Fear. It was the only emotion I felt as I stood in a tree scanning the Iowa landscape. I was flat-out scared.
What if Lefty shows up? Will I be able to keep my promise?
Every time I heard hooves in the leaves or spotted a brown body, I was terrified. Please don't be Lefty. Please.
Finally, after two agonizing days, I just couldn't take it anymore.
"Josh, I'm just not tough enough to pull it off. I have to hunt elsewhere."
"I understand," my host said. "We have some really good bucks here, but if you need to hunt some of Aaron's property, that's fine."
But this story is not about me. It's about a very special whitetail buck, and it began in the summer of 2010 when bowhunter Tyler Gray discovered an image of a unique buck on his trail camera. He excitedly showed the photo of a buck with a forked droptine to his hunting buddy Josh Dornbusch. Because the buck had a large split in his left ear, he became known as "Lefty."
"The first time either of us actually laid eyes on Lefty was later that fall," Josh recounted. "I was hunting a cut cornfield and he came out of the trees grunting after a doe. That night, I called Tyler and told him about my encounter. The next afternoon he went to another stand 400 yards from mine. Lefty showed up, but once again he never got close enough for a shot opportunity."
The two bowhunters were fired up about the buck, but they never saw him again that fall. No sightings. No photos. In the summer of 2011, they captured a single grainy trail camera photo of Lefty. The droptine was gone. He had only a couple tiny stickers off of his right beam. They hunted hard for Lefty that entire fall but had zero encounters.
No sightings. No photos. How could such a buck disappear so completely in agriculture country? Josh became obsessed and committed to hunting Lefty exclusively. That takes discipline when the buck you're hunting is a ghost. But then€¦
"In the summer of 2012, Josh and I were driving out to the farm to put up trail cameras," Tyler said. "We spotted a bachelor group of bucks up on a hill, and Lefty was standing in the middle of the group! We couldn't believe what we were seeing. He had become a mega-giant with three huge droptines!"
The two ultra-serious whitetail hunters quickly put up a trail camera about 200 yards from where they saw Lefty. The very next morning the big nontypical walked past that camera, tripping the shutter, but something was wrong.
"His pose was very alert," Josh said. "I think he either spotted our trail camera or smelled where we had walked in to place the camera. We never got another photo of him at that location."
The two bowhunters then got even more serious. They took their aerial map of the area and started drawing lines between every location where they had either spotted Lefty or got a trail camera photo of him. They put up a trail camera where the lines intersected, and the strategy paid off.
"The following week we had him coming past the camera on a regular basis," Josh said. "So, we started fanning the cameras out on the various trails to find out where he was coming from, and we got a few more pics."
Josh and Tyler hunted hard that fall, as they always do, generally hunting together; one the shooter, the other the cameraman. They were hoping to capture footage for Working Class Whitetails, a production company partially owned by Aaron Volkmar, who also owns Tails of the Hunt, an outfitting business that operates in Iowa and Missouri.
This is where I came into the picture. I'd drawn an archery tag in Iowa and had a hunt booked with Aaron. Josh and Tyler heard I was coming down and graciously invited me to hunt on their lease, but with one stipulation.
"We have several really good bucks on this property and you're welcome to hunt here, but if Lefty shows up, we have to ask you to pass on him," Josh said.
I knew that was coming. I would have been surprised if they didn't make that stipulation. Why would you pursue a monster buck for several years and then let someone else hunt him? The only consolation was they had trail camera images of some other really good bucks, one pushing 180, that I could tag given the opportunity. So, I agreed to let Lefty walk. But I did so with a lot of emotions, trepidation being the primary one.
What if Lefty — the buck of a thousand lifetimes — walks out and stands broadside at 15 yards? I thought I could be satisfied with just being in the same section as Lefty, or maybe even getting the chance to see such a spectacular deer or get some video footage of him. I was wrong.
So, after the two days described earlier, I had to leave.
"If I pass on Lefty and you or Tyler kills him, I'm good with that," I explained to Josh and Tyler.
"But if I pass this monster and he gets hit by a truck or shot by a neighbor, I will jump off a bridge. Thanks so much for the invite, but I just can't hunt here anymore."
I felt bad, but to be honest, I was afraid of what I might do if Lefty gave me the shot. The temptation was just too great. Maybe that makes me evil, but this was not just any buck. This was the buck.
So, off I went to hunt with Aaron. Within three days I killed a beautiful 150-class 10-pointer, and I was a happy bowhunter as I drove to Kansas for my next hunt. But I thought about Lefty every day. I really hoped to get word that Josh or Tyler had arrowed the giant.
Several days later, while still in Kansas, I got a text from Josh. Tyler couldn't hunt that day so Josh had a different cameraman with him. They had planned to hunt just the morning, but Lefty came in to their setup at 11:15 a.m., chasing a doe, which bedded just out of bow range.
The monster buck stuck around until 5:30, keeping an eye on his doe and running off all challengers. At one point Lefty chased a smaller buck to within 21 yards of Josh, but a branch blocked the shot. Whenever the buck was distant and distracted, Josh called Tyler on his cell and kept him updated on the action.
"I was so scared the wind would betray us," Josh recalled. "Plus, there were two kids on dirt bikes not so far away, and a combine was working the cornfield next to us. Lefty's ears were swiveling like crazy. He knew where every sound was coming from but didn't leave that thicket for five hours.
At one point Lefty bedded down, but he kept close watch on a forky that had bedded right under us. At sundown, two young eight-pointers and two does came out of the corn while Lefty was raking a tree. He ran over and stole those two does, got his doe up, and they all ran off.
We'd had nothing to eat or drink all day and were physically and especially mentally exhausted. But I was happy to get the footage and happy to be able to get down without spooking Lefty."
Remember, this was a buck these two hunters had seen with their own eyes only four times — twice in 2010 and twice in 2012 — a trend that continued. Josh and Tyler did not see Lefty again that fall, even during the muzzleloader season.
After the season they searched for days and miles for Lefty's shed antlers. One day, Tyler's mother found the left side, so Josh immediately went to that area to look for the right side. As he walked in he kicked up two bucks, a nice 10-pointer and Lefty, still wearing his right antler. It has never been found.
In the summer of 2013, the question of whether Lefty was still around weighed heavily on their minds. If he was still alive, would his antlers be even bigger, or would he decline? Once again the trail cameras went up. The net was cast. Then, just three weeks before the bow season opened, Lefty showed up on a trail camera but he looked quite different.
Instead of dropping off his main beams, his nontypical points jutted out the back off his G-2s. It was like he had two sets of antlers going in opposite directions. He was still impressive, but he was not quite the buck he was in 2012.
Once again, Lefty had survived all the perils that whitetails must endure. He'd avoided getting smacked by an automobile, taken down by coyotes, shot by poachers, or killed by a rival buck. He was still on their lease and ready to be hunted with the same resolve and determination that had kept the two bowhunters amped up for three years.
Then, on September 28, Josh and Tyler were using their ATVs to get to their hunting area and hang the last stands in preparation for the coming rut. As they cruised along the creek, Josh smelled something. Something dead.
"I turned around, went back, and asked Tyler if he smelled that," Josh recalled. The two of them jumped off their four-wheelers and went down to the creek to search for the source of the odor. They split up, one up the creek, the other down. It wasn't long before Tyler found Lefty stretched out in his last bed.
"I just followed the strong smell, not knowing what to expect, but Lefty was the last deer I was thinking about," Tyler said. "As soon as I saw those tines I knew it was him. I also knew it would hit Josh hard. For two years he never picked up his bow for another deer. He was committed to Lefty and now it was over."
Tyler yelled for his buddy, and when Josh saw the decaying buck, his face lost all color.
"After getting that first whiff, I instinctively knew it was Lefty, although I hoped it wasn't," Josh said. "When I saw him lying there, I had many emotions. My first thought was my bow season was over before it even started. I feared he might end up this way so that was sad, but I was also happy because we had found him.
Tyler told me I could now start bowhunting deer again. In some ways it was a weight off my shoulders."
The game warden was called so they could obtain a salvage tag and legally claim the antlers. The buck's condition was so poor the cause of death could not be positively determined, but the game warden said it was fairly obvious that Lefty had succumbed to the current scourge of the whitetail world, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, otherwise known as EHD.
This is not an isolated incident. This story of Lefty represents hundreds of similar stories across whitetail country. In nearly every state that harbors the midge that spreads this deadly disease, dedicated whitetail hunters have lost some spectacular bucks.
Sadly, it seems the largest bucks are hit hardest by EHD. The current theory is that mature bucks with large blood-engorged, velvet-covered antlers are more easily bitten by the midge that transmits the disease. It takes about two weeks for EHD to present itself, often just as the bucks are shedding their velvet, and within two days there is severe hemorrhaging in the lining of the esophagus and stomach. The animal seeks water but dies quickly, often ending up dead right in the water.
It's nearly impossible for Josh and Tyler to find any sort of silver lining in the story of Lefty. Yes, they have to move on, and can now look forward to finding another buck to obsess over. The search is on for a "new" Lefty, but it's difficult to say if they will ever see his like again.
As for me, there is a silver lining. I'm grateful that Lefty never walked by me during those two days of dread. Had this great buck stood broadside at 15 yards and I'd kept my promise to let him walk, I'd be looking for a bridge about now.
Josh Dornbusch (left) and Tyler Gray, hold the remains of Lefty, a buck they had watched for four years. The elusive whitetail buck was adept at staying off the grid, but he could not escape the bite of the midge that transmits EHD. What a waste of a spectacular animal.
Every bowhunter dreams of a droptine buck, but this is ridiculous. This is Lefty, a great Iowa buck, at his peak in 2012.
This grainy image is the singular piece of evidence of Lefty in 2011. His forked droptine was gone, replaced by several short stickers. Was Lefty going downhill?
This image (above) was captured in June, the day after Lefty was spotted for the first time in 2012.
This is a still image taken from video captured on November 9, 2012.
Lefty disappeared after Nov. 9, 2012 and didn't reappear until caught on camera in Sept. 2013. It's likely he was infected with EHD in this photo.
Lefty's last set of antlers grossed nearly 240 inches.
The two images to the left show Lefty in his last bed in a creekbottom. Mother Nature can be ruthless and cruel.
This is the 2010 debut photo of the buck that became known as Lefty.