February 22, 2023
The 2021 archery season was the most promising of my life. Throughout the summer, my trail cameras showed an abundance of high-quality bucks, including four sure-fire shooters — an impressive collection of deer I nicknamed Heavy, Dagger, Ice, and Ghost. Even in a proven big-buck state such as Ohio, there is no guarantee of having even one fully mature buck to hunt, let alone four! Needless to say, I was extremely eager for the late September archery opener.
As usual, patterns began to change in early September as the bucks shed their antler velvet and acorns started to fall in local woodlots. Having past knowledge on all four of the mature bucks on my cameras, I had a pretty good idea which ones would be worth hunting early in the season. Heavy was the most promising candidate. In years prior, he was very easy to pattern during the season’s first week. In fact, I had actually passed opportunities to harvest him multiple times in the past. However, I also knew I had to act fast if I wanted to get Heavy on the ground, because in the third week of October he likely would move off to his yearly rut location and never show again until late season.
Shortly before opening day, I learned I had new neighbors at my hunting property. I didn’t know much about them, but knew they were from out of state. I hoped they wouldn’t hunt much, since the land they purchased hadn’t had any hunting pressure previously. This news made me quite nervous, especially since I knew Heavy had spent a lot of time on that property in years past.
Soon after learning of the new landowners, my season started taking a turn for the worse before it even started. Somehow, the new neighbors gained permission to hunt an adjacent, landlocked property where I'd hunted the edge. Suddenly, stands were being hung just 50 yards from setups I'd established years ago. My heart sank, but I tried to remain positive and continued my preparations for the opener.
Opening day, Sept. 25, finally arrived and I was still optimistic about getting a chance at Heavy. I hunted the first two weeks hard, passing on what felt like every great 2- and 3-year-old buck I had on camera, but Heavy never showed.
On the season’s third week, the new neighbors showed up and chaos quickly ensued. All-terrain vehicles were being driven through the area multiple times each day, and hunters were walking within 20 yards of my setups — at prime morning and evening times — while I was on stand! These folks were also purposely talking and making noise while I was hunting. It was a nightmarish series of events no hard-working, respectful hunter should ever have to deal with. And the crazy thing was, it made no sense; surely, they knew they were ruining their own chances of success just as surely as they ruined mine.
My frustration and stress level continued to rise until the neighbors finally left for home. However, I knew they’d be back and I’d have to deal with the circus all season long. Given that, I figured my odds of killing a mature buck on this property were getting pretty long. Trail-cam pictures of Heavy became few and far between, even at night, and overall deer activity during daylight hours was diminishing too.
Making matters worse was the fact that moving stand locations on this farm was nearly impossible. I shared this property with another hunter. I hunted the front half and he hunted the back. Moving, for me, would force drastic cutting of brush and pushing myself into the bedding area. Huntable trees were scarce, the terrain was steep and the wind/thermals were hard to work with. I was literally in about the only doable location.
Hard to believe, but the following couple weeks seemed to get even more frustrating. Heavy moved off to his usual rutting location and ended up being killed by a different neighbor. Meanwhile, the out-of-state neighbors were back for the second time, and the chaos worsened. Granted, I had three shooters left, but two of the three’s patterns had changed dramatically since they shed velvet. I had very little trail-camera activity or a game plan for either of them, considering the very limited acreage at my disposal.
The third shooter, a buck I called Dagger, finally started to appear at the start of November, as he usually did each year. He would show in daylight, moving frequently among several different camera locations. I now focused my full attention on him. I saddle hunted for this buck, did several hang-and-hunts, moved all over the place chasing him from location to location, and I even saw him on the hoof three times while on stand but could never get a shot. To make my luck even worse, after chasing him for more than a week, he broke off about 12 inches of antler on one side. So, I quit hunting him altogether. Back to the drawing board again, there were now two shooters left.
The pressure finally got so bad on the farm next to the new neighbors that I had to throw in the towel and make a drastic change right in the middle of the rut. I had had enough, and there was no way I could keep that stand in that location any longer.
I dedicated a full day to moving everything: stand, sticks, cameras and all. It almost took me the entire day just to find a location I hoped would work. I had to do tremendous amounts of sawing and pruning just to get to the only available tree. It was barely big enough for a stand and was covered in poison ivy, grape vines and Virginia creeper. But, it was my only shot to save my season on this farm. I was so frustrated I didn’t even care that I had to bear hug all the poison ivy to get my climbing sticks on the tree. By evening, I was finally finished. I was exhausted but felt satisfied in completing a task I wasn’t sure was possible.
The season continued to be a grind. For starters, now I was covered in poison ivy from head to toe! Plus, the weather was unseasonably warm, putting a major damper on deer movement. On top of that, I was continually forced to deal with troublesome east winds; and even at night, the two remaining shooter bucks in my area rarely appeared on my trail cameras. In spite of it all, I plowed ahead. I tried new locations on new farms, passing up shots on a pair of incredible 3-year-old bucks, but I still failed to get an opportunity at a fully mature trophy.
Now, gun season was at hand, and I was back to working every day. Between that and the end of Daylight Savings Time, finding daylight hours in a tree became a real challenge. One of the last two shooters, the buck I nicknamed Ice, finally started showing up on a camera at my food plot. Most of the photos were at night, but a few were in daylight. However, any time I had a day off to be in the tree, Ice wasn’t there.
Then, the firearms opener arrived and my opportunity to chase mature bucks went out the window. An army of gun hunters was now pressuring every farm in the area. Plenty of young bucks were hitting the dirt daily, but my shooters vanished. All I could do was keep monitoring and moving my cameras and staying out of the woods until hunter pressure declined.
By the time firearms season finally closed on Dec. 19, there were far fewer bucks on the landscape than there had been on Thanksgiving. And my cameras were showing precious little buck activity at all, even from young bucks. It was depressing, to say the least. Not knowing whether either of my remaining shooters was still alive, I tried to hold out hope.
Finally, in early January, cold temperatures and the first snow of the season arrived. I knew this would get bucks moving in search of food. The snow was coming down heavy, the wind was blowing and the temperatures were below freezing. The deer started moving early, and they were coming from every direction. I caught a glimpse of my fourth and final shooter buck, Ghost, coming from directly behind me, following a doe. As he was closing the distance, I grabbed my bow and was ready. Unfortunately, once the doe hit the creek bottom, she caught my thermals pulling down and bolted, taking Ghost with her. Frustrated, but knowing he had not hit the creek bottom yet, I was hoping he had no clue why the doe had bolted. I still had a chance for another day.
The late season was dwindling down, and with only two weeks left, I was going to have to give it my all. Ten inches of snow fell around the middle of January and temperatures stayed below freezing. Deer movement had been good, but I still had no daylight photos of Ice and absolutely no trail camera photos of Ghost. I was dumbfounded as to where these mature bucks were spending the majority of their time and where they were feeding.
On Jan. 28, I finally got my answer. As I was sitting in my stand around 5 p.m., I saw a buck walking out of the thick, south-facing bedding area across the creek from me. It was Ghost. It finally hit me as to what he had been doing this whole time. It took me a while to figure him out. He would come out of the bedding, walk down the hill and walk up the bottom to the neighbors to feed, completely avoiding my area in the process. At this point, I knew I was never going to have a chance where I was. I needed to make a move.
That Saturday, in hopes of catching him coming out of the bedding area, I decided to take my Novix stand and climbing sticks and set up in the steep ravine below the bedding area for that evening’s hunt. The temperature was 15 degrees, the crusty snow was extremely deep and noisy to walk on, but I made it in without spooking any deer. Aptly, the evening produced no sightings of Ghost.
I was running out of time. The final week of bow season had arrived, but my determination to finish the season strong was greater than ever. Ice was finally becoming more regular on camera at night, and I hoped it was just a matter of time before I got my chance. From my knowledge of past years with this buck, as time drew closer to February, the chance of his showing in daylight would increase.
Feb. 5, the day before the archery season ended, was finally my night. Southeast Ohio had experienced a bad ice storm the previous day, causing trees and limbs to come down all over the place, and they were still coming down. Given the conditions, my decision to sit in a stand that evening made me a little nervous.
A doe and fawn came in behind me without my knowing and walked right under my stand. The doe circled downwind and knew something was off. She kept staring at me and stomping. I was praying she wouldn’t blow. After what felt like half an hour, she finally came around to the front but continued to keep an eye on me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a dark body moving across the bottom, walking right in front of my hang-and-hunt setup from the prior week. I could see it was a buck but couldn’t make out which one it was.
He was approaching in a hurry, but I couldn’t stand and get ready because the doe was still watching me. As the buck got closer, I realized it was Ice. He quickly closed the distance to 40 yards, but I was still stuck! I started to panic. If I moved, I might lose my opportunity at this buck. But if I didn’t, I definitely would. I had to do something.
In one, extremely slow motion, I stood. Miraculously, I managed to get upright without spooking the doe, but there was no way I was going to be able to reach for my bow without alerting her. Fortunately, Ice was now close enough that the doe focused her attention on him, giving me just enough time to grab my bow and swivel into shooting position. Then I caught a great break as Ice walked behind a clump of tree trunks, giving me an opportunity to yank the bowstring back to full draw. Ice then walked into my shooting lane at 13 yards and I calmly released the arrow. The shot looked a bit high, and I wasn’t exactly sure of my left/right placement. Given the uncertainty, combined with the cold temperatures, I decided it was best to give Ice some time and pick up the trail the following morning.
After a sleepless night, morning finally dawned on the final day of Ohio's 2021-'22 bow season, and I was able to recover Ice only 70 yards from my stand. After putting in more than 70 days in a stand — hunting in rain, wind, brutal cold, ice and snow — I'd finally done it! As I wrapped my hands around Ice’s antlers, I was thankful that I never gave up and just kept grinding. The reward was well worth the effort!