November 10, 2010
By Mike Versland
With the help of at least four years of shed antlers, Mike Versland pieced together the mystery behind a Minnesota monster and dropped the hammer on his dream buck.
By Mike Versland
Mike Versland used clues from shed antlers dating back at least four years to pinpoint his trophy buck, which netted 198 4/8 as a non-typical.
I began shed antler hunting in January of 2006, and I was lucky enough to find six antlers that year. Throughout the next summer I kept returning to one thought: I wonder if I can harvest one of these bucks? Little did I know I was about to experience one of the most difficult but rewarding challenges in hunting. On September 28, 2006, I was lucky enough to harvest my first Pope and Young deer, a 130-inch, 214-pound buck. When I got home that night, I grabbed my shed antlers and discovered that, for the first time, I had shot a first deer whose shed antlers I had found before the season.
After finding an antler and then harvesting that buck the following deer season, the winter could not get here fast enough. I spent a great deal of time looking for fallen bone that winter, but as March was coming to a close, I had only three small antlers. I have to admit I was pretty disappointed. On the morning of March 31, 2007, I set out once again. I had only gone about 150 yards into a stand of pines when I raised my foot to step over a fallen tree. I still remember looking down and seeing an enormous antler leaning against the fallen log. At first, I just stepped back and stared. I sent text messages to my brother Jim and my friends Chris and Matt describing how I had just stumbled on a 70-inch antler. Soon after picking up the antler, I realized it was much bigger. Then panic struck me and my thoughts started racing. Where is the match? Did someone else already find it?
A week later, when walking a steep south-facing slope with one of my students, Brandon, I heard him say, "Hey, Versland, is this one big enough?" I looked up to see Brandon pulling a giant 5-point antler out of the leaves. I ran up the hill as fast as I could, but within the five seconds it took me to get there, I heard Brandon say, "It's not him, it's too small." As it turned out, Brandon had just found the buck's left antler from 2005.
Several more days passed and I kept on the hunt. I was finding antlers on a daily basis, but not the one I was hoping for. Just when I thought my luck was about to run out, I stopped to get permission from one more farmer to look on his land. We talked for quite some time and before I left, he granted me permission to look on his property. As soon as I stepped out into his field, I saw giant tines poking out of the grass. I could not have been happier as I sprinted toward my newfound prize, but as I approached the massive antler I could see it was not the deer I was looking for. Rather, this was an antler from a 150-class 8-point. Now I had a real dilemma. "How am I going to find the match to this one too?" Soon after picking up the massive 4-point shed, I noticed the farmer's white pickup heading my way. Next thing I knew, he was handing me a giant bleached-white antler. My only thought was, It's him! The farmer proceeded to tell me how he got in his tractor just 10 minutes after I left, and as he was driving along the edge of the field he noticed the antler. I was not only surprised that he found it, but I was speechless when he handed the 89-inch beast to me and said, "Now you have the match." A couple days later, I also found the match to the giant 8-point. My 2007 shed antler season could not have been better.
I decided that summer that I was going to hunt one deer during the coming season, and if I didn't see him, I was not going to release an arrow. During the early part of the 2007 season, I had two encounters with the giant 150-class 8-point and another with a beautiful 10-point. Then, on the night of November 3, while sitting in a thin row of trees along a cattail swamp, I had another 145-inch 8-point approach my stand. I watched and videotaped him for more than 20 minutes as he rubbed a tree only 25 yards away. Just after shooting hours, with the 8-point still at 15 yards, another deer approached. This one was bigger yet. He came so close that he actually sniffed my tree. He was a mainframe 10-pointer with more than a 20-inch inside spread and nearly 12-inch G-2s and G-3s. I did not think it was the deer I was looking for because it did not have the distinctive 5-inch splits on the G-2s. Him or not, it was after hours and I was not going to shoot. I never saw either buck for the rest of the season.
In March of 2008, I found the giant's right antler. My first thought as I pulled it from the frozen ground was Where are the split G-2s? My second thought was It was him sniffing my tree on November 3rd! The good news was that I had discovered a very important clue to where this buck was living. The bad news was that I never did find his left antler from 2007. However, my brother did find an old antler that we believe this buck carried in 2004.
In June of 2008, I quickly moved my Cuddeback to the tree line where I saw the deer November 3, 2007. I only checked my camera once every 60 days and was totally scent-proof when I went into this buck's core area. I got several pictures of him throughout the summer. My adrenaline was pumping when the 2008 season began, but after more than four weeks, I still had not seen him.
Finally, on the night of October 26, I looked up to see the magnificent giant emerge from the cattails and start heading my way. Before I knew it, he was 40 yards out and broadside. With the camera rolling, I stood and stared -- not so much at the deer, but more at the one small twig that partially blocked my shot. I never even drew my bow. I kept hunting him hard for the next two months, but I never saw him again. I started thinking he knew more about me than I knew about him.
It was a cold winter day on February 8 when I went out to check my trail camera. Without the prior intention of doing so, I got the urge to walk up and down some nearby deer trails despite the knee-deep snow. I was absolutely surprised when I looked down to see a massive antler sunken in the snow. I could not believe he had dropped his antlers already! I found the matching antler two days later. I hadn't walked 80 yards that day when I looked up and saw a giant antler right in the center of the trail. I called my brother immediately. I was on the phone with him as I wal
ked the last 30 yards to pick up the antler. Although we were 300 miles apart, I was glad to enjoy the experience with him.
In 2009, I waited all summer for more pictures of that buck, but found nothing. I was beginning to worry something had happened to the great beast. The start of the 2009 season was unseasonably warm. Finally, a cold front arrived, and on August 31 I headed out for my first evening hunt. With about 20 minutes of light remaining, I saw a deer moving away from me on the far side of the swamp. I swung my binoculars up to take a look and found quite a surprise. It was not a doe I saw moving, it was antlers! The giant buck was walking tall with his antlers sticking above the cattails. I had mistaken his rack for an entire deer! I was so happy he was alive!
I stayed up late that night pondering what to do next. I had watched the magnificent giant walk right down the trail where I found his antler last February, and like the buck I killed three years ago, I knew he was going to follow the same pattern until the weather changed. After a quick check of the weather, I realized I was going to have to make my move fast.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
On the afternoon of October 2, I showered and headed for the woods. I assembled all my gear, sprayed down with scent eliminator and walked down the hill to a spot I had never hunted before. At first, I had trouble singling out a tree on which to hang my stand, but eventually I selected a tree and carefully assembled my ladder. It took me more than 90 minutes to hang the stand. I worked as slow as I could because I expected the buck was lying in the cattails less than 100 yards away. I was in my stand and ready to hunt at 4:50 p.m. At 6:13 a doe walked into the cattails. Minutes later, I saw the enormous set of antlers rise above the cattails once again. I quickly started my video camera and glassed the monster with my binoculars. The does moved off to the northeast right into the wind, so I thought he would follow. Instead, he disappeared back into the cattails. I stood, frantically glassing for another glimpse of him, hoping he might be circling my way. Then I heard a loud series of grunts 60 yards to my left. I cannot begin to describe how big he looked standing there. Almost instantly, the giant started walking my way and I could see that I had to act fast. I quickly exchanged my binoculars for my bow and decided I did not have time to fool with the video camera. As the buck entered my shooting lane, I drew back and slowly placed my site pin on the backside of this shoulder. I was able to give a perfect "braap" to stop him at 30 yards, slightly quartering away. I slowly squeezed my release and heard a loud "crack" as the giant spun over his left shoulder and attempted to run. I could tell instantly that he was hit hard. Although he was running, he was struggling to keep on his feet. After 40 yards, he slipped behind some brush. I knew he was down right there. I slowly backed into my tree and hung up my bow. I turned on my video camera and with a very rattled and shaky voice started giving the play by play of events. I kept saying "I know I put a hurtin' on him, I know he's down right there." I didn't say much else. At that time, all I wanted to do was rush down and get him, but I knew I had to give him some time. I called my parents, then my wife, and then my friends, Chris and Matt. After a few conversations and even some pleading with Chris that I was not pulling his leg, I sent a few text messages and got out of the tree. Once I was down, I felt I really had to go look. I turned on my video camera and headed to where I thought he fell. I no more than stepped over the fence and there he was, bigger than he had ever been before. He had a 190-inch 5-by-5 gross typical frame with four non-typical points. His final non-typical score was 198 4/8 and he dressed out at 280 pounds.
If it had not been for shed antler hunting, none of this would have ever happened.