March 14, 2011
When Pennsylvania hunter Jerry Simkonis heard a co-worker talking about a giant buck he had seen at night in his yard, a little voice in his head told Jerry that he'd better pay attention.
Jerry's 31-point drop-tine giant eluded him for the better part of three seasons. Jerry finally got an arrow into the phantom buck on Nov. 2, 2007. Little did he know that he had just taken a new Pennsylvania state record.
A three-year hunt for a giant Pennsylvania buck got its start at the unlikeliest time -- during a morning coffee break. In the fall of 2005, Jerry Simkonis and several of his co-workers were talking about mundane home winterizing chores when a co-worker named John piped in with a comment about a strange encounter that had taken place the night before.
While taking out the garbage, John was startled by the biggest buck he had ever seen. It was nibbling an Indian corn decoration that hung from a sidewalk lamppost. An almost unbelievable story became ridiculous when he said he ran back inside "to check my pants." Everyone laughed, and someone made a wise-guy comment about the deer being an alien.
But it was John's next sentence that made Jerry spill coffee down the front of his shirt. "The antlers were so big that they made the deer's body look small -- almost like they were too big for his head."
Few paid much attention to John's story, fewer believed it, and idle chatter resumed. But for Jerry, "It was like a song I couldn't get out of my head. It set me on a three-year quest of hunting a ghost that I would never see until he made his first and final mistake."
Jerry wanted to establish credibility for John's story before investing time in chasing this incredible phantom buck. "I followed up with him very discreetly because a few hardcore hunters in the office would be all over the area if they knew that I was onto something," Jerry said.
John gave Jerry permission to hunt his property, but neither man saw the deer again that year. Jerry not only failed to get a glimpse of the big buck, but he also never saw any sign indicating that an extraordinary buck was in the area. He was tempted to doubt John's story, but he chalked up his frustrating archery season to limited scouting opportunities.
LOOKING FOR A GHOST
As the spring of 2006 approached, Jerry's plan of attack included an offer to help with chores on John's farm in Greene County. That's not where John had seen the big buck, but it's where he needed help. The hard work paid off with permission to hunt all of John's properties. Jerry focused on a parcel near where John had first seen the monster buck, along the Allegheny/Washington County line south of Pittsburgh.
Jerry's scouting never turned up any sign of a large deer -- no sheds in the spring, no big tracks later that summer. As fall approached, no rubs and no quality bucks were in the spotlight. The only real sign that the buck was still there was the increasing hunting pressure -- evidence that word about an elusive giant buck was spreading. "I hunted the property more days this season but only saw an 8-pointer, which I took on the last day," Jerry said
YEAR THREE -- THE 2007 SEASON
After two years of hunting the big buck, Jerry was ready to quit until John told him at a Christmas party about two more sightings of the buck. Both were at night. "I didn't know if John was telling me a tale just to keep me interested enough to continue helping on his farm, or if he was really seeing the deer that he said now had at least 18 points," Jerry said. He decided to gamble against his doubts.
Year three began with scouting during Pennsylvania's post-Christmas primitive weapons season and continued throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2007. Jerry finally began to see some big tracks and large beds. The sign was inconsistent, however. One week it was there, and then nothing more for two to three weeks.
The inconsistent pattern offered little to go on, except the fact that this buck moved often. Maybe he's using more than one home range, or maybe he's being pushed by people or by other predators like dogs, Jerry thought. Maybe the weather patterns are dictating his movements. Whatever the reason, Jerry was confident that the buck was still alive and at least occasionally on the property he was hunting.
Jerry asked John the approximate dates he had seen the deer and then correlated everything he could think of to those dates -- weather patterns, food sources, hunting pressure, water sources and the rut -- hoping to discover why the deer moved and when he might reappear. He also found a perfect spot for a tree stand in the middle of some blowdowns covered in poison oak. Based on air currents and deer movement, and the fact that no one would go there, it seemed like the perfect ambush site. A bad case of poison oak was a small price to pay for what eventually was going to happen there.
The season went much like the previous two -- high optimism dwindled into almost total discouragement. By early November, Jerry was ready to throw in the towel, thinking he had squandered three years of hunting a mythical buck that was no more real than a dream.
A BAD START ON A SPECIAL DAY
Friday, Nov. 2, 2007, might well have been the final day Jerry was willing to chase this dream, and he overslept that morning. He still had time to make it to John's farm before daylight, but he'd have to forget about having an hour of predawn quiet time to let things settle down.
"All my experience told me that I shouldn't be hunting John's property that day, but for some reason I had a hunch that I needed to put in the time," Jerry stated.
So, after arriving at John's, Jerry hurried to the stand. In his haste, he made some mistakes. He forgot about the scent rag that was dragging from his boot until he was too close to his stand. He also made his final approach from the wrong direction and subsequently aimed the scent trail straight at his stand. Silently, he cursed himself as he rerouted the scent trail, hung some scent containers to take advantage of the air currents, and then slipped back to the tree, where he added his outer clothing layer.
With almost a half-hour before daylight, he thought about all that had gone wrong, and he felt fortunate to be able to correct his errors and avoid spooking any deer. The crisp, frosty morning had kept perspiration down, and he started seeing deer as soon as dayl
Jerry's awesome buck was aged at 5 1/2, and the hefty buck field dressed at 181 pounds. With a net score of 209 1/8 P&Y inches, the deer is a new non-typical state record by bow!
Three does came in from behind. They seemed nervous, but soon settled down. The lead doe left, but then returned with a 6-pointer in tow. After these two deer passed, Jerry tried a calling sequence that included bleats, soft grunts, a snort-wheeze and some antler rattling.
A second sequence called the young buck back. This time he sniffed the very scent canisters that he had previously ignored, and then he exited while watching his back trail with suspicion.
AN AMAZING SIGHT
Fifteen minutes later, Jerry tried his calling sequence again, and this time he saw movement 20 yards from where the 6-pointer had appeared. The heavy cover obscured everything -- everything except the 12-inch drop tine on the buck's right side. "My heart was racing -- I knew this had to be the big guy," Jerry said. He kept his excitement in check by refusing to look at the rack. The buck lumbered along, eventually hitting the not-so-carefully-placed scent trail.
"My early morning mistake was going to channel this deer right on top of me, only to get him too close to draw without spooking him. He walked head-on within 12 yards. Then he followed the turn that I had corrected in my drag trail," the hunter noted.
It was a dramatic moment. "I was frozen in one position, and I started to get fatigued." Jerry said. "This buck was starting to act nervous, and I had a feeling that he would soon bolt. He took one more step and offered me a broadside lung shot -- if I could thread the needle through an opening the size of a coffee cup saucer."
A 12-yard shot at a world-class buck is not easy, even if practice shots at that range cluster so tightly that lots of arrows get ruined. This, the highest-pressure shot of Jerry's life, left no room for error.
After three years of virtually nothing happening, enough excitement for a lifetime of hunting would be compressed into a few fleeting moments. "All I remember is drawing back my Hoyt Pro Vantage, finding the center of the opening and letting go," Jerry said. "I heard a loud crack and saw the deer take one leap and a step back the way he came. He stopped, looked around and started walking away from me like nothing happened."
PLEASE GO DOWN . . .
Jerry struggled to keep his emotions from riding a roller coaster. He thought about his poor decisions and began to fear the biggest disappointment of his life. Then, 20 yards away, the animal stopped and started to sway from side to side. Jerry's feelings began an upward swing -- the monster buck was going to drop.
Jerry's feelings plummeted again as he feared that he might have skewered the gut. That shot would be even worse than a messed-up opportunity at a quality trophy -- and with it would come the dread of tracking a poorly hit deer with low odds of recovery. Then Jerry's buck lay down!
"I thought that if I could only wait him out, he might expire right in front in me," Jerry said.
But the buck was too alert. As he rotated his head, those massive antlers looked like a radar antenna on an aircraft carrier. "My heart started to pound -- so loudly that I felt sure that the deer was going to hear me," Jerry said.
Jerry's foot had gone numb, as if it were shot full of Novocain, thanks to the stress and the awkwardness of a tree stand. He struggled to control it. "Finally the inevitable happened," Jerry said. "I stumbled. The deer saw it and he stood up. I was at a loss as to what to do. I had no idea what kind of a hit I had made, and the deer still didn't present a good follow-up shot. I had to quickly assess my options and make a decision to shoot again or let him go.
"Circumstance dictated my next move. He started a slow walk and then turned broadside -- instinct took over as I drew and fired. I watched in utter disbelief. I had misjudged the distance and saw my arrow go high over his back. I got another arrow out of my quiver as he vanished into the thick brush."
A NEW STATE RECORD
The roller coaster feelings returned, along with mental exhaustion, and the toughest part of the hunt lay ahead. Jerry let three agonizing hours pass before tracking the animal. He found the first arrow immediately, covered with bright red blood. His confidence was buoyed, but not for long. He found only one pool of blood where the buck had lain down, and no more.
The area was loaded with deer trails, and Jerry checked one after the other without finding any blood or other sign. He finally started walking circles every few yards out from where the buck had bled. "On the third try," Jerry said, "I saw him lying 20-some yards from my tree stand. He had doubled back toward me, but I hadn't been able to see him because it was so thick. As I walked up to him, all I could see was antlers. My heart started pounding again."
The spot where the buck dropped was matted down with deer hair. It looked like he often bedded there. Jerry field dressed the animal and went to get John's help. Together they dragged him to a field and then transferred him to a front-end loader for the trip back to Jerry's truck.
The deer processor scaled the buck at just over 181 pounds field dressed. The Pennsylvania Game Commission cross-sectioned a tooth sample and aged him at 5 1/2 years. The antlers netted 209 1/8 Pope & Young inches, and Jerry Simkonis had the new Pennsylvania non-typical archery record!
"If John had told me that this buck was a state record," Jerry noted, "I'm sure I would have dismissed the whole thing as a tall tale, and I never would have started this three-year hunting odyssey. It's scary to think about how easily this entire hunt might never have happened!"