed our separate ways to our stands.
I knew the way to my stand well. I had sat in the same tree for the gun season opener for the past 8 years. This is one of those special stands that you put up year after year. It is just one of those spots where you always feel like something great could happen at any minute. In fact, Chris and I call the spot "The Honey Hole."
Heath Kinder's son, Zeke, gave his dad a bag of lucky acorns on the morning of the hunt that resulted in the buck of a lifetime. Photo courtesy of Heath Kinder.
The stand was named the Honey Hole not simply because we thought it would sound good. It really was a honey hole. We had taken several mature bucks there over the years and you could count on seeing deer from this tree every time. The main reason is that the stand is located in an amazing pinch point that deer can hardly avoid.
It is located on the west edge of a thin strip of timber that runs north and south. On the east side of the timber are some agricultural fields and some more timber on neighboring property. About 60 yards straight in front of my stand, a lake comes to a point. On the north side of the lake there is a tall hill that opens up to some thick brush, locust trees, and tall grasses. Deer like to bed on top of this hill. On the south side of the lake there is a larger block of timber that is broken up by several more bedding areas and feeding areas. During the rut, bucks that are searching for hot does are often forced through a relatively open area between my stand and the edge of the lake.
HUNTING THE HONEY HOLE
By the time I had settled into my stand, well before first light, a thick fog had settled in, just as forecasted. As I eagerly awaited legal shooting time, the woods were dead calm. As the sun began to come up, the fog got even thicker and I could not see much farther than 50 yards. I kept imagining one of the bucks that we had studied on the computer emerging from the fog and walking in front of my stand, but the morning started slow.
By 7:30, some of the fog had started to melt away and visibility improved some. Around this time I saw a doe followed by a yearling buck come from my left and head by my stand and up the hill to my right. A few minutes later a decent 8-pointer followed their trail, but I knew there were better deer out there and let him pass. I thought this was a good sign that the rut was still going strong and that maybe it had been stalled a bit by all the rain earlier that week. I felt the acorns in my pocket and hoped that passing on the buck would pay off for me.
Great tine length and a number of unusual points, including a sizable drop tine, combine to give Heath Kinder's trophy buck a particularly special rack. Photo courtesy of Heath Kinder.
By 8 a.m., I had seen a few more does and small bucks. I hadn't seen a deer for about 10 minutes and had just taken a drink of water and settled back in when a large doe came bursting off the hill in front of me and to my right. She was running down the hill towards the trail that went in front of me. When I looked back up to the top of the hill, I could see why she was running. Coming behind her, but moving more cautiously, was a buck carrying the largest set of antlers I had ever seen in the wild. I didn't need my binoculars to see that he was definitely a shooter. It was about 200 yards to the top of the hill where the deer first appeared and by the time I got my muzzleloader up, the doe was less than 100 yards away with the buck following. At this time, I noticed another big buck on the trail of the first two deer, but my focus remained on the monster buck. The doe slowed to a fast walk and when she hit the trail that led in front of my stand, she was 80 yards out. She made a 90-degree right turn and started towards me. The large buck followed suit.
Now the doe and my dream buck were coming right to me and I got my gun ready for what I thought was going to be a slam dunk. Of course, as any hunter will attest to, it rarely works out quite as planned, and that morning was no exception. At a mere 40 yards out, the doe made a left turn into the timber to my right and the buck followed her in. Once in the woods, the doe stopped, breathing heavily. Now I had a problem.
With both deer standing to my right at 30 yards, I had to turn in my stand without being seen in order to get a shot. With one eye on the doe and one on the giant buck, I slowly tried to turn when I thought neither was looking. I almost made it to where I could shoulder the gun when the buck spotted my movement and stared directly at me. I froze in place, but it was too late. He had picked me off, and I knew it was over. The buck turned and ran directly away from me. I thought I had just let the buck of a lifetime get away. I kept the crosshairs on him as he ran and hoped for a miracle. Just as he was about to disappear behind some thick brush, he stopped and turned halfway back around looking for the doe. He was angling towards me at about 50 yards. I immediately settled my crosshairs on his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger of my Thompson/Center Triumph.
DOWN FOR THE COUNT
There was an anxious moment when I couldn't see anything through the smoke, but when it cleared, I could see the buck lying on the ground. I could see from the stand that this deer was really something special. I immediately called my wife, Andrea, and told her that I had just killed a monster and would send her cell phone pictures shortly. The next call was to Chris. He was sitting about 400 yards from me and had heard the shot. He asked "How big is he?" I was about to tell him what happened when all of a sudden, to my disbelief and shock, the deer jumped up and ran out of sight. I told Chris what just happened and he told me to shoot again. That is when I realized that in all the excitement, I never bothered to reload.
I got off the phone and tried to calm down, wondering what had just happened. That's when I heard two shots coming from the neighbor's property. I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in less than a minute. I just knew that the neighbors had just killed the buck. I started to feel sick to my stomach, wondering what went wrong. I never saw the impact point on the deer, but it was close enough that I didn't think it could have been very far off the mark. Then I started doubting myself and thinking that maybe I had made a bad shot.
Normally I would have sat there for a while to give the deer time to expire, but given the circumstances, I wanted to see if I had any blood and get on the trail if I did. When I got to the location of the hit, I found quite a bit of blood and was convinced that I had made a good shot and that the deer couldn't have gone very far.
That didn't make me feel any better about the shots I had heard on the neighbor's property, though. I started following the blood trail and laying down pieces of toilet paper to mark the trail. Soon, however, I realized that I didn't need the toilet paper because the blood trail was heavy and very visible. I also noticed that the trail was getting farther from the property line. I was now able to convince myself that the neighbors had been shooting at another deer and the timing was just a coincidence. I was walking slowly and looking ahead, but as the blood trail continued away from the neighbor's property, I started to believe that I was going to recover this deer and I couldn't help but speed up.
I had followed the blood trail for about 100 yards when all of a sudden, less than 20 yards in front of me, the giant buck jumped up from inside a thick cluster of honeysuckle. I could immediately see that the buck was laboring badly and would not make it far. He was heading for the hill and the cover on top. About halfway up, he slowed and then stopped slightly quartering away at 80 yards. Again, I settled the crosshairs on the buck.
This time the shot put him down for good. I could see that it was over now, but I decided to reload again because I had thought the same thing before and was wrong. As I started towards the monster buck, I could see antlers sticking up out of the grass. The closer I got, the bigger they became. When I finally stood over the fallen deer, I could not believe what I was seeing. When I shot the deer, I knew that it would be my biggest ever, but I had no idea how much bigger. This was truly a buck of a lifetime! Strangely, we had no pictures of this deer, nor had anyone seen him.
The buck had everything a deer hunter could dream of -- a 6-by-5 main frame, great mass, 19 scorable points, 15-inch G2s, 12-inch G3s, a 22-inch inside spread and a 7-inch drop tine coming off the left G2. He sported nearly 30 inches of abnormal growth. The buck green-scored around 210 inches gross with minimal deductions. After the 60-day drying period, Boone & Crockett scorer Mike Kistler, of Brownstown, Illinois, officially scored the rack at 209 4/8 net inches as a non-typical. It is being mounted by Kevin Gilbreath taxidermy in Pierron, Illinois.
I would like to thank my father and the other owners of the property for allowing my brother and I to hunt on such an amazing piece of land. Also, thanks to my wonderful wife, Andrea, who puts up with me spending countless hours in the woods each fall to allow me to pursue my dreams of chasing monster whitetails. Lastly, thanks to my son, Zeke, for the lucky acorns. I'll be expecting another bag full next year! I can't wait until you get a few years older and can use some of those acorns for yourself!