I never thought I’d shoot a BIG buck; the kind that turns heads of the most jaded of trophy whitetail hunters. And even though that buck filled my scope a year ago, it still seems unreal … like I’m watching it happen to someone else.
The closest thing to which I can relate the experience is what it must feel like to win an Academy Award. Like those Hollywood-types who hike up on stage to collect their gold statues, I see the privilege to take such a tremendous buck as my avocation’s highest honor. Yet when I dissect my role in all of it, I was simply fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to cross paths with that buck, and I managed to stay calm enough to steady the crosshairs behind his shoulder. Then my brain sent the signal for my finger to move the trigger the tiniest bit. That’s what I contributed.
Like the Oscar winners, my success in taking such a great buck was made possible by a long, long list of supporting cast without whom none of it would have happened. So this “NAHC Whitetail Pursuits” edition serves as my “acceptance speech” to credit all of those who made taking this great buck possible.
You—As a North American Hunting Club member, North American Hunter reader and “NAH-TV” viewer, you deserve top billing. Your membership makes my job possible, and with any other job, I wouldn’t have been in that stand that day. So thank you, thank you, thank you!
Hunt Hosts—First and foremost under this heading has to be Thompson/Center Arms and its President Gregg Ritz. Not only do they sponsor our TV show, but they control Game Trails, the 12,000-acre property on which the buck lived and grew. Ritz and his team had the foresight to lease the largest piece of privately owned, contiguous land in all of Kentucky. Then on top of that they established a state-of-the-art deer management program, first with North American Hunter Field Editor Larry Weishuhn, and now under the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).
During the late summer and early fall of 2006, T/C and QDMA conducted the largest-ever trail camera survey on the property, amassing 40,000 photos and volumes of records of the deer that live there. And of the 167 different bucks estimated to score at least 150 Boone and Crockett Club points that were photographed, many trophy-class bucks seen by 2006 hunters—including my buck—were never photographed!
The hunt itself was what has become an annual gathering of outdoor writers and TV crews at Game Trails Lodge. T/C, Nikon Sport Optics and others invite the group down to take their best shot at the property’s nearly unbelievable population of free-roaming deer. With an unofficial gross score of 181 6/8 B&C points, the buck that came my way is the second largest taken to date on the property, and the biggest ever taken there on tape. Larry Weishuhn shot a buck there in 2005 that unofficially grossed 185, but he did it the day after his cameraman went home!
Directors—Camp Manager Dirk McTavish and guide Grant Shouse recommended that television producer Ernie Lanthier and I sit in a ground blind that particular mid-November afternoon. In the morning, Ernie and I hunted from a different blind in the timber overlooking a bottom near the river that flows through the length of the property. We saw some tempting bucks, but not the one we were after.
While we were hunting, Dirk and Grant were in a boat on another section of river, scouting and doing security work. As you can imagine, on a chunk of property that big with that many top-end bucks, trespassing and poaching are always threats. As they drifted, the crew spotted two big bucks within a 200-yard stretch of riverbank. The first was chasing a doe, but the second was bedded with his head down and eyes shut. He looked like he was “in for the day” after a long night of harassing does. This buck had it all with mass, height, lots of kickers and even matching “hooks” on the outside of each main beam. They drifted silently within 150 yards. In hushed voices, they quickly formulated a plan.
When we all met at the lodge for a quick lunch, Dirk pulled Ernie and I aside and told us what they’d seen. “If you guys want, we’ll put a brush blind on the downwind side of the corn field near that riverbank. The timber is really narrow there, and you’ll be about a quarter-mile from the buck. If he comes out before dark, he almost has to cut the corn field where you’ll be able to see him.”
Dirk’s excitement easily rubbed off, so before we’d crushed the crackers in our soup, our hosts left to quickly build a brush blind and leave behind a couple of chairs.
Mentors—It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving—Wisconsin’s traditional deer opener. So as Ernie and I situated things in our new blind, locked the camera on the tripod and settled in to wait, memories of hunting with Dad in Wisconsin crossed my mind. Though I wasn’t in our home woods, I could still feel his presence. When I get that feeling nothing gives me greater confidence, and there was an indescribable anticipation that something big could happen under those cloudy skies.
As the hours wore on we saw a few deer, mostly does, but also small- to medium-sized bucks, and I fondly remembered past hunts with my campmates, especially Larry Weishuhn. I recollected the time Larry quietly and patiently talked me through the moment-of-truth on the first really big buck I’d ever shot, a 155-class 10-pointer taken in Texas with a .30-30 Win. T/C Contender pistol.
Life Lessons—Oscar winners always share how participation in “the project” changed their lives, and taking this buck certainly changed mine. The two most important things I learned:
1. You can’t take a truly big buck if you shoot the first good buck that comes along. When you’re taping a deer hunt for television, it’s easier said than done. If you pass an opportunity at a good deer and come up empty at the end of the hunt, you’ve wasted the time and money of your production team, sponsors and hunt hosts. Understandably, they all want every shot to portray success with their involvement. At GameTrails, we saw several good bucks as expected, prior to the big boy showing up. It was a calculated risk letting them walk, but this is a place where “Mr. Big” could show up at any second. If I’d pulled the trigger on one of those good bucks, I never would have had the opportunity to take this great buck.
2. When the real buck of a lifetime comes along, forget about the antlers once you decide to shoot. This deer was on camera for almost 2 minutes, angling toward us across a picked corn field, before I took the shot. A glance through the binoculars confirmed I was going to shoot this buck. From that point on, I concentrated on doing the things I needed to do to take him cleanly on camera. Ernie watched him getting closer and closer through the viewfinder while I raised my rifle, settled on the shooting sticks, estimated the best place to try to stop the buck and all the rest. I never looked at or thought about antlers again.
Through the scope I watched the buck take the hit and then I analyzed the shot. When the buck disappeared over a small rise, Ernie let out a war whoop and hit me on the back so hard I nearly went out the front of the blind! I reloaded and walked to where the buck disappeared; I was concerned because he hadn’t dropped in sight. Ernie diligently followed with the camera, and I could tell he was more excited than I’d ever seen him.
It wasn’t until I was crouched behind the buck and started counting points and handling his massive antlers that the excitement hit me again. When I took the shot, I knew it was a really good deer, but I had no idea how good! Had I let myself “look at the horns” during the time the buck marched toward us, I might have been so rattled that I would’ve missed even that easy 55-yard shot.
TV Producer—Over the years, Ernie has been a frequent hunting companion and campmate, and I’m glad it was him at the controls when this buck sauntered into the viewfinder. Ernie knew very well how big this deer was from the second he spotted it. He got on the buck and stayed on him to produce dramatic footage for “NAH-TV.” After the buck was down, Ernie was as shaken as me. In fact, in our excitement we knocked the camera off the tripod and into the muddy corn field. When Ernie picked up the camera, the mirrors from inside the viewfinder fell out in tiny shards. Several days of taping were still ahead, and Ernie did it with the broken camera. It meant when a deer was moving left to right, in the viewfinder it moved right to left! Somehow, Ernie compensated and pulled out all the essential footage we needed.
Last But Not Least—The memories of that hunt will be relived in my mind likely every day for the rest of my life. The good Lord put me there for a reason that will unfold in the deer seasons still ahead. Perhaps it was as a reminder of how many people truly play a role in every success story.