November 26, 2013
"Wow! That's a very, very nice buck," I thought to myself as I looked 150 yards up the edge of the cornfield.
Doing my best to hide my face behind my bow's riser, I watched an attentive group of three does and five brawling fawns gorge on oats and clover below my stand. The plot was hidden in a field corner, shielded by a big corn stand and a nearby woodlot. The wind was starting to get fickle, but the sun was at my back, keeping me undetected in the exceptionally sparse, two-row treeline.
The deer below me had no idea I was observing them, and thanks to my ozone machine, the shifting winds hadn't given away my location. But my arm was starting to ache. I desperately wanted to put my bow back on the peg and lift my binos to eyeball the massive buck. He was traipsing in and out of the cornfield, ever so slowly progressing toward my stand. It was November 2, and I was in great position to have an opportunity at an exceptional cruising buck I'd not seen before.
As the does ate their fill, they started to meander off one by one and I finally got to hang my bow and grab my glass to get a better look. The last sparring button bucks were now chasing after their mothers, eliminating the need to stay stock still. That was a good thing as I nearly buckled over after getting a good visual on the monster, now 120 yards away and closing€¦
I live in a state that grows a lot of exceptional whitetails. My second year of bowhunting here I was fortunate enough to take a beautiful 160-class animal that I smugly took to a local, prominent taxidermist, thinking I would have one of the better bucks in his shop. He barely acknowledged it as he took me to his basement shop. When I saw all the skulls in the rafters, from just that season, I was astonished — multiple 180 and 190 bucks, and some I didn't even know how to evaluate they were so freakishly large and bizarre. And this was just one taxidermist, in one little town! "My three biggest up there are from public ground," he said flatly.
I also hunt in an area that has a lot of highly skilled bowhunters, guys who know exactly how to play the game. They scout smart, hunt hard and intelligently, and do all the year-around tasks necessary to be successful on big bucks. Rarely does a good buck go undocumented for long where I live. Eventually word travels the circuit of the hardcore, with trail cam pics, sheds, and sightings as evidence. And there are also plenty of new hunters just learning the game, who are making animals aware they're being hunted, taking bucks that need a year or two to reach their true genetic potential, and yes, wounding some, all part of the learning curve.
Three years ago, while winter shed hunting, I came across a single right antler that was one of the biggest I'd ever found. What intrigued me most about the find was that neither I, or my hunting partner Ryan Olson, had seen the buck all season — and we hunted every weekend of the bow season as well as every day of the first two weeks of November. Where did he come from? Could we do something to keep this particular buck on our property?
That spring, Ryan and I set out on an aggressive bedding improvement project with hinge cutting, field prep for native warm-season grasses, and designs on an improved year-round nutrition program for the overall deer herd. We had silent hopes of providing the ideal habitat that Mr. Big would make part of his core area. That summer, a neighbor told me about the left side of a rack he had found that belonged to a buck known as Curly in his hunting circle. Various neighbors had also accumulated an impressive collection of trail cam photos of Curly in a three-mile radius of my farm. Curly apparently liked to roam.
In the late summer and early fall of 2011, we collected a number of trail cam photos of Curly and by October he was a regular resident with multiple pics scored each week, but with one interesting development: his left side was now nontypical, with a swooping main beam and an irregular G-2 with multiple kickers. I love non-typical racks, and I vowed to take Curly, which we promptly renamed the Freak, if given the chance.
That fall I had one good sighting of the Freak tending a doe at 45 yards from our Lookout Stand, but he was in tall bedding grass and never presented an ethical shot. One week later, I caught the Freak cruising slowly on a windy morning coming up over a ridge at 37 yards. But he was quartering to me and on high alert, so I elected to pass again. Ryan and I never saw him from a stand the remainder of the season. We continued to get photos of him after the gun and late archery seasons, but he had a busted up left side. We were elated he'd survived.
In March 2012, while pulling cards from hidden security cameras, we looked out into our main cornfield and spotted something white on the edge. My 10x30 Zeiss binos quickly confirmed that it wasn't blown over cornstalks — it was the Freak's rack — both sides!
Sheds Tell The Story
In 2009, this would have been a very difficult buck to pass on. These sheds were found by my hunting neighbor Jon Sarver on a nearby property. In 2010, pre-Freak was a serious trophy, and was wounded twice by unlucky hunters. By 2011, his rack evidenced signs of non-mortal encounters.
My neighbor John Hayes found six inches of carbon shaft completely healed over under the Freak's cape, and multiple other non-fatal wounds he overcame during his lifetime.
Aged to Perfection
When killed in 2012 sporting his best rack to date, the unusual three-point burst on the tip of his left main beam mirrored almost identically the same feature found on his right main beam in 2010. I estimate him to be at least 6.5 years old, and that's assuming the 150+ rack he sported in '09 was grown as a three year old.
This early October trail cam picture revealed that the Freak developed a nontypical left beam in 2011, the result of two previous wounds.
By early December 2011, he had busted off the irregular G-2 on his left beam; the Freak liked to fight.
A Perfect 10
Easily the most satisfying buck I've killed, this buck had everything I admire in a mature Midwest whitetail: mass, length, height and character.
The Stuff of Dreams
A host of surreal events led to my chance encounter with this embattled 17-point buck, known far and wide in our local hunting circles. He fueled many bowhunters' dreams and proved a nightmare encounter for others.
That spring we renewed our efforts on the bedding improvement plan, adding more warm-season bedding grasses to complement our now solid year-round nutrition program. We had high hopes the Freak, and a couple other young bucks that needed one more growing season, would all become permanent residents.
The summer of 2012 brought a severe drought to most of the Midwest, and while we have a year-round running creek on the property that all the wildlife uses, our crops and bedding grasses were badly stressed. Some late-summer rains managed to perk up the corn and soybeans, but we weren't getting any consistent trail cam pics of good bucks, let alone the Freak. By early fall we assumed the Freak had met his demise from coyotes, cars, EHD, poachers or old age, leaving only two good eight-points on our hit list. We saw both bucks in October, but hadn't sealed the deal on either one.
On the morning of November 2, Eric Price of Burt Coyote was giving me instructions on how to install his newest Lumenok F-Series into my super-skinny Easton Carbon Injexion arrow shafts. That job finished, I hit the road for the farm, noting the northeast wind.
We have a set I call the Boundary Stand, which is in a narrow two-tree fenceline. That summer I created a new access path to the stand with the help of Ryan, who protested loudly during the entire laborious, sweaty chore because he abhors the stand's location.
"This set is only good for one wind, and you can never sit down in that stand or you'll get spotted," he moaned. "This is a waste of time!"
He was right. About the sitting down part anyway. The Boundary set requires you to stand the entire hunt or risk getting picked off. Since I stand 90 percent of the time anyway, it's no hardship on me. But to appease Ryan I got a set of CamoFlex bendable, leafy tree branches to break up the stand's silhouette, and it worked amazingly well, hiding both the stand and the hunter.
As I settled into the stand and did some last minute rearranging of the CamoFlex branches, I hung my bow and proudly noted the awesome plot of oats and clover below me. Within half an hour, a group of three does and five fawns entered the plot and furiously began ripping at the Buck Forage Oats and clover — some of the last growing green vegetation on the farm.
The group got so close that I picked up my bow and held it at my chest so the limbs and riser would break up my upper body and face. Just then, the steady northeast wind began to shift and swirl. One doe jerked her head up and tested the currents, but my Ozonics was pumping out a steady stream of O3 that befuddled her best defense. That's when I noticed him 150 yards up the field.
My quick evaluation left absolutely no doubt this was the biggest buck I'd seen on the property in at least three years. Once I decide to shoot a buck, I quit looking at the rack entirely and focus solely on how to seal the deal. I had some quick decisions to make. Where I hunt, every mature buck has been rattled at, grunted to, and snort-wheeze challenged at least 30 times in his life — if not that season. More times than not, my attempts along these lines with our local buck population sends them packing. But it was November 2, and I thought he should be in the mood to respond to a challenge, so I grabbed the grunt call and let out a few soft grunts.
Predictably, this sent the big-racked cruiser straight away into the security of the woods where I could not see if he was coming or going. I cursed myself for not letting him work his way to me, and feverishly scanned the woods' edge with my binos. Minutes later, hearing no evil, the buck popped out to the edge of the cornfield and resumed his methodical nose check of the ground as he headed my direction. My heart was pounding over the realization that this might actually happen.
With my release clipped onto my string loop and the buck still 60 yards away, I planned when I would draw and at what distance I would shoot him. At that precise moment, the doe group that had left me 15 minutes earlier bounded out behind me into a cut soybean field, blowing, stutter-running and pounding their hooves for all they were worth.
What in the heck spooked them? I wondered. Coyotes? Dogs? They're going to ruin this perfect setup! Hearing all the commotion, the big buck jerked his head up, bristled his hair the length of his body, and began a stiff-legged march — in my direction! The antics of the does had also attracted a young six-point that now cautiously joined in behind the big buck as he closed the distance.
Between the food plot I was hunting over and the location of the bucks was a finger of standing corn, which the little guy saw as his chance to get ahead of the bigger buck. The Old Pro would have none of that, and he made a quick dash across the corn finger, pausing slightly before committing to leaving its security. He was now at 35 yards and quartering to me, and I had already been holding at full draw for 30 seconds anticipating his break from the corn.
As he hit the oat and clover plot I thought about shooting him at 34 yards, but the angle was too severe. I tried to relax in the valley of the draw cycle as the buck stood there stock still for a minute, his ears carefully panning for the location of the does. I was now shaking with anticipation and fatigue. The buck made stiff, deliberate strides in my direction. At 20 yards semi-broadside, I pulled back hard into my bow's back wall to stretch my burning arms, settled my pin, and let an Injexion fly.
The buck burst forward, following the exact center of the treeline, going away from me at warp speed. I collapsed into my treestand seat, grabbed my binos, and searched for evidence of the arrow and blood. As I studied the ground, I heard a vehicle coming towards me up the opposite side of the treeline from the direction the buck had run. Dumbfounded as to how the truck got there without me hearing it, I sat in stunned silence as it drove beside me across my neighbor's cut bean field. Did they see the running buck? Did they spook it into the next county? A young girl waved at me from the passenger seat as they drove off below me. I was so stupefied I could barely wave back.
After 20 minutes, I got down from my stand and found my arrow covered in deep-purple blood — a liver hit. I quietly assembled my gear, headed for the barn, and decided to wait until midnight to follow him up. After dinner and a long internal mental battle, I decided to give him until morning for fear of fouling up the recovery.
I was on the trail at first light, but it was a foggy, dew-soaked morning, and the blood trail was a lot weaker than I would have expected from a complete pass-through. Two hours later, I had barely gone 130 yards when the blood suddenly improved for 30 yards. It led me to a micro-cut grass tractor lane that required hands-and-knees inspection to stay on the trail. Three hours in, with my eyes burning and my head throbbing, I looked down a bend in the grass lane and saw antlers sticking up. I readied my bow and watched for any sign of movement. Nothing. I flicked my bow riser to see if that would make him move. Nothing. As I walked the remaining 30 yards to him and saw his complete rack, ground expansion occurred — a first for me.
Then it all came full circle. I was looking at the Freak! He no longer wore a non-typical left side, but a beautiful sprawling 17-point rack, the best set he'd grown to date! He died with his head tucked directly between his front legs, resting on his chin, all four legs tucked up neatly under him, as if he had been posed, totally peaceful and serene.
A flood of emotions overcame me as I considered all the work and effort I had expended over three years to finally kill this buck, and the unreal host of events that occurred the evening before that led to his demise. I was in just the right spot at just the right time when a series of events, at least 70 percent of which were totally out of my control, took place. The rest was purely fortuitous.
But maybe it was destiny? My good friend and fellow bowhunter John Hayes skinned the buck for me in his barn while we were taping some segments for BOWHUNTER TV. He called and said, "You're not going to believe this. I just found six inches of arrow healed over in his neck, and it looks like someone shot his front knee some time ago. And his back ham has an old shotgun slug wound, too!"
The buck we called the Freak, which grossed approximately 192 inches, survived a host of near-death encounters with hunters, and I'm sure innumerable battles with other bucks, coyotes, dogs and other rigors of deer life. He was well chronicled throughout his time, and he was lusted after by many who documented his appearances, triumphs, and travails. He was, in a word, Known.