Growing up in Pennsylvania and spending all of my adult life in West Virginia, bowhunting whitetails has been the center of my hunting life. However, at that time there were not many big bucks because hunters shot most as yearlings, both in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Fortunately that has changed to a degree, but back then, my only shot at a good buck was to drive to Ohio, which I did as often as I could. And I shot some bucks out there, but nothing that was in the “huge” class. So when I retired in 1998, the first place I went was Iowa. Back then getting a license was a given, a guarantee and you didn’t have to worry whether you would get drawn for a permit. Just plan and go do it. That’s now changed a bit.
This story is about that first Iowa bowhunt. My guide was Ruby Custer out of Soldier, Iowa and my good friend Bob DeLaney, from Connecticut, was with me. It was the first of many bowhunts we would eventually do together. I wouldn’t want a better hunting partner and Bob being there made this hunt all the sweeter. Here is how it all came down.
In recent years farm country bucks have gotten lots of fan fare. Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska are areas that don’t hold the number of deer found in some of our eastern states, but more and more great animals are coming from those states. Life for such deer is not the same as in forested areas. Farm country whitetails have to adjust to a life with little permanent cover. They also have to live in a habitat where cover and foods change from one season to the next. For example, during the summer, farm country adult bucks often spend long periods of time within an uncut corn field. Those fields provide food, but also good cover. Once cut in the fall, there is food there, but no cover. Even though farm country habitat does not have extensive timber stands, whitetails do well. The core of their home ranges (the core being the area of the home range where they are found 50 percent of the time) tend to be small, reflecting either a reluctance to move around in open country, or good food availability.
Adult males in the breeding season have a home range of around 1.25 square miles (800 acres). Of course this can vary. If anything, every buck is different. Some young bucks have large home ranges and don’t move around a lot while others move plenty. Some young bucks have small home ranges and don’t move around a lot while others move plenty. And the same can be said about the variability of home range size and movements for older bucks. Like I said, bucks are extremely variable and individualistic about a lot of things. In fact, studies show that some older bucks chase and mate several does in one rut cycle, while a few old guys don’t rut at all. Go figure.
It’s all this variability that makes bowhunting so challenging and it is the challenge that makes bowhunting fun. Then you throw in the variable of when they move, with some bruisers being almost totally nocturnal and the challenge gets even harder. One time you get pictures of them on your trail cam, and then they disappear for a month, or a year. In such open country one wonders where they go.
I was in western Iowa, bowhunting the end of October with Ruby Custer. The rut was just getting started and I’d seen a dandy 135-inch buck each of the past two nights. Twice he walked right thru the middle of a cut corn field, having come up an oak ridge from a bedding area. I needed to get in a location to get a shot at this buck. The weather the last of October was cold. Not overpowering, and no snow, just mid-twenty weather. The first evening I saw no deer. The second day I only saw two does. The third day I saw fifteen does, two small bucks. The fourth and fifth evenings found me at the cut corn field. But now I needed to move my stand so Ruby and I hiked in there after my hunt the sixth morning.
After a short hike down the oak ridge we quickly found a deer trail that resembled a cow path and it had two forks. One fork went right up the ridge to the cut field and there were hot scrapes along the way. The other fork went around the beaver pond, then along a far field, and finally to the cut corn field. “Ruby, look at this deer trail, four hot scrapes in forty yards. And look at that huge buck rub over there.” “I know Dave, but the buck who rubbed that tree won’t come up this trail. He’ll stop at the intersection right there, and continue on around that beaver pond.” “Maybe so,” I responded, “but there are no trees close to that trail, so let’s put the stand here and give it a try.” Normally wind conditions were such that any stand along the ridge would put scent in the bedding area. But we now had a rare East wind, and if that continued, this stand just might work. On the trail from the bedding area we found two rubs on trees as big as my thigh. There were obviously some huge corn-fed bucks in the area.
With all this positive sign and the East wind holding, I got into the stand early. Within a few minutes the area settled down. A few gray squirrels were doing their fall thing and somewhat later a small flock of turkeys fed by. This area was around 80 percent corn, soy beans, and old fields, and twenty percent oak forests. Apparently that made for perfect habitat for wild turkeys . . . they were everywhere. But I was after an Iowa whitetail. At 4:30 a red fox snuck by the edge of the beaver pond, eighty yards below the stand. Ten minutes later, the 135-inch buck made his appearance, but he didn’t walk up the scraped trail. Instead he moved through a thicket fifteen yards past that trail, headed as always for the cut cornfield. Normally I’d have been disappointed at not getting a shot at such a fine buck, but that feeling of loss was tempered by the knowledge that much bigger bucks were using the area.
So I settled back in my tree stand to wait. The wait wasn’t long in coming for fifteen minutes before dark, he appeared. You dream about huge bucks, you hunt them for a life time. You hope that each time there are footsteps in the leaves that your time has come, that the boomer of a life time is headed your way. But it never happens . . . or almost never. But when you bowhunt Iowa, the chances of seeing such a buck increases considerably. No, you don’t see that many deer, but the bruisers are there.
This guy appeared as if by magic. Not a sound was made. He just walked down the trail from the bedding area. Cool customer, no hurry. He’d walk a few steps, stop and stand for a few minutes, walk a bit more. Heavy, high, wide antlers. I knew that I was looking at a dream, a farm country Iowa whitetail, the biggest buck I’d ever had within bow range.
He paused at the intersection and took a drink from a little pocket of water. Then he started up the trail toward me. “Ruby,” I thought to myself, “you were wrong, here he comes.” But no. He stopped at the first scrape, pawed the ground, and stuck his head into the overhanging branches. Then this great animal turned around, went back to the intersection, and off to my left on the trail around the beaver pond, just as Ruby had predicted. He moved oh so slowly, stopping, staring, standing. Each step took him just a bit further away from me. I hurriedly looked ahead and found one opening where there might be a shot. If he’d just walk through that opening while I still had shooting light.
I began to talk to myself. “You stop there big guy, with your head and butt behind those two elms, quartering away, and I just might have a chance.” Five minutes later, he stopped right there. As the buck stopped in the pre-selected opening, I was already at full draw. I estimated him to be over forty yards, a bit far for me, but his head and rear were behind two large trees, greatly reducing the chance for a wounding shot. The flight of the white-fletched Gold Tip arrow looked good, and the buck crashed down the trail beside the beaver pond. I heard him break two large limbs and I thought that was a good sign. I waited ten minutes then quietly climbed down to investigate. My arrow was not to be found, but some small splotches of blood were there. I got out a flashlight and slowly moved along the trail, trying to piece together a blood trail. But there was nothing. Maybe he bedded, and if so, I didn’t want to move him.
Rather than plow around in the dark, I decided to come back in the morning. I urinated in the trail and left my coat hanging to deter any coyotes that might come along during the night then hiked a mile to the road. My partner was waiting in the truck. We discussed the situation and decided to return at first light. Back at the farm house Ruby concurred.
One of the other hunters in camp had already taken a 130-inch buck, so the next morning he grabbed his video camera and went with us. It was cloudy, and just at daylight there was a heavy thirty-minute downpour of rain. So much for following a blood trail. Of course the rain bothered me a bit, but I still felt good about the shot and really thought we’d find him within one hundred yards of where I’d hung my coat the night before. I was wrong. He didn’t make it that far. Five yards past my coat we found the Rocky Mountain tipped arrow, and then I heard Ruby scream . . . “there he is David.”
When Ruby screams, no roosting turkeys within a mile are safe. But there he was, seventy yards from where I made the shot. We stood there in awe of this great animal. The bases were gnarled and covered with bark from tree rubbing. He was only twenty inches wide, but he was heavy. He’d later green score at 170″ and net 160″, and his live weight was 276 pounds. Fortunately, we were able to drive a four wheeler to within two hundred yards. We drove out through a cut cornfield, and spotted another nice buck on the way.
As we headed down the road through this great Iowa farm country, I realized that God had blessed me with a truly great animal. Indeed, my time had come.
I think back on this bow hunt all the time. In fact, the steps I went through the evening of the shot are as vivid to me now as they were the day it happened. I’ve since seen bigger bucks while bowhunting (in Alberta and in Kansas), but my guess is that I won’t ever harvest a bigger buck.
Using a guide will guarantee you private hunting areas. However, something happened on this bowhunt that showed me that if an average guy went to Iowa, with the right approach and professionalism, they just might end up with their own private hunting area. Here is why I say that.
I took my buck to a taxidermist in Iowa to get it caped out for the trip home. On the drive back to Ruby’s, I stopped in a very small town café for lunch. Most of the folks in there were older, and there were four women at the table beside mine. They appeared to be widowers who met fairly often for lunch and chat. One looked at me and said, “you’re not from around here are you young man?” I told her I was from West Virginia and she then asked why I was there. I told her that I was bowhunting and she asked if I’d like to eat with the ladies. Of course, and soon I was getting to know these nice new friends. I told them I had been hunting near Soldier with a guide, and three of these women noted that they lived on farms and that their husbands used to hunt, but since they passed, they didn’t allow anyone to hunt. They then said that I was welcome any time. One even suggested that I could stay in her downstairs apartment when I was hunting there. I never followed up on their kind offers, but that lunch renewed my faith in the human spirit.
As I look back on this hunt, I’m thankful that it happened. Not because it made me a better hunter or because I felt that I had to prove anything to anyone, but just for the personal satisfaction of finding the buck, making the shot and then making the recovery. He will always have a special place in my heart and when folks ask me, what is your most satisfying hunt? This just might be the one.
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