MY SON JASON HAD COMMITTED his life to God, family, and country long before we had moved to our own ranch in Kansas. Although he had taken a few deer down through the years, he had never held the heavy rack of a Pope and Young buck. It always seemed that during the very best seasons, Jason, or Jake as I affectionately call him, would be assigned to a far-off duty station and unable to forge even the smallest bit of time. When last he found a week to be in the woods with his old man, the weather turned out better for sunbathing than hunting. So this year, with a deployment to war-torn Iraq looming in the not-too-distant future, his wish was simple:
“Hey Dad, how about putting me on one of those big Kansas bucks you’re always going on about?”
It became my quest to fulfill his dream.
The Quest Begins
Before the first rustling of fall breezes, my trail cams and my time in the tractor cab had both confirmed the presence of several fine bucks. I had narrowed their core area down to a half-mile of dense creek bottom. At times, the bucks could be seen venturing away a few miles to the north or south into adjoining crop fields, but they would always return in a matter of days.
I wished Jake could get here while they were in this easily patterned bachelor group, but it would be mid-November before he arrived. The bucks would be heavy into the rut by then, but given the high number of resident does, I felt the bucks would still use this area. I knew that with Jake’s limited hunting time, it would be better to hunt an area with multiple opportunities than to single out one buck and hunt only for him.
Well before summer’s end, I had hung the stands and cleared the shooting lanes. Always careful not to pressure the bedding areas, I had placed the stands on travel routes and natural funnels formed by the creek. While I planned and schemed, the days grew shorter, and soon I was waking each morning to find the browned-out prairie grass coated with a fresh layer of frost. My anticipation was palpable. As other friends and family began to make their annual hunting pilgrimage to our farm, I guarded the creek bottom where Jake would hunt as if it held the most precious of tidings, and in my heart it did. This would be his year, I hoped…
Dawn’s sleepy amber glow had just begun to relinquish its hold on the coming day the first time I saw the wide 12-point. He was a newcomer to our ranch. He broke from a heavy stand of white oaks and charged down and through a deep wash, pausing for only a moment at the edge of a small clearing I hunt at the east edge of the farm. With 70 yards between us and his profile backlit by the new day, he stood and surveyed the clearing before bolting through it and on into the tall CRP fields that surround the creek bottom reserved for Jake’s hunt. He moved with the swagger of the rut, the way a big, self-assured buck moves when he is on a mission and will not be deterred. I could only hope he would remain on the farm for the next few days.
Three days before Jake’s hunt started, I saw the 12-point buck again. He had run a doe from the creek bottom where they bed out into the CRP field. It seemed almost a choreographed dance, as they leaped in graceful arcs, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing again and again above the head-high sea of prairie grass. His heavy, wide rack was unmistakable as they glided in and out of the cover, always returning to the overgrown creek bottom that was her home. I had a stand not 200 yards from where they played, a spot where the heavy woods of the creek thin to no more then 25 yards and then widen back into a deep ravine. If the buck stayed in this locale and traveled between the two bedding areas, this would be the perfect ambush. But would he stay?
The Hunt Begins
Jake and his son — my grandson — Ethan showed up in the early afternoon during the passing of a northern Kansas cold front. Winds whipped the trees and a spattering of cold winter rain slapped against the cabin windows while I explained the events of the last few days to Jake. As he pulled on his raingear, I stood over him and coached him on what to expect and what he should do, as only a well-meaning but haughty parent can do. The thought of his arrowing the wide 12-point seemed more crucial to me then to him.
“I’m just glad to be here, Dad,” was all he said as he headed for the ATV, leaving his still jabbering old man on the porch giving instructions to no one.
A full hour of daylight remained that afternoon when I heard the four-wheeler coming down the drive. This could only mean one thing to Ethan and me. We broke from the front porch like racehorses from the gate, both straining to see the gray-brown silhouette of a deer tied to the rack of the quad, but there was none to be seen. Our beleaguered expressions asked the question before the four-wheeler’s engine had rolled on its last stroke.
“I shot under him,” Jake said.
“Was it the wide 12-point?” I queried.
“I don’t think so,” was all he said.
Outside The Box
We sat and talked it through for a short time before coming to the conclusion that we both knew would be inevitable. Although Jake was sure the shot had been low, he had lost sight of the arrow in the thick CRP grass where the buck had stood. Without a clean arrow to prove it, we owed it to the animal to give the area a thorough search to see if he had in fact hit the buck. We knew this would likely push most of the deer out of this area, at least for the next few days, but we had little choice.
A few hours later we returned to the cabin, assured that the deer was unharmed but disgusted that we would need to move out of the very location we felt was sure to provide Jake with a legitimate chance at a Pope and Young buck. I lay awake in bed that night, running over the scenario. I knew the bucks I had been watching would still visit the bedding area. But how would we get a
stand in there without running the bucks all out?
Each evening for weeks I had watched the does move from the creekbed out across the CRP and into the milo stubble to feed all night. And each morning, like clockwork, they slowly fed their way back to rest for the day. I remembered a small opening in the dense cover that I had discovered last spring while shed hunting. As I recalled, a sparsely wooded path followed an old oxbow in the creek right to that opening. There would be no chance to access it in the daylight without alerting every deer in the woods. But what about at night? I wondered.
Bolting out of bed, within minutes I had explained the plan to Jake and was rounding up a hang-on stand and some treesteps. With somewhat dubious hope and a small flashlight, we made our way to the clearing I had remembered, our ears tweaked to the sound of blowing deer. It never came. Jake held the light while I wrapped the climbing strap around the old elm tree’s trunk. Quietly I screwed in each step, careful not to take any unnecessary chances in the low light.
When the stand was secured, we turned to backtrack our way out and, looking down, we both saw it at the same time: Not 10 feet from the stand lay an impressive pair of last year’s sheds! We shared a smile and crept back to the cabin.
The Quest Realized
The next morning, a full hour and a half before first light, I watched as Jake’s camouflaged silhouette disappeared into the darkness of the creek bottom. He knew this hunt would last until nightfall or he had arrowed a big Kansas buck.
I passed the morning hours spoiling my grandson Ethan the way only grandpas can, always keeping a watchful eye toward the creek, hoping to see Jake striding back toward the cabin with good news. At noon, Ethan and I decided to take a ride to the store, and it was on that trip that my son’s text showed up on my cell phone.
Tech-savvy man that I am, I read the message with unbridled excitement — once my nine-year-old grandson showed me how to retrieve the text. You might still see dust in the air where I swung the pickup around to head back home.
As we wheeled into the driveway, Jake stood with a smile ear to ear and the crimson arrow in his hand. Twenty minutes later we hugged and jumped like kids as we stood over the 23½-inch-wide 12-point!
It seemed that just after daylight, the does returned to bed in the creek bottom not 50 yards from the new stand, just as we had hoped. Shortly after lunch, Jason heard the sounds of crunching leaves as the 12-point came onto the scene. He skirted the small opening we had hoped he would cross, but then he paused 35 yards behind the stand just long enough for Jake to find an opening to slip an arrow through. The shot was true, and the big buck only went 75 yards.
With a prayer of thanks and the click of a camera shutter, I sensed my quest coming to a close. But before I could find myself basking in the light of the achievement, I heard my grandson say, “Wow, Grandpa, I wish I could get a deer like Dad’s!”
The author proudly resides in Tipton Kansas.
Author’s Notes: Jake used a Mathews Q2 bow, Easton A/C/C arrow, Rage 3-blade broadhead, and a Cobra release. At this writing, Jake has just completed his second tour in the Middle East and has returned safely to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.