Second Chance Booner
September 22, 2010
Even before this South Texas hunt for a B&C contender got under way, veteran trophy hunter David Morris knew that trying to capture the action on video might cost him his buck. It did, but Providence afforded David another chance!
The author, one of the founding partners of North American Whitetail, has taken many fine bucks in his long and successful trophy hunting career, but this "second chance" Booner is definitely one of his most memorable. The awesome buck is a direct result of intensive management.
Years ago when I was editorial director of North American Whitetail magazine, longtime friend David Blanton called to ask me if I would let a cameraman go with me to video an upcoming hunt in Canada for the popular "Realtree Outdoors" TV show. David was and is executive producer for Realtree Productions and one of my favorite people. There aren't many requests he could make that I would say "no" to. But saddling me with a cameraman lugging 75 pounds of ungainly camera gear did not seem particularly conducive to improving my odds of shooting one of the giant Canadian whitetails that made braving the bitter cold tolerable.
Thoughts of "Don't shoot -- I can't see him," or "Wait -- I need more footage," or "Hold off -- the light's not good," and a dozen other such hand-tying phrases, flashed though my mind, along with the vision of a heavy-racked buck disappearing unscathed back into the snow-laden poplars.
Reluctantly, I answered, "David, you know I love you, but . . . no. A cameraman could cost me inches of antlers I'm not willing to give up. I like big antlers too much."
"Well, I can't argue that, but let's look for another opportunity down the road."
That opportunity came a few years later in 1995 after I retired from the magazine business and moved to Montana. Eric Albus and his family own and lease a long stretch of country along the Milk River in eastern Montana. Eric had called and asked if I would be interested in putting together a small group to hunt his property. After quizzing him awhile, I remembered David's earlier request and thought this place might be ideal to take David up on the opportunity to have a Realtree cameraman come along on a hunt. A call to David put it all together, and in late October 1995, Bill Jordan, David and cameraman Mike McKinsey joined me and a couple of other hunting buddies on my first video hunt for TV.
I was after a record-class 10-pointer that had been seen earlier on one of the many alfalfa fields along the Milk River. By noon on the fourth day, I had seen a couple of 160-plus bucks, but the giant 10-pointer had not shown up. The Realtree team had to leave the next day after lunch. When Mike and I climbed into the tree stand that last afternoon, I felt the pressure of the camera. About an hour before dark, a 150-class buck joined the other 30 or so bucks in the alfalfa field, and I rationalized the way you tend to do with a camera in attendance. He'll look good on camera. . . . Light's perfect. . . . Plenty of time for the recovery. . . . Mornings are slower. . . . Better take him and get the show. With that, my one and only Montana tag for the year was filled . . . with a buck 15 inches smaller than I had already passed up.
Now, 10 years and dozens of filmed hunts later, I can confidently assert that all the paraphernalia, activity and requirements associated with professionally videoing a hunt can and often does cost inches of antlers, and maybe even the whole deer! How much a camera might hamper success depends largely on the mode of hunting. With stand-hunting, cameras pose less of a problem, but in active forms of hunting, cameras are more limiting. And the skill of the cameraman makes a big difference. I've hunted with a couple who should have stuck to weddings, and I've hunted with some of the best, like Glenn Garner and John Tate. And it was with Realtree's John Tate that this story has its beginnings.
It was mid-December in 2004 when John arrived, accompanied by David Blanton and his cameraman, Mark Womack, on my 3,000-acre El Cazador Ranch in Deep South Texas. John and I had a five-year record we hoped to keep intact. Every year during that time, we had teamed up on my ranch to take a buck on film grossing over 170 B&C. One was a Boone and Crockett 12-pointer netting 172 that was the first record-book buck ever filmed by Realtree cameras. Now our sights were set on another giant whitetail, one that I hoped would be our second B&C buck. My wife, Debbie, and I had seen the wide, heavy 10-pointer the previous February on a Tecomate Max-Attract food plot. I judged him then to be 5 1/2 years old and well over 170 gross B&C. Typically, antler size peaks at 6 1/2, so I had every reason to believe he would be a record-book buck this year . . . if I could find him!
Now, wait a minute. Five bucks over 170 in five years, one a B&C, and in pursuit of yet another book deer. Doesn't seen possible on 3,000 acres, does it? Well, if you had asked me and just about anybody else a decade ago if such a thing were possible, the answer would have been a resounding "No!" But with the development of intensive food plot management delivering super year-round nutrition, what was once thought to be impossible on small tracts -- namely, effective trophy buck management -- is fast becoming commonplace throughout the country.
We now know that by growing enough acres of the right plants in food plots, we can increase the carrying capacity far beyond what native habitat could have ever supported, allowing us to grow more and bigger deer than ever thought possible. Happily, we've also found that quality warm-season food plots will hold deer closer to home, giving the landowner greater control over his herd and reducing outside losses. So great is the allure of these plots that even nomadic yearling bucks, which typically get booted out of the area by matriarch does to wander far and wide, refuse to abandon the food sources and instead stay close by.
By sticking it out through their first year of life, despite pressure to depart, they end up "imprinting" to the food-plotted area, making it their home for the rest of their lives. In a very real sense, intensive summer food plots (winter plots alone will not do this) limit buck dispersal, allowing a manager to "stockpile" bucks to some degree . . . even on smaller properties. This is something heretofore thought possible only on very large or high-fenced tracts!
When I began my food plot management program back in 1998, I knew the potential was huge . . . literally. After all, I only had to look to the ranch next door -- the famed El Tecomate Ranch -- to see what an intensive food plot program could produce. Gary Schwarz, owner of the Tecomate Ranch, was the one who pioneered food plot management in South Texas and one of the people most responsible for the food plot revolution taking place throughout the country today.
By the time I bought my ranch, Gary's groun
dbreaking food plot program had been under way for several years and was turning out more and bigger bucks than the area had ever seen, including perhaps the most famous wild buck of all, Heart Attack. Despite Gary's amazing success at that point, the ultimate potential of the "Tecomate Food Plot Program," as it has come to be known, had not yet been fully defined. Gary's deer numbers and size were still on the increase every year as he continued to tweak his food plot plants, planting techniques and acreage.
So when we broke ground on my first plot some seven years earlier, I had expected big things . . . but not the incredible success to come. The first year under management, I had taken an 11-pointer grossing 167 B&C. Every year thereafter, I had taken a buck topping 170, the largest taping 181 4/8. And my wife and two daughters had enjoyed similar success! Now, unbelievably, I had set my sights on what I fully expected be my second B&C buck in three years.
But there was a problem -- despite countless days hunting the ranch during the buck's six years of life, I had only seen him twice, once when he was 2 1/2 and once when he was 5 1/2. Both sightings had been on the same Max-Attract food plot in February, after I had hung up my rifle for the season. Now, in mid-December, I wasn't crazy about my odds of finding him in the six days John and I had to hunt.
And hunt we did. Day after day, we haunted the area around the food plot I had seen him on before. We saw plenty of big bucks, a couple of which tested my resolve. But we held out for that one buck. We tried everything. I was beginning to think that he might live elsewhere. After all, with only two post-rut sightings, I had scant evidence of what his home range really was. Or perhaps he was dead. I had long been plagued by a large male cougar with an affinity for big bucks. Only weeks earlier in a nearby area the cat had killed a 13-pointer grossing 181. Maybe my buck had also become his victim.
When the fifth day ended, our chances of connecting in the day and a half left looked bleak. The next morning found us in the tripods I thought offered our best odds. I had just recently put the two Strongbuilt tripods up just for this buck. They stood at the intersection of two senderos, offering us visibility of several hundred yards in four directions. Plus, an old roller-chopped strip now in scattered regrowth brush gave us 250 yards of spotty shooting clearance to the southeast. If the buck came through within 400 yards of the tripods in almost any direction, we should get a look, and hopefully a shot, at him. But alas, the morning passed uneventfully, putting mounting pressure on our last two "sits."
John and I joined David and Mark for lunch and a powwow. David, who was hunting a management buck with his Thompson/Center muzzleloader, had seen lots of bucks, but they were either too big, too small, too far or too fast. David decided to spend his last afternoon on a food plot. John and I could come up with no better plan than where we had been that morning.
The afternoon hunt started with promise. A mid-160s 12-pointer hot after a doe got our blood pressure up. He was soon joined by a 22-inch 10-pointer and a couple of young bucks, further improving our prospects. My crosshairs tracked the 12-pointer as he took the doe and the rest of the rutting party into the brush, leaving us with a long lull. The 12-pointer would have made a great closer for the TV show, and John and I both felt the pressure of the camera, but I was not ready to give up on the possible record 10-pointer yet.
When videoing, I start to get nervous when the light begins to wane, knowing it's the best time for big bucks and a poor time for videoing. In low light, the buck has to be close and everything has to be just right to get the high-quality video Realtree is after. Five minutes into the "worry" light, a big mature buck stepped into the north sendero. Even before my binoculars told me so, I knew it was him. I also knew we had a dilemma.
The wide, massive buck stood statue still 175 yards away. "That's him, John, that's him!" I whispered. "He's a giant. I'm getting on him. Tell me when you're ready."
I was already leaning into my .300 Weatherby Magnum and I half-expected the words that followed.
"The light's not very good," John said tentatively. "And he's not doing anything. He's just standing there . . . too far in this light. David, if you shoot him, I don't think we'll be able to use the video on the show."
John said all of this with some hesitation and obvious pain. Then he added weakly, "He may be back in the morning . . . but it's your ranch and your call whether or not to shoot."
I looked up from my rifle and turned to John, "That's a book deer. The recovery alone will make the show worth airing. And we've run worse before."
As I turned back to the deer, the decision was made for us. The buck walked into the brush and was gone. My heart sank, as, I'm sure, did John's.
"I'm sorry, David. If you had shot him, we wouldn't have gotten a show." Then he again said, "He may be back in the morning."
Yes, I was disappointed. The camera (and, I suppose, my own hesitation) hadn't just cost me inches of antlers; it had cost me a B&C buck! But I had to admire John. Even through he knew how badly I wanted that buck (and I knew how much he wanted him, too), he held fast to his high standards and demonstrated the professionalism that makes him one of the best in the business.
The buck didn't show the next morning, and my five-year record with John ended . . . but my quest for the big 10-pointer did not. I hunted him relentlessly -- more determined than ever to get him after seeing his size and after getting camera "hooked." Weeks passed without a sign of him. I haunted the place where we had seen him to the point of overhunting it.
Once my sightings fell out there, I started hunting other nearby areas. I saw some other great bucks, but I wanted that buck or nothing. And more and more, it seemed like it would be nothing. I began to fear that he was dead, either killed in a fight or another victim of the lion.
Then, on Jan. 14, my fortunes turned. My daughter Jennifer and I were hunting a stand about 200 yards from the food plot where I'd seen the buck the previous February. Our quarry was a wide 9-pointer that Jennifer was after (she took the 25-inch-wide 167-gross buck a week later). At last light, I was scanning the only small corner of the plot I could see beyond the brush when a big mature buck stepped into view. The light was too dim to be sure, but the wide-framed rack matched the image I had of my buck. I was almost sure it was him. My hopes soared. Tomorrow . . .
When the mockingbirds heralded the new dawn, I was sitting on a stand about 400 yards from where the buck had entered the plot the night before. I was certainly expectant as I sat out the morning, but my real hopes lay with the afternoon hunt on the plot. The morning passed without incident. I returned to the lodge, counting the hours to the evening hunt.
oon, I received a call from my friend Chuck Sykes. He had just taken a buck next door on Tecomate Ranch and was wrapping up the video work for his TV show, "Management Advantage," on the Outdoor Channel. He had an afternoon to kill and asked if he could join me to video the afternoon hunt. I agreed, with this caveat: "Chuck, I've been chasing a book buck for about a month, and I think I saw him yesterday on the Mesquite food plot. If we see him, I'm shooting as soon as I get a shot. A camera has already cost me this buck once and I don't intend to let it happen again."
Chuck chuckled in agreement, "I'll just tag along. If we get him on video, great. If we don't, that's fine, too. This is a bonus hunt anyway. I've already got a show in the can."
By 3:30 that afternoon, Chuck and I had settled into the blind overlooking the Max-Attract plot. As I looked across the plot, the effects of the severe drought were evident. The stand of legumes, chicory and triticale was thinner than I had ever seen at this time of year, thus the reason I had not been hunting it before now. But as I swept my glasses across a nearby section of plot, a profusion of tracks and nipped-off plants told me that more deer were using the stressed plot than I realized. I soon found out how true that was.
Predictably, the does and fawns were the first to arrive. Soon they were joined by yearling and 2 1/2-year-old bucks. Then, a couple of pretty good mature bucks drifted in. About 45 minutes before dark, the field was well populated. I was feeling pretty good about our prospects, knowing the best was yet to come. As Chuck and I whispered back and forth, exchanging deer management theory, I was idly sweeping the 10-acre field with my binoculars when my heart jumped in my chest.
A huge buck filled my field of view. The first thing that struck me was his mass. Even his tines were heavy. Then, my attention turned to his wide spread, at least 23 inches inside. It was then that I realized I was looking at my buck. I involuntarily blurted out, "That's him! I'm shooting."
With that, my binoculars fell away and I grabbed for my rifle. Chuck was hastily trying to get the camera running and on the buck. As I set up for the shot, I anxiously asked Chuck, "Are you on him? Are you on him?"
After a brief silence, a "yes" came back. The buck was walking slowly along the edge of the plot, stopping occasionally to grab a bite, seemingly without concern. I decided to hold on the shot a minute to give Chuck a chance to shoot some pre-roll footage. Then, suddenly, the buck came alert, glared across the field at a chase and started fast in that direction, sparking a touch of panic in me.
Unwilling to wait a moment longer than necessary, I half shouted to Chuck, "When he stops, I'm shooting. Get on him."
After about 100 yards, he stopped. I fired, and he ran like a screaming banshee was after him, showing no apparent sign of a hit. I let slip a couple of expletives and hastily fired a second, somewhat wild shot as he left my field of view. I was stunned.
Had I missed him? I wondered. No, I couldn't have! Could I?
My mind was racing, but hardly keeping pace with my pounding heart. What had happened? Surely I had not missed a B&C buck . . . on TV! A couple of deep breaths settled me down, and the sight picture at the shot came clearly back to mind.
"I know I didn't miss. He's down," I told Chuck with newfound confidence. "He should be just inside the brush."
Though I believed that, my anxiety rose as I entered the brush where the buck had disappeared. For 20 long yards, nothing. With deepening concern, I stopped to look around . . . and saw one of the most beautiful sights of my hunting career. About 10 yards ahead lay my buck, his wide, heavy rack cradled above the ground by the cactus that had stopped his charge.
On very rare occasions during my hunting career, I've taken animals that, upon walking up to them, left me awestruck. This was such an animal. For a minute, all I could do was stare in astonishment as my mind recalibrated to adjust to the size and beauty of the buck before me.
Finally, Chuck and I broke into celebration and the glow of sweet success swept over me, even as the pent-up tension of weeks of hunting this buck bled off. Our celebration ended as we both looked skyward and thanked God for what we had just experienced.
Maybe it's because I had lost him earlier to the "curse of the camera," only to be given a rare second chance. Perhaps it's because I hunted him for weeks. But most likely, it is simply because the 24-inch-inside 10-pointer is indeed one of the most magnificent bucks I have ever taken. He ultimately taped 178 2/8 inches gross and 172 5/8 inches net B&C!
Whatever the reason, every time I look at this buck, I am compelled to count my blessings and thank the Good Lord Above. But then, what else would you expect with a second-chance Booner?