As I hunted the old mountain buck in my mind and tried to piece together a plan for his demise, I had to wonder: Had his nocturnal nature made him unkillable?
When I first began getting photographs of Mountain Mike in the bottoms, I believed he was bedded in some thick pines on paper company land located within several hundred yards of those bottoms. However, I finally came to realize that this could not be the case. My reasoning was simple. If he was bedded in the pines close to the bottoms, as I had suspected, it would not take him long to enter his feeding areas, even if he was leaving his bed well after dark.
As mentioned, none of my trail photographs of him had ever been taken within three hours of dawn or dusk. All were taken well into the night. As I mulled over the situation, I began to believe that he might be bedding in some rugged ridges way beyond the bottoms that were very steep and vast. I had not really considered this before because of the distance from the bottoms to those ridges.
Generally speaking, as a buck gets older, his home range becomes smaller. However, a buck's individual personality and the deer density in the area have a lot to do with the distance he's willing to travel. I knew that I was one of the few hunters who ventured into those mountains enough to know much about them. I knew that three different ridge backbones, or fingers, led from the bottoms back into the mountains. Those fingers ran north and south and merged within 50 yards of each other near the top of a steep east-west hollow.
Most of the deer traveling to the ridges from the bottoms used one of the three fingers, or the drainage between them, as a travel corridor. I realized that I couldn't set up on Mountain Mike on any of the ridge fingers, because if he was traveling back and forth from those ridges to the bottoms, there was no way of knowing which travel corridor he might use on any given day. Furthermore, if I picked the wrong one to hunt, he might use another that was downwind of me and he'd wind me for sure.
FINDING THE RIGHT SPOT
I knew there had to be a better place to set up. Because of my scouting, I knew that the steep east-west hollow faded out about 100 yards above the point where the three ridges intersected it. Instead of traveling straight down the steep side of the hollow and up the other side, 90 percent of the deer traffic merged into one trail and turned right (west). The trail led around the rim of the hollow and up to the head, where it faded out and crossed. This formed a classic funnel.
After thinking about it for a day or two, I told my boys that I thought I knew the spot where I could kill Mountain Mike. It was at that funnel. I told them that since rain was forecast for Monday evening on Nov. 19, I planned to hang a stand on Monday afternoon just before the rain came in. My oldest son, Arlis James (A.J.), 16, had plans that afternoon, but my 15-year-old son, Clay, who is very interested in big bucks (although he had not yet shot one), wanted to go with me to hang the stand.
I ask Clay if perhaps we should hang a double set so we could hunt together and video each other. He was all for it. Hunting mature bucks has always been a solitary undertaking for me. However, I decided that the enjoyment of trophy hunting with my son, and perhaps capturing his first buck on film, would be well worth any negative effect it might have.
So on Monday evening, with two stands on our backs, we made the hard climb up to the ridges. When we finally reached a place just below the spot where the finger ridges met the hollow, we unloaded our stands and took a short break before climbing up a little farther to have a look around.
A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK?
While resting, Clay looked at me with a puzzled expression. He asked, "How far are we from where we've been getting Mountain Mike's pictures?"
I told him we were nearly one mile from the bottoms. He asked, "How in the world do you figure on shooting him way up here in the mountains?"
I tried to explain my reasoning, but he was not convinced that we should set up so far away from the bottoms. After a short break, we put on our Elimitrax overboots and begin easing up to the location where the travel corridors met the hollow. I always wear the Elimitrax overboot system anytime I'm scouting a mature buck's area during the fall. The last thing you want is to let an old, wary buck know that he is being hunted.
Once I got close to the funnel, the first thing I wanted to do was look at a thigh-size hemlock that had been rubbed the year before. I strongly suspected that this rub had been made by Mountain Mike a year earlier when he was 4 1/2. As we approached the hemlock, I was excited to see that it had been freshly worked. What's more, three scrapes had been made under its lower branches! When I inspected the fresh scrapes and the damage done to the tree's limbs, I told Clay that an old buck had made this sign, and I now felt certain that it was Mountain Mike. Although Clay was impressed with the sign and although he believed it had been made by a mature buck, he still wasn't convinced that this was the spot where I should set up to ambush the great 8-pointer.
It took me about 45 minutes to select the best tree in the area for our stands. We hung the stands and got everything like we wanted it just as the rain began to fall. Because of the nocturnal nature of the old mountain buck, I knew the situation would have to be perfect for him to move during daylight hours.
Once the rut begins, the No. 1 thing I look for to generate good buck movement is cold weather. The weatherman had predicted that Friday Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving, would be the coldest day of the year. The low for that morning would be in the low 20s and the high for the day would be in the low 40s. I knew this temperature range would be perfect for all-day rut movement.
A MORNING TO REMEMBER
Nov. 23 dawned cold and clear with a heavy frost on the ground. Surrounded by vast hardwood hollows and ridges, it was a good day to be alive and in a tree stand with Clay. Clay and I had worked out a deal. If any good buck other than Mountain Mike showed up, I would run the video camera and Clay would get an opportunity to arrow his first buck. However, if Mountain Mike appeared on the scene, Clay would be more than happy to video the hunt for me.
Clay had given it a lot of thought, and he had decided that he did not want his first buck to be a monster. He wisely wanted to gain some experience on a smaller buck first -- before being faced with the challenge of shooting a mature buck. He felt like this strategy would lessen his chances of a miss, or even worse, a wounded deer.
During the first three hours of our all-
day vigil, we saw only three deer off on a distance ridge. In our neck of the woods this was not at all unusual, even under perfect conditions during the rut. Deer densities are low in these mountains, and sometimes you can hunt for three or four days in a row without seeing a single deer.
By 9 a.m. the wind had really picked up. I looked around at Clay. Because of the cold, and probably because of a small case of boredom as well, he was hunkered down in his stand, staring straight at his feet, instead of keeping a watch on the ridge on his side of the tree. I decided to stand up and survey the area in front of him. Almost immediately I saw a doe walking on the opposite ridge across the hollow approximately 150 yards away. I knew her course would take her to the head of the hollow and back around toward our location.
I whispered, "Clay, there's a doe over there on the ridge. Look behind her for a buck."
A few seconds later, I noticed another deer standing about 30 yards from the doe. The other deer's body dwarfed that of the doe. Then I saw horns -- big horns!
A DAYTIME APPEARANCE
I said, "There's a buck."
The moment I put my binoculars to my eyes, I knew at once that it was the old mountain buck that had consumed my thoughts for much of the past 3 1/2 months. To be honest, I was a little surprised at being able to lay eyes on him again. After all, this was the first time I had ever tried to hunt him and only the second time that I had seen him in person.
I whispered, "It's Mountain Mike!"
Clay looked at me in disbelief and slowly began to stand and reach for the video camera. As I handed it to him, I put it on standby and hit the "record" button.
"It's recording," I said as I reached for my Mathews LD. As soon as I had my bow in hand, things began to happen at an accelerated rate. The doe picked up her pace and traveled around the side of the ridge until she reached the head of the hollow. She then turned and started moving around the side of the ridge where we were waiting. Mountain Mike was in tow, but he was careful not to push her. He kept his distance and stayed about 30 or 40 yards behind. He tried to keep an unassuming posture (as old bucks often do). He did not want to push her into flight.
The doe approached to within 27 yards and started milling around. I glanced at Clay and noticed that he had not moved the camera up to his eye or turned it toward the deer. I whispered, "Clay, you're not filming the deer."
He whispered back, "I can't move -- I'm afraid."
I told him that the doe was close on his left side. He whispered that he was afraid that she would see him if he moved and that he was going to wait and film Mountain Mike when the buck got closer. I looked around the side of the ridge; I could see the old buck approaching at a fast walk. I knew I could not give him a chance to see or sense us.
"You better start filming him," I whispered. "I'm going to have to kill him quick."
It's my belief that deer living in the mountains of East Tennessee like Mountain Mike are the wariest, hardest-to-kill deer on earth. They regard almost everything as being potentially dangerous, and they have the most keenly honed senses of any living deer I've ever seen or hunted. If an ATV engine cranks up half a mile away, these deer will turn inside out and flee the area. I believe the old term "wild as a buck" came from big-woods mountain deer like the one I was now hunting. They truly are the masters of the forest.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
I knew better than to try to hold up on the shot until we had some nice video footage of the buck walking by in the open. If I gave this 5 1/2-year-old buck half a chance, I knew he would be gone, possibly forever, so I intended to shoot him as soon as he got within bow range. When Mountain Mike was about 40 yards away, Clay slowly turned the camera on him. The big buck was walking straight toward our tree. Mountain Mike continued on for another 10 yards and stopped in the spot where the doe had been standing.
About that time, for reasons unknown to me, the doe trotted downhill about 40 yards and stopped. She may have seen something she didn't like, or she may have wanted to put more distance between herself and her pursuer. As she trotted down the hill, she got Mountain Mike's undivided attention. He stood in the same spot without moving for about 15 seconds and surveyed the area around him. Finally deciding that all was well, he turned and lowered his head to smell the ground and vegetation where the doe had been standing.
I feel certain that he was trying to evaluate her state of estrus. The second he dropped his head, I drew my bow. He was standing in thick cover behind a lot of saplings and limbs. I desperately tried to find a hole to shoot through. As he moved into a quartering-away position, he exposed part of his rib cage in an opening about the size of an apple.
I felt confident that I could place my arrow through the hole. I took careful aim and released. When my arrow reached him, I thought I saw a hole open up in the back of his rib cage, but I could not be sure. The old buck began running down the steep hill toward the hollow. I momentarily lost sight of him behind Clay and the tree. However, by the loud crashing sounds he was making, I was sure he had turned and started running back toward the tree we were in.
Not knowing for certain if I had hit him, I quickly removed another arrow from my quiver. I looked around just in time to see him running under Clay's feet. He ran up the hill about 30 more yards and started stumbling. He collapsed and rolled down the steep ridge about 10 yards before coming to a stop in some heavy brush. Then all was still.
I turned toward the video camera that was now focused on me in front of a very excited 15-year-old and said, "I just killed Mountain Mike!"
My broadhead had entered the back of the rib cage on the buck's left side. It had exited right behind the leg knuckle on the right side. It had made short order of the huge buck. Mountain Mike will forever be one of my most cherished trophies for many reasons. At the top of that list is the fact that I was able to share this experience with a trophy hunter in the making -- my son Clay.
What are his measurements? Score is not nearly as big an issue with me in determining how I rank a true trophy whitetail as is his age. However, for those of you who are curious, his back tines (G-2s) are 14 1/2 and 13 3/4 inches long. His G-3s are 10 and 9 7/8 inches in length. He has exceptionally long main beams for a Tennessee mountain buck (right at 27 inches). He also has excellent mass. He grosses 158 4/8 inches as a 4x4 and loses about 2 1/4 inches in side-to-side deductions.
In April 2008 I found one of Mountain Mike's 4 1/2-year-old sheds. It was found in very close proximity to where I had gotten one of the trail camera photos of him, and it carried a 12-inch G-2 and a 7-inch G-3. Just li
ke I had suspected, at 4 1/2 he would have scored about 143 1/2 inches with a 16-inch inside spread.
I find myself sometimes regretting that the old mountain buck is no longer out there to challenge me. However, I know there will be others in the big woods of eastern Tennessee that will make their way into my dreams. I just hope the next big buck will challenge me the way Mountain Mike did -- as I search my mind for a place in the woods to meet him. . . .
(Editor's Note: To purchase an autographed copy of the author's highly acclaimed book Bowhunting Trophy Whitetails, and to stay abreast of the publishing date for his new bowhunting book.)