During the 2004/05 season, legendary bowhunter Gene Wensel arrowed a giant Iowa non-typical that ranks as one of the largest whitetails ever taken with a recurve bow. Here's the exclusive story.
After executing a very difficult shot on Dec. 30, and after spending a restless night waiting for dawn to arrive on the last day of 2004, a much-relieved Gene Wensel poses with "the buck of a 50 or 100 lifetimes!"
Photo courtesy of Gene Wensel.
For some people, hunting deer is a hobby. For others, the activity is closer to a passion. When you do something all your life with intense eagerness, it becomes more than simply what you do. It becomes who you are.
My brother Barry and I have been passionately hunting deer since we were youngsters. We were blessed with a father who loved to hunt and allowed us the freedom to pursue our interests from a very early age. We had bows and arrows from childhood and, as many friends have noted, simply never put our toys away.
Starting out with traditional equipment, we never got caught up in the compound bow craze that hit in the '70s. Like fishermen who choose to place self-imposed limitations upon themselves by using only fly rods, hand-tied flies and light tippets while practicing selectivity in what they take home, we have for many years now been using simple bows and arrows to hunt mature whitetail bucks. It is, has been, and always will be what we do and who we are.
We lived in Montana with our families for almost 30 years. In 1999, after experiencing too many severe winterkills and frequent major die-offs from viral EHD, we decided to pull up stakes and move east. Iowa, Illinois and Kansas have great genetics, no winterkill and minimal gun hunting during the month of November. The Midwest is one big food plot. We settled in rural Iowa primarily because of whitetails.
I chose not to take a buck my first three years as a resident. Then, on a crisp Nov. 6, 2003, I tagged a 166-inch 5x5 at high noon. He was simply too good a buck to pass up.
Two months previously, on Sept. 15, 2003, I got up early to do some scouting. Shortly after dawn, I spotted two great bucks in the back corner of a soybean field. One of them was outstanding. He sported a big drop tine on his right antler and a shorter one on his left. I judged him to be a 200-inch deer. The next morning, Barry and I took positions between the bean field and bedding area. I had our video camera. Twenty minutes after daylight, nothing yet had come through. With binoculars, I could see my brother waving me up the hill. I wasn't really quite ready to move but thought maybe he could see something that I couldn't. I took a couple of steps toward Barry when the big drop-tined buck broke from tall weeds just in front of me. By the time my camera kicked into gear, all I recorded was a few seconds of running footage.
A BUCK FOR THE AGES
The great buck made himself scarce for the remainder of the 2003 season. I never saw him again. Barry saw him twice more, as did several friends who were bowhunting the same area. Barry almost had a shot at him during the late season. Barry slipped into a December tree stand, only to discover he had left his safety belt in the truck. With heavy ice on the stand, he made a quick ground blind 40 yards away. An hour later, the giant buck walked right under the stand while Barry watched from just out of range.
We searched hard for his sheds the following spring but found neither side. He had vanished. Nor did he show himself during summer and early fall scouting.
The 2004 Iowa bow season opened on Oct. 1. On Oct. 17, Barry was sitting in a stand near where we first saw the buck in 2003. I was a mile away. When I met my brother after dark, I could instantly detect excitement. Before dark, the double-drop-tined buck stepped out from across a CRP field. Barry took eight minutes of long-range grainy video footage before low light made him shut the camera down. We reviewed the footage with several friends who knew what they were looking at. The drop tines were long on both sides now, and he appeared to be almost 30 inches wide outside. I was so excited I even sent a picture via e-mail to Gordon Whittington at North American Whitetail.
As Iowa's 2004 rut began to heat up, Woody disappeared. Then, on Nov. 17, Gene discovered two trail camera photos of the giant buck on the same roll of film.
Photo by Gene Wensel
LOOKING FOR WOODY
We intensified our hunt for this buck the very next day. Aerial photos were carefully studied and three new tree stands were put in place. I named the buck "Woody." And it didn't have anything to do with woodpeckers!
We hunted Woody almost every evening from various stands with no more sightings. Our buddies Mark, David and Mike Mitten called from Illinois almost every night, saying the same few words to start every phone conversation, "Did you get him yet?"
We talked over multiple possibilities and hunting strategies. The encouragement of friends made our hunts even more relentless. This was going to be a concentrated double-team effort. Three set cameras were placed in strategic areas. For weeks they gave no evidence of Woody's presence. He had vanished again.
The rut started to kick in the first week of November. I was convinced Woody was cruising, checking doe groups and plotting strategies to spread his seed in the area. With no new sightings, Barry and I started hunting several other good bucks I had seen in October in different areas.
I've always been able to sense close encounters on a fairly regular basis. On the evening of Nov. 4, I told my wife something was going to happen the next morning. The weather radio predicted perfect conditions. Sure enough, at 7 a.m., a 163-inch 6x6 walked past my stand and I made good my opportunity. Again, he was simply too good a buck to pass up. Barry tagged a 160-inch beauty a few days later.
IMAGES OF A KING
Our Iowa buck tags were filled. Since we don't gun hunt, we wouldn't be able to hunt bucks with our bows again until the primitive weapons season kicked in a few days before Christmas. We continued filling doe tags and monitoring our trail cameras. I developed three rolls of film on Nov. 17, exactly one month after we last sighted Woody. There, on one roll of film, were two pictures of the great buck. Both were taken on the same scrape. One was exposed at night as he walked through the scrape, but
the second was taken at high noon with the sun shining. Woody had his nose in the overhanging branch and he filled the frame, although the angle made it hard to see all his points. This photo was so good that it looked like it had been taken in a park or preserve, although the camera angle made his rack look smaller than it actually was. We erected two more stands near that scrape, hoping to get more video footage.
Just before Thanksgiving, Woody showed up again. And again. Barry and I each saw him several times coming into a remote field of thin soybeans that hadn't been harvested. But he never entered the same place twice and he always showed up just at last light. We put up two pop-up blinds and brushed them in along edges in places where we had seen the deer. One evening I was in one of the blinds when Barry watched Woody walk right behind me during a snowstorm. I never saw him.
Iowa's gun season opened the first week of December. We could have legally hunted with guns. Since Iowa does not allow people to handicap themselves with bows and arrows during gun season (that law never made sense to me and needs to be changed), we elected to hunt with video cameras only. Multiple loud gunshots heard close by caused much loss of sleep and worry.
A SIGH OF RELIEF
Then, on the last day of the first gun season, an hour before dark, Woody entered the bean field with several other deer. He came within 50 yards while I burnt up the film. I got over 40 minutes of video footage of him dominating the field, displaying great posturing threats to another good buck that fed too close. What a magnificent animal! Our intensity grew even stronger while waiting for the late bow season to open.
During the week before Christmas, we flew to Texas to do a television show with the Mossy Oak film crew. We had a great trip, and Barry and I each harvested good bucks on film.
"The fact that I got to share the hunt for Woody and his recovery with family and friends made it even better," Gene said. The "team" (pictured left to right) included Barry, Gene, Daryl Kempher and Barry's son Jason.
Photo courtesy of Gene Wensel
The late primitive weapons season opened a few days before the holidays. Since I had previously made plans to spend Christmas in Indiana with relatives, Barry started hunting a few days before my return. Two days after Santa left, Barry was sitting in a stand with bow and camera when he saw movement over his left shoulder. He turned to see a young bobcat stalking a squirrel not 10 yards from the tree he was in. By the time he got the camera in gear, he missed the charge but caught on tape the bobcat killing the squirrel and then playing with its prize. I thought it was interesting that the cat killed its prey by grabbing it by the throat rather than by the back of the neck. Incidentally, this was our 11th bobcat sighting in Iowa during the past five years. When we moved here, we were told there were no bobcats in Iowa. Right. . . .
I returned from Indiana on Dec, 26. Barry met me with news that the soybean field was all but depleted of beans by now, with very few deer sightings. The deer had moved to feed in standing corn on a neighboring property but were still apparently bedding in the cover we were hunting. To make matters more stressful, a friend called to tell us he had picked up a fresh set of big sheds a few days before. Just the season before, Barry had a huge buck walk right up to him a few days before Christmas with two big scabs on top of his head. We decided it was time to get more aggressive with Woody.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
The Mitten brothers started calling every evening again. Multiple other friends would phone each evening for our report, most realizing we were running out of time but encouraging us with optimism. Several bets were laid on who was going to get the first crack at this deer. Others put the odds heavily in favor of Woody.
Our good friend Daryl Kempher phoned from Michigan, asking if there was some way he could help. He had some time off work and he wanted to come down and look for sheds anyway. When Daryl arrived, we laid aerial photos on the table and showed him what he could do that might help. That same day, Barry's oldest son, Jason, a teacher and coach from Milwaukee, arrived ready for active duty. Jason had drawn an Iowa tag, but he had only been able to hunt a few days in November due to his work schedule.
Our plan was simple. Daryl would help orchestrate what we call a "nudge." He would simply walk the outside property boundary fence far upwind, letting his human odor make his presence known while he searched for sheds.
Before dawn on Dec. 29, we slipped into stands already in place. The wind was from the south. Not bad. About the time Daryl should have been due south of us, I looked up to see Woody walking behind three does, coming right down through the woods toward me. When he was still almost 100 yards from me, the lead doe took a sharp left and headed toward Jason.
OH, SO CLOSE . . .
I couldn't see my nephew from where I was, but I later learned that all four deer walked right up on him, Woody bringing up the rear. He offered nothing but a frontal shot at 18 yards. I have to credit my nephew. Most guys would have let an arrow go. Jason wisely passed up the poor frontal shot. Suddenly, the closest doe spotted him. All four deer broke and ran through the woods toward me. I could see Woody coming. I knew he was about to pass through a thicket behind my stand at close range. When he came by, I shot, but my arrow was deflected and flew right over his back. I don't think he even knew I shot at him.
Barry compares the only shed antler known to have been found from Woody with the 2004 trophy. The right shed was picked up in February 2003.
Photo courtesy of Gene Wensel
The buck continued toward Barry, ready in his stand only 50 yards from me. When the deer got broadside to Barry, I heard my brother bleat, stopping Woody in his tracks at only 15 yards broadside. I knew what was coming. What I couldn't see was that the buck had stopped in the only spot with brush between his chest and my brother's bow. Barry picked a hole, but he too got a deflection. His arrow buried in a tree behind the deer.
Less than a minute later, one of Woody's girlfriends stopped in the same spot. My brother quickly sent a broadhead through her lungs. I couldn't believe Barry took a chance on that doe, but his shaft flew true and the big doe went down within 25 yards. Shooting at a doe is not something he would normally do in the heat of action with a buck the likes of Woody being close by. Had he wounded the doe, we would have had
to trail her in the direction the big buck headed. Barry later told me he just wanted to prove to himself he could slip one through that same spot. Barry's last doe tag was filled. We made a wide loop, dragging her out of the woods without disturbing the north end of the property.
We let the area calm down for the remainder of the day. That night, we discussed plans for the next morning. The weatherman predicted winds from the west-northwest, which was perfect for what we had in mind. We assumed the group of deer would calm down after an entire afternoon and night undisturbed. We suspected they would again work their way south to feed in the standing corn but return to the security cover on our side of the fence before dawn. Once more, Daryl would take a route while shed hunting that would let his scent drift toward the deer.
NOW OR NEVER
On Dec. 30, Jason, Barry and I slipped into place shortly after dawn. The plan was to sit our stands until 10 a.m., the same time Daryl should be moving toward the north end of the property a half-mile away. At that time, Barry would move to another stand a quarter-mile east, I would move to where Barry was sitting, and Jason would shift over to my stand.
Not much happened all morning. Unbeknownst to us, Daryl saw Woody and several other deer move across a CRP field and enter a woodlot in the distance. Using the wind, Daryl skillfully circled wide to gently bump the deer northeast into one of their favorite thickets. He then let things calm down. The wind was perfect. Woody was in position. So were we.
About 9:45 a.m., I started having second thoughts about moving. I weighed and pondered the decision in my mind. I really don't know why, but over the years I've learned to pay attention to gut feelings. At 10 o'clock, Barry got down from his stand 50 yards from me and moved off. I decided to sit tight. Something told me to stay put. I waved Jason toward Barry's stand and watched him climb in.
At approximately 11:15 a.m., with Daryl a half-mile to the northwest, I saw movement to the north. Several deer were quartering downwind directly toward me. Suddenly I saw huge antlers and instantly recognized Woody. He and three other mature bucks were walking straight to me.
My stand was sandwiched between several oak trees. The tree my platform was on was a huge old oak, too big to get my safety belt around, so I had hooked my belt around a 10-inch oak just off my right knee. The deer were headed right toward me with the smaller tree between us. I was suddenly in one of those situations where I didn't know which side of the tree I'd have to shoot from. The tree was close enough to me that it required considerable movement to switch my bow and arrow to the opposite side if I had to.
"Words cannot describe the emotion that swept over me when I walked up to Woody," Gene said. "Nothing I've ever accomplished in the outdoors compares to the feeling!"
Photo courtesy of Gene Wensel
The first buck was a 150-class 5x5. As he came within range, he swung to my left and gave me a perfect 15-yard broadside position. Woody was following, second in line. Apparently too proud to follow a lesser buck, he suddenly turned to the opposite side of the tree. I had to quickly move my bow and arrow around the trunk directly in front of me. My shot would be about seven or eight yards at a steep downward angle. My platform was at 18 feet, but since it was on the side of a hill, I was probably 25 feet above the deer. I started to draw as Woody walked by broadside. When I did, I suddenly noticed the lower limb of my bow was hung up in my safety belt rope!
By the time I untangled it, Woody was already through my shooting lane and starting to quarter away from me. Now I had to shoot off the left side of the giant oak my stand was in. Starting my draw, I saw a knob on the side of the tree above me. My upper limb tip would hit it if I canted my bow like I normally do, so I quickly "reverse canted" the bow, shooting from a very unorthodox position. My shot was quartering away at about 13 yards. When I released, the arrow sank to the feathers in his right hip, angling forward into the paunch. While I was worrying about my upper limb, my reverse cant caused my lower limb to hit the left side of the tree, throwing my shot off! I instantly saw blood and thought I might have cut the femoral artery. Woody was hit hard, still headed south.
SLEEPLESS IN IOWA
Jason saw what happened and immediately went to get Barry. We all eventually met at the stand site. The timber split into two drainages several hundred yards above us. The plan was for Barry to circle wide to the east and wait at the top of the first drainage. Jason would cover the second drainage to the west. Daryl and I would wait an hour and then slowly follow sign. If I had hit the femoral artery, I figured the buck wouldn't make it to the top of the drainages. If I hadn't, hopefully Barry or Jason would get a second crack at him.
While Jason was getting into position, he discovered where Woody had already passed, headed toward a big CRP field of tall weeds. We decided to back off several more hours before taking the trail. Later, Barry's younger son Brad showed up to help.
At 4:30 p.m., Woody stood from his bed in the CRP in front of us and moved east. Jason took off to keep him in sight. He watched as the weak buck walked into another patch of timber and brush. Since we were quickly running out of daylight, it was my call. I elected to back off until morning, in hopes he would bed down in the security of the new cover.
It was a long night. I took a sleeping pill at midnight but still woke up by 3 a.m. The plan was for me to watch the most likely escape route while Barry took the blood trail. Jason and Daryl would flank. Shortly after dawn, we moved into position.
A HARD-WON VICTORY
Twenty minutes later, I heard my brother yell. You probably heard me holler too if you were within 100 miles! Words cannot describe the emotion that swept over me. I'll leave that part up to your imagination.
All I can say is, I've been at this game for many years. I've been fortunate enough to tag some outstanding whitetails. But that day, nothing I'd ever accomplished in the outdoors could compare to the feeling I had when I walked up to Woody. To make things even sweeter, Daryl and Jason arrived on the scene about the same time I did. A flood of emotion swept over all four of us. These were very special moments. I had said more prayers in that last 24 hours than I had in months. The fact that I got to share it with family and friends made it even better. My companions were every bit as happy as I was. I couldn't have done it without the help of the three men with me.
Woody apparently had died shortly after we last saw him. My broadhead had indeed done its job. I started phoning close friends right there at his side.
Woody's antlers are magnificent. He has it all: 19 long points, width, mass, bladed tines, a calcified foramen on the end of the right main beam, long brow tines, good color, symmetry, no broken points, no "cheap" (short) non-typical points, four drop tines and a dark forehead. Scars on his muzzle from fighting other bucks whose racks could fit inside his main beams give him lots of character. I couldn't have built a prettier set of antlers. And anyone has my permission to X-ray the rack anytime they want!
With a 26 1/8-inch inside spread, nearly a 30-inch outside spread and bilateral drop tines, his antlers are unusually symmetrical for a non-typical. He has one of those rare sets of antlers that show off all his best characteristics from a direct frontal view. I've been told he is one of the biggest whitetails in history taken with a recurve bow. His body was big but not huge. In fact, the big buck I tagged in November probably outweighed him by 40 pounds. I never weighed either buck. We aged him at 5 1/2 years. His teeth have been sent to a lab for cementum analysis to confirm.
Our good friend David Mitten immediately drove over from Illinois to capture footage to add to our new DVD. The Mitten brothers and Barry and I have been working on our new DVD titled Primal Dreams for several years now. The footage of Woody pretty much completed this part of the project. That night, David went through some of my shed antler collection and discovered a right shed from Woody we had picked up in February of 2003. He had just started to grow his drop tines. We also discovered a third trail camera picture of the buck taken on a scrape in November 2002.
When a person loves this sort of stuff and spends a good portion of his life pondering choices, he can't help but respect individual deer, wonder about people as individuals and ask himself why he's driven to do what he does. Hunting is not a sport. Nor is it a game. Yes, it was termed "sport hunting" over a century ago to differentiate it from market hunting. But hunting is not a sport. What is it then? Hunting is a basic human instinct, no different than eating, breathing, sleeping or reproducing. Every human is born with an instinct to hunt. I heard someone say if they harvested a giant non-typical they would give up hunting because they had "done it all." I know others who have in fact given up hunting for whatever reason. I can't help but wonder if they ever really loved it in the first place.
|GENE WENSEL'S 'WOODY'|
|Scorable Points||19 (9R, 10L)||Total length of abnormal points: 46 1/8|
|Tip-to-Tip spread||25 5/8|
|Greatest Spread||27 5/8|
|Inside Spread||26 1/8|
|Main Beam||21 6/8||22 6/8||10/8|
|1st point (G-1)||6 3/8||6 5/8||2/8|
|2nd Point (G-2)||11 3/8||11 5/8||2/8|
|3rd point (G-3)||10 3/8||11 3/8||10/8|
|4th point (G-4)||8 3/8||9 1/8||6/8|
|1st circ. (H-1)||4 6/8||4 7/8||1/8|
|2nd circ. (H-2)||4 4/8||4 6/8||2/8|
|3rd circ. (H-3)||4 6/8||5 2/8||4/8|
|4th circ. (H-4)||4 6/8||4 6/8|| - |
|TOTALS||77 0/8||81 1/8||4 1/8|
|Gross Typical Score:||180 7/8|
|Subtract side-to-side difference:||- 4 1/8|
|Add abnormal points:||+ 46 1/8|
|FINAL NET NON-TYPICAL SCORE:||222 7/8|
|Taken by: Gene Wensel|
Date: Dec. 30, 2004
I'm fairly certain I've now taken the biggest buck of my life. At 60 years of age, I'm down past a quarter of a tank. Many people have referred to Woody as "the buck of a lifetime." In reality, he is probably the buck of 50 or 100 lifetimes. I'm not only grateful for the opportunity and outcome, but I'm also thankful for close friends who share the passion, an understanding wife and family, and a twin brother who shares my love of the outdoors with me. I'm a lucky and blessed guy.
It has been very special to see my dream unfold into reality. Some dreams do come true. To know I accomplished it "my way" is just icing on the cake. You know that feeling of "hunter's remorse and sadness" that is said to sometimes set in after the fact? Well, it ain't happened yet with Woody, and
I don't think it's ever going to happen! I feel great! I hope every person who reads this story gets to meet his or her own Woody someday!
(Editor's Note: Live footage of Woody taken in the field can be seen on the new DVD titled Primal Dreams, available online from www.brothersofthebow.com.)