Dream quest for an Ohio giant
The first trail camera pictures were jab-dropping. Was this really in broad daylight just 150
yards from the house? The early August pictures were clear as a bell, and showed in crisp detail the myriad of fuzzy tines from multiple angles and at multiple times of the day. A monster whitetail had taken up residence in the thick valley just west of the property owner’s house. Better yet, with the shift of many whitetail’s summer range from the alfalfa fields to their fall homes beginning, this meant he may be there to stay. Opening day was just 54 days away.
With 2020 being one for the books (in many not so good ways), the pre-whitetail season had been one as well, but in a very good way. My Ohio property trail cameras were picking up more shooter bucks than ever for this time of year on both properties I had permission to hunt, which gave me an incredible amount of confidence. Most years the rut is when I finally see a mature shooter buck, but this sixteen point,
so daylight active and so close to the house on my main property gave me good reason to think I may not have to wait that long. If he stayed, I would have a great chance of getting a crack at him the first day of season. Though years of whitetail hunting had taught me to expect the unexpected, anticipation was high. I prepped two trees over the small opening in the valley where he had showed at my mineral lick that would allow an easy approach and setup for most any wind. Additional cameras were set in a dragnet on all major trails coming out of the valley, and I anxiously waited for opening weekend when I would return to gather intel and finalize a game plan. Several hundred yards to the north on a hilltop field I had a feeder and cellular camera, and if he stayed where he was, I expected to get occasional pictures of him there as well. I left on August 5th and anxiously awaited them to pour in.
I never like to make assumptions, and kept expectations low the next month and a half. I kept busy preparing my locations on state land in Michigan and went through my gear list with a finetooth comb. Pictures began flowing in almost daily from the cell cam on the hill in Ohio, and with each one came the hopes of a glimpse of a buck with sixteen tines. But none came. “He must be staying within the valley and is showing on my camera there,” I told myself. I was sure I’d have new pictures on the other cameras in my dragnet to guide my precision strike at him on the opener now quickly approaching. The plan was set. I’d have the land owner pull all my trail camera cards two days before I arrived, and I’d check them the evening before the opener and set my plan based on this fresh intel. On September 25th, with my truck packed and a calm confidence, I made the five hour drive south to the buckeye state. Four SD cards full of pictures were sitting on the table when I got there, or so I thought.
“Dang it!” The dragnet had failed, and particularly the camera at the salt lick where all the early August pictures of the sixteen came from. It had not taken a single picture. All the other cameras around the valley had worked and taken pictures of various deer, but none were of him. This was a worst case scenario. I didn’t know if he was here or not, and the only pictures I had of him were a month and a half old. Was he actually still there and shootable? Had he wandered off and made another parcel his home? To further complicate things, a beautiful wide ten point I’d have gladly shot any other year had shown in daylight at another property two of the last three evenings. This made him shootable. This made things difficult. However, with the chance at a giant and all of the season in front of me, I elected to pass on the chance at the wide ten and put in time at the last known haunt of the sixteen: the valley just 150 yards west of the land owner’s house.
I took no chances at messing up this opportunity. Giants like this just don’t show up every year, let alone take up residence where you can easily hunt them. In the weeks prior to this anticipated first hunt, I had put all the odds I could in my favor. A new activated carbon suit, meticulous de-scenting of every piece of gear, storage to prevent any contamination, and thoroughly soundproofing every piece of gear were all checked off the list. When I climbed the tree in the predawn black that morning and locked in my saddle, the game couldn’t have been stacked any more in my favor. I was there, and I waited, but he never showed - the entire weekend. Maybe this was yet another tale of the “too good to be true” being just that. Maybe he had moved on. I reset all my cameras, put aside my high hopes of catching him, and waited to return in late October. There were other big bucks to go after, and although I’d give them all up to shoot the sixteen, experience had taught me focusing on one buck can lead to a mouthful of tag soup. I wasn’t sure I was willing to taste that.
Rain and low pressure had hit hard October 28th, but as I left the evening of the 29th the stage seemed perfectly set. Precipitation would end about an hour before daylight on my first sit of my long-weekend hunt, and with it bring a crisp high pressure system. I had the landowner pull my SD cards again the day before I arrived, with guarded hopes the sixteen had reappeared. However as I scrolled through hundreds of pictures on my laptop, hope faded. The sixteen point was a no show for the entire month. I decided then that the first mature buck (4.5 or older) I saw would probably get an arrow. I just didn’t have the time to hunt ghosts.
The weatherman, usually wrong, was dead on to the minute with his prediction, and the bucks responded accordingly. Like the cold front had flipped a switch, bucks were on their feet and cruising with purpose in broad daylight on Friday morning. That sit brought six good 3 1/2 year old bucks, three of which responded to my grunt call and came on a string to within twenty yards of my stand (positioned strategically on the bench of a East-West running ridge at a slight saddle). I passed them all, but this was a very good sign. With deer traffic all seeming to converge at the end of the bench west of me, so that evening I abandoned the permanent stand and made a move with my climber to the nexus of activity. My focus shifted from the sixteen to a wide nine point I had captured on camera several times in August and who also reappeared in
October. He seemed consistent, but I wasn’t sure if he was a shooter and hoped to catch a glimpse of him to see. The opposite was not what I had in mind.
I found the perfect tree at the end of the bench near a nob where bucks tended to bed, and prepared to climb a tall white oak dropping thumb-sized acorns. The mature timber was open, but a few branches were in the way for longer shots, so I took a minute to grab my shears and prune them. Setting down my bow, I went to work. Suddenly I was startled by a loud snort from just fifteen yards behind me and the sound of a running deer. As I wheeled to look, a huge wide 9 point bounded off and stopped about 80 yards away. It was him, and he was very wide! Grabbing my bow I knelt behind a tree as we stared at each other. He obviously had heard me and came to check me out, or been walking down the bench and almost run headlong into me. Either way, I was in the right place at just the wrong time. After a tense minute of staring and stomping, and me wishing he would venture thirty yards closer to check me out further, he bounded off with a snort. If I’d only been there a few moments earlier, or in the other stand. That was my only opportunity of the evening, and it left me wondering if that would be my best of the season. Experience told me no, things were just heating up.
The next morning I made the twenty minute drive to my other free permission property, a 35 acre piece of thick slash which gave great rut action every year. Messing up the chance at the
wide 9 didn’t feel good, but there were too many great bucks around to spend time beating myself up, and this property had at least five I wanted to see in hard horn. As the sun finally peaked over the hilly horizon, the frosty forest floor soon erupted in a crunching frenzy of buck activity. A steady flow of cruising 1.5, 2.5, and two nice 3.5 year olds paraded past my stand, with some hard chasing of a doe around and under my stand several times by both 3.5 year old bucks. Both responded to my grunt calls, coming back from their chase and standing in exactly the same spot at fifteen yards, just tempting me to launch an arrow. They were good bucks, heavy in the
body, but not ones to fill a tag on. A great morning nonetheless, and as I headed to the truck midday, a look at my cellular trail camera pictures revealed a fuzzy late night picture that got my attention. I couldn’t count them, but this buck had a lot of tines.
Back at my main property I planned a thick hillside hunt on an old oilroad just above where the August pictures of the sixteen were taken. It was also about 100 yards from the picture from the previous night. If he was back, I’d have a good chance to see him here. It was a good travel route between bedding locations on the property, with two mock scrapes directly in front of me I’d started in the summer. I was in by 1:30, and as the afternoon progressed so did the deer activity. Over the next several hours, buck after buck emerged from the thick valley below me and hit the mock scrape just yards in front of me. A six point, two eight points, the parade was steady. The stand being 15 feet off the ground gave me front seat to it all, including a 130 inch ten point working the licking branch for several minutes. He walked up the hill and looked back. Another difficult pass, but he wasn’t the buck from the picture. Not enough tines. About 45 minutes before dark another eight point pawed at the mock scrape, and then it happened.
The sound of chasing in the choked valley below got both our attention. Cranking my neck toward the noise behind me, a doe popped into a small opening and looked back. Deep grunting, and then the sound of a tree being trashed told me a big buck was only fifty yards away. A small bushy oak tree still holding all its leaves completely blocked my view and my heart raced in anticipation. All he had to do was follow the doe and I’d get a look, and possibly a shot. The eight point in front of me trotted down, and with his ears pinned back, disappeared behind the bushy oak. Expecting a loud clash of antlers I waited, but heard nothing but silence. Surely the bigger buck would chase off the eight, but a minute later the eight point emerged and followed the doe off. A bit surprised I waited the half an hour until dark for the other buck to show itself, but it disappeared like the last rays of light. I quietly got down and snuck the opposite way back to the house. I’m glad I did.
My cellphone lit up while eating dinner. A delayed photo from the cell camera just 100 yards
from where I was hunting and right at last light. It was him. The sixteen was back, and most likely the mystery buck from earlier in the evening. With one morning left to hunt, I knew this was my chance. He was here, and a week later might be a ½ mile away chasing a hot doe by someone elses stand. I had to strike now, the only question was where? With rain and wind in the forecast the next morning, conditions weren’t ideal but it was a no brainer. My stand just 35 yards from the cellular cam, which I hadn’t hunted this season, was the logical choice. It was just above the thick valley I now reasoned he called home, and within reach of heavy trails across a saddle which connected another property and bedding area. He had been at this stand twice in the last 24 hours, and as light slowly dawned, so was I.
Wind was up, but after a half hour it was clear it was not affecting deer movement. A small eight point passed perfectly on the saddle trail fifteen yards in front of me and disappeared into the valley below. A spike and fork converged in front of me, and the spike tackled a rub that he obviously had not made. The morning progressed and I wondered if I had made the right choice. Had he walked right by my other stand where I was the night prior? Just then something caught my eye. A deer about 100 yards in front of me was walking parallel and off the property, and from his profile all I could see were tines. Realizing it was him, I grabbed my grunt call and stopped him with a loud blast. He turned my way and started closing the distance, stopping at about 50 yards though and hanging up. I tried to range him and pick a shot through the trees, but realized that would be a poor opportunity. I had to get him closer. With a few deep breathes, I calmed my nerves and grunted again. This time he committed. Harshly angled toward me, and angling behind my stand, I cam to full draw at 35 yards. With each step he turned more broadside, and finally at 25 yards I felt he had turned enough and let the arrow fly. The hit looked good but a little back, and I watched him tear across the woods and disappear into the same deep valley where he had been most likely hiding the last few months.
The wind now brought a spitting rain, and after ten minutes I quickly got down to check my arrow and look for initial blood. After several minutes, I finally found the arrow about forty yards down the trail with only moderate blood, and what I saw on the arrow raised serious doubts. I knew he was slightly angled, but the sight of bile on the arrow made my stomach turn. A questionable hit, and I’d have to back out even with rain coming. Reluctantly I made a wide circle back to the fields and down to the house.
It was a tough wait but the right call. Rain started lightly, and then turned to snow as the temperatures plummeted. If he was dead this was good, and I decided I’d give him six hours then peak over the crest of the valley and scan for his body. If I didn’t see him, I may wait for the next morning. I passed the time by packing up some things and going to my other property and pulling my stand. Odds were he was mortally wounded or dead. Now I just had to find him.
At about two o’clock I cautiously climbed the big hill to the fields and looped to where I last saw blood. There was no blood trail, but the wind was up so this would help my cautious approach. If he was still alive, I may even be able to put on a stalk on and finish him with a second arrow. As I picked up the general trail he took down the valley I saw something black dart
across the field. “Turkey?” Easing closer to the cusp of the ridge, I peered into the steep valley below. Buzzards on the ground pecking at something - it was my buck.
As I jogged down the hill and the buzzards scattered I thought coyotes had also gotten to him, but fortunately as I got closer I could tell he was intact. The buzzards had pecked him pretty good, but he was only missing his left eye and a softball
size piece of meat out of his hams. Never had I imagined I’d find a deer due to buzzards, let alone after only six hours. His awkward position piled up into a tree into a tree revealed the shot was good an he expired quickly
just after my last visual as he went crashing down the hill. I was truly amazed. The sixteen point beast, that I thought had disappeared and would end up on someone else’s wall, was now filling my hands. And what a sweet sixteen he was.
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