I wanted the hunt to end! I’d been under almost constant physical and mental strain for the past seven hours. I was stiff, sore, worn to a frazzle. I simply wanted my Iowa bowhunt to end!
I’d dreamed, worked and planned for this bowhunting situation for a number of years and practiced shooting so diligently almost each morning and evening, my wife finally told me to “Just go! Load your bow and arrow set and go!” My dream, since I’d started bowhunting 16 years ago, had been to kill a Pope and Young whitetail buck. To this end, I’d forsaken several chances to bowhunt for bear, elk and antelope. I wanted a whitetail buck that would make the record book, and until I got one I wasn’t going to give up.
Last season two bowhunting acquaintances I know of had hunted Iowa and taken a couple of nice bucks, not record-book class, but hefty, respectable, corn-fed bucks. And during the course of their bowhunt they’d seen several magnificent bucks. About the same time I heard the news from these fellows I’d read about Iowa Trophy Whitetail Outfitters, a well-known outfit that specializes in archery whitetail hunts. Shortly afterward, I talked at length with outfitter Judd Cooney about bowhunting Iowa and ended up booking a mid-November bowhunt with him.
The following season I hunted Illinois before venturing to hunt with Judd in Iowa. I arrowed a buck that scored 118 points in Illinois, my best ever! I felt ready when I arrived on November 11 at the immense, old farmhouse that was the deer camp of Iowa Trophy Whitetail Outfitters, facetiously known as the “Addam’s Family Mansion.” I quickly met guides Todd Cleveland, Mike Kraetsch, Ruby Custer and Judd. Naturally the evening’s discussion centered around whitetails, and by the time we turned in for the night everyone was “hot-wired” for the morning’s hunt.
Sunday morning, November 12, Mike took me to a stand in the timber, alongside an alfalfa field not far from camp. Sitting quietly in the predawn darkness, I heard the unmistakable racket of two bucks fighting in the timber behind me. The grunting and breaking of brush went on until the grayness of pre-daylight. The woods went silent. Before Mike returned to pick me up at 11:00 I’d had two bucks under my stand–one carrying six points, the other, seven.
Later that day I was moved to an “evening” stand. Shortly after I was seated, a nice seven-pointer meandered past my stand. A few minutes later a much larger buck came by, but it was out of range. I tried grunting to get his attention, but it wasn’t enough. He kept moving at a leisurely pace, so I picked up my rattling antlers and rattled aggressively. The buck immediately stopped and turned my way. After a few minutes of staring my way he walked off, apparently uninterested. Two hours later the buck had worked his way back to the scrape under my stand and spent 10 minutes sniffing around and freshening the scrape. The buck wore a nice rack, but it wasn’t the one I came to Iowa for.
Monday morning I saw deer in the distance, but nothing close enough to raise my blood pressure. That evening Ruby moved me to a stand on a small lease, some distance north of camp. I had never been in an area with more rubs and scrapes around the perimeter of a field. I just knew that I was going to have some action during the evening’s hunt. Fifteen minutes after getting into the stand, a 120-class buck chased a doe off the hill and into the cornfield in front of the stand. For the next couple of hours I strained my eyes to catch the buck and doe in the dense corn, all to no avail. As twilight settled around me and I eased down out of the stand to retrieve my scent bottles, a gorgeous 10-point buck appeared out of nowhere right at the edge of the corn and vanished just as quickly.
That evening Ron Kolpin regaled us with all the details of how he’d used his voice to imitate a fawn bleating and enticed a super buck within bow range. The high, handsome 160-class buck he described had me drooling as I turned in for a sleepless night.
The following morning at 5:50, Ruby walked me into a stand just off a ridgetop and warned me that I might not see many deer but the ones I’d see would be good ones. I scented-up three fresh scrapes near the tree stand and left the unused stuff in a Ziploc at the base of the tree. I’d barely gotten my bow up and was still getting settled in the stand when I heard a course grunt coming down the hill from me. I quickly made out the buck moving back and forth along a fence some 50 yards below my stand, grunting loudly with every step. I tried quietly to rummage in my daypack for my grunt call, but I couldn’t locate it in the darkness. The buck disappeared.
It was just getting light enough to see when I heard rustling on the hill behind me. There were two does moving along the ridge; following them was a hefty 10-pointer. He was too close to try rattling, so I grunted with my voice. He walked behind the cedars and simply disappeared as only a whitetail can do. At 7:30 I heard leaves rustling and spotted a deer running toward me. It was a nubbin buck that finally stopped near the base of my stand. His attention was soon riveted to the undulating pull-up cord hanging below the stand. To my astonishment, the little buck nosed the cord and then actually took it in his mouth and started chewing on it.
I was engrossed in the nubbin’s actions when I heard a horrendous crash of antlers downhill from my stand, the magnitude of which I’d never imagined possible! The grunting, thrashing and clatter of antlers reverberated up the hillside, but the bucks were just out of sight over a small knoll on the other side of a fence. For the next 45 minutes I sat frozen in position with my attention divided by the fighting bucks and the damnable little buck that was now tugging and jerking on the cord tied to my stand. He finally let off on the rope and proceeded to the very base of the tree, where he nuzzled and smelled my Ziploc bag full of scent concoctions. All this time the bucks were still going at it “tooth and tong” just out of sight over the knob. The nubbin buck lost interest in the Ziploc and returned to his favorite cord with a vengeance while I was locked into position. Finally, the little buck moseyed off up the hill. My muscles were aching and trembling from sitting immobile for over an hour, and I tried to relax and gain my composure without undue movement. The racket from the bucks had stopped, and I strained my eyes for a glimpse of them in hope that one of them would come to the scrapes or along the trail.
At 9:15 five does came running along the side hill and stopped right under my stand! Just about
the same time the bucks started fighting again, and at this point I got my first look at the buck’s massive antlers as they moved to the top of the knoll and crashed together. The bucks were tawny forms in the trees with flashing, crashing antlers, but what antlers! The smaller buck sported wide heavy antlers of 10 points or so, and the larger buck’s rack was humongous! Almost unbelievable in size, even from a distance–without binoculars!
At the same time I was watching the bucks, I was also trying to keep track of the does that had appeared, meandering around observing the fight.
Several of the does were moving back and forth along the fence line below trying to get closer to the action, while the rest were casually munching leaves and watching from the hillside–right under my stand! By this time I had been sitting for over an hour and 45 minutes and had decided I couldn’t take much more of this stress when the Alpha doe moved to one of the scrapes. She dug it up and urinated in it. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “This is unbelievable. What a set-up. I’ve got live decoys, a fresh scrape and bucks fighting around me! What next?” I could see that the does below were getting nervous and realized the wind had switched from north to west, and they must have been getting a whiff of something they didn’t like. I was about ready to collapse from strain and exhaustion and was actually exhilarated when the bucks ceased fighting and all the does moved casually down the slope, disappearing into a deep ravine. What a relief! I felt like a ton of rocks had been lifted off me as I stood up and stretched stiff, sore and tired muscles. It was after 11:30 and the sudden static on my radio caused a moment of panic as I frantically fumbled to get the volume turned down. Ruby was calling to see if I still wanted to be picked up. I mumbled quietly, “I’m not getting out. I’ve got deer all ’round me. Get me tonight!”
I’d barely gotten the radio replaced in my pack and my binoculars around my neck when suddenly the bucks were back, for the third time. They immediately started fighting again. At the same time there seemed to be deer appearing from every direction, and four more bucks apparently had returned with them. I swear, all these bucks were Pope and Young qualifiers and were an incredible sight as they milled around with the does watching the titans battle.
This time I got a good look through the binoculars as the bucks stopped battling for a minute and stood looking uphill at two does that were directly between my stand and the bucks. The monster buck had to have scored over 200 points with an exceptionally wide spread, heavy main beams and 12 massive, long tines that seemed to reach up forever. The smaller buck was certainly no slouch with a wide massive rack and heavy tines. Within minutes the two were back at it, tearing up the ground amid constant grunting and clashing antlers as they moved up and down the fence line. The sound of their fighting was incredible. Words can’t describe the racket the bucks made as they battled for supremacy. At one point the larger mate drove his adversary into the barbed-wire fence and upended him right on top of it. As the battling bucks gradually worked their way to the top of the knoll, most of the other deer followed them and went out of sight. It was now after 12:00, and except for the two does on my side of the ridge the woods were silent.
It seemed like I’d just started to unwind and return to the world of reality when at 1:15 a buck appeared below the fence and on the opposite side of a deep draw. It was the smaller buck of the fighting pair, and the way he was limping along left little doubt that he’d taken a beating. He had his eye on the bedded doe and when he came to the fence, he simply crawled under, rather than jumping it. At 50 yards the buck gave the doe a cursory look and turned away, bringing me to the point where I just wanted the hunt over and done with. My body and mind were exhausted from the stress and strain of the past seven hours of incredible, unbelievable, once-in-a lifetime deer activity, and now the damnable buck was just going to walk out of my life. Rattling was out of the question, and because my grunt call had disappeared the only thing I could think of was using Ron’s tactic of imitating a fawn bleat with my voice. My first hesitant bleat was evidently loud enough to cut through the breeze blowing in my face and get the buck’s attention as he suddenly turned and started my way. I gave another soft bleat that put him on full alert, still headed my way. At this point in the confrontation I knew I wouldn’t be dying of a heart attack in the near future, ’cause if this day’s events didn’t give me a coronary, nothing would!
When the buck walked behind a huge oak tree 30 yards from my stand I came to full draw and waited. Closer and closer he came. At 18 yards he paused, quartering away and glanced back toward the still bedded doe. I couldn’t believe how calm I was as I picked the spot, released smoothly, watched the arrow slice through behind the buck’s shoulder and then followed his lunging progress until he collapsed just a few yards from the road along the ridge top.
It wasn’t until I stood looking down at the exceptional buck on the ground that I realized I’d just accomplished the dream of a lifetime. Over the next few hours, I waited for someone to answer the blooming radio. I couldn’t leave the deer alone, so I decided to drag it up and down the road to different positions under the trees. No mean feat with a buck weighing well over 200 pounds. During my seemingly interminable wait on the road my emotions bounced from the elation and satisfaction of having taken such a trophy, to sadness and sorrow for having taken the life of such an exquisite animal. Emotions only another bowhunter would fully understand.
I’d come to Iowa with the idea of being satisfied with a 125-point buck and ended up with a buck that gross-scored in the high 170s and exceeded my wildest expectations. A buck that gave me the incomprehensible “once-in-a-lifetime” experience of observing it fight one of the largest bucks in North America for three solid hours and then responded to my voice call and gave me the perfect shot. A shot that I’d practiced and planned for 16 years and made good when the moment of truth finally arrived. Bowhunting just doesn’t get better than that!