My family and friends knew that I would arrow the huge buck. I did not share their confidence.
This story began in December 2001, when I received permission to hunt some private ground not far from my Tennessee home. The property borders a tract of pines owned by Bowater Inc. While scouting the area in January and February 2002, I found some large scrapes and rubs in a stand of oaks beside a thick stand of 12-foot-tall planted pines. The rubs and scrapes showed the kind of damage a young buck would not inflict, so I felt strongly that a mature buck was using the area.
In September, I moved some of my trail cameras to funnels and mineral licks I had made on the property. A few weeks later, I had the photos developed and was happy to find I had photographed a big 10-pointer I judged to be 4 1/2 years old. He had 12-inch G-3 tines, “crab claws” on the ends of his main beams and good mass, all of which made his rack very desirable to me. I decided to hunt him in the fall.
Approximately two weeks later I had film developed from another camera in the area, and once again I found I had a photo of the 10-pointer. Each time I got a photo of him I would go back there to study and measure his track, so I could learn to identify it. (This is the secret to patterning a particular buck.) His track was 3 1/4 inches long and 2 3/4 inches wide: larger than average for a mature Tennessee buck. Within a couple of weeks I could identify the deer’s track at a glance, enabling me to start monitoring his movements.
My wife, Karen, and sons, Clay and A.J., began to get excited about the possibilities of my getting the big 10-pointer. I told them I did not think my chances were very good, because the surrounding area was hunted heavily. I knew any deer that had survived to 4 1/2 years old in a heavily hunted area would be very hard to see in daylight hours during hunting season – that is, if he even survived the poachers’ spotlights until the season opened. I did not share the enthusiasm and confidence the rest of my family had, but my boys insisted that they felt I would get the deer.
In October, big sign began to show up in the same oak patch as the year before. A study of the tracks in the scrapes revealed the same 10-pointer was making the sign, so I immediately hung a few stands around the area.
I spent more time in the area that fall than I would have in years past. Because of the Elimitrax system I had started using, I knew I could enter and leave the area without the buck knowing I had been there. Also, I only entered the area during the middle of the day, when the chances of my bumping into a deer would be low. Of course, I was anxious to hunt the big buck; however, I knew better than to do so before late October, because I believed he would still be nocturnal until that time.
The fall of 2002 would be the first deer season since I had met Scott Goldman, a fellow whitetail student and bowhunter who lives a couple of counties away. He is an outstanding young man and an asset to his generation, and he was anxious to spend some time in the deer woods with me. Scott had spent one weekend filming me bowhunting turkeys in the spring, and against the odds, I had been lucky enough to arrow two longbeards in short order. One of the gobblers even had three beards. I believe that is why my friend, like Karen, Clay and A.J., was confident that I would quickly arrow the buck.
Around the middle of October, Scott mentioned that when I got ready to shoot the big 10-pointer, he would like to take a day off work and film me. I told him I did not believe it would be that simple. I tried to impress on him that arrowing a mature buck was not a one-hunt deal but rather, a combination of many hours of smart and careful hunting that would at best give a hunter a less-than-even chance of success. Still, with my uncanny turkey success of the past spring fresh in his mind, Scott insisted he would like to videotape me when I went after the big buck. I told my friend that when I got ready to hunt the buck I would be glad to have him with me, but not to expect things to go quite as smoothly as they had in the spring.
This is the first trail-camera photo the author got of “Fate.” The image was captured in early October 2002, kicking off a two-season hunt for the Tennessee trophy.
The Hunt Begins
As the end of October neared, I watched the weather reports closely for news of a cold front. When it was forecasted to turn cold during the night of Oct. 24, I called Scott and told him we would go after the 10-pointer the next morning.
So there Scott and I sat in a big white oak, waiting on a buck my friend and my family just knew would show up at any minute. Finally, at about 10:15 a.m., my cameraman whispered, “I can see a deer back in the cover. It’s a buck! I can see his leg moving! He’s making a scrape!”
As the deer moved toward us, I was shocked to see towering G-3s and “crab claws” on the ends of his main beams. It was him!
We were 15 yards from the largest scrape on his scrape line, on an old road. As the buck worked his scrapes up the road and closed the distance on us, he came upon a big sapling that had been blown down a few days before. Instead of jumping the sapling, he veered around it, putting him 35 yards from us. When he entered an opening, I grunted with my mouth to stop him, then released the arrow.
When I shot, the deer dropped at least eight inches, causing my broadhead to hit him high. As he ran away, I grunted. He ran about 40 yards and stopped to look back. He stood there, looking, but would not turn back our way. As he then moved away, I tried snort-wheezing, grunting and rattling. Each time I called he would stop and look but not turn. The last time I saw him, he was coughing. This boosted my confidence in the hit. I knew it had been high, but because of his coughing, I now believed I had hit under the spine, shooting through one or both lungs. However, we decided to wait until around 3:30 p.m. before starting to trail him.
My boys arrived home from school just before Scott and I headed out the door. They were not surprised to hear that I had shot the 10-pointer. Clay said he had known I would get him; he said it was my buck. A.J. said, “Yep, it was fate.”
I told him that I did not believe in fate. A.J. responded, “Why not? You shot him, didn’t you?” And so, the buck became known to us as “Fate.”
To make a long story short, the blood trail that had started out heavy soon faded, then ended after a few hundred yards. My family and I spent several days walking every patch of woods and thicket within a couple of miles of my stand, but all to no avail. I also monitored the area for Fate’s track, but it was not to be found either. He had vanished. I became afraid that he had died in the thick pines, which made me even more tenacious in my search. But while I spent every possible free minute in the following weeks tromping down cover in an effort to locate the deer’s remains, I found nothing.
This is the trail-camera photo the author got of Fate in January 2003, after the close of hunting season. The deer had put on a lot of weight since being wounded in October.
Fate Bounces Back
Then, around the middle of January, after deer season had closed, in the powdery snow I found a blurred track that resembled Fate’s. After some looking around, I decided on a location in which to place a camera. When I got the first roll of film developed, we were overjoyed to see Fate’s photo. He was looking as fat as a bear. All my boys would say was, “We knew he was still out there. You are going to get him next year.”
The next spring, I saw Fate’s track only once or twice . . . then he vanished. Despite having four trail cameras on the fairly small tract of land, I got no more photos of the deer. Nor did I see his track anywhere. I told my family that there are a lot of pitfalls and dangers out in the deer woods, and I felt that the big deer had either died or relocated. They would hear nothing of it. They said it was fate that I would get Fate.
On Nov. 1, 2003, I headed for the Midwest to do some bowhunting. The trip turned out to be a disaster. The day after I arrived, I hung several stands on a tract of private land I had gained permission to hunt the winter before. I had driven up to Illinois and scouted the property for a week in the spring.
I hunted the ground two days and saw a lot of buck movement. The rut was starting to take off. Then came some very discouraging news; The landowner had decided to lease the property to an outfitter. I had to pull all of my stands and try to acquire permission to hunt another tract.
Some friends I had made through my outdoor writing were eager to help me find a new spot, and they immediately acquired permission for me to hunt some of their kinfolks’ land. After scouting the property a couple of days, I got onto a mature buck and hung my stands once again. But I had just started to hunt the buck when some out-of-staters who had hunted the property for several years arrived.
I became very frustrated because of the hunting pressure in the area and shot a 140-inch 5×6 on Nov. 14. The second I release the arrow I wished I could take it back, but I could not. I had already passed on better bucks, and this was not the class of deer I had been looking for. I kicked myself all the way back to Tennessee.
I had another week of vacation remaining. However, I decided to return to work the following Monday. I moped around for about a week, very disappointed in myself for having become discouraged and shooting a buck smaller than I had wanted.
Back on Track
On Nov. 20, I made up by mind to get busy and find a mature buck to hunt here in Tennessee. Firearms season was scheduled to open on Nov. 22, and there would be a lot of pressure on the deer from rifle hunters off and on until Jan. 11, when the season would end. If I was going to arrow a mature buck, I had my work cut out for me. I knew I had to quit looking in the past and get busy.
This single, distant photo, taken at close to midnight on Nov. 21, 2003, restarted the author’s bowhunt for the great Tennessee whitetail. The crucial clue was nearly missed.
On Nov. 21, I began scouting in earnest. About midmorning I entered the tract of land that bordered the Bowater pines. Not far from the oak patch I found some large, running tracks. Even though the tracks were smeared, they looked familiar to me. I immediately put out my digital trail camera.
The next day, Clay and I entered the oaks where I had shot Fate the year before. There were some calf-sized rubs on the pines that bordered the oaks. Seeing them, Clay announced that Fate was back. I was not so sure.
On our way back to my truck, we checked the camera. Clay wanted to look at the pictures first, as usual. As he scrolled through them, I could hear him mumble, “Doe . . . doe . . . doe . . . blurry . . . doe. Nope, no picture of Fate.”
When we got home, I began to think about what Clay had said about one of the photos having been “blurry.” I knew there was not much chance that it was a shot of Fate. However, for some reason I had to look for myself.
When I started to scroll through the photos, I came upon an image of a deer at night, walking some distance from the camera. As soon as I began to enlarge the photo, I knew it was Fate! While the image was not of the best quality, due to the distance between the buck and the camera, I could plainly see those towering G-3 tines.
Even after I downloaded the image onto my computer I could not tell too much about the rack. However, it appeared that Fate had a lot more mass on his rack and his body than had been the case the year before. It also looked that he had some non-typical stuff going on this year.
I was back in business. My whole attitude changed with that one blurred image. My family was overjoyed; they were confident I would get Fate. The chances of my getting the photo after one night of setting the camera out on some smeared tracks was very poor, considering how mature bucks ramble during the rut. Maybe it really was fate.
Scouting on the Fly
As detailed earlier in this book, I normally do my scouting for mature bucks in the spring and have my stands up months before I plan to hunt. This situation would be different. Using extreme caution, which included showering just before I entered the woods, wearing Elimitrax and staying out of the area when I expected deer to be moving, I began to scout and hang my Gorilla tree stands. I knew I had to do everything I could to avoid letting Fate know he was being hunted, or my efforts would undoubtedly be in vain.
The first day I hunted was Nov. 24. I sat in a stand overlooking a drainage a few yards from where my camera had snapped the blurred photo. I liked this stand location for my initial hunt, because I could see a lot of the edge between the pines and hardwoods up and over a ridge to the west of my stand. In this location I not only would have an opportunity to shoot the buck if he walked the same corridor where I had taken the photo, I could use the stand to observe the edge for his movements if he exited the thick pines. That was where I believed he was bedding, because of sign I had found during my two days of scouting.
To my surprise, I saw Fate about 70 yards up the ridge that first evening, just before dark. I grunted, snort-wheezed and rattled, but all he would do was look my way. v Even though I did not get a good look at his rack that first evening, due to the low light, I could see that he had those long G-3s and a lot of bone on his head.
The next morning, Nov. 25, I hunted the same big oak from which I had shot Fate the year before. This stand was about 100 yards from where he was bedding and from where I had taken the latest photo. About 7:15 a.m., a good buck ran by me off in the distance. I am not sure, but I believe it was Fate. That evening I hunted from the observation stand again; however, he did not exit the pines – at least, not where I could see him.
On Nov. 26 I again hunted the area, but with no sighting of the buck. Then, the next evening, while hunting from the “observation” stand in the drainage, I nearly got him!
Just before dark the big buck came out of the pines – only this time, I had a doe decoy set up. When I saw Fate, I doe bleated; he stopped, stretched his neck out and looked my way. When he turned his head back around I grunted, and he looked my way again. But this time he saw the decoy and began running toward it.
The huge buck sounded like a galloping racehorse as he ran by me. I could tell his course would take him more than 40 yards past my stand and the decoy, which was positioned 15 yards in front of me.
The reason Fate was running in that direction was apparent: He was circling to get downwind of the decoy. This he did in short order. My scent stream was still missing him slightly; however I knew a slight variation of the breeze would take my scent to him. Of course, I take a lot of pains with scent control, and most of the time when deer are downwind they do not smell me. So, I was not overly concerned with his location.
Even after Fate reached a point 40 yards downwind of the decoy, he did not walk to it right away. In fact, he stayed in thick cover, hooking brush, until it was too dark for a shot . . . then made his way in.
I could only see Fate’s form as he walked up and stuck his nose to the decoy 15 yards from me. When he touched it, he immediately knew he had been duped; he blew and ran from the area. I now understood how smart and cautious this 5 1/2-year-old buck had become. I have had other bucks, particularly mature bucks, not come into my calling if they saw no other deer on the scene. But for one to see what was obviously a “deer” and still circle 40 yards downwind of it in cover, then not approach until after dark, was uncanny. Arrowing this buck would not be easy.
However, Fate had made a fatal mistake that evening: He had let me see him come from his bedding area in the pines twice on the same trail. He had left the pines this time at the same location as he had the first time I had seen him, on Nov. 24! I determined then and there that after I got my stand set up, if Fate again exited the pines in the evening on this trail before season’s end, I would be there, waiting on him – period.
The next morning I hunted the stand in the oaks but did not see him. It was becoming apparent to me that he was bedding down before daylight and leaving his sanctuary in the thick pines just before dark. I decided that to get a shot at him I would have to move into his bedding cover, right on the trail I twice had seen him come out on. While this would be an aggressive move, I felt it was necessary to get set up on him fast, while he was still in the area. If he took up with a “hot” doe in another location, he might get shot by a rifle hunter. Closing In
At noon on Nov. 28, I began working my way into the pines on the deer’s evening trail. However, the wind was very calm, so I dared not go too far, for fear that Fate would hear me. In fact, I realized by the way the pines lay that he likely was bedded within 80 yards of where his trail exited them.
The first hardwood timber Fate would enter upon leaving the pines was small and thick. It was hard to find a tree to hunt from in the small woods, but I finally settled on one just outside the pines. I did not feel I was deep enough in, but it would have to do for now.
I sat in the tree that same evening. A young buck was first to show, and he did not pass by my tree; he was 30 yards away in the thick stuff. I then realized that while I was set up where I had seen Fate come out, there was another travel route he could use when he exited the pines. At this point I became even more dissatisfied with my stand location.
Right at last light, I began to hear another deer approaching from the pines. As he moved closer I could see he was a good buck, but not the old boy I was after. He was a nice 3 1/2-year-old 10-pointer with long tines and beautiful “crab claws” on the ends of his beams, and he stayed within five yards of me for 10 minutes before moving off. I asked him where his daddy was, but he did not say.
The next morning, Nov. 29, I again saw nothing. All that day I had to fight the urge to enter Fate’s sanctuary to look for a better stand site. The winds were still calm, and I knew I would have to wait for a windy day to enter the pines. Now was no time to get careless.
At around 4 p.m. that day, I headed for my stand in the small timber. But as I approached to within 100 yards, I could see Fate already was out of his bedding area! All I could do was sit down and study him through my binoculars. This was the first time I had had a good look at his rack. It was obvious he had put on a lot of mass and had grown several sticker points. He was even greater than I had suspected from the photo and my previous sightings, all of which had been in low light. As I observed him, I became more determined than ever to get this buck.
The next day, Nov. 30, I had no sighting of Fate. However, as I closely watched the weather forecast that evening, I got the news I had been waiting for: The following afternoon, a strong northwest wind would move in.
On the morning of Dec. 1, I hunted my stand in the oaks, with the same results as before, then headed home to wait on the wind to pick up. Sure enough, by 1:30 p.m. we had gusts of 15 to 20 mph.
I went through my usual scent-control precautions, then entered Fate’s sanctuary. I had moved back into the pines only about 35 yards when I found what I had hoped to: The two trails on which I had seen evening buck traffic merged. I began to work back and forth, looking for a tree to hunt from with the northwest wind that was now blowing. This would be hard, because Fate left the pines walking northwest, so he would have such a wind in his face. On the evenings the wind had not out of the northwest, the big deer had not left the pines before dark – at least, not where I could see him.
As I moved back and forth on the evening trail, I found where it made a slight bow. This turn in the trail would put a northwest wind just off to Fate’s right side as he walked the trail in this location. (Of course, even though I use scent control, I still go to great measures to play the wind in my favor.) But at this location the only tree that would support me was a small yellow pine that had been left standing in the planted pines. It was no more than five yards from the trail and was so small that it would support me only up to about 10 feet off the ground. Even at that height the pine would shake as I shifted my weight.
However, with the strong wind then blowing, I felt I could get a shot off without being detected. I hung my stand, then returned at 3:30 p.m. to hunt.
As the evening wore on, the wind calmed down. This presented a new problem: I could hardly breathe without the tree shaking. I knew I could not relax. To make matters worse, in the pine needles I could not hear a deer approaching until it was very close. I had no choice but to stand with my bow ready, so I could draw as soon as I heard Fate coming down the trail. I could not draw after he was within sight, because in the thick pines I could not see him until he was 10 yards from me. At this distance, he surely would see the tree shake if I tried to draw then.
The Final Encounter
As shooting light faded, my arms began to ache and tremble under the weight of my bow held out ready to draw. It was literally within seconds of time to call it quits when I heard a deer running down the trail. I instantly drew my bow, and in less than three seconds, Fate was moving by only five yards from my feet. As he slowed his pace to a fast walk, my Carbon Express arrow was on its way.
The broadhead entered the deer’s rib cage just behind his shoulder, and he went down within sight. A two-year quest had ended with an encounter that had happened so quickly I still do not remember verifying it was Fate, aiming or releasing. However, I know I did all three within a couple of seconds. I immediately exited my tree to lay hands on the deer. He had given me a great challenge, one for which I am thankful. I counted 13 points, and his whole rack was extremely massive. This is the trait I like the most on a whitetail, I thought as I finally got Fate’s thick rack in my grasp.
When the author finally got his hands on Fate’s tall, massive rack, he realized that all of the effort he had put into hunting the deer over two seasons had been well spent.
I could not wait to get home and tell my family. They had been nearly as much a part of this great quest as I had been. When I had begun to hunt Fate eight days before, their anticipation had been high. Each time I returned home after the hunt, “Did you get him? Did you get Fate?” was what met me at the front door, coming from two bright-eyed boys. But as the hunt had continued, the anticipation had faded. “Dad, did you get Fate? Did you see him again?” were the questions that had begun coming from the boys’ room each day as Karen stopped what she was doing to listen to my response.
Ironically, when I entered the door on this particular evening, the boys were preoccupied with something, and Karen was busy with supper. I casually put my bow away and took off some of my hunting clothes without as much as a word spoken. As I went to the phone and dialed my brother Wendell’s number, Clay came up and stood beside me. When I asked Wendell if he wanted to help me get a monster buck out of the woods, Karen’s and Clay’s mouths hit the floor, and the house exploded in celebration.
Fate was 5 1/2 years old when taken, a big-woods buck in his prime. His heavy rack has a gross non-typical score of around 180 inches. This great deer apparently was the biggest Tennessee whitetail arrowed in 2003.
“Daddy got Fate! Daddy got Fate!” the boys shouted.
Wendell casually said, “I’ll meet you at your house when I get finished with supper.” He said he had expected this call a couple of evenings earlier; I guess he knew something was going to happen, even though I felt getting Fate was a longshot. I guess my boys knew it also; they said they knew I would shoot him, just not that it would happen that particular day.
In retrospect, I guess everyone but I knew I would get this deer. So do I now believe in fate? Yep, I have laid hands on it – and it sure is nice.
I learned a lot from this chase that will help me on future hunts. Most of all, I learned that if I am after an old, smart buck I have doubts about getting, I will name him “Fate.” Looking back on this deer, after we named him that, it just seemed that it was meant to be. If you believe in such things.