June 01, 2022
Over the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I lived in Minnesota. Our trips back home to Illinois were spent with family and friends, particularly at her parents’ home in the northern part of the state. We would frequently hike their property, which sprawls along the Rock River and features trails that are cut wide enough for a four-wheel drive pickup to pass through without a scratch. It was obvious that this wasn’t your ordinary piece of property and the more time I spent there, the more I fell in love with it.
A Day to Remember
When it comes to bowhunting, Dec. 14, 2019 is a day I will never forget. With a 13 mph wind blowing, the 20-degree temperature felt more like 10 degrees and I was ready to get down out of the treestand I’d set up on my in-laws’ property. It was 11 a.m., and I had a doe down that I needed to field dress and get hung up. I also had dinner plans that night and a one-hour drive home. But, for reasons that are still unknown to me, I decided to sit for 10 more minutes.
A short time later, I noticed movement to my right and squinted through the trees. Squinting wasn’t enough, however, so I slowly reached for my binoculars to get a closer look. A pair of small bucks and three does were heading away from me. I continued to watch as they disappeared over the hill and into the brush, then grabbed my phone to check the time. It was now 11:12.
As I slid the phone into my pocket, I looked up to see a deer trotting straight toward me. He was 60 yards away and all I could see was a rack bouncing across the woods; it was high and well outside the ears. There was no need to think about this deer any longer — it was a shooter.
I slowly reached for my bow as the buck was now directly in front of me, only 40 yards away. If he went to my right, I would have to stand. If he stayed to my left, it would be an easy sitting shot.
The Back 40
Between the late ’70s and early ’80s, my wife’s family purchased 260 acres of mature oaks sitting between two 600-acre tracts of river bottom land. Although the land had been grazed by cattle, only 10 acres of it stands tillable.
This property is a sportsman’s paradise, with ridges, hills and pastures of native grasses all sitting on the bank of one of the longest rivers in the state, allowing for some of the best deer, turkey, upland game and waterfowl hunting in the country. Stories are told of hundreds of deer pouring out of the woods into the family’s backyard to squeeze their way into a bunk full of corn during the winter of ’78. The family watched from a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows as one herd staged in the woods and then rotated in as the other herd returned to the forest. About 750 pounds of corn a week was consumed as the deer were kept healthy and strong through one of the harshest winters ever recorded.
Legends of 180-, 190- and 200-inch bucks chasing does on the property in November make my mind wander as I compare these tales to stories told of the famous King Ranch in Texas. You see, up until 10 years ago, nobody in my wife’s family had hunted a single rut here!
Entering the ‘Sanctuary’
On Dec. 14, the wind direction, temperature and time of the year were all in my favor. Thus, it was time for me to go to the Sanctuary, an untouched, 22-acre pinch point high on a ridge above the river and along a property line holding an abandoned pasture. Mature oaks standing 100 feet tall create a canopy that prevents even the wickedest of weeds from growing. I hadn’t set foot in the area since mid-July, when I’d hung my set and cut shooting lanes with my father-in-law.
This was my second season hunting the property and I had done my homework. My trail cameras, scouting and experience from the previous season had led me to believe that if I could withstand the elements until 10 a.m., I would have a great chance at a mature buck.
I got up earlier than normal that day as I knew I had a long hike ahead of me. I also had a new strategy that I would implement as I sneaked across the open forest floor — leave my headlamp on the entire way to the tree. This wasn’t something I would normally do, but I compared this to the “deer in the headlights” look that allows someone to be within feet of a deer before they run off. My thought was that if a nearby buck bedded on the ridge heard my footsteps, it would see my light and recognize the threat was far enough away and stay put.
To my surprise, I made it to the stand without busting a deer that I knew of. And as the light began peeking into the Sanctuary, I heard something coming from my right and downwind of me. I initially thought it was a pair of does that I spotted and that they would soon bust me. They continued on, however, and I realized they must be just outside of my scent cone.
Once the deer got to within 50 yards, however, I saw that they were not does. In fact, they were actually two shooter bucks. Now, a "shooter" is different to everyone, but to me it’s a buck that gets me excited and these deer had my heart beating so hard that I thought they were going to hear it thumping.
As I reached for my bow and prepared for a shot, I noticed a gnarly, blade-shaped brow tine on one of the deer. It was the 6-year-old buck with a 20-inch spread that we called Lumpy. He was a mainframe 10-pointer, with trash on both brow tines and a crab claw at the end of each handlebar. I had 50-plus pictures and at least three encounters with him the season before, all occurring only 70 yards from where I was currently sitting.
The other buck was named Pretty Boy. A 4-year-old, it was a beautiful 8-pointer with a tall, typical rack. Ten minutes into legal shooting light and I couldn’t believe what was happening; my plan was coming together, or so I thought. But as they stood in front of me in the dim light, pawing at the frozen ground 40 yards away, I just couldn’t find a hole through the small oak branches between us. The two shooters stayed out of range and moved off the edge of the ridge, leading me to believe I had blown my chance for the day. Feeling defeated, I hung my bow back up.
Suddenly, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head slowly, I saw a basket rack 8-pointer walking in the opposite direction of the other bucks. As I watched him, I heard rustling in the leaves behind me and soon thereafter another shooter emerged, just 30 yards behind my tree.
This time it was a buck I didn’t recognize. He was tall, wide and a stud of a 10-pointer. He walked slowly along the ridge and I was kicking myself for hanging my bow up. As the deer started walking through my shooting lanes, I managed to grab my bow and attach my release without him seeing me. He was behind a clump of brush upwind of me when he stopped and looked directly up at me, and I knew there was no possible way he winded me.
I must be sticking out like a sore thumb, I thought. It was mid-December and there was not a leaf on the tree, so I sat as still as I could.
After what felt like minutes, the buck put his head down and turned back on the same path from which he had come. I was able to come to full draw and put my 30-yard pin right behind his shoulder. As he entered a shooting lane, I made an “errrp” sound to try and stop him, but the deer continued on.
“Errrp,” I said louder.
The buck stopped and presented a clear shot to the vitals. As I watched my green nock in flight against the early morning light, there was no mistake — it was on line. Then it made a hard left turn halfway to my target.
Deflection. Deflation. Disappointment!
Only 15 minutes into my morning and it had been a hunt of a lifetime, but it hadn’t ended in success. It was this misfortune that had me thinking I should walk to the edge of the ridge and throw my bow into the river. Nonetheless, I continued my sit, certain the day wouldn’t get any better.
Two hours later, however, I redeemed myself when a group of does came in. I was able to make a great shot on a big doe and 40 yards from my stand laid venison for the freezer.
A Chance at Redemption
When that "shooter" buck from the beginning of my story showed up around 11:15 a.m., I knew that it may be my last chance at a buck of this caliber. To date, I had spent more than 150 hours in the tree during deer season, hunting more than I had the past three seasons combined. With a newborn baby at home, my brownie points were dwindling, so it was likely now or never.
As the buck approached, I decided to remain seated and luckily it was the correct choice. The deer continued left, passing behind a monster oak and cluster of small maples, giving me a window to draw my bow.
As I sat at full draw, staring down the biggest antlered deer I’d ever seen, I was relying on muscle memory; buck fever was at 100 percent and there was no time to think. When the deer entered a gap between trees, I tried to stop him with an “errrp.” He didn’t respond and continued at a near trot.
“Errrp,” I said again. Nothing!
The buck was now in my largest shooting lane, 45 degrees to my left.
“Hey,” I said, and he stopped dead in his tracks.
I let the arrow fly, with the shot hitting right behind the deer’s shoulder. I quickly hung up my bow, reached for my binos and as the buck sprinted off, he stopped within 20 yards of the doe I had shot earlier. I could see red covering his fur on the opposite side of where my arrow had hit him and I knew it wouldn’t be long.
Seconds later, all I could see was a massive rack between tree branches. Then I saw the greatest sight of all — the buck tipped over on its side, hooves up! I’d done it; I had finally defeated a big, mature whitetail. This deer — an 11-pointer that officially scores 161 5⁄8 — was the first buck taken on the property since the family purchased the land. It was the deer of a lifetime, and it was 43 years in the making!