During her seventh year of hunting the Prairie State, Debbie Cox of Virginia was finally rewarded with a dream buck. But she had to endure a nightmare with a game warden before she reaped her reward.
When Debbie Hart married retired Marine Jeff Cox in 1989, her exposure to hunting had been nearly zero. Jeff was a self-taught deer, turkey and bear hunter who recognized that the true satisfaction of hunting was simply enjoying the great outdoors. To him, harvesting a game animal was secondary. Debbie never nagged at Jeff about all the hours he spent in the woods with his gun and bow, but she surely wondered why Jeff came home so exhausted and usually without game.
Debbie Cox might have lost one dream buck to an unethical landowner who also happened to be a conservation police officer for the state of Illinois, but in the end she prevailed with this awesome 4x4 that grossed nearly 160 inches. Sharing that moment is Debbie's husband Jeff.
Living in rural Virginia, Jeff felt uncomfortable leaving Debbie alone so often at home, so he taught her to shoot a pistol. Jeff eventually posed the second biggest question of his life to Debbie: "Would you be interested in learning to hunt?" Surprisingly, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"
The first weapon of choice for Debbie was a muzzleloader. Though she began spending many hours in a tree stand alone, she could not force herself to pull the trigger on a deer.
She would just watch the deer and report to Jeff that she had not seen a thing. Then the inevitable happened!
While the couple exited the woods one morning, a spike buck stepped into their path. Jeff beckoned Debbie to "Shoot it!" She hated to disappoint Jeff, so Debbie raised the gun and dropped the deer. Instead of feeling remorseful, she felt only satisfaction and pride. A hunter was born that day!
At first, Jeff's buddies were tentative about Debbie's presence in hunting camp. They eventually treated her like one of the gang when it became evident that she was becoming a legitimate hunter who enjoyed the sport and fellowship as much as they did. Jeff upped the game and taught Debbie to shoot a bow. Being aboard a tree stand or in a ground blind before daybreak waiting for the woods to come alive quickly became Debbie's favorite way to spend time.
In 2002, friend Rodney Williams asked the Coxes if they would be interested in going to Illinois with him on an outfitted bowhunt. Rodney had located an outfitter in Adams County near Siloam Spring State Park. Jeff and Debbie had always heard and read about the huge bucks taken in Illinois, and they booked the five-day outing.
After two years with the Adams County outfitter, the three friends concluded that this outfitter was unethical. For one thing, his stand sites always seemed to be overused before their arrival. In 2004, Rodney, Debbie and Jeff booked an archery hunt with Midwest Extreme Hunting in Hancock County, Illinois.
The trio quickly found that the accommodations and hunting situation in Hancock were far superior to what they had experienced with the Adams County outfitter. Sally and Kevin Neill, owners of Midwest Extreme Hunting, managed plenty of great whitetail habitat and it was not over-hunted.
The three friends hunted with the new outfitter during archery season in 2004 and 2005 without success. They had seen lots of good bucks, however, but they never seemed to get the shot opportunities. Being thoroughly satisfied with the Neill's operation, the threesome booked a combination bow/firearms hunt for 2006. Nothing could have prepared them for the disturbing encounter they were to experience with an Illinois game warden that year.
A TROUBLING PHONE CALL
It was the first day of Illinois' first firearms season when a rut-crazed mature 10-pointer chased does in front of Debbie for a full 10 minutes before coming to within 40 yards and stopping perfectly broadside. Debbie's shot with a Thompson/Center muzzleloader appeared to have been perfectly placed behind the buck's shoulder. The huge whitetail buckled, but then he managed to follow the retreating does across a boundary fence 100 yards from Debbie's tree stand. Listening intently, she heard a crashing noise and was certain the buck had gone down a short distance into the woods on the neighboring property.
Jeff was hunting the same leased tract and soon arrived to hear Debbie's exciting story.
They found where the buck had crossed the fence, but did not trespass onto that neighboring property. Instead, they called outfitter Kevin Neill for help. Kevin arrived, marked where the buck had crossed the fence, and called the adjoining landowner, a conservation police officer (CPO) for the state of Illinois. The CPO's wife answered the phone, but denied access to the property, stating that she and her husband would be hunting their farm the next day on Saturday. She went on to say that she did not want her property disturbed. She ended the conversation by telling Kevin that her husband would call him Saturday evening.
Debbie had passed up many borderline bucks over the prior four years in Illinois, so everyone was excited about her prospective success. Jeff was particularly elated since he had mentored her in the sport. The request to not enter onto the CPO's property was honored, and Debbie and Jeff waited anxiously for word from the CPO on Saturday evening. No call ever came, though, so Kevin called the CPO. No one answered the phone.
DEBBIE'S WORST NIGHTMARE
Kevin called the CPO again on Sunday morning, and once again the man's wife answered the phone. (This was the last day of Illinois' three-day firearms season.) The wife stated that her husband would be working Sunday and that Kevin could contact him at 7 a.m. the following morning.
Instead of calling, Kevin, Debbie, Jeff and Rodney arrived in person at the CPO's residence at 7:05 a.m. on Monday morning. The CPO answered the door with an air of arrogance and a bad attitude. The CPO asked Debbie to describe the buck she had shot.
She told him her buck was a 10-pointer with one broken tine. The CPO promptly claimed he had been hunting that particular buck and that it lived primarily on his property. He accused Debbie of being "unethical" for shooting a buck that came off his property and onto Kevin's lease. Debbie told the CPO that the buck had actually come from the opposite direction. The CPO snorted, "Right," as if to call Debbie a liar. What happened next is even more appalling.
A LESS THAN ETHICAL CPO
The CPO held out his hand and said, "Put $500 in this hand and I'll talk to my wife and we'll decide whether or not you can look for t
Kevin asked, "Does this mean you'll let Debbie have her buck if I pay you $500?"
(Kevin strongly suspected that the buck was already in the CPO's possession.)
"No!" the CPO responded obnoxiously. "The $500 is for consideration only. If my wife and I decide against allowing you to look for your buck, we keep the $500."
"Then we will not give you $500," Debbie responded. Unable to control her emotions any longer, Debbie walked back to the truck. Jeff and Rodney each wanted to "punch the CPO's lights out," but reason and good judgment prevailed. Kevin remained calm and told the CPO that his actions were making trespassers out of perfectly ethical sportsmen.
Name-calling ensued and nothing was settled. Debbie, Jeff and Rodney ultimately headed home to Virginia without the beautiful 10-pointer.
The irony of the situation grew when Kevin told the three Virginians about a suspicious October trail camera photo retrieved from one of his cameras. The camera had captured the CPO (out of uniform) walking on the same leased property where Debbie had shot her 10-pointer. The owner of Kevin's lease wanted to prosecute the CPO for trespassing, but Kevin knew the chances of getting a guilty verdict would be small. Obviously the CPO could testify that the photo had been taken while he was investigating some incident while off-duty.
There were also concerns about retaliation from this unethical CPO. Kevin never told him about the photo, but he saved it in case he ever needed it in the future. The Neills felt extremely bad about Debbie's terrible experience and her lost buck, so they invited both Debbie and Jeff to come back and hunt for free during firearms season the following year.
A DREAM-COME-TRUE HUNT
The 2007 Prairie State firearms season was warm and uneventful, and the couple went home with unfilled tags. But Debbie and Jeff knew they had chosen the right outfitter, so they booked both a bow and firearms hunt with Midwest Extreme Outfitters again for the following year.
Bowhunting the week prior to Illinois' 2008 firearm season was exciting for the Coxes. It was mid-November, the peak of the rut, and Debbie and Jeff passed on several borderline bucks. Jeff almost had a shot opportunity at a 170-plus buck.
Opening day of Illinois' first firearms season finally arrived. It was crisp and cold on Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Debbie got aboard her climber and shimmied up the tree as quietly as possible, preparing for a full day on stand. Several does and fawns stirred in the woods around her during the morning hours. The afternoon was also quiet until about 4 p.m., when a 2 1/2-year-old buck showed up to pester some feeding does near Debbie's stand.
He's definitely not a shooter, Debbie thought.
The 120-inch buck started toward the does but stopped abruptly and began bobbing his head. Peering around to see what had disturbed the little buck, Debbie watched a magnum 8-pointer step out from behind some cover as if he owned the woods. The mature male's bristled posture was enough to convince the smaller buck to quickly flee the area.
Debbie glassed the big deer to confirm that he met the outfitter's 130-inch minimum. Her first thought was, He's at least 140 inches!
The buck headed toward the feeding does. Debbie calmly tracked the buck in the cross hairs of her scope as it moved closer. At 45 yards, the monster whitetail stopped broadside, offering the perfect shot. She squeezed the trigger and knew immediately that her shot hit home. The buck buckled and ran 50 yards before crashing to the ground.
Debbie quickly called Jeff with the news and then descended the tree. She called Jeff again after approaching the buck and viewing his massive antlers up close. Jeff told her to go back to the truck where she could get better cell service and call Kevin. She refused to leave the buck for fear that someone would steal it. But this time things would be different. This buck was definitely going home with Debbie to Virginia!
Debbie got more attention during the next 24 hours than she had received on her wedding day. The Hancock County brute's green score was 158 4/8 inches gross and 153 2/8 inches net.
Even after the incredible ordeal with the Illinois CPO and his wife in 2006, Debbie and Jeff still contend that they did the right thing by not crossing the property boundary to recover Debbie's 10-pointer, even though Debbie felt certain the buck had gone down very close to the property line. According to Illinois law, the CPO and his wife broke no wildlife regulations or state laws by refusing entry to their farm. It was also no violation to charge a trespass fee onto their property. But did the CPO's actions and those of his wife defy good ethics? Most certainly!
I interviewed the CPO over the phone before I wrote this story. He was extremely arrogant. I asked him how he would have reacted if it had been his wife who was denied her rightful deer. He had no answer to that question. The CPO's last comment before hanging up on me was, "Go ahead and write an article. Who cares, anyway!"
Author's note: Before I learned about Debbie's unfortunate experience, I happened to be watching a hunting show on TV. Upon approaching his downed trophy 10-pointer, an elated whitetail hunter's first words were, "Thank you, God, for putting this buck under me!"
After hearing what the hunter said, my initial thoughts were, Does this guy really think that God has the time on his hands to direct a trophy deer to his tree stand? Surely God has better things to do!
I have to tell you: After hearing Debbie's incredible seven-year hunting saga, I've changed my mind completely. Who cares? I'll tell you who cares, Mr. CPO. God cares, because he measures deer hunters by their hearts, not their antlers. One thing is certain:
The whitetail world is better off with ethical hunters like Debbie and Jeff Cox. And you know what? I believe that all ethical deer hunters are rewarded in the end!
For information about Midwest Extreme Hunting go online to www.midwestextremehunting.net.