An Empty Quiver: Chapter 9. They’re All Trophies

 

   

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

The year was 1996, my 44th year bowhunting deer, and as of that year I’d never taken a Pope and Young buck.  Well, actually that isn’t quite true.  Years earlier I shot a dandy ten point buck on an island in the Ohio River on a late season bowhunt.  But he ran about 80 yards and jumped in the river.  We’d had very heavy rains, and the river was raging.  We never found that buck.  Then there was the buck in Montana, on the same property that is the basis for this chapter.  One evening I shot what I’d guess to be a 130 buck, and he ran into some wet, backwater areas.  The next day I found bones and hair.  The coyotes got him and ate everything.  The antlers were chewed apart, and not salvageable. 

 

I don’t think that I was a bad deer hunter (though relative to hunting big deer, I did have a lot to learn).  My problem was a simple one.  I lived in West Virginia, had a job that kept me home and fairly busy, so I only hunted West Virginia and nearby Pennsylvania.  On occasion I’d get to sneak out to Ohio, but for the most part I bowhunted where we just didn’t have many good bucks.  In my areas, around 90 percent of all harvestable bucks were shot each year.  That means that only a maximum of 10 percent could become 2 ½- year-old deer, and almost none ever reached 3½.   Sure there were guys who occasionally got record-book sized bucks, but they were few and far between.

 This meant two things for me.  First, I wasn’t learning the skills needed to take bigger bucks because I wasn’t hunting them.  They just weren’t there.  Second, I wasn’t taking any really good bucks.  I might add that in the past ten years things have changed a lot in western Pennsylvania, where I hunted.  A new antler restriction regulation has led to many bucks in the older age classes.  In my area of West Virginia, things have also improved a bit.  Even so, I rarely hunt near my home since I retired in 1998 (note this hunt took place before I retired), preferring to bowhunt in Ohio, Kentucky, Montana and Illinois (I’ve since added Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska to that list).    

 The area I hunted in eastern Montana was different.   They had really good bucks.  The farm I hunted was partly owned and fully leased by Nicky Roth of Archery Outfitters.   This was river bottom farm country with large fields of sugar beets and alfalfa.  As opposed to hunting around home, at this Montana farm, I felt I had a legitimate chance at a Pope and Young buck every time I went out.  And I almost always saw a record book buck on my evening sits.  So, grab a seat and follow along as I chase Montana whitetails on this 1996 bowhunt.    

Several years ago my bowhunting friend and Editor of Inside Archery, Bill Krenz (a great man who has since passed away), pointed out that “trophy hunting is undoubtedly the most misunderstood segment of a widely misunderstood sport.”   Well-known bowhunter Jim Dougherty also noted that “trophy hunting will endure for as long as there is any hunting.”  I agree with those statements, and at times, I am a trophy hunter.  I’ve been bowhunting for deer for more than forty years, and have taken a number of does, small bucks, and decent bucks.  Near my home in northern West Virginia there aren’t many “trophy” bucks, but that is OK by me.  I love the deer hunting, and take home deer meat every fall.  But, as with most hunters, there is a lure to areas that hold larger bucks.  In younger days, the chance to see and hunt larger bucks drew me to Ohio.  I still return there every fall, but even though several bucks I’d taken were close to the Pope and Young minimum, I’d yet to score on one that would “make the book.”

I know.  I hear you when you say “they’re all trophies,” and I agree with that statement.  I also understand when you say, a buck is still a majestic, honorable animal even if he doesn’t score 125 inches.  But we all strive to reach goals in our life, and as long as we do so in an ethical manner, in a way that honors the animal, I find nothing wrong in “trophy hunting.”  In fact, “trophy hunting,” when done in a responsible fashion, brings out the best in hunters.  You become patient and wait, and you hunt very hard and are diligent.  To have a chance at a large buck, you need to know and learn a lot about the animal, his habitat, his behavior, and his movement patterns.  Yes, you probably need to learn more about those things than the average hunter does.   Finally, the trophy hunter passes up smaller animals, often many smaller animals while waiting for that elusive big animal.

When anti hunters attack the trophy hunter as an uncaring person who only shoots big bucks to satisfy a macho ego, they miss the mark on several issues.  First, they assume that many hunters shoot trophy bucks.  In truth, very few do.  Second, they assume it’s about ego, showing off, bragging rights, etc.  Though that can be a part of all hunting (or basketball, or car racing, or golf, or tennis, or hiking, and even keeping your grass mowed or owning a nice car), to simplify and reduce the attempt to harvest a bigger deer to that level not only demeans the hunter, and it demeans the animal.

In my quest for a large buck, I wasn’t compulsive, but there was a goal and it kept eluding me, year after year.  Five years ago Fred Richter and Tim Reed, hunting friends from West Virginia, told me about the mother-lode of big bucks in eastern Montana.  The stories about the monster bucks on Milo Borg’s farm were confirmed by Nickie Roth, Gene and Barry Wensel, and others.  Milo’s farm was right on the Missouri River, rich with alder cover along the banks, blessed with cottonwoods flush with good feed, and adjacent to fields of sugar beets and alfalfa that were flooded with deer every night.  With relatively low hunting pressure, many bucks made it into the older age classes making it possible to see as many as fifteen trophy-class whitetails in a day of hunting.  Even so, reaching my goal had not been easy.  In fact, I’d struck out my first three years there.  One year it was very hot and the deer just weren’t moving.  Another year we had heavy winds that seemed to change direction every minute, and then there was another problem.  I’d missed two book bucks for no reason other than excitement.

Stand position in that country is critical.  You basically hunt deer that are going from feeding areas to bedding areas in the morning and the reverse in the evening.  Watching the wind is much more important than back home.  Finding the exact position for a stand, and then being in that stand at the right time . . . that’s the name of the game for hunting Montana whitetails.  Success on a big buck will come given enough time and persistence.  But my hunts were always limited to six days and for me that just wasn’t enough time for success.

It was the second week of November 1996, and after several days’ Fred, Tim, and I had five or six stands up in what appeared to be great locations for morning and evening hunts.  My evening stand was in a strip of cottonwoods separating two old fields.  The deer moved out of the river bottom, through the grown-up fields and along the strip of trees, and then to the alfalfa to feed all night.  The night before I watched five Pope and Young bucks hit one scrape in that strip of cottonwoods, and after dark I moved my stand to that location.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets the ole heart pumping faster than whitetails and the view from the cottonwood had blood racing through my body.  In the past two hours, deer after deer, buck after buck, walked past my stand.  True, I could see two hundred yards in all directions so most were out of range, but since climbing into this tree I’d spotted more than one hundred deer and at least five were book bucks.  At the moment I was focused on an old scarred nine-point chasing a doe at the edge of the old field.  She didn’t appear receptive to his advances, feeding and moving away whenever he came close.  When she moved away the third time, I decided to give him a go with a grunt call.  I hesitated for a moment because I wasn’t sure he was a record book buck, but any questioning thoughts vanished quickly when he responded to a soft grunt.

As is often the case, the buck didn’t immediately react to the call, but I knew he’d heard it.  I quickly grunted again, but he stayed fixed on the present love of his life.  As the sun disappeared, more activity picked up in the area.  Behind me, and far out of bow range, was a dandy eight pointer making a scrape.  One hundred yards north were two more Pope and Young candidates, feeding and chasing an occasional doe as they headed for the fields.  Emerging from the dense cover near the river another group of small bucks and does passed close by.  They were headed for the distant alfalfa fields that acted like a magnet to all the deer I’d seen that afternoon.  The doe, his doe, joined the group and moved on.

Though the two bucks to the north were larger, it became obvious that my best chance lay with the huge-bodied nine pointer.  With no doe to distract him, he was now giving some thought to the “deer” making the grunt calls.  Yes, he was cautiously moving my way.  The winds were swirling, but held as he quartered toward the clump of cottonwoods that held my tree stand.  My bow came up as if on automatic pilot when he reached forty yards.  After what seemed like ten minutes (but was probably only one), he walked into a thicket and started making a scrape at twenty-seven yards.  This was it, a chance at a book buck.

I went into a mental checklist as I reached full draw . . . hold, center the sight, and wait until he is in the right position, release.

I knew immediately that the hit was a bit back, maybe nicking the liver, but definitely too far back.  He moved seventy yards from my stand and bedded, right beside that really hot scrape.  Within five minutes I witnessed one of the most unusual events I’ve ever seen while hunting.  A really good “150” class ten point buck came to the scrape and began to work it over.  The nine-pointer, though mortally wounded, stood up, with all the hair on his back fully erect, his ears back in aggressive fashion.  Body size-wise the nine point was bigger than the ten and he acted dominant.  He walked stiff-legged toward the bigger-antlered buck and they sidled up to each other, side by side.  In an instant the fight was on and it wasn’t just the commonly seen pushing and shoving type of fight.  No, this was a real battle, with snow flying, trees breaking.  It only lasted twenty-thirty seconds.  Though the wounded buck had larger body size, the bigger antlered buck quickly got the best of him and ran him out of sight into the alders by the river.

I was heart sick at the thought of not being able to find that buck because he’d been run out of the area into some very thick cover.  But luck was with me.  Next morning, Fred and I returned to the area and after a two-hour search, we found the buck not far from where he’d run from my sight the night before .

The end results of a very cold Montana rut hunt.
The end results of a very cold Montana rut hunt.

I’d like to say it didn’t matter whether this buck would score at the magical minimum 125-inch level that would qualify him for the Pope and Young record book.  But, deep down it did.  Not that it would cause me to pass the shot, and not that the buck would be any the lesser was I to learn after the kill that he missed the book.  But I’d come so close to that magic 125-inch level  only to have the animal not qualify, and now it appeared that I’d finally reached my goal.  He greened at 131 inches, but it was sixty days later when my taxidermist, Carey Zehr, called from Williston, North Dakota to give me the final score . . . 125 even.  Are you kidding me?

Not very wide, but just enough mass to get this 8-year-old buck into the record book.
Not very wide, but just enough mass to get this 8-year-old buck into the record book.

Even more interesting was the news that explained why that wounded buck took on a buck with larger antlers.  My nine point was 8.5 years old.  By whitetail standards, he was a great-grandfather and apparently had been a dominant buck in that area for several years.  At that old age his antlers were probably headed downhill, but he was still big bodied, still ready for a fight during the rut, and would be forever a tremendous, beautiful buck.  Yes, he was a trophy to me.

Postscript

 The Montana season begins in early September and runs mid-October (but you can use bows in gun season into November).   Weather plays a major factor in deer movement, especially early when warm weather slows things down considerably.  Of more importance are spring and summer rains.  The more rain, the more grass and feed under the cottonwoods and in thick cover.  Little rain means less food in the woods and deer move to the sugar beets to mid-October and to alfalfa after the beets have been harvested.  Hunting in November means rutting deer.  Rattling and grunting deer is very good at this time, and you will see lots of rutting behavior.  But buck movements aren’t as predictable as they are earlier in the season.  In November, plan for cold weather and take wool clothes and warm footwear.   You can fly to Sidney, Montana, but connections are better to Williston, North Dakota.  For information on hunting a private ranch in eastern Montana on the Missouri River contact: Nickie Roth (www.archeryoutfitters.us). 

 It was a pleasure to bowhunt with Fred Richter and Tim Reed.  Both are good bowhunters, and both are as ethical as anyone you will ever meet.  Tim took a super ten point buck on this hunt with his recurve.  And Fred helped me recover that buck, and for that I am grateful.  Since that time I’ve taken several other book bucks, including a Boone and Crockett buck (see chapter 10).  But I really admired this Montana buck.  Here he is, mortally wounded, and he still takes on a really good buck.  There is no doubt in my mind that had he been healthy, it would have been no contest.  After the ten point ran my buck into the brush, maybe 250 yards from my stand, I heard horns rattling as they fought for a second time.  Five minutes later the big ten point walked right to the scrape, then under my tree stand as he went to the alfalfa.  Tell me that whole episode isn’t exciting, and I don’t care how many years you’ve been hunting.  You bet.  This was a great bowhunting adventure and one that I will never forget. 

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Huntingcolumn still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures which is now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, www.knowhunting.com.

for more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel