November 03, 2021
By Mark Luster
Every whitetail hunter dreams of being able to hunt and harvest a giant buck. As an Illinois resident, my whole life, aside from my stint in the Marines, I have watched the quality and size of the deer herd diminish rapidly during the mid to late-2000s. So, in 2012, when I had the opportunity to relocate, I headed to Iowa to chase my passion for living with and consistently hunting giant whitetails. In my opinion, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should be looked at by all DNRs as the guide for how to correctly manage a whitetail deer herd!
Fast-forward to the spring of 2019. My son, Hunter, and I were combing side roads and looking at aerial photos for potential places to ask for permission to hunt. We came across this one particularly great-looking property, so I stopped and knocked on the door. The gentleman told me that he had a few people who hunted the property behind his house, but he did have another piece of land across the road that we were welcome to swing away on. I immediately pulled out my phone and looked at the aerial photo of the property. The landowner detailed the property lines, gave us a key to the gate, and Hunter and I were off to explore and shed hunt the new property.
The property was 200 acres, but only about 80 had actual cover, with the remaining land being crop fields. The acreage with cover had a creek running through it with deep ditch fingers feeding into the creek way. It did not take long to look the property over and know there had to be a big deer or two calling this place home!
When the summer of 2019 came around, it was time for the trail cameras to do their scouting. On the second card pull, we were looking through the pictures and I about fell over! There was not one big deer calling this place home — there were several!
As many hunters do, we decided on names for the big bucks. For this farm, we went with names of Greek gods. There was Hades, Poseidon, and Apollo. And then there was Zeus — the king of them all! Not only did the cameras show that he ruled the roost, but they also showed that he had a massive frame that would drive the Boone and Crockett score way up the ladder. Zeus was going to be the deer that I targeted.
After carefully combing over the aerials and putting boots on the ground, I knew where I wanted to get our stands hung. Hunter and I went in to hang stands and trim shooting lanes. We then sat back and let those sweltering summer days slowly get shorter and fade to the cooler weather of the fall. We kept tabs on the Greek gods, and as usual, when the velvet came off, there was a shift. We lost two of them; but two of them stayed at home. Thankfully, Zeus was one of them.
I do not usually get too cranked up on hunting until the calendar ticks later into October. I may hunt some evenings on the fringes of a big deer’s area, but I never really push my luck until that first cold front in late October. That is, in my opinion, the best time of the year to kill the buck you know. He is at home and is not stretching his legs yet, but the need to start the rut process can be too much for him to just stay in bed until dark. So, if there’s a cold spell and the wind is favorable, late October can be dynamite.
October came and went, and our cameras were taking considerable amounts of pictures of Zeus, but all of them were at night. So, I was hunting sparingly. But then, in early November, I got daylight pictures of him.
On November 15, 2019, I had a west-northwest wind, so I went to my favorite stand on the property. It was off the inside corner of one of the small CRP fields. There was also a deep ditch coming up from the bottom that ended about 30 yards downhill from me. Every deer moving through there was forced around the end of that ditch, making it the perfect pinch-point.
At 8 a.m., I heard deer running and looked to my left. There were four bucks chasing a doe right at me, and the lead buck was Zeus! I grabbed my bow and yanked it back. As is usually the case when being chased, the doe wasn’t on a trail and was halfway behind my tree. Zeus came to a stop behind her at 18 yards. This farm is riddled with honeysuckle, and I was struggling to find a clear shot. The doe was directly downwind and getting nervous. I squatted some and found my hole. I touched the trigger and heard my arrow hit Zeus. He whirled, ran 50 yards and stopped, at which point I could see blood on his side where I’d hit him. I was expecting him to fall, but when the doe ran about a minute later, Zeus let out a loud grunt and took off after her! I was heartbroken and confused.
I got down and checked the impact sight. My arrow was there, with blood on it no deeper than the broadhead. After looking around for a bit, I deduced that my arrow had been deflected by some unseen honeysuckle and merely “slapped” Zeus. To say that I felt defeated would be a gross understatement.
I hunted the rest of the year with no more sightings or pictures of Zeus. The neighbor had a few pictures of him, but none after mid-December, so I wasn’t sure that Zeus had made it through the winter. Early in the spring of 2020, I shed hunted hard but found no sign of him.
That summer I put my cameras out, anxious to see if Zeus was still alive and on the property. The first card pull was in late June, and there was Zeus! I am pretty sure people in neighboring states may have heard me yell! At that point, I was all-in on this deer. No matter what, it was Zeus or no deer at all.
My trail-cam pictures were very consistent all summer, and Zeus appeared to be bigger than ever! His tine length and mass were out of this world, and he’d thrown up a G-5 that he didn’t previously have. He was a shining example of why I had moved to Iowa.
October 28 dawned frosty, with a very light west wind. Conditions were perfect, so I decided that it was time to make my first real play for him. From what my cameras indicated, I thought that I had his bedroom pretty much nailed down. I was hunting a stand a few hundred yards from where I’d shot him the previous year.
At 8:30 a.m., a doe with twin fawns came through. Ten minutes later, I spotted a huge set of antlers coming along the opposite ridge. One look through my binoculars confirmed that it was Zeus. When it became obvious that he wasn’t on a path that would bring him by my stand, I grunted. He looked, but then he continued on his current path.
I picked up my rattling antlers, turned my body to shield my movement, and hit the horns together for a few seconds. I heard something and looked back in his direction. Zeus was running down the hill and bulldozing over everything in his way!
Before I could get the rattling antlers hung up, he had crossed the creek at about 40 yards and was looking up the hill in my direction. After pausing for a few seconds to survey the area, he then continued in my direction. I got the antlers hung up, grabbed my bow, and hooked up. And when Zeus ducked under one of those dreaded honeysuckle bushes, I drew back.
At 25 yards, he crossed where the doe had walked, and his nose hit the ground. He immediately turned to his left and gave me a quartering-away shot. I stopped him with a grunt, but as I squeezed the trigger, he started walking again.
As a result, my arrow hit a bit further back than I'd intended, but I instantly saw blood. I knew the shot was back on the ribs but midbody. It was surely a lethal hit, but I also knew patience was going to be the order of the day.
I sat down to try to collect myself and process what had just happened. Then I got my phone out and let my inner circle know that I’d just shot Zeus. I collected my things and lowered my bow, but just as I was about to climb down I decided to sit a bit longer and say a prayer to the Big Man Upstairs.
As I sat there talking to Him, I saw something two ridges over. I pulled my binoculars up and saw nothing, so I figured my mind was playing tricks on me. But about five minutes later I saw it again, and this time I was sure I’d just seen big antlers shaking. I pulled up my binoculars just in time to see Zeus stand from his bed, but he wasn’t well. He stumbled backwards, flicking his tail. At that point I knew he would not go far from that spot, but I was going to wait 24 hours before tracking him.
October 29 was cold and windy. I had my son and a couple of our close hunting buddies join in on the recovery effort. The plan was to go where I’d seen Zeus stand up, and then begin our search from there. As we climbed out of the ditch, just below where I’d seen the buck stand up, my buddy alerted me to a fair amount of blood. And as I looked over at him, I spotted Zeus lying dead just 10 yards away.
I was in no way prepared to walk up on that buck. With every step closer, Zeus just got bigger! I knelt beside him and was in pure awe of him. Of course, I knew he was big, but I don’t think anyone is truly prepared to walk up on a 209 4/8-inch gross typical set of antlers!
I snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook with the caption, ”Set the internet on fire,” and my goodness, did it ever! I’m truly blessed to have been able to even hunt a deer of this magnitude, let alone harvest one. To have my son and a few close hunting friends with me on the recovery made it that much better. Today, with all the bad things going on in the world, being able to deer hunt with my son and some close friends is a nice reprieve.
There have been many nights now since the faithful days of last October 28 and 29. And now when my head hits the pillow, I fall asleep not to dreams of a mythical buck I’ve never seen, but to vivid memories of a Greek god walking along a ridge in Southeast Iowa, about to make a 35-year dream come true!
The author is a correctional officer living near Burlington, Iowa.
I used an Elite Archery Energy 35 bow and NAP Killzone-tipped Carbon Express Maxima Red arrows. I also relied on Vortex optics.