Despite an ongoing battle with cancer, when Don Wages got together with his good friend Brent VanHoveln for a long overdue bowhunt in Illinois last year, it definitely turned out to be a day to remember!
My good friend Don Wages of El Paso, Illinois, and I have been raising white-tailed deer since 1999. We're also avid bowhunters and we love to hunt for wild, free-ranging deer.
After 60 years of bowhunting and over 180 deer by bow to his credit, Don arrowed the buck of a lifetime last November. The 16-point brute grossed 188 7/8 non-typical points. "It was the best day of hunting that I've ever had in my life," Don said graciously.
Prior to the 2008 season, we'd been talking about going on a hunt together for several years. But it seemed like something always came up during deer season that prevented us from getting out in the woods together.
In early 2006, Don and his wife Christine made my family aware of some terrible news. Don had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and the cancer had spread. Don was facing surgery and many months of grueling chemotherapy.
Don is an incredibly positive and strong-willed person, and he was determined to fight this terrible disease to the bitter end. As Don's friend, this horrific news made me more conscious than ever of how precious life is and how fortunate I was to have my health and a healthy family. I knew that if anyone could survive cancer, it would be Don Wages.
The 2006 and 2007 hunting seasons came and went. Don and I continued to talk about sharing a hunt together on one of the properties that we have access to. But foolish procrastination continued to interrupt our plans and we never made it happen.
Just prior to the 2008 season, Don was battling for his life as the cancer continued to spread. Despite what some of his doctors said about his prognosis, Don remained positive and fought courageously. If you had met Don during that time, you never would have suspected that he was dealing with such a serious and life-threatening disease. He was as strong as an ox. What's more, Christine probably would have told you that he was as stubborn as one as well!
Don's sense of humor and compassion for others has always set a great example for anyone who knows him, especially me. That's one reason why I feel that the Good Lord has kept him around here as long as he has.
A LONG OVERDUE HUNT
As the 2008 deer season drew near, Don and I were determined to make our long planned bowhunt a reality. In early October, we went to a farm that I often hunt in eastern Illinois.
Don's wife made sure we had plenty of food to survive a weekend hunting trip. Actually, with all of the food she prepared, we probably could have survived for a month before returning to civilization!
The weather was beautiful and we had a great time together. Unfortunately, though, the wind direction prevented us from hunting several of my better stand locations. Instead, we were confined to a select few stands on the edge of the property. Despite above average temperatures, we saw some really nice bucks. Nonetheless, we went home empty-handed. We decided to try again in mid-November. The rut would be in high gear, and we knew that the temperatures would be more suitable for hunting.
Over the next few weeks, while waiting for the rut to arrive, I did some bowhunting with my son and actually filmed him shooting several does. Don also did some bowhunting on his own, and he harvested a couple of does along with a very nice buck.
During the second week in November, I started getting some good trail camera pictures of big bucks on my farm. The weather started to cool down dramatically, jumpstarting the Illinois rut. It was that magical time of the year again!
HOLDING OUT FOR MR. BIG
On the evening of Nov. 16, 2008, Don and I packed up and headed back to the same farm we had hunted earlier. Once again, we were loaded down with food from our loving wives. I was beginning to get a little nervous as I had not yet arrowed a buck, and the gun season would be here in just a few short days. Don still had one buck tag left, and he jokingly told me that he planned to hold out for the biggest buck of his life!
We arrived in camp late that night and unpacked. We did a quick check of the weather for the following morning, and I was delighted to learn that it was going to be cool and overcast with a gentle breeze out of the northwest. This would be perfect weather for hunting the best stand on the property. This particular tree stand has seen several big bucks fall from under its branches, and I wanted Don and I to hunt it together so that I could film him.
Four-thirty a.m. came early the next morning. As always, it was very hard to climb out of a warm bed and face the frosty morning air. The first few minutes are always the toughest, and I seem to look for any excuse to stay in bed a few minutes longer. But once you finally climb into that stand and get settled in, it's always worth the sacrifice!
There is always something special about every new day in the whitetail woods. I never regret getting up to hunt and greeting the dawn. This cold morning of Nov. 17 would prove to be no different, but I did end up having one regret that I'll share with you shortly.
Don and I made our way through the darkness for over half a mile. We finally reached the special red oak tree that I had wanted to take him to during our first hunt in October. I climbed up to the wooden platform supported by several large limbs. Then Don joined me. After we started unpacking all of our gear, I felt a little cramped. I worried that he might not be able to shoot his bow in every direction with me and all of my camera equipment up there next to him. I asked him if he felt comfortable in the stand, and he said "Sure."
AN ANSWERED PRAYER
Even though I had intended to stay with him and try to film him, I decided to move to another tree about 65 yards away where we could still see each other so that he would have all the room he needed. Don argued that I should stay with him, and he unselfishly offered to film me instead. I replied that I really wanted to film him and that I'd still be close enough to do so. So I climbed down and started walking toward my alternate setup.
While en route, I said a little prayer. I asked the Lord to allow Don to harvest an exceptional buck on that special day. Minutes later I was up in my new tree. I was still in the process of getting my camera attached to the tree arm when I heard Don shoot. I quickly turned toward him and saw a huge buck running off into some thick brush. I never
saw the buck come out of this thicket, and I was very excited. From what I had seen, I felt certain that this buck would score over 150 inches.
Then I started worrying and wondering if Don had made a good shot. I should have known better because Don is a very accomplished archer. His basement wall is lined with over 100 trophies that he has taken by bow. Don is a veteran hunter with over 60 years of experience under his belt.
We were too far from each other to effectively communicate without yelling, so we both just sat it out quietly. About 30 minutes later I watched Don shoot a doe. The doe ran in front of me about 60 yards out and collapsed. This made me feel better about Don's buck, but I always worry after a deer is hit. I guess I just worry a lot, but I've witnessed whitetails survive some unbelievable shots.
TWO HUNTERS, TWO BUCKS
We sat there for another 30 minutes when all at once I heard a grunting sound from Don's direction. I looked over and he was pointing under his tree. It was then that I saw the 6-year-old buck that I had nicknamed "Curly." He was walking right under Don's stand. I had named this particular buck Curly because one of his main beams curled up and the other curled down. I had seen Curly numerous times over the past three years and I had numerous trail camera photos of him. In fact, I had filmed my son Kyle passing him up only a week earlier on Nov. 11.
Curly was an aggressive, mature buck, but he was not what I considered to be genetically superior. In recent years, his rack had grown a little wider and a little thicker, but he only sported 8 points, and they were not very long. From a management standpoint, I knew he would be a good buck to take out of the herd. Furthermore, with his extremely thick neck and beautiful cape, I knew he would make a fine wall mount. I decided to take him if the opportunity presented itself.
Curly meandered around for a while. Then he started walking toward the doe that Don had shot. He passed by me just out of range.
Wouldn't it be neat if Don and I each harvested a mature buck on the same morning? I thought.
That thought barley had time to register in my mind when Curly suddenly turned around and started coming back toward my tree. He eventually made his way onto a trail that passed by my position at 34 yards. My Mathews bow, Carbon Express arrow and G5 Striker broadhead proved to be formidable foes for old Curly. Soon Don and I had our third deer of the morning, and what a morning it had turned out to be!
A DAY TO REMEMBER
After things calmed down, I made my way down the tree and over toward Don's stand.
Even before reaching his tree, I could see the heavy blood trail made by his buck. I felt confident that this deer had not gone far.
A few yards down the trail we found Don's arrow coated in bright red blood. After going about 75 yards, I looked up and saw a huge set of antlers lying in the thicket ahead. Don and I were ecstatic as we walked up to his buck.
"This deer has ground growage, not ground shrinkage," Don said happily as we reached the huge whitetail.
Don was right. The buck was definitely larger than I had first thought. I knew he had at least a 180-inch frame as I studied his rack. Don was almost in tears.
"This is the biggest deer I've ever shot in my life," he told me as we stood there in total awe of his beautiful buck.
Now that statement would have been true for almost any hunter in North America, but not necessarily for Don. Remember that he's been hunting whitetails for over 60 years and he's taken right at 180 deer with bow and arrow. So for him to say that this buck was his best ever buck, well, that was really saying something!
Truly, that moment was one of the happiest I had ever experienced while deer hunting, and we hadn't even started looking for my deer yet. It was a moment in time that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life. I distinctly remember Don looking at me and saying: "This is the best day of hunting I've ever had in my life!"
Although I had plenty of trail camera photos of old Curly, I had never gotten a single photo of Don's great buck. Nor had any of my hunting neighbors. Don's amazing deer would have had 18 points, but two tines were broken off, one on each side.
Conservatively these broken tines each would have measured 3 to 4 inches in length. As a main-frame 5x5 with six additional abnormal points, Don's great buck grossed 188 7/8 inches. It netted 178 2/8 non-typical P&Y inches.
After that unforgettable day, I gave thanks to the Good Lord for allowing me to share such an amazing experience with my great friend Don Wages. Our families are close and we do a lot of things together, but there is nothing like the special bond that friends share when hunting together. Hunting is absolutely the best sport that we Americans have. We are incredibly fortunate, and we owe our armed forces a huge debt of gratitude for that privilege.
I said earlier that I had only one regret about our hunt. No, it's not that I wish I could have shot this great buck myself. I truly couldn't have been happier for Don and his achievement. However, my one great regret is that I didn't stay in the tree with him and videotape the hunt so that Don could share it with others.
There are no words I can type into this story that can adequately describe the feelings and emotions that Don and I shared on that blessed morning.
On a side note I would like to give a special thanks to Illinois professional taxidermist Marc Anthony of Look Alive taxidermy in Goodfield, Illinois. Marc has done numerous world-class mounts for antler collectors and hunting show displays, and he was kind enough to green-score Don's deer and have it mounted in less than a month so that Don would find it under his Christmas tree on Christmas morning 2008. Christine wasn't wild about having yet another trophy deer head in the house, but for Don it was the best Christmas present he could have asked for!
Editor's Note: If the author's name is familiar to you, it's because on Oct. 3, 2005, he arrowed the largest whitetail taken by bow in North America during the '05 season. Brent VanHoveln actually videotaped himself shooting the 28-point 229 2/8 inch megabuck in McClean County, Illinois. For the full story see the February 2006 issue.