The public area had been heavily hunted, and I had little time left to scout it. But in the end, my long shot paid off big.
As I watched the 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer – the first deer sighted, well into the tenth hour of the day’s vigil – my optimism rose slightly. Yet I had to wonder: With only one hour today and a half-day tomorrow remaining in this hunt on public land, what were my odds of taking a trophy whitetail?
That was my last idle thought, as things began to happen really fast. First I caught movement off to my right, about 75 yards away. A check through my binoculars revealed a nice 5×5 in the mid-150s range. He looked as if he would dress out close to 200 pounds.
At this point in the game he looked really good, so I reached for my Hoyt Oasis bow. Suddenly, the big 10-pointer came running my way, all the while with his head turned to his left. He was dogging something . . . but what? A doe? Another buck?
Then it happened: A huge set of antlers reaching for the sky exploded from cover, heading dead for my tree! I could hardly believe my eyes; the huge buck dwarfed the 5×5 in body and rack. He was coming hard, and I was glad my bow was already in my hand. I went into auto-pilot.
When the monster was 40 yards away, I drew my bow and began to track him. At 25 yards I started grunting to try to stop him, but that had no effect. Finally, at a dead run and only 15 yards away, the buck spotted me. He made a hard turn to his right, heading to my left, and began to cover ground with long strides.
From my years of experience in trophy hunting, I knew this would be my last time to ever lay eyes on this animal if I did not react, and quickly. The moment called upon every instinct I had; every fiber of my body was focused. But really, this second in time is not as important to my future hunts, or to yours, as are the events that led up to this encounter.
This November 2000 trip to the Midwest was not my first. Beginning in 1988, every year I had made the drive north. Now, after nine days of bowhunting private land in southern Illinois, and with shotgun season opening in two days, my chances of arrowing a trophy whitetail in the Land of Lincoln were looking pretty bleak.
I had seen some nice bucks on this trip, including one I had really wanted for my own, but as it often is with bucks of this class, things went his way and not mine. I had obtained some good video footage of several bucks over the past week and a half, but let’s face it: No matter how much footage you shoot or how many good memories you leave with, the drive home is much longer without a large rack attached to a mature whitetail’s body keeping you company.
I might say a word here about trophy hunting in the Midwest. Many hunters from elsewhere have a misconception about states such as Illinois. I see it every year, as out-of-state hunters travel to a trophy hotspot in belief that there will be a monster buck standing behind every tree. In most cases, such a hunter returns home disappointed and frustrated.
Hunting one of the “hotspots” will not make you a better hunter; nor will it guarantee you a trophy. You still must hunt hard, long and smart – and a large dose of good luck never hurts, either. On this particular hunt, things were not looking so good. It was Wednesday night, Nov. 15, and I had to make a decision.
Would I hunt tomorrow morning, the last day of Illinois’ first archery season, then pack up and head home the next day, which was the gun opener? Or would I spend tomorrow scouting an archery-only public area in a neighboring county, then hunt my remaining day and a half there? (Note: In Illinois, it is legal to hunt archery-only public hunting areas with a bow during open gun season; however, no bowhunting is allowed during that time on other lands.)
I weighed the options. This was my first trip to the area, and I had never even set foot on this public land (though I had obtained topographical maps of the area to give myself that option). I had to wonder what my chances would be to see, let alone harvest, a buck of the caliber I was looking for. To make matters worse, I only had one day to scout.
I must admit that it would have been easy to head home Friday morning to a family I was looking forward to seeing again. After all, I needed a break, both physically and mentally. I had just spent no less than seven straight 11-hour days perched 20 feet or so up one kind of tree or another. Many of these days had started out with temperatures in the 20s or colder, and there had been extremely high winds. On some days it had blown up to 25 mph.
Still, the cold and wind were not the worst things. Sitting in a tree 11 hours a day for that many days straight is even harder on a hunter’s mind. I was mentally exhausted. But I have never been one to give up before the game is over. I feel this is why I have enjoyed some success in trophy bowhunting. I do not claim to be one of the top trophy bowhunters. I will leave that prestige to hunters like my good friend Roger Rothhaar. However, I work hard to be one of the most persistent bowhunters in the woods.
I talked to other out-of-state bowhunters who were heading home on Friday. Many had to be back at work on Monday, and the idea of hunting public land for another day or two seemed to them a waste of time. That is where my never-say-die stubbornness and persistence paid off: I decided to stay and hunt. After all, there are two things I believe a person should never forget: where he came from and where he is going. Well, I came from Tennessee, and I was going to kill a trophy whitetail. The way I saw it, no matter how slim my chances were on this unfamiliar public ground, they were not nearly as slim as they would have been were I sitting at the house.
Actually, the scouting began in my camper on Wednesday night. I spent a couple of hours studying my topo maps, becoming familiar with the boundary lines, the lay of the land and roads on the public area.
Thursday morning I was at the park at first light, and for the next three hours I drove the roads. I wanted to become familiar with the type of cover each section had within it. I also wanted to see where most of the hunting pressure was. Last of all, I wanted to see as much deer movement as possible. However, in this sense the drive turned out to be discouraging; in nearly three hours of driving, the only deer I saw was a small doe. The temperature was in the low 20s, and it was the peak of the rut, so I had expected to see some action. I cannot help but wonder how many other hunters would have given up at this point.
The next part of my scouting began when the park headquarters opened. After introductions and chit-chat, I got down to the business of finding out as much about the park as possible. I have found that most park officials are cordial and helpful, and this case was no exception.
With my park map in hand, I began to ask my questions. I started by asking if any big bucks had been taken in the past week or two, and if so, from which areas. I was told that a few good deer had been taken the previous week, the largest two in the 150 to 155 class.
I next asked if any really exceptional deer had been seen. I was told there were rumors that some park hunters had seen a huge buck. I also asked where most of the hunting pressure was in the park. I found it was in the southwestern portion, where the two or three good deer had been taken.
I next inquired about food plots and marked their locations on my map. My last question concerned the private lands bordering the park. I wanted to know if there would be a lot of pressure from shotgun hunters around the park and, if so, from which locations. I discovered that the two largest landowners bordering the park did not allow any hunting whatsoever. I also learned most of the land around the park was not woods but open crop fields.
This knowledge would have a significant effect on the way I hunted. If there was going to be a lot of gun pressure from cover bordering the park, I would consider trying to find a corridor that pressured bucks would use to enter the park to escape the shotgun hunters. However, from the information obtained, I did not feel gun pressure would be a major consideration. (That turned out to be correct.)
It was time to do some legwork. I first entered the southwestern portion of the park. This area bordered a large cornfield on private land, which was off limits to all hunters. This section of the park seemed to have the largest and thickest unbroken cover. Once I entered the woods, it became even more apparent this section had been hammered fairly hard by hunters the past week or two. I also learned something else. There was indeed a very large buck running this park. I found huge tracks that were 4 inches long and nearly 2 3/4 inches wide! This was large, even by Midwest standards. I also located some very large rubs on trees the size of my calf. What was even more impressive, the rubs were chest high! I had never seen rubs so high in all my years of bowhunting.
This rub, made by the monster buck, is one of the highest the author has ever encountered. The top of the rubbed area was 5 1/2 feet above ground level.
From what I had seen, I came to two conclusions. First, there was a very large buck living on or very near the park. There was too much sign on the park and too little cover off it for me not to believe that his sanctuary was in the park or very near it. I also strongly felt the buck was entering the cover in the southwestern area at night to chase does. There were too many fresh tracks and rubs and too many hunters there to believe he was using this area during daylight hours.
With this new information in mind, I began to look at other parts of the park. As I began to drive around, I met a hunter from Georgia coming out of an area beside the section I had just left. He was carrying his stand out of the woods. I inquired about his hunting experience. He told me he had been hunting this area all week. sitting all day most of the time. He had seen some chasing, but nothing too impressive. He said he was packing up and heading for home tomorrow. With another section marked off because of hunting pressure, I moved on.
As I studied the map and drove the park roads, I became interested in a long, narrow piece bordering a major state highway. As I entered this section, I noticed that the woods were fairly open and that traffic on the highway was heavy. This was the type of small area most hunters would overlook, and by the same token a smart old buck would use as a travel corridor to enter and leave the park.
As I moved farther into the woods, I came upon a local hunter scouting the area. I apologized for the intrusion and turned around to leave. However, upon his persistence that there was plenty of woods for both of us to hunt, we struck up a conversation. This gentleman was one of the friendliest and most helpful fellow bowhunters I had ever met. (I will refrain from mentioning his name here, however, as I do not want to put undue pressure on this park.)
The man informed me that he owned a farm bordering the park. He had just moved into the park to look around because of the opening of shotgun season on the outside the next day. I asked him about the hunting pressure in this area, and he said he did not believe it had been hunted. I also inquired about the private land bordering this section of the park. The owner was in Florida for the winter, and the bowhunter told me that he farmed some of the land. He let me know also that the owner allowed no hunting whatsoever. I asked my new friend if he thought the man would mind if I walked across the boundary a short distance and looked around. “Not at all,” he said.
As I left the park boundary, I discovered a grown-over area with small patches of thick cover scattered about. The cover was mostly pines 8 to 10 feet tall and honeysuckle vines. Could the crafty old buck be using one or more of these thick patches of cover as his sanctuary?
Even though I was wearing knee-high rubber boots, I did not want to take a chance scenting up any cover or disturbing it by tromping around any more than necessary. As far as I dared to go was to the near edge of the first cover. As I eased up to this thicket, the first pine I came to was rubbed. It was not 30 yards from the busy highway. The height of the rub was extraordinary: It was rubbed from just above the ground up to 5 1/2 feet high! There were also thumb-sized limbs broken off.
I dared not go any farther, but I did not need to. Standing there and taking a good look around, I noticed a gravel road coming off the state highway and running parallel to it for about a half-mile before turning away. I also noticed that the cover between the two roads was shrubs and thick honeysuckle.
I would like to be able to say that I scouted between the roads and found the buck’s sanctuary, but that came later. Some hunters might have turned these events around, and that might make a better story; however, I will not do so, because it did not happen tha way. I discovered the buck’s sanctuary after the hunt.
With the discovery of the fresh rub and thick private-land cover, I had seen enough. Going on a hunch, I abruptly turned around and returned to the park boundary. There I located a tree from which I could cover as much of the travel corridor as possible. I left the park to return in the morning to hunt.
Back to the Action
And so, here I was, 50 yards from the continuous roar of traffic with a monster of a buck a fraction of a second away from leaving my life forever. As he covered ground in long strides my bow was drawn, and I was swinging with him.
When the deer was approximately 15 yards from me and quartering away, I pulled in front of him about six feet and released. The arrow hit with a resounding thump. I thought I saw it enter back toward his flank, and because of the body angle, I felt good about the hit.
Following a long 40-minute wait, I climbed down and located my new friend, who was hunting about 300 yards back in the interior of the park. By the time we returned to my stand it was beginning to get dark, and we decided to take up the trail at once.
I found my arrow lying about 20 yards away, covered with blood. The blood trail was not heavy at first; however, the farther we traveled, the heavier it became. After about 150 yards of trailing, as I was intently following the sign over a small hill, my companion tugged at my shoulder and said, “There he lays – dead.”
When I looked up, I saw the huge buck lying not 10 yards away, his massive rack sticking high above the ground. My SST Hammer-tipped ICS arrow had entered near his left flank and had angled forward, exiting the right side of his rib cage.
The buck was huge in stature, being extremely long, tall and thick. I am sorry that I did not get to weigh him. However, I did measure his neck, which had a circumference of 31 inches close behind his head. I am not going to guess what he weighed, but in 1989 I killed a buck that weighed 275 pounds field dressed, and I believe this one was every bit as large, if not larger.
The author shot this great public-land buck in southeastern Illinois on Nov. 17, 2000. Due in large part to tine length, the rack has a gross typical score of nearly 180 inches as a basic 4×4.
His rack is equally impressive. It is a basic 8-pointer with 11 scorable points. As a basic 4×4 he will gross close to 180 B&C. The deer gets much of his score from four exceptionally long tines. His G-2 tine on the left antler measures 13 3/8 inches, while his left G-3 is 13. On his right side, the G-2 is 14 2/8, the G-3 12 4/8. Although deductions from forked tines and sticker points keep the deer from netting B&C’s 170-inch minimum, he is the kind of buck a trophy hunter’s dreams are made of, and he will always hold a special place in my heart.
The day after I shot the deer, I returned to the private land to look around. This is when I discovered how the deer had evaded hunters for so long. I knew he could not have been crossing the state highway regularly and survived, because the traffic was too heavy. However, the gravel road was not traveled nearly as much.
After looking around in other cover, I entered the strip between the two roads. Here everything became apparent. There were fresh and old rubs and scrapes all through this thick, narrow cover. As I began to follow the strip, which was about 30 yards wide, I could see the traffic from the highway not 20 yards away.
About 200 yards down the cover, I came upon a very thick honeysuckle patch. There they were: cow-sized depressions in the vines, the empty beds of a courageous fallen monarch with nerves of steel. He had spent his daylight hours within the continuous sight, sound, scent and even breeze of the human world he had evaded for so long. As I stood there, I could not help but wonder: Do we really outsmart any of these old bucks, or do we just get lucky?
A Final Note
I have had a lot of experience shooting moving game with a bow. I have for years shot running rabbits in front of my beagles; I even shoot skeet and quail on the wing with archery equipment. (This has been documented on video.) I also hold state and national titles and records with compound and traditional equipment.
I note this not to boast but to make a point: Even I do not take running shots at deer very often. The situation must be perfect. It is extremely difficult to hit a running deer well, especially from an elevated position. Please consider your experience and ability before loosing an arrow at moving game.