For the trophy whitetail of a lifetime, try looking right under your nose -- or in your heart.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this encounter was the unique context. The seven-acre tract of land I was hunting happened to be the same tract of land my house sits on. The land is located between a major interstate and the city limits of a small community in Northwest Arkansas. On August 28, I was amazed as I looked out my back window to a small food plot to see a fantastic nontypical buck feeding in the clover.
My trail camera captured the Dagger Buck on the quarter-acre food plot in my backyard. Nearly two months later, I captured the amazing buck with my bow.
I have been a serious archer and bowhunter since the ripe age of nine, and this jaw-dropping sight made the gears in my head grind into a new buck-hunting paradigm in a matter of minutes. As if by divine revelation, I finally confirmed what I had always believed -- mature bucks will live wherever food, water, security, and does exist, even if this combination is brewed in your backyard! Immediately I scratched my plans for the fast-approaching bow opener. I would now invest my season into hunting this buck.
For the next 33 days, until the October 1 opener, I glassed the food plot every morning and evening hoping to see the buck again. The biggest twist of the story occurred on September 20 when I spied what I thought was the huge nontypical entering the plot for the third time since August 28. However, as I glassed this buck I realized he was a different nontypical with heavy, palmated antlers and a long, leaning brow tine. Yes, I had two monster bucks using my quarter-acre food plot! Overnight my very own property, which I had never seriously considered hunting, had turned into a megabuck buffet. I had to poke myself with a broadhead to make sure that I wasn't dreaming!
To kill either of the bucks, I knew it would take a combination of good fortune and some well-executed bowhunting fundamentals. Without the ability to maneuver stands over a larger property, my options for stand placement would be slim. I doubted that the bucks would make many daytime appearances in the food plot during the season, and my plan naturally formed into one concrete strategy: Be in the tree. My only chance for success was to simply wait the bucks out during the season. Due to a nonexistent mast crop, a group of does had become regulars in the plot, and I felt confident that one of the bucks would eventually show during the season. I knew that going after the suburban bucks would take some serious dedication and time. I had been waiting my entire bowhunting career for a shot at a buck of this caliber, and I wasn't going to let this backyard opportunity slip by me.
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Typically thought to be a rookie mistake, my only option appeared to be to hunt the same stand day after day. I would gamble that I could control my scent, plus my entry and exit routes, well enough to hunt undetected. The big buck might make only one daytime hunting-season appearance in the plot, and I planned to be in the tree when the show started.
The first fundamental to be considered was scent control. As the first day of the season rolled around, I had developed a scent-elimination strategy that I used every single time I went to the food plot, without exception. The strategy was simple: clean body, clean clothes, and clean breath. I knew that one error in scent management resulting in any spooked deer would dramatically decrease my odds. I used a reputable brand of scent-free laundry detergent, body wash, and odor-eliminating spray for field application. Every single time in the treestand I was double scent-locked with a carbon base layer under a carbon outer layer. I chewed chlorophyll odor-reducing gum every hunt. The result of all this? I felt like a ghost walking to the stand every morning.
Stand placement was also a critical aspect of scent control. My stand was 25 yards into the timber from the plot and 25 feet off the ground on the prevailing downwind side. The topography sloped up behind the stand. Any deer approaching from that side would be at eye level at 40 yards and directly downwind. However, on the gentle and consistent slope a steady wind would flow parallel to the ground for some distance, blowing my scent over the deer. I felt confident the stand was in the right place for any wind.
To my amazement, these three deer lived almost in my backyard. From left are the Dagger Buck, the first buck I saw, and the road-killed buck.
Next came undetected entry and exit. Critically, I could not alert the does that used the plot, period. My best strategy was simple because my options were limited: every single hunt I would be in the stand a full hour before legal shooting time and use a flashlight sparingly. I'm convinced the does often bedded within 50 yards of the foodplot, yet to my knowledge I spooked only one deer while entering.
Finally came the most vital principle of all: Persistence. I had arranged my schedule so I could be in the tree almost every morning, and I planned to hunt until I killed one of the two bucks -- even if it took the entire season. Bowhunting persistence is the ability to develop a strategy and consistently execute it without compromise. I'm not suggesting an inflexibility when it comes to hunting tactics, but I am saying that you must be able to discipline yourself to be consistent with the critical elements of a particular hunt. Persistence in the fundamentals minimizes human error that comes with shortcuts. I knew that to kill one of these mature bucks, I could not take any shortcuts, because I had nowhere else to hang a stand if I blew this one! I would simply have to be in the tree the one t
ime one of those bucks showed -- and I was willing to gamble my season on it!
Now, back to October 18. The weather was so warm and windy I had almost convinced myself not to hunt. Being 100 yards from home sounds like an easy hunt, but the mental challenge was amazingly difficult. During my 15 mornings on the stand, I often wondered if I was wasting my time and my valuable season. Even after seeing the big deer in the preseason, I was amazed at my temptation to go hunt our lease 15 miles away. However, I had to stick with my plan -- to be in the tree.
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Ten minutes after legal shooting light I decided to try a rattling sequence and some aggressive grunting. This would be the first time I had ever called from this stand. After making the sequence I sat down with little confidence anything would respond. About that time I heard a distinctive twig snap 30 yards from the stand in a very thick area. I had never seen a deer enter from this direction, but with the first flash of antler I knew he was the second buck from September 20, which I had named Dagger because of the long, leaning brow tine. The buck quickly paraded through my shooting lane and disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
I waited with my eyes glued in the direction he had gone, and for 15 minutes I watched anxiously with little hope he would return. Then, as if he had planned his exit and reentry, the buck miraculously reappeared, heading toward me on the same trail he had left on! At 40 yards out I could see only his massive main beams and sticker points everywhere. Instinctively I intensified my focus. He was NOT going to walk through my shooting lane again without the phhhwwwwwit! of my bowstring launching a lethal arrow.
As the buck got closer he detoured from his original path, and his new route put him broadside, 15 yards from my stand. Without thinking, I drew and released, and the arrow passed completely through the buck, causing him to stumble to the ground as he spun to flee. With his flag down he ran out of sight, but I had no doubt he would be down. The excitement and gratification I felt was hard to describe. The feeling had to have neared the pinnacle of human emotion -- truly amazing!
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Immediately I called my father-in-law, Steve Schultz, and another good friend to help me with the recovery. After a 200-yard blood trail we spotted the downed buck in a briar patch. Sporting an amazing display of palmated antler growth, the buck had 21 points that totaled a gross measurement of 1685„8. For Arkansas, this was a bona fide whopper bow buck, and for me he was the trophy of a lifetime.
I watched for the other big nontypical all season but never saw him again. Throughout the whole winter of 2007-08 I scoured the land looking for his sheds but never found them. My burnt boot leather did produce the skull and antlers of another monstrous buck I had never seen alive, a unique nontypical killed on the interstate 300 yards from my property. During the summer and fall of 2008, I was disappointed that the other buck failed to show up on any of my trail cameras. He had simply vanished.
In the winter of 2008-09, work and family commitments prevented my doing any shed hunting until the evening of March 9, 2009, when, shortly before dark, I got a wild hair. With 20 minutes of daylight left I headed toward the timber near my house, and I had gone no more than 300 yards when I spotted a skull and rack protruding from the leaves. As I pulled the bleached, squirrel-chewed rack up I was in utter astonishment -- it was the other big nontypical from 2007. The buck had obviously died not long out of velvet and had been lying 300 yards from my house for a year and a half. I had a local taxidermist restore the skull and antlers to their original condition. Finding this trophy was the perfect end to the saga.
Success in bowhunting can be defined simply as achieving the goals you have set for yourself. We all set goals based on the many variables that affect us, such as family, work, access to property, personal preferences, and hunting experience.
In my 20 years of bowhunting, the main ingredient for my personal success, by my definition, has been persistence. On the macro scale that has meant coming back year after year and giving my best effort. On the micro scale it has equated to my willingness to be in the tree, day after day. Years ago, I realized that the most successful hunters may not be the most skilled or have access to the best property. They often are simply the most persistent in holding to bowhunting fundamentals. They're the ones who will always be in the tree.
The author lives in West Fork, Arkansas, with his wife and four children. He is also the director and founder of the newly formed Arkansas Black Bear Association.