How do you get lucky on big whitetail bucks? You serve your time at hard labor.
LEAVES CHATTERED IN a dawn breeze as Adam Hays raised his binoculars and strained in the faint light to see across a soybean field. He already knew what he was looking for. Several months earlier, his dog, Cody, which had been trained to find shed antlers, had brought Adam a shed right antler. This antler alone measured over 81 inches. Adam was looking for the deer that had grown that antler.
Adam Hays worked hard to get a shot at this Ohio buck.
Photo by Steve Gruber
Already, an hour before sunrise, the midsummer temperature was above 60 degrees, and it would rise to 90 by midday -- hardly a perfect day for sitting in a treestand. But Adam didn't care. Patience is one of his virtues, and he can accept endless hours on stand to catch one glimpse of a big whitetail.
As squirrels chattered in the pine trees only a few feet from Adam's stand, movement along a nearby fenceline grabbed his attention. Focusing his binoculars and craning his neck for a better look, Adam made out the form of a coyote at the edge of the field. The coyote paused briefly with his nose high in the air and then slipped back inside the wood line, possibly sensing something wrong. Adam felt a bit anxious. What had disturbed that coyote? Adam checked the wind. It was okay.
Another movement, this one much closer, sent his pulse racing again. A doe emerged cautiously, 10 yards behind him, taking a step or two and sniffing the air. Slowly she made her way into the beans, and within a few minutes other deer flooded the field. Looking over the 80-acre field, Adam could count more than 20 deer feeding in clusters of three here, five there. They were feeding early to avoid the midday heat.
Adam continued to watch, and as the sun's first fiery brilliance sneaked through the leaves, he glimpsed a buck. Still in velvet, the 21?2-year-old buck's antlers were growing well. He will carry on Ohio's proud tradition of giant bucks, Adam thought. He just needs to grow another season or two.
As the sun climbed above the trees, three more young bucks made their way into the field. Then, after more than two hours on stand, Adam saw a huge buck emerging from a small swale in the middle of the field.
He's been in there the whole time, Adam thought as a smile spread across his face. He studied the buck only a few seconds to know he was looking at the source of that 81-inch shed.
Standing alone in the field, this buck differed greatly from all the other deer. He dwarfed them in size. His attitude was different. With two big splits already visible in the velvet covering his massive rack, he would soon be carrying close to 200 inches of polished bone.
Adam Hays placed a Stealth Cam trail camera about 200 yards from his stand. This portrait was taken the same day Adam tagged the buck.
Late that morning, driving the back roads to his home outside of Columbus, Ohio, Adam could not shake the vision from his mind. He had watched the buck and recorded him on video for nearly 15 minutes. This was the deer of a lifetime!
A WALL AT ADAM'S HOME bears 12 whitetail buck heads with racks measuring well over the Pope and Young minimum -- testament to Adam's dedication in pursuing trophy bucks. But he hasn't always been "lucky" on big bucks, and two things occurred to improve his success: One, a few years ago he made the decision to begin studying deer year-round. He scouts on foot, studies maps, watches from treestands during summer -- whatever it takes to learn more about the deer in his area.
Two, he taught his chocolate lab, Cody, to search for and retrieve shed antlers. Cody has been a constant companion to Adam for more than a decade now and has dozens of sheds to her credit.
With these changes, Adam went from the occasional success to an odds-on favorite every fall, and that's the story here. Often, when people see pictures of a successful hunter with a beautiful buck, they think, "Wow, I wish I could get lucky like that." They miss the point. Yes, Adam enjoys unusual success, but he's not lucky. He simply works very hard at hunting, and what the photos of his bucks don't show are the hundreds and thousands of hours Adam has put into scouting, glassing, walking whitetail habitat, shed hunting with Cody, wondering, and thinking about how to take a particular deer during the upcoming season. In short, Adam puts in his time at hard labor, and it pays big dividends. If you consider that lucky, so be it.
When Cody returned with the 81-inch trophy antler in the dead of winter, she delivered more than a souvenir -- she delivered Adam's marching orders for the rest of the year. He studied maps, talked to landowners, leased ground, and set his sights on what he was sure was a world-class whitetail. And if he wasn't at work, he was glassing for deer, videotaping, sitting in observation stands, or shooting his bow.
In fact, by midyear Adam was consumed with the pursuit. After that first summer sighting, he spotted the deer three more times by September and had narrowed the buck's home range to less than 100 acres. The deer's range included the soybean field, where he fed regularly.
Then came the darkest days of the year. "He just vanished," Adam said somberly. "Days turned into weeks, and he just wasn't there anymore. I thought he'd been hit by a car. Or, worse, he'd been targeted by a local poacher."
A week before the season opened, Adam's fortune changed as he caught sight of the buck in the soybean field. In fact, he saw him on three different days just prior to the opener.
By the morning of October 4, opening day of archery season, sleep had become little more than a theory to Adam. Restless, he was up early and slid into his stand more than an hour before sunrise, and he maintained his vigil all day. He saw more than 15 deer, but the buck never appeared. And he remained invisible during the entire first week of the bow season. Dark days were setting in again.
But on the evening of the seventh day, Adam's dedication began to pay off. As the sun hovered just above the horizon, the giant buck appeared 150 yards away, directly beneath one of Adam's other stands.
The cat-and-mouse routine continued for another two weeks. The buck appeared on occasion but never in a position where Adam could even consider taking a shot.
Finally on October 22, as the buck entered the field, 200 yards away, Adam took a deep breath and went to work with his rattling antlers. As the huge buck began walking toward the treestand, Adam's heart was pounding, and when the deer came within 10
0 yards, Adam set the rattling horns down.
But it wasn't quite time. The buck came only within 50 yards -- so close, yet well beyond responsible shooting range. As the light faded, the buck again vanished into the trees. Well after dark Adam quietly lowered his bow, backpack, and rattling horns and walked slowly back to his truck.
"I was doing everything right," Adam said later. "The deer had never spooked and had never been run out of the field. He just wouldn't make the critical mistake. At least not yet."
ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26, the buck again appeared late in the evening, at 5:20 p.m., as he joined more than a dozen deer already feeding in the field.
"He entered at about the same place he had four days earlier," Adam recalled. "But this time things just seemed different."
In place of the rattling antlers, Adam grunted loudly with his call. The strategy seemed to be working as once again the buck closed to about 50 yards.
But again he stopped. Deciding to push the issue, Adam turned his head and grunted lightly back into the trees. The buck responded and began walking right at the stand. Gripping his bow, Adam knew this was it'¦
As the deer approached within 40 yards and was still coming, Adam's blood pressure soared and his mind raced. It was time to focus on the fundamentals, time to concentrate on picking an aiming spot.
At 30 yards the buck still offered no shot, and he was circling downwind to figure out where the grunt had come from. When the deer entered a shooting lane at 18 yards, Adam came to full draw, settled in, and released.
The arrow hit just behind the left shoulder. Stunned, the buck bolted deeper into the beans, and Adam's heart was pounding so hard he could hardly breathe. The buck sprinted 35 yards, stumbled, and crashed to the ground. The shot had been perfect. Hard work had paid off.
"As I walked up to the deer my hands were still shaking," he said. "I just could not believe it all had finally come together. It was just amazing!"
A few weeks later the buck was officially scored, netting an impressive 2022?8 nontypical. It may in fact be the buck of a lifetime. But with continued hard work and the help of a good dog, Adam Hays very well could get lucky on other bucks of a lifetime in the future.
Steve Gruber is President of Wolf Creek Productions, which produces three programs on The Outdoor Channel, including "The American Archer."