Any buck with circumference measurements that average nearly 7 inches is a giant. Here's how a blown opportunity in 2002 turned into my getting Illinois' biggest gun deer of 2003.
Hunters everywhere were buzzing when this photo hit the Internet last winter. Chad's buck is the biggest ever shot in Jersey County, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Chad Goetten
By Chad Goetten
As darkness settled, I sat motionless in my tree stand high on the hardwood ridge. What was about to happen would haunt me for a long time.
It occurred on a mid-December 2002 bowhunt with my brothers-in-law, Brian Kanallakan and Matt Wisdom. I'd positioned my Summit climber on a long ridge between bedding and feeding areas in Jersey County, Illinois.
A doe appeared and moved within yards of my tree. Moments later, I heard a deep, repetitive grunt as a large buck materialized from the dense brush. His head hung low as he made his way toward the doe.
As I drew my bow and waited for the big deer to walk into an opening in the trees, I thought, This is too good to be true. And I apparently was right. My arrow hit a tree limb and veered, missing the buck.
As I watched the deer of a lifetime go over the hill, I began to shake uncontrollably. I had to sit for several minutes to regain my composure. Upon meeting my partners after the hunt, I tried to describe the enormous mass and record-class configuration of the rack I'd had within 20 yards of my stand. Whether or not they believed me I don't know -- but little did I realize I'd be able to back up my tale nearly a year later.
When I began dating my girlfriend, Lynn, in the early 1990s, my obsession with deer hunting had already begun. I'd grown up on a family farm, and my interest in the outdoors had been sparked at an early age.
Upon graduating from college, I married this beautiful blonde, who happened to be a farmer's daughter. As a grain and livestock farmer and an avid outdoorsman, my father-in-law, T.J. Kanallakan, has many big deer adorning his walls. His farm, a mixture of heavy timber, pastures and grain fields, lies along a bluff of the Illinois River bottom.
T.J. and I still joke about the first time I bowhunted his land. Although he's not accustomed to tree stands, I explained that bowhunters have a better advantage if they hunt from an elevated position. He replied, "Then I bet a good place to hang your stand would be east of the ponds, where the field meets the fence."
I took his advice and the next morning was perched in my portable stand. Like clockwork, at daybreak a fat 8-pointer made his way across the field toward me. Imagine my father-in-law's amazement when I was out of the woods in less than an hour, telling my success story!
It was around this time that my future brother-in-law, Brian, moved back from the Chicago area to work closer to home and help his dad farm. Brian also took up an immediate interest in bowhunting. Since then we've spent countless hours scouting and hunting deer that roam the hardwood timbers and fertile fields on the 400-acre river bluff farm.
The beam circumferences on Chad's buck average almost 7 inches. Photo courtesy of Chad Goetten
THE 2003 SEASONMy 2003 bow season had been anything but normal prior to the first gun season in November. With Lynn and me both busy in our careers and trying to keep up with two small boys, it had cut into my bowhunting. By then Brian and another buddy, Rodney Driver, had tagged nice bucks. All I could do was grit my teeth and itch to get into the woods.
As the week of gun season approached, we received a 5-inch rain, which put us out of the fields at work. This was perfect timing. Needing to take some vacation time before year's end, I decided to spend the rest of the week bowhunting before gun season arrived on Friday. I shut off the cell phone, cleared my mind and spent the next two days in my stand.
I was able to take my 4-year-old son on his first deer hunt on Thursday evening. Three hours was a long time for him to keep quiet in our homemade tree hut we call "the chateau," but as the sun began to set, the woods suddenly became alive. Among other deer that moved into our food plot, a small 6-point buck cautiously entered the field in front of us and stood motionless for what seemed an eternity. It was rewarding for me to see his reactions and witness my son's first "close deer" encounter. The season was getting better already.
Gun season began with the same anxiety of past years. We met at my father-in-law's clubhouse at 5:30 a.m., settled on our destinations and headed out. But opening day came and went without a shot being fired by anyone in our party. The only deer I saw was a spike.
Young Owen Goetten has his hands more than full with his dad's trophy rack. Photo courtesy of Chad Goetten
The temperature was unseasonably warm, but the forecast was for a wet, cold storm system to move in. We hoped that would change our luck. But the early hours of Saturday began with my trying to comfort a crying 15-month-old who was suffering from an ear infection. This is going to be a long day, I told myself.
At 5:30 a.m., I began the trek to the same deep ravine I'd hunted for several years. By the time I got my climbing stand situated, I was soaked with sweat and not feeling very optimistic about the day's hunt.
My outlook changed when I heard a buck grunting and deer moving through the timber as I pulled up my gun and backpack. It was 6:30 and my eyes were still trying to focus. As the darkness lifted, I could see the silhouettes of deer moving along the ridge high above my stand. Because of its position at the mouth of a deep ravine where several ridges come together, I knew the deer likely would cross near my stand.
At 7:07, a doe appeared over a small break approximately 60 yards from me. Following close behind were antlers coming through the trees. As quickly and quietly as possible, I reached around the tree, grabbed my shotgun, click
ed the safety off, and put the cross hairs on the buck's vitals as he closed the gap. I glanced at his rack and knew I'd shoot if given a chance.
My biggest concern was that the buck might wind me, due to the swirling breeze in the deep hollow. As luck would have it, though, he continued on his path and stopped 40 yards in front of my stand. I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger.
The gun went off . . . but the buck never missed a beat. I couldn't believe it -- I'd missed!
The buck stood motionless and completely fixated on the doe as she ran over the ridge. He was oblivious to everything else, including the noise of my bolt action as I ejected the empty shell and chambered another Winchester slug. He'd now turned and had started walking over the hill toward the doe. Once again I leveled the cross hairs and pulled the trigger, this time dropping him in his tracks.
After the deer went down, I sat for several minutes, trying to gather my thoughts. Even then I never imagined I had a record-book buck lying less than 50 yards away -- let alone the same monster that had walked out of my dreams a year earlier. The deer had come in so fast I hadn't had much time to analyze his rack.
Upon descending from the tree and making my way over to the buck, I quickly realized he was the giant that had haunted me every time I'd closed my eyes during the past year. When I knelt beside this magnificent animal, it was an emotional moment. I threw my arms into the air and praised God for my good fortune.
Brian, who had been hunting close by, heard the shots and came to investigate. I'm thankful he was there that morning to share in one of the most memorable hunts of my life.
While I'm still overcome with joy over having taken such a great deer, it's still awkward for me to deal with the attention my trophy has created. I realize only a handful of hunters are ever given a chance to take a buck of this class. I'm humbled by the reality that he could just as easily have been shot by another member of my group, who were hunting over the ridge.
While I'm a devoted hunter, I know having luck on your side is a big factor in taking trophy deer. To get one of this caliber was exciting enough, but to have my entire family present to help me celebrate made for memories I'll cherish forever.