January 24, 2022
If deer hunting were like the movies, the hero — you know, the person up in a tree with either a bow or crossbow in hand — would make a great shot, quickly recover the buck of massive proportions, and sit back as all of the sponsor offerings, newspaper and TV coverage, and viral social media attention rolls in.
But life isn’t always like the movies and deer hunting isn’t always like a video game. Sometimes, the best laid plans of mice, men, and deer hunters goes awry. Or something like that, right?
For 44-year-old Noble, Indiana deer hunter Billy Johnson, that script is a familiar one — a tale that involves a stroke of luck, a bowhunt for a world-class whitetail, a loss of the buck of any hunter’s dreams, and then woodsy redemption — even if the story isn’t the Boonerville classic straight from Hollywood.
Because in the span of a couple of years, Johnson found himself living all of that out, including fortuitous permission to hunt in a place where good bucks crossed with regularity, and all because he climbed up on a roof.
“I was a commercial roofer, now I’m a home inspector,” said Johnson. “Back in 2017, I got up on the roof of a big, expensive home in south central Indiana and I happened to look down and I saw a climbing stand right off the backyard deck, maybe 60 yards away.”
When Johnson climbed down, he laughed and casually mentioned to the homeowner “Did you know you have a treestand in your backyard?”
“She said, ‘Yes, we have a guy that we let come hunt,’” Johnson recalled. “’He lives about two hours away and comes and helps us control the deer here.’”
With a backyard filled with lush vegetation and landscaping, there was little doubt that deer might visit and browse to their hearts content. So, Johnson, half joking and half serious, took a chance.
“Well, if he ever needs any help keeping these deer under control, let me know and I’ll come out and help,” he said laughingly.
The response he got surprised him: “The homeowner, she said ‘Well, if you want to come out tonight, you can probably sit in our driveway and shoot one.”
Johnson gave the homeowner his business card, gathered his tools, and left, thinking that was the end of it all.
But by fall, a string of phone conversations found Johnson with permission to hunt after the homeowner told him that she would contact the other hunter and let him know that Johnson would also be hunting on the property. In the months since then, Johnson has never seen the other hunter.
Soon afterwards, Johnson — a self-described "average Joe" deer hunter who began hunting after his late father and a mentor guided him toward the whitetail woods — has found himself learning the ins and outs of a small, 11-acre property with more than a few deer crossing through.
At first, he was able to take a good buck or two and put some venison in his freezer. But then there came a day when the script flipped and Johnson found himself staring back at a game-camera photo that would cause many sleepless nights.
“Yeah, that deer has ruled my life for the past few years, or at least since I got him on camera that first time,” he said.
That’s understandable since the buck, which Johnson soon dubbed with the nickname of “Hoss” because of his outsized antlers, mesmerized the real-world deer hunter back in 2019.
“My cousin actually went in there with me one time and saw the buck,” said Johnson. “He said to me, ‘Billy, I just saw the biggest buck I’ve ever seen on the hoof and he’s got to be close to 200 inches.”
After initially crying bull, Johnson put up a couple of additional game cameras and soon had proof positive that the small patch of woods he was hunting contained a world-class whitetail, the buck of any hunter’s dreams with antlers nearing the 200-inch mark.
Then the buck disappeared and Johnson was left to wonder for several months whether or not he had seen a whitetail ghost.
“I finally got pictures of him (again) coming through on Oct. 10th last year,” said Johnson. “What’s crazy, is that I almost missed my opportunity. When I went to check the SD card on my card reader, I turned my phone sideways and when the photo came up, not all of it was showing up on the screen. I was swiping through the photos quickly and not seeing much and I almost deleted everything and wiped the card clean.”
But the Hoosier State deer hunter fortunately didn’t do that, instead retreating to his truck where he took a look at the photos once again.
“I got back in the truck and went through them again and I guessed I turned my phone right, and suddenly, there he was, standing in the corner of a photo that I almost deleted. If I hadn’t checked again, I would have never known that he was there.”
Now, the small patch of deer woods and the giant Hoss of a whitetail that roamed through the timber had Johnson’s full attention. But, as most real world hunters know, so did his work schedule.
“I shared the photos with a few friends and deer hunting buddies,” said Johnson. “A few days later, a contractor friend of mine was trying to convince me to get in the woods. He said ‘Dude, I’m looking at (Drury Outdoors’) Deer Cast right now, and it’s showing a 4 out of 5 right now. You’ve got to go hunting!’”
So, Johnson decided to do just that on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 by putting on his Mossy Oak ScentLok suit and going to sit in his 15-foot Big Game ladder stand to see what might happen.
“I took the day off and got there really early, about an hour before daylight,” said Johnson. “It was pretty chilly that morning for October, probably in the upper 30s, and by 7:30 a.m. I needed to get up and stretch my legs a little bit.”
With the ladder stand facing the hillside where a lot of deer would appear after coming up out of a bottom area, Johnson sat back down and waited again. Less than an hour later, he would get his first deer sighting of the morning.
“I look up and see a 6-pointer walking,” said Johnson. “He came out of nowhere and I decided to video him with my phone. He was coming from my left and veering away from me and right when he got near me, I saw another deer. All I could see was a huge rack and drop tines!”
Johnson grabbed his CenterPoint Sniper 370 crossbow and looked for a shot opportunity through the trees.
“It was really quiet and there was no wind, and it was like he knew something was up,” said Johnson. “He was trailing the 6-pointer, almost as if saying ‘Go ahead kid, you go first and then I’ll follow.”
At 22 yards, Johnson had the huge buck in his crossbow sight’s crosshairs and decided it was now or never.
“I ‘murffed’ at him to get him to stop, had him in a window of about 18 inches, and that’s when I shot,” said Johnson.
When the crossbow went off, the Carbon Express bolt and G5 Montec broadhead whistled downrange and into the buck’s boiler room. He mule-kicked hard, ran off, and the woods were soon still.
Leading Johnson to believe the script was finished and his Hoosier State deer hunt was done, now headed for a Hollywood edit room where he would soon be accepting congratulations from well-wishers and maybe even signing an autograph or two at the Hoosier Record Buck trophy showcase at the annual Indiana Deer and Turkey Expo.
Except that the script wasn’t finished and his hunting odyssey was far from complete, even a half-hour later when he had his bolt in hand, looking at the blood covered arrow and already thinking about his taxidermy bill.
“I thought that this deer is down at the bottom of the hill, although I did wonder why the arrow was laying on the top of the ground rather than buried up like the other pass through shots I had made from the same stand,” said Johnson. “But I was unconcerned, thought I had made a perfect shot, and I went into town and got something to eat. I even bought a deer cart to help haul Hoss up out of the woods and was calling everyone to tell them about this great deer I had just shot.”
By early afternoon, however, the script wasn’t going the way that Johnson had envisioned. His initial search found a good blood trail, but that quickly petered out and he was scratching his head about what to do next.
A friend suggested calling in an acquaintance with a tracking dog from northern Kentucky.
“He told me to stay out of the woods until he got there and I had to confess to him that I had already walked through the woods looking,” said Johnson. “When he got there with the dog, it found a little more blood that I had missed. We looked for about an hour and found nothing else and the tracker told me that maybe my shot wasn’t as good as I thought and I had only gotten one lung or something like that.”
What followed that bitter news was a nearly two-month long odyssey that found Johnson alternating between hope and despair. He hunted some, climbed down and looked some more, and found himself searching for a ghost, a real-world deer hunting needle in a woodsy haystack.
“When I had shot, I thought my shot was good and that he was down,” said Johnson. “I was confused and devastated when I didn’t find him like I thought I would.”
Fast forward to early December and yet again, the script on Johnson’s hunt for Hoss took an unexpected plot twist and turn.
“I was going to run a mini-marathon in early December, but I overdid it in training in November and hurt my foot,” he said. “I told my wife that I wasn’t going to run the marathon, and instead, I took a buddy of mine, Todd Sivertsen, and we headed for the woods that Saturday on Dec. 5, 2020.”
But any plans of hunting and putting some late-season venison in the freezer were soon scuttled by the appearance of landscapers doing some work on the property.
“When we got there, the landscaper’s yellow truck was already there,” said Johnson. “I apologized to Todd and said, ‘Let’s go down into the woods anyway and I’ll show you where Hoss was.’ So, we walked down to the creek and took a look around, even though I had already searched that area multiple times.”
The pair of hunting pals walked the creek out again and Billy was soon filled with the overwhelming despair of a lost opportunity to take a world-class buck that had somehow vanished into thin air.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re not going to find him,’” said Johnson. “I was out about 100 yards in front of Todd and turned to my right and said ‘Wait, is that a deer rack?’
“I got about 50 yards away, thought it was brush, and almost quit walking in that direction. But I went another 20 feet or so, and suddenly, it was him.”
As Sivertsen joined Johnson, the two friends could scarcely believe what they were seeing almost two months after that fateful October morning. Apparently, the mortally wounded buck had gone and bedded up under the canopy of hardwoods and pine trees before coyotes had then discovered the carcass.
“In those 52 days that had transpired since my shot, they had drug him out into the open and the winter had knocked the vegetation back,” said Johnson. “That’s the only way I found him, I guess.”
Even then, with Hoss’ rack in hand, there was a bit of a plot twist that Johnson had to overcome.
“Indiana is a one-buck state and I had already filled my tag on another buck (after thinking that Hoss was lost),” said Johnson.
Fast forward a couple of weeks later and a subsequent conversation with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Johnson had a salvage tag and could now legally possess the antlers of Hoss.
“I was scared that they would take him away from me,” said Johnson. “I had friends that were telling me that they would give me a salvage tag. So, one morning after breakfast, I made a phone call to the DNR and told them the story. The officer asked me to send him a copy of my license, the video I had taken, and five minutes later, I had a salvage tag in hand.”
Even then, Johnson’s big-buck story wasn’t complete. He knew he wanted to get the buck mounted with a replacement cape, but he didn’t know much about getting a buck scored by any sort of record-keeping organization.
That’s where his good friend, Pat Kurth, stepped in, convincing him earlier this year that the giant buck was worthy of having a tape measure stretched across its antlers.
This past spring, the deer was scored by the new crossbow record keeping organization known as the Bolt & Quarrel Club. After Hoss was measured on May 24, 2021, the Hoosier State bruiser was then certified as the organization’s current world record on June 15, 2021 with a final net score of 204 4/8 inches.
In the Boone and Crockett Club record keeping system — which allows for pick-up entries like Johnson’s buck — the final net non-typical score is 204 6/8 inches, which is also the final number in the Hoosier Record Buck Program maintained by the Indiana Deer Hunter’s Association. In the Buckmaster’s Irregular category, the antlers of Hoss measure out at 206.625 in the BTR system.
And now, with the mount of this big Indiana buck complete and the measuring tapes telling the whitetail’s final numerical tale, word is beginning to trickle out. While Johnson is disappointed he didn’t recover the deer the way that he wanted to, with a clean recovery and venison in the freezer, he’s glad that he finally did put his hands on the antlers and find some closure to his hunting story.
“I’m no deer hunting pro, that’s for sure,” said Johnson. “I’m just a lucky guy who managed to somehow shoot a decent deer.”
Kurth, his deer hunting friend, agrees.
“Billy and I are just regular guys growing up in middle class families,” he noted. “We spent our entire lives hunting on state land and public lands with really no success other than your typical six or basket-(rack) eight point.
“(And) like many of your readers, we always wondered why that guy on the cover of your magazine or that guy in one of your articles couldn’t be just a guy like us.”
Now, a story here at Petersen’s Bowhunting is just that, a real world account of a buck named Hoss and the regular hunter named Billy who chased him in the Indiana woods.
It’s a hunting story like few others, one containing many twists, many turns, a couple of moments of deer-hunting elation, and a heartbreaking 50+ day nightmare in between, all leading up to the amazing tale of Hoss and the idea of never giving up — leaving only one thing to be added to the real world deer hunting script of giant buck in Indiana. And that’s this phrase, “The End.”