The Backward Buck

The Backward Buck

When you hunt the same monster whitetail for four years, you might finally get things straight.

Little did I know that my first glimpse of this great Nebraska buck would lead me on a four-season quest that would end with an eye-to-eye encounter on the ground.

Pussyfooting through a thin strip of timber that bordered the edge of a big cornfield, I emerged from the cedars and cottonwoods and promptly made out the back of a deer just 20 yards away. As the deer raised its head and looked right at me, I focused my binoculars -- and gasped. This was not just a very good buck. It was him!

The first time I had laid eyes on him, I just couldn't get over the size of his second points, the G-2s. In my neck of the eastern Nebraska woods, I've grown accustomed to seeing some nice, but non-spectacular, racks. With a rifle season held during the rut, and most of the state's hunters crammed into the riverbottoms, Nebraska doesn't grow an excess of bucks that reach the magical ages that produce huge racks. This buck looked young, but he already had an impressive frame.

In 2003, I saw him twice before gun season, and three times after. He never offered me a shot and always seemed to have a knack for doing things backwards, appearing in the most unexpected places. On November 1, he responded to a rattling session from the east but hung up out of range. When I tried a snort-wheeze to pull him closer, he rewarded me with the sight of a white tail bouncing into the distance.

As he pranced back the way he'd come, little did I know that a four-season quest had begun that would keep me guessing until the end. In 2004, I saw him twice. The first was on October 2, and instead of following several bucks that walked within bow range, he again did things backwards, blazing a trail of his own, 45 yards from my stand. I saw him again on November 7, at about the same range, and again, he left me shaking my head.

During the season, I never saw him again, and I wasn't sure he'd made it through the nine-day rifle and 31-day blackpowder seasons. Then, on February 4, 2005, I found his left antler, and 14 days later, I found its mate over a half-mile away. I felt like we were destined to cross paths again. But the wait was to be a long one.

In late summer 2005, he showed up a couple times on my digital CamTrakker, and I was pleased to find that his right antler had sprouted a standing fourth tine, while the opposite side showed a sticker protruding from the G-2. Antler symmetry is no big deal to me, and I value any "extras" to be just that -- bonus bone that adds character.

During the 2005 season, he was as elusive as ever. In fact, I saw him just twice. On November 8, I caught a glimpse of him 60 yards away as he trailed a doe right toward my stand -- one I had second-guessed myself out of sitting in.

The very next evening, I climbed a tree near a pinch that connects the main timber -- ever-increasing in size as it goes farther to the east -- with a sparsely vegetated upland area to the west that gets pounded at night by deer. With less than two hours to hunt, I opted not to go too deep into the woods, hoping an adventurous buck would emerge for a walkabout to check for does.

As soon as I'd strapped into the tree, I began to doubt my stand choice. After all, a breeze was blowing hard enough that I could easily slip another 100 yards into better cover. So I gathered my stuff and lowered my bow, but as soon as I put my Cat Quiver on for the descent, I heard telltale shuffling that told me I had messed up.

This 2004 CamTrakker photo verified that the buck was still alive -- as was my hope for taking him.

Glancing back toward the sparse cover to the west, I instantly knew my mistake was major -- the buck of my dreams was marching right at me from 40 yards away. With no choice but to throw caution to the wind, I quickly hoisted my bow back up, grabbed an arrow, and looked back for the deer. But he was already trotting at an angle away from me. He'd seen or heard something awry.

Again, he'd done things backwards. At least, from my point of view he had come from the wrong direction, a miscalculation that cost me a close shot at a buck that looked even bigger on the hoof than on camera. As it was, I tagged out the next morning less than 100 yards away on another very nice buck, so the gaffe was temporarily forgotten.

With some doe permits to fill after rifle season, I spent ample time in the woods and was dismayed not to see the buck again. Nor did I find any evidence while hunting for shed antlers during the winter. I resigned myself to the fact that a rifle or blackpowder hunter had taken the buck.

By the 2006 season, real estate development continued to swallow up ground on either side of my favorite property. To the west, three houses now ringed a sandpit, and that number would grow to 40 cabins or homes. To the east, all of the lots for a lake development south of the golf course were sold, and houses were going up less than 50 yards from where I park my rig.

My usual hotspot for getting summertime buck pictures with the trail camera -- it often burned a roll of film every two days -- was now requiring two weeks to eat a roll of film. And it never did turn up a picture of any bucks I wanted to tag.

Things looked grim. Still, deer are adaptable critters, and my partner and I might have a year or two of good hunting remaining. And since I always hit the season hard from the opening bell, I gave it another go.

On the evening of September 20, I took a stand in a big cedar overlooking a spot where deer exit the heavy cover along the Platte River and cross a slough en route to a large cornfield. With the warm weather, I hoped they might use this trail, as it also afforded a chance to slake their thirst along the way. But only three antlerless deer wandered within bow range.

So, as described at the outset, I decided to get down early and salvage some extra time with my kids. But stalking back to the Silverado, I stumbled upon the buck that had long captured my imagination.

Instantly I recognized the long G-2s with bladed qualities I'd seen before, as well as the sticker point and droptine. He was not only still alive; he was darned near in my lap. Until he made his move, I could do nothing.

Clearly, the buck saw me, but he seemed torn between waiting to find out what I was, heading toward the corn,

or retreating to the main timber. When he turned as if to head to the corn, I nocked an arrow and began to draw my Pronghorn takedown longbow. The buck stopped to look, and a Wensel Woodsman broadhead was on its way.

It was still legal time but just dark enough that the arrow disappeared before I clearly heard the sound of a solid hit. The buck surged north toward the corn, disappearing in the high grass buffer zone. I cupped my one good ear and after a few seconds heard a loud crash, but I was unsure if that was the deer hitting the deck or just banging through cornstalks. Then all was quiet.

To mark the spot, I scuffed the grass where I stood and walked to where the deer had been, found blood, and tied some flagging there. However, the deer had run in the direction of my truck, so I just stayed put for a while and, as darkness fell, quietly searched for additional blood sign. After the first 10 yards, there literally was none to be found. This was puzzling. The shot had felt and sounded good, but high vegetation had apparently swallowed up any sign -- including my arrow.

After 90 minutes, largely on my hands and knees, I had nothing else to report, except for a very close call with a confused young skunk. With moderate temperatures expected overnight, I would have to be out at first light to salvage the meat, so I decided to drive the 20 miles back to town to arrange for a substitute teacher.

While in town, I checked The Weather Channel and saw rain coming in. It would surely wash out all blood sign. So I grabbed some additional light and headed right back to the site.

As lightning in the distance provided an eerie backdrop, I resumed the search at midnight, but after two hours had found no additional clues. I decided to check the first few rows of a very weedy cornfield edge to see if I could pick up blood splashes on the yellowing leaves.

While pausing, I heard a long, low groan back toward the grass patch. Heading toward the sound, I walked right to my long-expired buck where he lay in the waist-high vegetation. The sound I'd heard was air being expelled from within the animal. It was after 2 a.m., and I was tired.

But more than that, I was ecstatic and thrilled to find the animal, which looked surrealistically big in the illumination of my headlamp. The four seasons of seeking, and then almost four hours of searching, had created a crescendo of hopes and dreams that were now realized in the tall grass not far from where I normally parked my rig.

The shot had been tight to the shoulder, a double-lung pass-through. The buck had run only 70 yards in the shape of a transposed '7,' and numerous times I had walked within 10 yards of him in the inky darkness. I took a generous number of photos on site, and then field-dressed and loaded him up. By the time I got back to town, it was 3:45 a.m.

When my father and I returned in the morning to take additional photos, I tried to analyze what the deer was doing out in that grassy strip, and I could only conclude that, as usual, he was doing things backwards. His stomach was full of undigested corn. I think he had been bedded and feeding in the corn during the day and was headed down to the riverbottom for the evening -- the exact opposite of most deer traffic on this property.

That wasn't the only thing backward about this buck. For the photo session with my father the morning after, I grabbed the buck's matching sheds from two years prior to include with some of the shots. The droptine was new, but I attributed that to age, as character points often appear once bucks reach maturity. The personality of the sheds -- the bladed quality to certain tines, the size of the brows, and the sweep of the beams -- were all a carbon copy of the buck lying before me.

However, the kicker point off the G-2 was on the wrong side, and the G-4 was on the left antler instead of the right. Can a deer's antlers do that? Can points switch sides? Or was this just a brother or a cousin? Even with my tag on him, this backward buck still has me guessing...

The author lives in Fremont, Nebraska, with his wife and two daugh-ters, where he writes a weekly outdoor column for the Fremont Tribune and teaches social studies and journalism at the local high school.

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