The Legend
of Cowhorn

One hunter’s quest for a Nebraska camp’s fabled, unkillable buck

After dinner I overheard the guides talking. They were worked up about something. Apparently, one of them had seen Cowhorn.

“Who’s Cowhorn?” I asked.

“Dude, Cowhorn is a legend.”

Since they’d first seen Cowhorn, years ago, the buck had only ever grown a spike on his left side—a heavy, sweeping dagger, like the horn of a cow. His right side, meanwhile, was so enormous that any hunter who saw him, no matter how discriminating, let fly.

Cowhorn, the guides said, was the most shot-at buck in the camp’s history. During the previous fall alone, when the 6-year-old deer was already declining, hunters took no less than 11 cracks at him—all with scoped rifles, a couple under 50 yards.

Not one shot parted a hair.

“That buck can’t be killed,” one of guides said flatly.

Suddenly, I really wanted to hunt this deer. The guides warned me that he’d gone way downhill since last year—wouldn’t score much now. That didn’t matter. I wanted Cowhorn.

***

The wind pushed curtains of light snow across the Nebraska prairie outside the window of my box blind. It was 300 yards to where the wood’s edge dropped to the riverbottom. Through the binocular, I spotted a horse’s body with a deer’s head. The buck was bedded 20 yards into the timber. I could see the white sheet covering his back, and could just make out a dusting of flakes capping his forehead and fringing his ears and antlers. Then I saw the long, curved horn.

It was a makeable shot, but I waited. Eventually, Cowhorn stood up and vanished behind a wall of brush. Ahead of him, a doe stepped out and fed into the meadow. It was the peak of the rut.

“Get ready,” said my guide, Caleb, sitting to my left.

Suddenly the storm picked up. Then, through the screen of parachuting flakes, in the footsteps of the doe before him, the buck stepped onto the prairie.

“That’s him. That’s Cowhorn,” Caleb whispered.

The guides had been right the night before; now that the buck was standing in the open, I could see through the scope that his rack wasn’t very impressive. But its configuration was unmistakable.

“Two hundred and seventy-five,” said Caleb. “Whenever you’re ready.”

I knew I’d made a good shot.

“You hammered him!” yelled Caleb, who’d been watching through his binocs and saw the deer mule-kick before crashing, tail tucked, back into the woods. He lowered the optics and snapped his head at me, incredulous. “You just killed Cowhorn! I never thought it could happen!”

There was no blood where the buck had been standing, but that didn’t worry us. We got on the scuffed tracks and followed them a short ways over the prairie, to the edge of the timber. That’s where I glanced up—and stopped dead.

Down on the riverbank, not 40 yards away, stood Cowhorn.

There was no doubt about it. The late sun had turned the river’s surface into a glittering pane. Perfectly silhouetted against it was the buck’s clean, tall-tined right side—and that crazy, heavy hook on the left. Only the rack looked bigger now.

Before I could make a shot, Cowhorn was gone. He might as well have sprouted wings and flown away.

At the bank there wasn’t even a hint that the buck had been hit. No blood. No missteps in his tracks. Caleb and I walked back up to the prairie, back to the beginning, to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Weaving through a patch of low pines, we practically stumbled on the dead buck.

His right side, sticking up above the snow, had four clean points; the left was jammed under a blowdown. I grabbed the rack, Caleb lifted the log, and 1 inch at a time, we unsheathed a long, curved dagger. We stood there, perplexed. Nothing made sense.

But then we took a closer look. The rack was too small, and the long, sleek body wasn’t that of a grizzled survivor.

“Oh my God,” said Caleb. “You killed Cowhorn Jr.”

***

Caleb felt bad that he'd let me shoot the wrong buck and kept apologizing. But I was happy—even a little unexpectedly so. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’ve got a hell of a story to tell back at camp.”

Once he knew he was off the hook, he relaxed and couldn’t help expressing what he really felt. Which was O.K., because I was feeling it, too.

“Dude,” he said. “Cowhorn lives!”

Chislic

1. Chislic

Come butchering time, the guys gather around the meat pole. A few wield knives, turning the animal into meat. Others pass cold beers, or a bottle. And someone is manning a pot of bubbling oil. As steaks and roasts are flayed and wrapped, chunks of the trim meat go into the fryer. There’s no preferred cut; whatever is getting sliced at the moment will do—shoulder, brisket, even a scrap of loin.

Chislic was imported from Eastern Europe by South Dakota’s early immigrants and is now a deer-season staple across much of the U.S. Cooked until crispy on the outside, yet pink in the middle, the morsels are typically picked from a glistening pile with a toothpick or calloused fingertips. A hit of flavor comes next—maybe a little garlic salt or Lawry’s seasoning. A dip of ranch dressing isn’t unheard of, or a dash of Tabasco. But never ketchup! Make that gaffe, and you’ll be the new target of the camp’s pranks.

Dave's Buck

Dave’s Buck

At deer camp, the best buck is often somebody else’s

I was just about to check in with Dave via radio when the shot rang out in front of me. It had to be him! I held off for a few minutes in case he needed to make a follow-up shot. While waiting, I thought of the “old Indian rule” he was fond of reciting: “One shot, one deer. Two shots, maybe one deer. Three shots, no deer.”

Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted into the radio: “Bucksnort, do you have a deer down?”

Nothing.

Three more times I tried raising Dave using his radio handle, and three more times I received no response.

I knew his radio worked. Earlier that morning I had called to ask if he intended to stay on the Snakebit stand all day. When he answered yes, I said I’d still-hunt the far end of the ridge, which might move deer toward him. He replied he’d be looking that way.

That Dave was on Snakebit was no accident. For the past year he’d been fighting for his life after being diagnosed with advanced-stage prostate cancer. He’d moved to Boston, where his oncologist and radiologist were based, and while he looked the same outwardly, the treatments had sapped his strength.

Still, there was no way he’d miss deer camp, he said, or break the tradition he’d started. Every year, on the eve of the rifle-season opener, Dave cooks steamed lobsters and clams, which ensures that we all get to camp on time no matter what else is going on in our lives.

Kevin, Neil, and I all insisted that Dave would sit the Snakebit stand, which despite an unlucky start (hence the name) had become the closest thing there can be in Vermont to a consistent buck producer.

Dave protested. Neil had gone the longest without a buck, he said. Neil should get Snakebit. But when Neil refused, threatening that no one would sit the stand, Dave relented. The three of us agreed that if Dave shot a buck, whichever one of us was closest would hustle over and drag it out for him. We each hoped to be that person.

When I stopped to radio Dave, it was to let him know I was only about 300 yards from Snakebit and was going to swing wide so I wouldn’t contaminate the area with my scent.

But when he failed to reply to my post-shot calls, my mind went from wondering what kind of buck he might have downed to what the heck had happened. Did he fall? Collapse?

I jacked the cartridge out of my rifle’s chamber and ran to the stand. When I got there, I found Dave standing over a 4-pointer, which he was about to field dress.

He saw the worry on my face and arched an eyebrow quizzically.

“I’ve been trying to get you on the radio!” I said.

“Oh, sorry,” he answered, nodding back toward the ladder stand, where his jacket hung from a limb. “I left it in my coat pocket.”

Suddenly Kevin came crashing in, followed almost immediately by Neil, brows streaming with sweat. They’d been monitoring their radios and had the same look of worry on their faces.

Dave eyed each one of us, and the depth of our friendship seemed to sink in. There was an awkward silence, which Kevin finally broke. “Tell us about your hunt.”

Dave did so in classic Dave fashion, taking the time to properly set the stage, not rush any details, and preserve the suspense. When he was done, we congratulated him and offered that he could dress the buck out and even carry the rifle of whoever was dragging it at the time. But if he thought he was going to so much as touch the rope, things would get ugly.

Dave nodded and smiled. No drag ever went easier, and no little forkhorn ever made four grown men happier.

Heavey Ghost

The Ghost Buck

Sometimes the deer you can’t forget is one you’re not even sure you saw

I was bowhunting at a friend’s camp in rural Virginia, where each day we left before dawn, returned after dark, and stayed awake just long enough for a drink, some canned stew, and a quick chance to tell what we’d seen. On the fourth evening, I was a little reluctant to share. I didn’t know the other guys very well—and I wasn’t sure what I’d actually seen.

About 2 miles from camp, I’d staked out the end of a ridge topped with chestnut oaks, which apparently put out a bumper crop of monster acorns every four or five years. This was one of those years. There were acorns, fresh rubs, and scrapes everywhere. I’ve learned to guard against deer hunting disappointment by not getting my hopes up too much. This was the kind of place that made that hard.

The ridge formed the highest point in the immediate area, and there was very little undergrowth. Twenty feet up in my climbing stand, I was convinced not even a mouse could stir within 100 yards without my noticing. This is not the sort of humility that usually serves a hunter well. After three days, I’d passed up a number of small-to-middling bucks. I felt sure it was only a matter of time.

Late in the afternoon of the next-to-last day, I spotted a deer headed my way. Foliage blocked his antlers, but it almost didn’t matter. Everything I could see—the too-short legs, the absence of neck, the kind of supple swagger—told me what I needed to know. I stood and began inhaling to a count of two and exhaling to a count of six, trying to steady my legs.

He was in prime condition and snuffling up acorns along a trail I only now noticed, which ran parallel and 5 yards downwind of the established runway. By now his rack was in view, and I looked just long enough to realize it was bigger than any I’d ever seen. His walk suggested that he was ready for anything—a willing doe or a clash to the death. But he was also calm, like he’d been here before and knew what to expect, sunk into himself like a seasoned boxer before a fight.

He was still unalerted and facing me at 20 yards when he stopped and raised his nose. I’d been dropping bull-thistle fibers all afternoon and knew the wind was good. I figured he’d caught the scent of another deer. The only cover in the otherwise open woods was a clump of bushes between two trees, just off the buck’s trail. Casually, as if this had been his destination the whole time, he drifted that way. Looking at the thicket, I thought it wasn’t big enough to hide the buck. It did.

But he was stranded. He couldn’t escape without being either shot or at least seen. I’d been on stand for five days. I could wait some more.

For the next 90 minutes I watched the thicket. Had he simply frozen in there? Had he bedded down? I breathed my legs steady. My rational mind stuck to its story. All the while, another part of me grew increasingly worried that my rational mind’s story might not be the definitive one.

Legal light ended with no sign of the huge buck. I inched down the tree as quietly as I could, my eyes never leaving the thicket. I turned on my headlamp. At least I might see him bound away, or if not, hear him. Inside the thicket I found the deer-size opening I’d expected. There were no prints, no hairs, no droppings, no bedding sign…and there was no deer.

I still have no idea how the biggest buck I’ve ever seen disappeared. On one level, it violates everything I know about the world. On another, it validates everything I know about the same place. One of the things I love most about hunting is when it reminds me that there are things in this world that are beyond my understanding.

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Heart and Eggs

2. Deer Heart and Eggs

Anyone with a buck on the pole gets to sleep in. Even better, they get dibs on the best camp breakfast: heart and eggs.

Preparations start the night before, as the heart is trimmed of fat, valves, and connective tissue, and then soaks in a light brine of salt, sugar, and water to draw out the blood overnight, leaving clean, crimson meat that can be sliced into steaks. Each side is cooked briefly, until the exterior is caramelized and the inside remains pink. Remove the steaks from the pan and add a bit of butter and a handful of forest mushrooms. As the ’shrooms simmer, whisk together a half dozen eggs and pour them into the pan.

If the smell of fresh coffee doesn’t rouse lazy campmates, the sound of the heart hitting the searing-hot pan will, and they’ll be ready to dig in by the time the eggs are done.

The Box-Blind Burglary

Always give the best spot to your wife, especially your pregnant, nauseated wife

On Friday evening, we told my family that Michelle was pregnant. My folks had been asking about a grandchild for eight years. Both of them burst into tears at the announcement. Mom, a teacher, immediately declared that she would be retiring. Matt, my brother, rummaged through his truck for a couple of celebratory cigars. Swisher Sweets.

The weekend-long, early-muzzleloader season opened the next morning, and the jubilant mood at camp was tempered a bit by the difficult prospect of hunting in mid-October under a full moon with the woods full of acorns. Matt saw a fleeting glimpse of a spike on Saturday afternoon, and that was the extent of the action for the entire day.

Sunday morning was forecast to be cold and clear, and so we began making our plans at camp that evening. Dad’s plan was simple. He was going to sleep in—a strategy that, he explained, hinged on our being quiet while getting ready. Matt was going to stick with the stand he’d been hunting.

Michelle wanted to hunt the box blind near camp, which is her box blind. It’s labeled as such. On the inside wall, it says, MISH’S BOX BLIND. Trouble was, she and I had hunted that blind together on Saturday morning and evening both, and we never saw a deer.

I knew the woods were full of acorns, and I told her that the ladder stand up in the timber would be the better bet. It hadn’t been hunted all season. I’d take one for the team and hunt the box blind myself.

Michelle wasn’t crazy about this idea. It would be cold in that ladder stand. More important, her bouts of morning sickness would be easier to endure inside the box blind.

But on my urging, she strapped herself to the tree 30 minutes before daylight, just about the time I was situating a pillow for my neck in the corner of the box blind.

The sun rose and began burning the light frost off the food plots in front of me. I heard a few distant shots on the neighboring farms, but all was quiet on the Brantley front.

Matt texted me at nine to say he was giving it 30 more minutes. I’d about had enough myself. I put my phone down and briefly contemplated eating the granola bar that had been riding in my pack since last October. I decided against it, in favor of letting it season for another year.

And then I looked up and saw him. A deer. A real, live one, with antlers. He was running flat out from the neighbor’s farm, straight toward the box blind. Someone had obviously jumped him from his bed. I got a good profile view of him and decided he was big enough for me. I stopped him and sent a bullet through both lungs.

When I walked up to the buck, I made a strange, nervous chuckle. He was bigger than I’d thought. He was, in fact, one of my best bucks ever, with 13 points and bases as big around as Miller High Life cans. He would have been Michelle’s, not mine, had she only sat where she’d asked to.

Fortunately for me, Michelle is a seasoned hunter and saw the humor in the situation. She looked at the buck, and said, “Congratulations, $#&%@!” Then she flipped me the bird as she walked back to camp.

Pranks

The Target Animal

If you miss two consecutive bow shots and your quarry never twitches, the problem may not be you

For several years I was part of a deer camp that met for the first weekend of bow season. Once the hunting started, we all went our solitary ways, as bowhunters do. But the evening before the opener was always a communal celebration of grilled meat, cold beer, gear prep, and hunting stories. My buddy Dave, a lanky and gregarious shop teacher, acted as emcee, recalling tagged bucks and whiffed shots with uncanny clarity.

One year the room fell silent as Dave excused himself to “run to town to grab some beer.” It seemed odd since we had coolers full of suds on the deck. But Dave was a beer connoisseur, so we gave him a pass and did our own gabbing until he returned.

Our other group ritual took place the next day at noon, as we gathered outside camp to recount the morning hunt. As we formed a loose circle, Dave stood front and center and described a spike buck that came whisker-close to offering him a shot. Then Pat, Dave’s childhood friend and our camp patriarch, leaned forward, his broad grin and shaking head promising a big tale. Dave was the first to ask how his hunt went.

“Well even before sunup, I just had this feeling that something big was going to happen,” Pat said. “And sure enough, as soon as I could see a bit, I spotted a real good buck.”

We all leaned forward.

“He was already within bow range and standing perfectly still,” Pat continued. “I wondered how I hadn’t bumped him when I walked in, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I think he probably heard me, and was just standing there, trying to figure out where I was.”

We nodded as Pat told how he’d carefully nocked an arrow and tried to pick a spot. “My nerves were shot by the time I released,” he confessed. “That arrow just took a dive and missed low and right. And I couldn’t believe it, because the buck didn’t even seem to hear the shot or notice the arrow. He just stood there.”

We all shook our heads.

“So I took a deep breath and nocked another arrow, and I told myself to settle down. I kept expecting the buck to jump, or spot me, or something. But he just stood there, perfectly still. I drew back, got anchored…and I sent the second shot right over his back.”

“No way!” I said. “What’d he do? He must have blown out of there after that one.”

Pat’s grin spread across his face. “As a matter of fact, he did not. Did he, Dave?” And tossing his bow to the ground, Pat lowered his shoulder, ran across the ring of hunters, and tackled his buddy to the ground, both of them laughing.

Dave, we learned, had gone nowhere near town when he’d excused himself the night before. Instead, he’d grabbed a 3D buck target, hustled off to the timber, and planted it 25 yards from the treestand he’d set up for Pat.

***

The prank has become legend, partly for how brilliantly Dave executed it—positioning the fake so Pat could only see the rack and the vitals—but also for Pat’s willingness to confess to every moment and emotion of the morning. He could easily have said nothing, or lied. Instead, Pat accepted that he’d not only been had, but skewered.

Our camp broke up a few years later. There was no drama or conflict, just a gentle drifting apart as life made us all increasingly busy and distracted. But I’ve missed it.

So when Dave recently called to suggest a reunion, I was all ears. I can’t wait to see how Dave will top his best prank ever. And I hope I have Pat’s class if I’m the goat.

Antelope Tenderloin

3. Grilled Tenderloin

Only hours after the shot, the tenderloins hit the grill. It’s a tradition rooted in practicality. Butter soft, the thin strips of meat are too delicate to let hang. The outer surface dries too quickly otherwise, turning leathery. So necessity breeds ritual.

It’s also customary to share—to honor the animal and celebrate the hunt together. That may be with a buddy in the backcountry, with the strips cooked over an open fire at the site of the kill. Or at the traditional deer camp, with the meat hitting the grill as guys return from the evening hunt. Preferably the fire is charcoal, though propane will do.

Seared quickly, over high heat, tenders develop a rich, flavorful crust while staying a deep red, almost maroon, in the center. After a brief rest, the meat is sliced into medallions, sized so there are enough of them for everyone at the table. Passed on a plate, they disappear quickly, leaving behind a thin pool of juices reserved for the shooter to sop with a slice of white bread.

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Cold Comfort

Cold Comfort

At this bitter Canadian camp, the goal is not merely to succeed, but to overcome

When you go into deer camp in Saskatchewan in late November, you expect to be cold. It comes with the territory. But when you’re staring at an ice-covered thermometer that has dropped to minus 13 degrees F, all you can think is How am I going to survive 10 hours on stand?

That first morning, as we all put on final layers before boarding our ATVs for a bone-chilling ride to each unheated stand, there was a lot of false bravado in the air: “Cold weather brings out the big bucks!” and “This will really get the rut in gear!”

Yeah, and I hear a snake can tap-dance once you get its boots on.

When I climbed into that ladder stand, I took off my watch. On a long vigil such as I was about to endure, there was no use staring at any slow-moving hands. Instead, I would keep track of time by watching how the shadows changed in the dense woods.

It didn’t take very long to figure out my insulated boots weren’t remotely up to the task, but that vicious cold snap did get the deer moving. And being able to see deer all day long helped draw my attention away from numb feet.

Back in camp that evening, we tore into hot soups and stews—anything to warm us up.

At breakfast, we devoured oatmeal, bacon, and eggs to stoke the fires for another long, cold day. By the third morning one guy at breakfast sat staring glumly at his coffee before saying quietly, “This isn’t a hunt; it’s an ordeal.” To which we silently concurred.

By the fourth day, as bucks began to fall, the successful hunters gratefully sank back into their bunks while the rest of us suited up and headed out in that unforgiving cold, a cold that relentlessly pressed down upon you like some ponderous weight. To make matters worse, the deer stopped moving.

That evening, as we sat at dinner, one hunter told us that when he walked toward his stand he saw a huge whitetail. “I only caught a glimpse of him,” he said, “but he was an absolute monster.”

Hope renewed, I began day five resigned to another long, cold day but believing that at some point a big buck and I would cross paths. I was also in the process of coming to grips with one of the most important hunting lessons of my life: You can hunt when you’re uncomfortable, but if you allow yourself to become miserable, you are done. I had come perilously close to the latter the day before, but somehow survived.

In Saskatchewan, a buck is not just a trophy. It’s an end to the ordeal. It’s a personal victory over misery. And the reward is getting to go back to camp—on your terms.

Funny how a shift in mind-set can change everything. Once I recommitted to the hunt, it seemed the deer were reenergized as well. All morning long young bucks moved in and out of view, chasing does. Just before noon, I saw something moving, slowly and deliberately, just out of range. It was an older buck using every bit of available cover as he moved toward a pair of does. He was definitely a shooter, but I had to wait him out.

When he finally presented just enough shoulder, I took the shot. Now it was my turn to sleep in.

Liver and Onions

4. Liver and Onions

The bane of children everywhere, and a favorite of the camp patriarchs, the deer’s liver is a camp delicacy that went out of favor for a while but has made a strong comeback since. As nose-to-tail eating has become the hottest culinary trend since the fondue party, a new generation of hunters is picking through the gut pile to save the edible offal, liver included.

City folks are apt to serve paté, but the hunter’s tradition demands a dinner of liver and onions, preferably on opening day. Liver is best fresh; shooting a doe or a young buck brings no shame to the hunter who’s providing the camp’s first meal.

The liver is carried to the cook like an offering, with hands still bloody from field dressing, so it can soak as long as possible in a bowl of cold milk before dinner. The preparation is quick. As the onions sizzle in a wide cast-iron skillet, the liver is cut into steaks, no more than 1/2 inch thick and dredged in flour seasoned with salt and plenty of black pepper. Then it’s directly into the pan to fry in bacon grease for just a minute or two so the slices don’t toughen. A couple of splashes of brandy—one for the cook and one for the pan—finish the dish.

Frontiersman

The Long Island Buckskinner

The most memorable part of this camp wasn’t any buck, but rather the man who never shot one

During the 1980s and 1990s there was a group of us who got together in South Carolina to hunt deer. It was a strange, polyglot bunch that involved a knife maker, a barber, an oilman, a couple of writers, and other odd individuals who drifted in and out.

We would gather for three days to get up very early, sit for three hours at a time in treestands, listening to the mosquitoes whining in the dark, and occasionally shoot the small, wary deer that wandered out of the brush into the soybean and grass patches.

The oddest of the bunch was a lawyer from Long Island. He was a good lawyer, because he had made a lot of money, but fate had not been kind to him. He was severely diabetic, small, frail, and cursed with abominable eyesight.

He was also a buckskinner. When it came time to hunt, he would show up not in ratty camo like the rest of us wore, but in the most beautiful beaded, fringed, porcupine-quilled deerskins I’ve ever seen. Hanging from his belt would be a knife by Daniel Winkler, and a possibles bag and powder horn that were works of art. I don’t remember who made his Kentucky rifle, but it must have cost as much as a car.

He never shot a deer. His medical problems made it impossible to sit still for as long as needed, and his eyesight made aiming down a flintlock barrel almost impossible. Periodically, he would get hold of a case of beer, which he was not supposed to have, and drink himself into a sweaty, waxen-faced stupor, which brought him right up to the edge of the grave.

At the time, I thought it was pathetic that this least able of outdoorsmen should dress up like Jim Bridger, but I’ve come to see that these hunts were his one chance to escape the prison of his body. By dressing in buckskins, he was able to forget for a little while what nature had done to him.

I wish he had shot a deer. I hope I would have had the class to clap him on the back and say, “Ya got him, pilgrim!”