It all started with chocolate milk and donuts. At least, that’s how I remember it. That was my favorite part of hunting as a kid: stopping en route to the woods to get a sweet breakfast. After all, I rarely saw deer while afield. It wasn’t that they weren’t around — it’s just that I didn’t understand the ins and outs of deer, particularly their incredible sense of smell.
My dad would often harvest deer, and we’d eat just about everything but the hooves. Mom would cook the steaks almost “fire truck to your house” well done. I didn’t realize most steaks were beef until I was nearly into high school, because venison was our norm.
My brothers Carl and Paul and I learned to shoot at an early age in our hometown of Catlettsburg, Kentucky. We could all bag squirrels, but deer were a different challenge altogether. Dad would simply hand you a gun and say, “OK, we’ll meet back here at X time.” And . . . that was your hunting lesson.
Not knowing what else to do, I spent hours trying to sneak around the deer woods without any idea of the importance of wind direction. As I recall, the only living things I ever saw were squirrels and crows. Now that I look back, I’m sure the deer were watching from afar and laughing as I sneaked through the woods.
Fast-forward a few years and I was in the Air Force, spending nearly half the year traveling. I rarely hunted, due to lack of time. But during that period, Paul pretty much became Grizzly Adams, learning to master the woods. Carl preferred to sleep in and do about anything but get up early to hunt.
My own preferences changed as I moved to Wisconsin in 2007 and took up gun hunting again shortly thereafter. I’d never drifted far from fishing, but Wisconsin offered the entire gamut of outdoor activity, with plenty of accessible land. In 2011 I finally bought a bow, an inexpensive Bear Strike on clearance from Cabela’s.
SETTLING ON THE SPOT
In the 30 days prior to filling my bow tag last fall, I hunted in five counties. I tried everything from swamps to hill country to flatlands. I enjoy learning new properties and figuring out deer movement nearly as much as I do harvesting deer. But while I’d seen many bucks in early season, I hadn’t seen any big ones within range. My wife, Jen, a bowhunter herself, had told me numerous times to stop hunting so many places and go to one I knew, as that would increase my chances.
And she was right. Anyone surprised?
During mid-October through gun season, even on non-hunting days I always shower with scent-free wash and apply unscented deodorant, just in case I get the chance to sneak away from work early and slip into the woods. As my job at the time required me to travel over most of the state, I always kept my bow, climbing stand and other gear in the vehicle throughout archery season. And of course, I traveled with my scent-free spray and rubber boots.
The buck I ended up shooting was one I’d seen only twice. Both sightings occurred in the past two years. My older son, Devin, and I had seen him crossing a field late one evening in November ’17. That year I hunted the deer numerous times in a couple of key pinch points but found nothing more than good sign and smaller bucks. I speculated the big one was bedding on one of a couple nearby private properties. If that was the case, there might be only a few days (at most) when he’d be huntable by me.
I never saw the buck again that season. But on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, I saw him crossing the road. He’d put on some size. My window of opportunity had again cracked open, and the countdown was on. I was certain he’d start moving more in daylight hours, based on recent deer activity in the area. Even so, I felt any chance of taking him would fall within a window of only two-three days.
I went home and began to come up with a plan. The process included looking at aerial photos and topographic maps of previously marked waypoints showing scrapes, rubs, travel corridors and bedding areas. I’d recently driven by two areas on weekends and often on my way to/from work to observe deer activity, and I’d started to see a significant increase in daytime movement. I combined this spike in movement with previously marked buck sign, figured in hunting pressure and then narrowed it all down to two spots.
I hardly slept that night. I really wanted to hunt the entire next day but had to work. My day would include six hours of driving, which of course meant six hours of obsessing over the best possible spot.
I rushed back and squeezed in a short hunt on the evening of Nov. 14. When I got home that night, my youngest son, Peyton, asked, “Daddy, you get a buck?” Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen much.
Once again, I barely slept that night. I often get “counseled” by my wife because I get so focused that all I think about, talk about and plan for is the next hunt. And this was an entirely different level.
The next morning, I planned to scout my primary point and hunt a bit before work. I thought I’d gather more intel on the spot and then take Friday off work to do a full-day sit, with the gun season opener on the horizon. I had my ceremonial glass of chocolate milk prior to leaving for the hunt, then drove to the chosen spot well before legal light.
As I began walking in, I realized I was making too much noise. So I decided to sit on a log and wait until there was just enough natural light for me to follow a small trail through the thick brush. I prefer to not use an artificial light in the woods, especially close to my hunting spot.
Once I had a bit of ambient light I was able to finish the walk quietly, as the ground was covered mostly in pine needles. About 10 minutes before legal light, I arrived at my spot. I cleared out a little area on the ground and set up my hunting stool in the midst of some small pines.
I sat down, ranged a few spots with my Bushnell Clearshot, checked my watch (6:24), attached the T.R.U. Ball release to my bowstring, and began scanning. When hunting on the ground, I wear a leafy headnet and ghillie suit top. With the right cover and wind, I’ve had deer walk almost on top of me with no idea of my presence.
I made sure I had plenty of room to draw the bow and get off a shot in the event I had an opportunity. When hunting from the ground, there’s very little forgiveness; you must stay ready, as things seem to happen much more quickly than when hunting from a tree stand. I’ve had situations in which I couldn’t shoot because there was either vegetation in the way or not enough cover to permit any movement without getting busted. I’ve learned many valuable lessons the hard way.
The spot I was watching was the north edge of a tiny hardwood clearing (about 40x60 yards), making it perfect with winds having a southerly component. I liked the spot for numerous reasons. I was in a pinch point between natural and manmade barriers that funneled deer, and I had cover all around me. There were doe bedding areas all around, and I’d recently seen a lot of daytime activity of does and other bucks. Finally, based on scouting, I knew there were traditional scrape and rub lines in the vicinity.
As the woods lightened, nature came to life. The birds began to chirp, and squirrels started their usual ruckus.
Then, after about 20 minutes, I saw movement to the southeast.
I think I saw the tines before I even saw his body. It happened so quickly I was excited, anxious and in shock at the same time. Walking on a slow but steady pace from nearly east to west, the giant appeared to be in search of the next “hot” doe. One look at his rack told me it must score in the 180s, and a bit of buck fever set in.
Now, my heart rate always increases once I decide to shoot, whether it be a buck or a doe. But in this instance, it was more evident than ever. I could feel each rapid heartbeat in my neck and the thumping in my chest.
I began to move slowly but deliberately, drawing my bow once the deer’s vision was blocked by some brush and a group of trees. As he walked into the first small opening, I wasn’t prepared to shoot, as I was still a bit too anxious. After a few steps, he stopped behind another small group of trees. I took two deep breaths to calm my nerves and planned to shoot once he again was in the open.
As if picking up the scent of a “hot” doe, the huge buck then turned back in the direction from which he’d just come. He took a few steps, stopped, raised his head and appeared to scent-check the wind from the south. I settled my 30-yard IQ Bowsight pin on his vitals and touched off the release.
Almost immediately, the deer sprinted back in the same direction from which he’d come. I watched him run, then turn just a bit more to the south. He disappeared into the vegetation. I heard leaves and brush rustling . . . and then nothing.
I began to wonder if it had been a good shot. Had I heard him fall or just lie down? I’d never want to wound an animal, especially a buck such as this. I sat there in disbelief. I knew I’d put in the practice and was confident in my shot, but sometimes doubt still creeps in. I was worried I hadn’t settled down enough and maybe had pulled the shot.
For the next 20 or so minutes I sat there and replayed it all in my head. This was my second season after switching to G5 Montec fixed-blade broadheads, and I even began to second-guess that choice. But these heads hadn’t failed me before, so why would they now?
After a bit, I decided to go look for the Carbon Express arrow. I couldn’t find it or any blood. So after searching for a few minutes, I decided to walk in the direction the deer had run, as I was almost certain I’d heard him fall.
While I walked, I finally saw several drops of blood. I looked up, and there the buck lay. He hadn’t gone 50 yards. As I approached the huge 6x6, I couldn’t stop staring at his antlers. I’d seen many bucks while hunting, but nothing even close to this. As always, I knelt at the animal’s side and thanked God for the opportunity.
Prior to taking this deer, I’d never had one scored, let alone a world-class whitetail. But following the 60-day drying period, I found myself the holder of the Wisconsin typical archery record. The clean rack has a gross typical score of 201 0/8 and a net of 192 6/8.
I’d like to offer special thanks to John Ramsey of Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club and Eli Randall of Pope & Young Club for their help throughout the scoring process. Also, Jon Dittmer of Spring Creek Taxidermy made me an incredible replica, and DuWayne Cournoyer turned out an amazing shoulder mount. Lastly, I thank my wife, Jen, and sons Devin and Peyton for their sacrifice and understanding my passion to hunt one of God’s greatest creations.