In the late summer of 2013, Ohio bowhunter Chad McKibben began collecting trail camera pictures of an exceptionally wide, heavy nine-point buck on the border of his hunting area.
The property was comprised of open agricultural fields and pastures carved up by creek bottoms and old timber, primarily oak and ash trees.
It was a prime location to find a mature buck — dense cover and plenty of feed, with low pressure and plenty of escape cover — so it was no surprise when, almost like an apparition, the big deer began making regular appearances on McKibben's trail camera.
Chad McKibben's neighbor nicknamed the buck King, and the story of McKibben's pursuit of the buck isn't all that different than the experiences that many of us share as we try to outwit and outmaneuver big deer.
McKibben planted and tended food plots and set out mineral licks in the area where the deer appeared in film, and under the cover of darkness King would appear on camera, his rack hardening as the velvet was cast off in early September of 2013.
There was a period in the early fall of 2013 when King vanished altogether, seeming to vanish from sight in the same sudden manner he had appeared, and just as mysteriously as he had vanished he reappeared later that year. By the time the rut rolled around McKibben had a fairly impressive amount of intel on the deer and high hopes that he would get a chance at King in the daylight sometime in November.
As it turned out, McKibben did see the deer tending a doe, his massive antlers somehow even larger than they appeared in the trail camera photos. But McKibben didn't get his shot, and as the terrible winter of 2013-2014 closed in on the Midwest King managed to elude McKibben and vanished into the frozen landscape. McKibben shot a smaller, though still very impressive, 165-inch 11 point buck in below-zero temperatures during Ohio's late muzzleloader season. King was safe for nine more months.
Most serious deer hunters, at one time or another, have collected data on a big buck and yet failed to connect with the deer. In McKibben's case, (spoiler alert) he managed to harvest the big buck that eluded him the year before in November, 2014. But the real story here may not be the kill, the inches of antler or the sense of accomplishment when the big deer was finally on the ground that sets the McKibben buck apart.
It's the preparation, or rather the overpreparation that led to McKibben's success. We all know that providing high-quality food sources for a deer ups the odds of success, and most serious hunters have a battery of cameras in the woods to surveil the movements of the local deer.
We all know that a good stand is critical to success, and we know that practicing with our bow is elemental. And, of course, spending time on stand is important, too. But how much extra effort are you willing to put in to up your odds of success?
When I first saw McKibben in the spring of 2014 one corner of his garage bore a strong resemblance to the officer's barracks at the edge of a war zone. Black and white photos taken with infrared cameras lined the counter, and a detailed map with a series of color-coded pushpins traced photos and sightings of the deer. In early February of 2014, McKibben managed to capture a photo of the buck with only one antler, and the next night he secured an image of the buck with both antlers gone.
It was McKibben's wife Lyndsey who recognized that the deer had a notch cut in one ear, an identifying mark that allowed him to be identified throughout the year whether he was wearing his unmistakable headgear or not. It was clear to me that Chad McKibben was taking the hunt seriously, but if you knew McKibben that might not surprise you.
In high school, he was an excellent baseball player who went on to play infield for Mount Vernon Nazarene University. After becoming a high school teacher, he began traveling to Ohio universities teaching courses on leadership and personal development. He can tell you how to approach your boss for a raise and how many stitches there are on a baseball. If there's an archetypal big buck hunter it's McKibben.
The Five Percent Buck
Five percent doesn't sound like a lot, does it? Five percent of an hour is only three minutes, and five percent of a dollar is just a nickel. But that same five percent, that little bit extra, can make all the difference. So often we look at deer hunters that are consistently successful and think why can't I do that?
We all love hunting big bucks, and everyone would like to harvest a monster deer, but a select few manage to do it year in and year out. The process is no different for McKibben and other highly successful hunters than it is for the rest of us; we scout and pattern deer, identify food sources and bedding areas, plant food plots and hang stands.
We know that the bucks will be trailing does during the rut, and we know to keep our scent away from the deer. But if everyone knows this, and these are the methods by which we kill big deer, do guys like McKibben have a secret?
The answer is, quite frankly, they don't. McKibben and other guys like him are what I've come to refer to as the "five-percenters," the five percent of hunters who put in the extra five percent effort and consistently collect the five percent of bucks that measure over 160.
For McKibben, the process began before the last day of the hunting season before, and continued right up until that day in early November when his chance at this big deer finally arrived. But rather than focusing on the moment of the kill, it's important to understand the timeline and the time required to kill this big buck. Because, ultimately, that is the secret to success.
What follows is a modified calendar of McKibben's preparations in 2014. Is this what your year looks like? If not, could that be why you're struggling to consistently take big deer?
Spring and Summer
I can't say for certain, but I'd bet that McKibben had a bad case of poison ivy this spring. There are two reasons for this; he's highly allergic, and he's always in the woods. For McKibben, the spring of 2014 was all about planting hanging cameras to monitor King's growth and movements, patterning the big buck month by month, planting food plots and hanging stands, just the same as thousands of other hunters across the country.
McKibben's hunting property has plenty of flat agricultural land upon which to grow a food plot, and any one of these places would have been easier to access than the open patch of bottomland that required dragging equipment down into the valley piece by piece, a back-breaking and time-consuming chore.
Based on the planting zone and region, McKibben took the time to select a food blend that worked well in his part of Ohio, and he added the proper amount of fertilizer to insure that the soil was capable of producing the best crop possible. Herbicides were added and the plot remained open and clean. Because of the location, every step in the process required extra effort to reach this hidden patch of earth that would, ultimately, become the place where McKibben arrowed the monster buck.
Many of us, myself included, tend to find a likely hunting spot and select the tree that best suits us. McKibben (and other hunters I've known like him) don't operate that way. They find the best possible stand site in the absolute best location and make it work, even if that means a long, hard climb and a lot of limb clearing.
In the case of McKibben's buck, that meant cleaning the entire side of a massive eastern redcedar tree. The process was long and grueling, and even getting into the tree required extra effort. Manipulating a bow up through the broken branches was a chore, and it required a great deal of patience.
The stand itself opened up on a valley and the food plot McKibben had planted, and I actually ascended the tree myself to check out the view, which, from 28 feet above the valley floor, is quite impressive. The cedar branches wrapped around the stand, trimmed far enough back to offer a clean shot and allow for plenty of movement but still dense enough to offer plenty of concealment.
McKibben used the summer months to not only shoot his bow but to make sure that it was tuned with the right arrows and at the right draw weight. He took his bow to a local archery shop and discussed arrow weight and spine stiffness options and left nothing to chance. Arrows by the hundreds went downrange from different shooting positions and elevations.
All the while, the surveillance on the buck continued. Inch by velvety inch, King's antlers were growing as the days stretched during the summer solstice then began to shorten during the dog days of August with hunting season just a few weeks away.
Before season, McKibben cleared a trail into the stand that would allow him to beat the prevailing wind without being seen or spooking deer. Hunting clothes were washed in scent-eliminating detergent and hung outside to dry, and for a full month before season he showered with scent-eliminating body wash.
Food plots and food sources were maintained all the way through the season, and McKibben kept watch over feeding sites, trails and funnels via trail cameras. At night, he used a Flir Scout to determine where deer were moving and the trails they used to and from food sources. McKibben's buck vanished in September again, and for a time he thought King might have been killed by a car or poached, but later in the month the big deer reappeared on film once more.
With food sources established, movements documented, equipment checked and scent eliminated, McKibben headed into his stand for the season opener. He spent every available opportunity in the stand, sitting mornings when he could and evenings when he couldn't. His preparation had been, by most standards, slightly over the top. It's hard to express the amount of time and effort, but by the season opener McKibben knew that he had eliminated every variable possible.
Eliminating variables doesn't always mean success, and it took plenty of stand time to connect. But when you've prepared like McKibben and you have the data to verify that your stand is the right stand, you don't need to switch. All the intel Chad had gathered pointed to the cedar stand, and every time wind conditions allowed for a clear approach he hunted in that tree. Then, at last light on November 6th, everything came together.
It was very late in the evening when a single doe slipped out of the darkening woods and stepped lightly through the Bio-Logic food plot. She moved silently down the leafy green rows, head rising and falling as she fed. Then she stopped.
Turning over her left shoulder, she watched a stand of skeletal white sycamores. Underneath the trees McKibben saw, for only the second time, the deer he called King. With one heavy-shouldered bound the buck entered the field, his head low. He gave a grunt and followed the doe.
"There was only time for me to see the deer, recognize him and grab my bow," McKibben said. He came to full draw, planted the pin on the buck's shoulder, and let the arrow fly. It struck with a hollow thump, and the buck turned and disappeared over the hill. Seventy yards from where he'd been hit the buck piled up.
Two years' worth of work culminated in a period of time that lasted less than ten seconds. For many hunters, that ten seconds may have been all that mattered, but not McKibben. It was the culmination of the extra time and extra effort he put into the hunt that made November 6th such a special day. Could he have done the same thing with less time and effort? Maybe so, but I doubt it. Perhaps it was that little something extra that made all the difference in the world.
The Perfect Plot: Tips To Up Your Odds Of Success
Having the right food plot can mean the difference between success and failure, but what makes your plot better than competing plots on surrounding properties? Here's how to give your patch of greenery an edge over the competition:
€¢ Check the Soil: An eight dollar soil test kit is the first step to success. Testing the soil will allow you to provide the right soil composition for optimum growth. This is an easy and inexpensive step, but one that many people overlook.
€¢ Don't Buy Based On The Bag: Seed bags with big deer boost sales, but it's what's inside that bag that really matters. Different seed blends do better in different soil types, and it's important to plant your plots at the right time of the year. McKibben uses Mossy Oak BioLogic blends (plantbiologic.com), and he contacts the company directly with questions. Based on their recommendations and his planting efforts McKibben's food plots held deer throughout the summer and fall seasons.
€¢ Diversify: Plants like clover are attractive and palatable for deer, and they have the ability to withstand cold. But adding other blends, like super-tough chicory, can keep your plot viable during the worst weather conditions. Mix it up and increase your odds of success. You may be surprised to find that one plant works particularly well on your property but not on other surrounding acreage.
€¢ Keep Weeds At Bay: A clean, weed-free plot is going to be far more attractive to deer, so be sure to use herbicides that knock out unwanted plant pests. Overgrown plots won't hold as many deer, and if there's a weed-free plot a few properties down the road that's where the deer will be feeding.