November 26, 2012
Guided whitetail hunts aren't my thing. I love the process of scouting, hanging stands, and hunting. Quite frankly, I don't want someone else to do that stuff for me, which is the reason I've turned down hunt offers in the past. That changed in 2011 when Editor Curt Wells asked me if I'd like to join the crew from Mossy Oak and Under Armour for a whitetail hunt with Richardson Farms Outfitters in southern Illinois. I had an open schedule and thought it would be a nice break after two months of hitting the woods hard on my own.
On November 5, I loaded up my truck and started south. After picking up my cameraman Ross Farro in Quincy, Illinois, we drove east through a landscape that was very similar to the ground I grew up hunting in southeastern Minnesota. In other words, it was perfect whitetail habitat.
Once at the lodge we met up with fellow outdoor scribes David Draper and Jace Bauserman. Accompanying them were Tim Anderson from Mossy Oak, and Kevin Eskridge and Mark Kuhns from Under Armour. In addition to our group, there were eight hunters from New York in camp.
Brothers Tim and Jeff Richardson run their operation on 9,800 acres of premiere whitetail ground with a host of knowledgeable guides, but I was nervous as we sat down for orientation. The deer we were to shoot needed to be mature — at least in the 140-inch range — which is another reason I typically opt out of guided deer hunts. Personally, I like to be able to call my own shots, and if a deer gets me excited, I don't want to have to field-judge him or live in fear that he'll be too small.
However, as Tim explained the rules, he said, "We want you to shoot a buck that will make you really happy. It doesn't have to be a giant, but it has to be something you'd mount."
As soon as he uttered that statement an invisible but palpable weight lifted from the chests of his collective audience. At least we knew we had some breathing room, and I said right there that I'd shoot the first buck that caused my heart rate to redline.
And So It Begins
Ross and I suited up the first evening knowing full well we were going to deal with some precipitation. We loaded our gear into guide Steve Wilson's truck and drove to a farm that simply screamed whitetails. Steve pointed out a woodline and told us to follow it to the end where a double-stand set was hung. After settling in we watched a few does feed out of range, and eventually a young buck as he chased them through the field.
The following morning we sat the same stands. As the gray day dawned we caught a quick glimpse of a decent buck crossing through the field. His appearance and disappearance was so quick it barely registered, like witnessing an apparition passing through the hallway of an old farmhouse.
We climbed down for lunch and found out we'd be hunting a new spot in the afternoon. When Steve dropped us off, we walked through the still-green Russian olive trees to find a double-set located on the sidehill of a deep ravine. The view from the stands was awesome, and it seemed impossible that we'd blank in such a setup. However, other than a coyote padding his way through, we saw nothing.
The rain that was forecast to be long gone increased in intensity throughout the evening sit. When we returned, drenched and cold to the lodge, Ross showed me the viewfinder of his camera. The rain had messed the camera up and the viewfinder turned everything upside down. It was safe to say our spirits had been higher, but Ross went to work with a hair dryer to see if he could get the camera functional.
The following morning we scraped the mud off of our boots and climbed back into our stands. It was still raining, and the only deer we saw were two 1½-year-old bucks cruising the timber in search of an estrous doe.
To keep things fresh, Steve dropped us off at a new stand location for that evening's hunt. We slogged our way through another cornfield to find a ladder stand with a portable hung over it. The location was inside a field edge, but facing into the woods. Not far in front of the stands the land dropped away in another one of the classic ravines that cut their way through the Illinois landscape. It was an obvious funnel, and one of my favorite kinds of setups.
As the evening progressed, I eventually spotted a lone button buck working his way toward us. He browsed his way through the woods, and eventually worked a scrape 20 yards from our stands. It was comical to watch a deer that probably weighed 70 pounds soaking wet (which he was), instinctively paw a scrape and work the licking branch with his nubs. A few does entered the field late in the evening but that was it. I couldn't help but notice that Ross was spending a lot of his stand time staring into his lap. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too.
Two of the hunters from New York ended up scoring on beautiful 140 to 150-class deer, and Jace had also made a perfect shot on a decent-sized buck. The success of a few hunters can really buoy spirits in deer camp, but the continual rain did a good job of counterbalancing any good cheer. It's an interesting dynamic when you deal with a group of bowhunters (who are naturally optimistic), a cadre of guides who put major pressure on themselves, and the cruel reality of the downside of November weather.
Some of the hunters started sleeping in, some grumbling set in. Others, like Mark and Kevin from Under Armour, went the other way and decided all-day sits and a positive attitude were the best remedy for the situation.
After returning to the lodge, Ross and I shed our wet layers and hung them to dry. Ross's camera was acting up again, and he'd lost the use of the flip-out LCD screen. The news only contributed to the dismal situation.
From Bad To Worse
As soon as the alarm sounded it was evident the wind was howling. With gusts up to 40 mph carrying sideways sheets of rain, we knew we were in for another miserable sit. I donned just about every piece of clothing I had in preparation for the morning.
Ross and I leaned into the wind as we crossed the cornfield on our way to the stands. Once we reached the base of the ladder I set down my gear and walked to the scrape the button buck had worked. I dumped an entire bottle of Tink's #69 on the licking branch and in the wet, exposed earth. My thought was that if a cruising buck should catch us off-guard, which was very likely in wet, windy conditions, that he might stop long enough for me to get a shot off.
Before it was even light out I was shivering. Shortly after first light, I glanced in the open field behind us, and standing in plain view was a stud of a buck. I signaled to Ross that there was a deer behind us, and he fired up the camera. Unfortunately the buck caught me moving, and he "flipped us off" with his white tail as he headed in the opposite direction.
More Technical Difficulties
After watching the buck crest a rise in the field and disappear from sight, I slumped into the seat and felt Ross's hand on my shoulder. He leaned over and whispered, "Bad news, the camera is toast." He told me that when he tried to tape the buck, his camera would not stay zoomed in. Instead it would immediately zoom out to its full extent, creating a yo-yo effect every time he tried for a close-up shot.
An hour later I could feel Ross shuffling around above me. I stood so he could hear me over the blistering wind. "I can't zoom in unless I run the camera with two hands, and the viewfinder is completely gone," Ross said. "If a buck comes to the scrape and works it for a while, I might be able to get something. Otherwise, we have no chance."
Knowing we had been beaten by Mother Nature, I reached into my pocket for my phone and texted Steve that we were dead in the water and would need an early pickup. He immediately let us know he was on his way. Dejected, I threw a peripheral glance at the scrape and just about had a heart attack when I realized a nice 10-pointer was heading straight for it.
I slapped Ross on the shoulder and watched as his eyes just about popped out of his head. He brought the camera up and went to work with both hands. Somehow the buck stayed oblivious to our presence, and he gave us a show as he pawed the scrape and worked the licking branch.
I kept whispering to Ross for the go-ahead, but he couldn't hear me and I couldn't hear him. I chanced a sideways glance at him and he appeared to be taping, which made up my mind despite the fact that he had told me in no uncertain terms not to shoot without his green-light word — "kill."
When the buck finished working the scrape he turned broadside to me. I couldn't take it any longer and drew back, aimed, and shot. The buck mule-kicked when the arrow hit him and he took off over the lip of the ravine. When I asked Ross if he got it on tape, he giggled and said that he got the whole thing.
I hid my arrow from Steve, who had no idea we had shot a buck, and told him a depressing story of poor weather, camera equipment ill-suited for aquatic conditions, and a buck that walked right into our setup. Then I showed him my arrow and you could have, as they say, knocked him over with a feather.
The buck and the circumstances surrounding the hunt were an in-your-face reminder of why bowhunting is so special. It's a rollercoaster ride with the ability to nearly break you down while simultaneously building you up to a point higher than which you started. I know that as I drove that deer back to my house and subsequently butchered him in my garage, it was easy to look back on the past five days and marvel at how quickly bowhunting can change for the worse, or just often enough, the better.