Four years of hunting -- one Kansas buck of a lifetime.
Travis Keith packs the meat and trophy rack from Stickers back to the truck after a successful November 2010 bowhunt in Southeast Kansas.
This past autumn, my good friend and hunting partner Travis Keith enjoyed an awesome morning of bowhunting action that culminated with the buck of a lifetime. Though the actual hunt was short and sweet, the events that led up to that fateful morning were four years in the making.
The humble beginnings of this tale can be traced to the fall of 2007. My wife Peggie and I were whitetail hunting in Southeast Kansas with Travis and mutual friend Shawn Compton. We all went in separate directions on our daily hunting forays, but one day during a lunch break, Shawn met a local rancher and soon gained access to his property. Shawn had made sure to ask if I could hunt there also, and for this, I was thankful.
As the season progressed, Shawn began hunting the new property and was rewarded with a fine 8-pointer in early November. A few weeks later, I also spent some time on the property and was able to take a sizable buck that pleased me exceedingly. Shortly after the season closed, Shawn and I learned we'd lost our access to the property. Bummed about the whole deal, we were forced to simply walk away from a great hunting location.
During the spring of 2008, Travis and Shawn were back in the same area looking for turkey-hunting opportunities. While driving around near the property Shawn and I had bowhunted the previous year, the boys bumped into a neighbor. Talk about turkeys soon turned to deer, with the gentleman inquiring as to whether Shawn and Travis might be interested in leasing his property for deer hunting. Shocked by the opportunity, they excitedly discussed the possibilities. Ultimately, however, they simply didn't have the money to enter into such a venture.
This trail camera photo shows Stickers in November 2009 -- a year before the buck was taken. It is estimated the buck grossed 180-185 inches that year.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2008. After relating their story of having declined the deer-hunting lease, the boys suggested I go talk to the landowner to see if he might be interested in striking up such an agreement with me. In short order, I was on this assignment, and almost before I knew it, I was faced with the same decision the boys had faced earlier. I already had a good place to hunt, and after much contemplation, I also declined the opportunity -- yet my mind kept spinning.
Knowing that losing such a hunting opportunity would be a shame, I began to search for a way to make sure someone close to me would end up in this deer lease. Soon, I had Travis hooked up with yet another friend of mine, Shane Laws, and after much debate, the two decided to enter into the lease agreement with the Kansas rancher. Finally, a done deal!
BREAKING NEW GROUND
October of 2009 found Shane and Travis scrambling to learn their new hunting grounds as quickly as possible. Consisting of 1,000 acres of prairie habitat, the rolling grasslands were fairly easy to scout. The brushy draws that dissected the bluestem prairie pastures soon had a few treestands hanging in them.
Travis Keith poses with Stickers, which easily surpassed 200 gross inches. The massive Kansas buck had a 14 1/2-inch inside spread and 21 scorable points. The rack grossed about 170 inches as a typical, with another 45 inches of "extras."
As October slid by, both Shane and Travis made occasional hunts on the property, with only small and medium bucks being seen. In early November, Travis made a round to gather SD cards from a couple of trail cameras that he'd placed a few weeks earlier. Much to his surprise, one picture revealed a non-typical buck of sizable proportions. Displaying numerous extra, horizontal points coming off its G2s, the old prairie monarch was quickly given the nickname "Stickers." Instantly excited, Shane and Travis had a brand new plan. Both of them were hot on the trail of Stickers!
In the second week of November, Travis became the first of the two boys to lay eyes on the object of their desires. At a distance of nearly a quarter mile, the tall-tined monarch crossed the prairie, quickly giving Travis an impression forever etched in his mind. "The minute I saw the buck -- even at a great distance -- I knew it was Stickers; there was no mistaking that," Travis said. "He was out of sight in a minute, and even after he was gone, I was shaking. I knew I'd seen a very rare animal -- easily the best buck I'd ever seen."
Now the boys were really pumped up, and they hunted in earnest. A few days later, Shane's number came up, forever burning a story of heartbreak in one bowhunter's mind. "It was mid-morning and action had been slow," Shane said. "I was daydreaming when I caught movement down in the brushy draw below. Spotting a deer's back, I focused, trying to make out its sex. In a second, the deer lifted its head, and kaboom, it was a monster buck. Stickers, to be exact!
I instantly assumed the position, ready for whatever might happen. In a matter of seconds, the big buck strolled out of the brush and walked up to my location. Coming to full draw, I was in a state of shock. Stopping broadside at 15 yards, the monster posed perfectly for our moment of truth. Raising my Mathews bow while slowly lowering my sight onto the sweet spot, I touched off the shot. Barely clipping the top of the buck's back, hair blew into the air. In a second of time, I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. As the buck quickly departed, I found myself in a high-speed come-apart."
A few days later, Shane had another close encounter with Stickers, yet a shot opportunity was never presented. Travis filled his tag with a nice 8-pointer a few days after that. Shane continued to pursue Stickers, but the season came to a close with the quest unfulfilled.
STAY THE COURSE
For the entire off-season, the two bowhunters dreamed of, and lusted after, a certain whitetail buck. Some prayers were even offered up! As the autumn of 2010 approached, there were a couple of anxious fellows quietly wondering if a certain old buck was still alive.
The Kansas prairie produces some monster bucks! Travis Keith shows off a couple racks picked up in prior years by the owner of the land where Stickers was taken.
October came and went, with no signs of the monster buck. With a flicker of hope still burning, Travis placed a treestand in a new spot in mid-October -- the exact spot where he'd glimpsed the big buck the previous November. Shane and Travis planned on starting a prolonged hunting effort on Nov. 6, just as the rut swelled. I watched quietly from the sidelines, wondering how things would shake out.
Saturday morning, Nov. 6, found the boys meeting at the property to start their hardcore hunting efforts. The weather was hot and windy, and after two days of dismal action, both guys decided to head back to work for another week. Planning on meeting the following weekend to start over, hopefully under much more favorable conditions, they headed home.
HOPE AND ANTICIPATION
The following Friday night found Travis back at the property, primed and ready for action. The weather was cold, calm and clear! Shane had gotten hung up at work and would be forced to wait until the following weekend to return -- bad deal!
Rising well before daylight on the morning of Nov. 13, Travis made his way across the dark prairie. Making the mile-long walk to his new stand location, Travis was full of hope and anticipation. Maybe, just maybe, old Stickers was still alive. Maybe it would be best if I simply let him speak for himself:
"The mile-long walk in the darkness gave me time for reflection. There was a spring in my step, because I'd waited all year for this window of time -- the peak of the whitetail rut. I had a lot to look forward to in the next couple of weeks. I figured that there would be a lot of quiet, peaceful times in the days to come, hopefully intermingled with plenty of exciting encounters with numerous rutting bucks. Little did I know, but things weren't going to go quite as I planned.
"Climbing into my treestand well before shooting light, I settled in for what I figured would be a long day on stand. As shooting light arrived, I decided to make a move. Pulling my grunt call out of my pocket, I gave out a few short sounds. Immediately, the sounds of a nearby buck returned to my ears. Shocked, I was immediately on full alert. Within a second or two, the buck let forth a couple of extremely loud and prolonged grunts, which really shocked me. I'd never heard anything like that before! Almost immediately, I spotted movement quickly coming my way. As I realized what I was seeing, I almost lost my mind. Stickers was hurriedly and defiantly headed my way! I simply could not believe it! Not only was he alive, but he was striding right up to my location! I thought I might pass out.
"Grabbing my Mathews, I came to full draw and watched as fate unfolded. Hopping a fence between us, Stickers trotted up to five yards, stopped and glared about, looking for the intruder that had dared to enter his territory. Lowering my bow, I settled my sight pin where it needed to be, then sent a Muzzy on its way. At the shot, the big boy bolted out to about 50 yards, stopped, looked around for one last time and simply went to sleep.
"As I came back to reality, I scurried down my tree like a gray squirrel. As I lifted the old boy's head, sadness mingled with excitement. He was mine, but he was gone. I just sat there for a long time and let things settle in. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment."