Iowa's Switchgrass Monster
September 22, 2010
Mark Lewis had hunted this huge buck for two seasons with his bow but could never quite manage a shot. Then, during Iowa's first shotgun season last December, everything suddenly fell into place through the craziest of circumstances.
Mark's great buck has everything it takes to attain world-class status: tine length, mass and long main beams. The main-frame 5x5 grossed 202 1/8 and netted 194 3/8. Of particular note are the extra-large mass measurements. Mark had hoped to take the deer with his bow, but he'll certainly settle for having shot the monster with his shotgun.
Mark Lewis has been hunting whitetails for nearly three decades, and he's managed to take a few dandy bucks during that time span. Like most avid deer hunters, in seasons past he's spent many a long night lying awake wondering if he would ever get the chance to shoot a giant that would qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club record book.
However, no deer has ever haunted his dreams like the massive 10-pointer that he chased and had several close encounters with during the two previous archery seasons. Those sleepless nights ended last December when the big buck made the fatal mistake of trying to sneak by Mark on a deer drive.
Although Mark had no way of knowing then, the Montgomery County giant would become known as the largest typical deer killed in North America by any hunter last year.
The awesome buck grossed 202 1/8 and netted 194 3/8 typical B&C points.
EARLY HUNTING MEMORIES
The bio-medical field engineer from Red Oak, Iowa, killed his first deer before his was a teenager. This was quite an accomplishment, considering the state DNR wasn't in the habit of doling out many either-sex tags 30 years ago.
Mark's interest in bowhunting began at age 14. That's when he discovered an old recurve bow that his uncle, Donnie Andersen, had mothballed some years before. Mark spent the early summer months practicing, and he became fairly proficient. Later that summer, he bought his own bow, a 55-pound Bear Kodiak. That fall he arrowed his first deer. He has since anchored half a dozen trophy bucks, the largest being a 10-pointer with a 9-inch drop tine, taken in 2006.
"I've been hunting the same piece of property for years," Mark said. "It's only about 240 acres, which includes 15 acres of timber and 20 acres of row crops that are rotated from year to year. The remaining 200-plus acres are planted in tall switchgrass and CRP.
"It's a tough piece of ground to hunt, mainly because the timber is surrounded by switchgrass. Most of the deer use the grass as their bedding area, so it's a matter of catching the deer in transition from bedding to feeding, or vice versa.
"With limited timber, there aren't many options for tree stands either. The majority of deer follow either a ditch on one side of the switchgrass or a sparse tree line on the opposite side to a low spot in the fence. I have stands set up in both of these locations, plus a couple of permanent stands that I've built."
FIRST ENCOUNTER IN 2007
"I've looked for shed antlers on the place, but with so much switchgrass and CRP, they're almost impossible to find. Besides, I've been hunting the ground long enough to know where the heavy travel corridors, good bedding areas and natural funnels are. Same goes for scrapes and rubs -- they usually show up in the same spots every year. Most of my scouting is done in the late spring and summer months. After midsummer, I try to stay clear of the place.
"My first encounter with this particular buck took place late in the afternoon two seasons back in early November. I was bowhunting at the time. The buck came through zigzagging back and forth behind a doe. He came within range at least twice, but I couldn't get him stopped long enough for a shot. Eventually both deer wandered into the tall grass. I could see them working toward the north end, so I decided to climb down and attempt to sneak around to the other end and catch them coming out of the grass.
However, there were so many deer in the area that afternoon it was difficult moving without being seen, so it was slow going. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the other side shooting hours had ended.
"About a week later I spotted the buck again, this time coming down the fence line just after sunrise. The buck followed the fence to a low spot, then crossed and disappeared in the creek bottom. Hoping the buck would do the same thing the next day, I decided to set up a ladder stand for my friend Mickey Archer, who was hunting with me at the time.
The following morning Mickey saw the buck, but the deer didn't come through the funnel where we expected. It turned out to be the last time the deer was seen in 2007."
2008 -- MR. BIG OR BUST
"Even though I hadn't seen the deer that summer or early fall, there hadn't been any reports of anyone taking him during the previous shotgun season either, so I was fairly confident he was still alive. And based on that, I made up my mind early on to settle for nothing less. Other than an occasional evening, I pretty much stick to hunting the weekends during the first month of the season. In November, however, I take the first three weeks off work to hunt the rut.
"I saw a lot of deer in October, but nothing of any size. By the first week of November, the deer had started moving more. In fact, the first day of my vacation (Nov. 3) I saw a big 12-pointer. The buck was exceptionally wide and his tines were all about the same height. Given the chance, I would have shot that deer, but he stayed well out of range. I did, however, add the buck to my short list of deer to hunt.
"The afternoon of Nov. 6 was the first time I laid eyes on the big 10-pointer. I was sitting in the ladder stand along the fence line when I heard a shotgun blast, followed by a rifle shot. Seconds later another shotgun blast sounded off. Shortly after that, I spotted a doe coming over the hill, followed by the huge 10-pointer. Both deer ran down the ditch and stopped within 50 yards of the stand I had put in the ditch.
"The buck twitched his tail a couple of times and then ran right beneath the stand and stopped. They both stood there for a good five minutes, staring back in the direction from which they had come. Maybe five minutes later they jumped the fence and disappeared in the creek bottom."
ANOTHER CLOSE ENCOUNTER
"About a week later, I made plans to hunt one afternoon from the ladder stand in the fence line bordering the cornfield. When I arrived, the farmer was picking the corn. With the combine and wagons so close, I figured it would be best to hunt the ditch stand, which was farther away from where the farmer was working.
"Around 4:30, the farmer stopped to haul out a load of corn. Not more than five minutes after he left the field, the big 10-pointer and two other bucks jumped the fence and walked within a few feet of the combine and began feeding. I could have kicked myself for not hunting the ladder stand because the buck walked right in front of it. Eventually it grew dark and I lost sight of all three bucks."
Mark hunted off and on for the rest of November and never saw the deer again. So far, over the course of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Mark had seen the buck within shooting range of one of his stands on five different occasions. But as bad luck would have it, he had been in the wrong stand every time.
THE IOWA SHOTGUN SEASON
"Shotgun season typically opens the first weekend in December. I get together with the same group of guys every year to hunt that first season. We hunt several areas, some of which are fairly large, by doing organized drives. The biggest farms have so much cover and so many escape routes that it takes at least 10 to 12 people to hunt them effectively.
Because of that, we try to hunt those bigger areas the first two days. After that, about half of the guys go back to work, or school.
"For the most part, we know where the escape routes and funnels are on each property and plan accordingly by posting people in those key locations. We then drive each property in such a way as to funnel deer toward those spots. Although we've had better years, we filled about half our tags during the first two days. A couple of nice bucks were taken Sunday afternoon, but nothing really big.
"By Tuesday morning we were down to six hunters: Ken Confer, Mark Confer, Matt Confer, Chet Carlson, Kevin Bruning and myself. We put together a plan to drive a couple of the smaller properties that morning. On the first drive, one of the guys shot a small buck.
"We normally don't hunt the quarter section that I bowhunt during shotgun season, mainly because the landowner allows another group to hunt that tract. Because it was close by, I called the landowner and asked about hunting it. He said we could, but the other group had been through the place at least twice already. Regardless, we decided to give it a shot.
A DRIVE TO REMEMBER
"With so much cover and only six guys, I knew we couldn't drive the whole thing effectively, so I decided to concentrate on the north half first. After lunch we planned to drive the south half. A creek running through the property pretty much divides it in half.
"I drew out a map and explained where each person needed to be and how we should drive it. The two pushers, Matt Confer and Kevin Bruning, would come from the north end. Kevin would walk over the hilltop to a small patch of timber in a waterway in the middle of a hayfield and push through that. I've seen a lot of deer bedded there in the past. If the big 10-pointer was in the area, I figured there was a good chance that's where he'd be. Matt would follow the fence line that divides the property to the edge of the switchgrass and then continue along the edge of the grass.
"I drove back to the far end to the fence line that borders the neighboring ground and posted Mark Confer on the south end of the timber in the corner. I let Chet Carlson and Ken Confer out at the edge of the switchgrass. Chet would post at the southwest corner and Ken at the southeast corner, where my permanent stand is located along the creek. Ken would be able to see both sides of the creek from there.
"I drove back out and parked on the hard road. Afterwards, I snuck back in, following the creek until I got within eyesight of Ken. To one side of me was the 20-acre cut soybean field and in front was a small patch of switchgrass. My other tree stand in the fence line was maybe 50 yards away, and that's where I decided to set up.
THE RIGHT SPOT AT LAST
"I hadn't been there more than 10 minutes when I heard something running from behind. Expecting to see deer, I was surprised to see the landowner's two yellow Labs. Long story short, every time the dogs see my truck, they come down and try to find me. Knowing the younger dog will stay close to the oldest, I called the older dog over and grabbed hold of his collar and held on.
"Not more than two minutes later, I spotted the big 10-pointer coming down through the west side of the ditch at a slow trot. When he got within 50 or 60 yards of my stand, he stopped. To one side stood 8-foot-tall switchgrass. The other side was composed of thick timber. In between was an open spot maybe 5 yards wide. The buck looked both ways and took off, trotting in Ken's direction. However, he only ran 20 or 30 yards and stopped again, once again looking both ways. It was almost like the buck knew he was being pushed, but at the same time he knew exactly where every hunter was. I had a decent shot at that point, but he was heading toward Ken, and I knew I'd be shooting in the direction in which Mark and Chet were coming from. Considering that, I held off.
"The buck continued on, but he locked up when he got closer to my stand. There was no doubt he had seen one of the drivers. I knew then that if he jumped into the switchgrass, we'd never see him again. So I let go of the dog's collar, pulled up and took the shot. I was pretty sure I'd hit the buck in the front leg. Apparently the buck thought the shot had come from Ken's direction because he turned and started running down into the creek bottom."
SOME TENSE MOMENTS
"I started running in that direction to cut him off. Suddenly he popped out of the ditch and came running right at me. As soon as the buck saw the dogs and me, he veered and ran north. I fired a second shot and missed completely. Knowing I had only one shot left, I bore down and fired that last shot. The buck shuttered and stumbled sideways. I knew I'd hit him, but he still went another 30 yards before stopping. Mark had just come out of the switchgrass and was only 20 yards from the deer. I hollered, 'Finish him off!' Mark pulled up and fired, and the buck dropped on the spot.
"When I first walked up on the deer I was extremely excited. My two-year quest had come to an end. The buck not only had tall tines, but the mass of his antler bases was incredible. I'm a pretty big guy and I couldn't get my hands around the bases. Almost immediately I started making calls. The first was to the landowner to thank him for giving me the opportunity to hunt the property. Of course I called my wife, Debbie, to tell her the news. There were a fair number of people who knew I'd been hunting the deer, so I made at least a dozen calls before we even got him field dressed.
"Although I feel extremely fortunate to have taken such a magnificent animal, I must admit that I was a little disappointed. I only say that because I've daydreamed and laid awake many
a night, wondering if I'd ever get an opportunity to shoot the buck with my bow."
"As we went over the events leading up to shooting the deer, I realized that Ken hadn't even seen him. Evidently he was turned around at the time the buck came through, looking in the direction where the drivers were coming from. Had he seen the buck first, chances are I wouldn't have killed him.
"As best as we can figure, the buck had been bedded in the tall switchgrass the entire time. Even though I had driven up and parked within 50 yards of the switchgrass to let Ken and Chet out, the buck held tight. Evidently he felt safe there and simply let us walk on by. I'm sure he had done that many times before with more than one hunter -- who knows how many times during the two previous archery seasons with me! No doubt the buck was woods-wise and he knew how to avoid hunters."
Mark Lewis had a season that most hunters only dream about. Not only did he shoot the buck of a lifetime, but the giant 5x5 turned out to be the largest typical whitetail taken in North America last year. One of the key features of the antlers is the incredible mass at the bases. The right antler base (measured at the smallest point) measured 6 2/8, and the left measured 7 4/8 inches in circumference. Another key feature is the length of the main beams. The right beam measured 29 3/8 inches and the left 28 1/8 inches. The Montgomery County megabuck grossed 202 1/8 and netted 194 3/8 typical B&C points.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Well-executed organized deer drives in Iowa are nothing new. In fact, they are a much anticipated way of life for thousands of Iowa residents during the shotgun season in December.
However, when it comes to big bucks, the 2008 season will definitely go down in history as Iowa's best year for deer drives ever! In addition to Mark's great buck taken in Montgomery County on Dec. 9, Chris Wood of Des Moines shot a 33-point giant during a drive in Taylor County on Dec. 6. Chris' incredible buck scored 263 1/8 non-typical B&C points. See the September 2009 issue for his story.
That's not all! On Dec. 17, 2008, Hattie Peck of Fairfield, Iowa, shot a 20-point bruiser during the second shotgun season that scored 233 3/8 non-typical points. Hattie shot her buck while on stand during a drive with family members and friends. Amazingly, Hattie's buck sported a 222 2/8-inch gross typical score and an inside spread of 26 inches!
Truly, all three of these world-class whitetails stand in a class by themselves. -- Duncan Dobie