February 19, 2022
By Mark Demko
Countless bowhunters take road trips each year with the hopes of tying their tag to a trophy whitetail, especially if they live in states that aren’t necessarily known for their big-buck potential. Few, however, travel the route Michigan’s Mike Callas took on his way to downing a 200-plus inch monster last fall.
Over the past decade, Callas has traveled to big-buck states like Ohio, Kentucky and Nebraska, and a few years ago he set his sights on Iowa, widely regarded as one of the best whitetail hunting destinations in the country. But instead of going with a guide or outfitter, or even locating prime private land, he’s opted to hunt publicly accessible parcels.
Last summer, after three years of applying for preference points, Callas drew a Hawkeye State archery deer permit, setting the wheels in motion for what he hoped would be a successful public-land hunt for his largest buck ever, a Boone & Crocket-caliber bruiser.
The Planning Begins
After learning he’d drawn a tag, Callas started developing a game plan for his public-land hunt, scouting from afar and doing a bunch of online research. “onX really helped me nail down what was available, and how much land,” Callas said. “And I follow a lot of people — a lot of YouTubers a lot of do-it-yourselfers as well.”
Then, in mid-October, he made the eight-hour drive to Iowa for some on-the-ground scouting.
“Coming from Michigan, in this particular hunt I definitely focused on areas of standing corn,” Callas said. “Big bucks in Michigan go to that standing corn when they get pressured. So, I looked for it — that was the first thing I looked for; little pinches and draws these deer would get forced into.”
During the three-day scouting trip, Callas visited a dozen properties and placed out trail cameras — both regular and cellular — at several locations to monitor deer activity and develop an inventory of bucks in those areas. Almost immediately after setting the cameras, he started to get photos of some mature bucks. However, it was a deer at the first property he visited that really grabbed his attention.
“The very first camera I hung in the very first area I liked, I’d seen a really tall rub and… (the tree) was snapped off at about chest high,” Callas said. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s got to be a brute.’ And I really didn’t think that this deer would be in that location (because it was so accessible).”
The first photo Callas got of the buck was a close-up shot where he could only get a partial view of the massive rack. Shortly thereafter, however, he got some much better pictures.
“When I (finally) got a good, clear photo of this deer, I just knew what it was (as far as caliber),” he recalled of the buck, which he estimated would score 180-200 inches. “I was nervous to think that I was going to get to hunt it.”
Going the public-land deer hunting route, Callas knew a number of things had to fall into place for him to have a shot at the big buck when he returned to hunt in early November. Not only did the deer need to avoid a hunter’s arrow for at least a few more weeks, Callas also had to hope it wasn’t forced out of the area due to pressure.
Fortunately, Callas didn’t pick up a lot of hunters on his cameras, especially in the area this particular buck was hanging. In fact, it wasn’t until pheasant season came in Oct. 30 that he really saw any at all.
“They just got loaded up with bird hunters,” Callas said. “I didn’t have any issues with bowhunters. I didn’t see a single (archery) hunter (on camera) until the Saturday night. I had my first bowhunter — on a different property — dragging a deer out.”
Just in case something went awry with the big buck he had set his sights on, Callas also identified a handful of other big bucks on some of the other properties he’d scouted, including a couple that likely went over 170. In fact, he jumped an absolute bruiser on one of the parcels, with the deer almost immediately returning to the area.
“I had a couple of them that were right there,” he said. “I actually jumped one right out of its bed while scouting…I hung a camera back about 30 yards from his bed and the next night I had him back on it. It was really quite interesting.”
As the last days of October ticked away, Callas had noticed a change in the big buck’s patterns, with the deer beginning to show itself more in daylight. Although he was to leave for his hunt mid-week the following week, Callas decided to bump up his departure date to Nov. 1.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to get out there as soon as I can. I have to get after this deer before somebody kills it,’” Callas recalled.
Around 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, Callas started the 550-mile drive from his home in Midland, Mich., to Iowa, arriving in his hunting zone just after 10 a.m. Along the way, he stopped at some of his other hunting spots to check the trail cameras at those sites. His plan was to hunt that night for his top target and then adjust his game plan, if necessary, depending on how the sit went.
“My level of confidence was very, very high that I was going to see this deer,” Callas said. “The way the property set up, I thought if he comes down this hillside and runs this creek bottom that I am going to get eyes on him.”
When Callas arrived at the Wildlife Management Area, he gathered his gear, put his hunting clothes on, threw his climbing stand on his back and started walking to his stand site. The area he’d selected to hunt was a wooded hillside that dropped down to a brush-filled creek bottom. Based on what he’d seen from the trail-cam pictures, Callas speculated the deer was bedding 150-200 yards up the hill on a ridge, coming down toward dark to feed in the corn. During his mid-October scouting trip, he had also noticed a large, well-posted tract of private property across from the WMA, with several indicators that the landowner was a serious archery enthusiast.
“That was one of the factors that helped me pick this property,” Callas said. “The neighboring property, the guy looked like he was a very dedicated bowhunter. Just by looking at his property, the way it was set up, I could tell he probably wasn’t shooting small deer.”
As Callas neared his stand site he slowed to a snail’s pace once reaching a small creek adjacent to the woodlot he wanted to hunt. In addition to playing the wind the entire way, he was determined to move as stealthily and as quietly as possible while approaching the stand to hopefully avoid spooking the deer.
“After I hit the creek, I probably had to only go another 300 yards,” Callas recalled. “But it took me nearly an hour to cover those 300 yards.”
Upon entering the woods, Callas selected a tree near the trail camera the deer had been appearing on and used his climber to lift himself about 25 feet off the ground. About 10-15 minutes after settling into his stand, he did a rattling sequence and cleared a dead branch out of the way to open up a shooting lane toward the creek. Just 13 minutes later, he spotted the deer coming out of an oxbow.
Although Callas expected the deer to come from the other direction, the big buck was making a beeline right toward his stand. And, as the deer drew near, he noticed the drop tine on its right antler, confirming it was the big buck he was after. The deer came to within a dozen yards and Callas put his Bowtech Reign to work, sending a Muzzy Broadhead-tipped arrow on its way.
Following the mandatory, 60-day drying period, Callas’ buck was officially scored at 212 6/8 gross and 206 net. The deer had 21 scoreable points, with an inside spread of 20 ⅛.
Callas said the experience of taking the deer of a lifetime on public land was nothing short of incredible.
“It’s hard to put words to it (even) now; It’s still hard to believe,” he said. “I texted my buddy — I’d only be on stand 28 minutes after I’d gotten in the stand — and told him I’d just killed a giant. It’s just unbelievable how it came together.”
Little Details Pay Off Big
Thinking back, Callas said his careful approach to his stand likely played a huge role in him downing the big buck.
“This deer ended up coming off the oxbow, not the hillside like I thought he would. From the dry creek bed to the tip of the oxbow was like 130 yards,” Callas said. “So, at any given time, he was no more than 130 (yards) from me because he was bone dry, which meant he did not cross that creek like I expected. If I wouldn’t have been so slow and quiet, I may not have gotten that deer.”
As for how he kept his composure when he saw the big buck, Callas laughs, attributing it to muscle memory.
“It was probably only 10-15 seconds from the time I saw the deer until I sent an arrow, and that’s probably how I held it together, to be honest with you,” he said. “I got nervous the first time I got a trail-camera picture of the deer, so I can’t tell you how I kept it together.”
“I hit a little high on a 12-yard shot — I can blame it on the brush, but I think that was on me for the high shot. But that’s what happens when you get a 200-inch bruiser in front of you.”