Whitetail, U.S.A.

We found some enormous bucks in the center of America's whitetail range, and a family of whitetail hunters who cherish the land, its bounty, and how it holds them all together.

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On a satellite image, this little piece of ground–39˚33´16.49˝ N, 96˚25´56.87˝ W–lies slightly downhill of a knuckle of pasture grass and cedar shrub that juts into a Kansas alfalfa field, up where Pottawatomie County nudges toward Nebraska. The slope falls into a deep draw, timbered with thorned wild plum trees, exactly 1.32 miles due west of Kansas Route 99. This is big farm country, big pasture country, a three-hour drive from Kansas City, about 4 miles north-northwest of Blaine, once a bustling railroad stop along the Santa Fe line and now a near ghost town.

I had stared at the spot for hours. This land was either hallowed ground–or a colossal waste of my time.

To an American deer hunter, any place that harbors whitetails is a special piece of ground. There are places where deer are overpopulated, certainly, where folks hold a gardenia-grubbing buck in scorn. But to most of us, a patch of dirt with deer tracks is a seat of magic and a trove of mystery. That’s what I was thinking better than a year ago, and that line of reasoning led me to this: If deer hunting is special everywhere, then what about deer hunting at the precise, scientifically calculated dead center of the whitetail deer range in America? Would Deer Central hold a distillation of everything we love about chasing whitetails? Or would it be just a blip on a map, a meaningless spot generated by some inscrutable computer algorithm?

And could I even find it? That was the surprisingly easy part. Last summer I had a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist crunch current range data for the whitetail deer in U.S., using maps compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She e-mailed me a Google Earth satellite image marked with a bright yellow electronic thumbtack at the center of the range. There was no reason for surprise, really. It was planted in what is easily one of the best counties in what is arguably the best big-deer state in the entire country: Pottawatomie County in Kansas.

To be exact: 39˚33´16.49˝ N, 96˚25´56.87˝ W.

Next, to hunt down the landowner of America’s Deer Central, I spent three days on the phone, calling local town halls, chambers of commerce, and conservation officers. Finally, I hit pay dirt. I tracked down the closest taxidermist to Deer Central and rang him up.

“Lots of folks around here have really big deer–170s, 180s, you name it,” Scott Schwinn said. Schwinn also happened to be the local sanitation officer. He knew every dirt road in Pottawatomie County. I sent him my map, and he sent me a name: Robert Christener.

Of course, Robert Christener wouldn’t have known that his family had come to own and care for the spiritual center of deer hunting in a nation increasingly obsessed with deer. But long before he learned about Deer Central, he knew his land was special. The Christeners love to hunt, and they even manage a half-section of land where they put out preserve pheasants for a few paying hunters. “I want my boys to have a taste of what I had growing up around here,” Christener told me when I called him. “But birds are one thing. We don’t let anyone but family hunt the farm for deer.”

I kept the phone still and held my breath. Deer Central, it turned out, was just for family. And, just this once, for me.

**
Deep Roots**
On Nov. 11, 1869, Robert Christener’s great-grandparents made landfall in Kansas–in a covered wagon, family tradition holds. They claimed 160 homestead acres of rolling ground crosshatched with wooded draws, and over the years the family’s holdings grew. These days, the Christeners own four tracts scattered about Deer Central, and another 1,500 acres or so around Frankfort, Kan., 10 miles to the north.

The Christener family is as Heartland, U.S.A., as you could imagine: Robert is 53 years old, lean and boyish and rugged; a flap of brown hair peeks out from under his blaze-orange cap. His wife, Janet, runs a day care and is no stranger to a bolt action. They have two sons, Donnie and Mike, and a daughter, Melissa. They share farm chores. They dote over elderly family members. They say grace before meals. And they struggle with the challenges faced by rural families across the country.

The afternoon sun casts long shadows when I pull up to a white, two-story clapboard farmhouse to meet Robert’s boys. They’ve both come straight from work, and their differences are telling. Mike, 23, lives here and is just in from the farm. He is brawny and big and wears battered coveralls, mud-splattered boots, and a hooded sweatshirt. Donnie, 26, has just driven in from Kansas City, where he manages mutual funds for a Luxembourg-based firm. Gym-fit, he sports an outfit he’s anxious to change now that he’s home: black jeans, a black pinstriped shirt, and black square-toed shoes.

Mike tried college for a semester, at an agricultural school in Nebraska. “But I just can’t sit inside too long,” he says. “One day I was in class learning about how to drive a tractor and I knew that was it. I’d been driving a tractor all my life. I came home.”

Donnie’s horizons always seemed a little farther out than the Pottawatomie County line. “Mom and Dad always encouraged me to try something else,” he says. “They told me that the farm would always be here if I wanted to return.” But college and career have taken their toll. While Mike has filled a room with crazy-big deer, Donnie’s had few chances to score. The Kansas rifle season always seemed to coincide with college exams. Getting away from work is never easy. He grins sheepishly. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t shot a buck since high school.”

That’s putting a bit of pressure on Donnie, and we feel it the next morning, on our first hunt together. Donnie and I are 10 minutes from the truck when the worst possible scenario emerges on the dark horizon: Four does scramble to their feet, silhouetted against the sky. We hit the deck. We have another quarter mile to cover before shooting light, but we grind our faces into the dirt, pinned down on open ground near a pencil line of locust hedgerow. Donnie groans. “That’s exactly where we want to be,” he says.

Fifteen minutes later the whitetails bolt across the field into the broken cover beyond. Donnie and I take a stand on the field edge and wait for the sun, but I know the chances of a buck’s ignoring the fuss and stepping into range are nil and none. When we limp back to the truck after three hours of watching an empty field, our only solace is the fact that getting busted is perhaps the single most unifying experience in the entire realm of deer hunting in America.

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Home Ground
The next day, I have one of those ­could’ve-​­should’ve-​would’ve moments that haunt every deer hunter. Behind Mike’s farmhouse is a 60-acre cornfield, edged by a sharp bend in Clear Fork Creek. Across the creek, an overgrown pasture cloaks a gentle slope. There’s a thicket up top, a wide belt of oaks, and an ankle-deep trail of deer tracks scored into the bank. I’m hunkered down by midafternoon, back against a big oak, a cut cedar at my feet to break up my silhouette. In 36 years of deer hunting, I’ve never watched a more perfect deer funnel.

What blows me away is how rarely this spot is watched. Mike sleeps with his head on a pillow exactly 1,013 yards to the north, but he hardly ever hunts this crossing. I realize that I’ve brought my own baggage to Deer Central, expecting an obsession with whitetails that infuses every aspect of life. I find something like that. But it looks very different from what I’d imagined.

By and large, deer season on the Christener farm is embraced in a subtle fashion. Suddenly, one morning, blaze-orange vests appear on truck seats. Binoculars find their way to dashboards. Many locals hunt in whatever grease-grimed coveralls they wore to rebuild the combine thresher; in five days of deer hunting I will not see a single item of camouflage clothing other than my own. And guns are always at the ready. During the 10-day Kansas rifle season, rarely will a member of the Christener family travel farther than the woodpile without a centerfire within reach. Here, deer hunting is a seamless part of a day on the family land.

From my perch I watch a pair of does feed across the pasture slope, dark shapes like cloud shadows. Geese call overhead. About an hour into the sit, a spike buck bumbles down the trail, sparring with saplings, unaware of the crosshairs that rest on his ribs. I’m not tempted, but still my heart starts to pound. Then, as the last of the sunlight creeps up the trunks of nearby trees, a shape forms in the upper right quadrant of my peripheral vision. At first, I am not completely aware of it, only of a vague sense that another being has entered my orbit, and I realize that I am fondling the checkering on the gunstock with my index finger.

The buck slips along the pasture, just as I had hoped, and turns toward the creek crossing, just as I had planned. He stops, 70 yards away, nose to the ground, on a narrow gravel island. When the buck turns to the right I see that he is bigger than I first thought. The main antler beam extends almost to the nose, and the tines tower over his head. It’s a deer I should shoot, and I should figure out just where that will happen.

The whitetail steps behind a big sycamore tree, and I wait for him with crosshairs centered on the other side. For the next half minute I search frantically through the riflescope for an ear or antler or patch of white belly hair. But the moment is gone. The buck simply disappears into that unseen hole in the forest floor where deer often fall, and vanishes.
Later, Robert will smile and tell me about the side trail along the dry creek bed, the one that slips just out of sight beyond the gravel island. It’s a trail a hunter might know about, if this land was his land. It’s one that the buck knows, since this is his home.

Just Reward
It’s the next evening that it all comes together. The buck walked out of the big woods to the west of a cornfield where a long stone wall channels deer from one farm section to another. Donnie tells the story while standing in the field stubble, stars twinkling overhead. Robert and I have just driven up in Robert’s pickup, and Donnie’s words are still rapid-fire, still breathless an hour after a big whitetail went down.

When a single doe stepped into the field, Donnie and Mike, sitting about 5 feet apart, backs to the woods, exchanged glances and shrugged. _You think she’s alone?
_
When they looked back toward the field there were four does and one of the biggest bucks Donnie had ever seen. It happened just that fast.
“But I’ve always had a hard time judging deer,” Donnie says. Mike makes a face and nods. “So I looked back at Mike and his eyes were bugged out, and he gave me a little head shake like, Are you going to shoot that deer or what? That’s when I really knew what was standing out there.”

Donnie took two shots with a .270 bolt action, his arms shaking. The buck took a few steps and went down in a heap.

“Oh man!” Donnie says. “So there we were, high-fiving and whooping it up on the field edge, but you know you’re not supposed to walk out there right away. That was the really awesome moment. You know the deer is out there, lying in the stubble, but you really don’t know what you have yet.”
What he had was a brutish 11-point buck, wide racked and neck swollen, with a single hole in the shoulder.

Robert and I follow the brothers in Mike’s truck to the Christeners’ sprawling farmstead a few miles away and pull up to a soaring barn shoehorned between feedlots and corrals. It takes a tractor to unload Donnie’s trophy, and as the headlights wash across the barn interior they light up another pair of big Kansas whitetails. There’s a 10-point buck Janet shot two evenings ago when she and Robert were getting hay for the cattle. Her deer hangs beside a 12-point beast with split brow tines that Mike shot the next morning. He saw the whitetail while ticking off farm chores.

It is impossible not to feel a bit envious. This is a trio of monster whitetail deer, and Donnie shot his buck not 300 yards from where I had been snookered by my own Deer Central buck. The whole family comes out to marvel. Mike drapes his heavy hunting coat around his sister’s shoulders, and I feel my outsider status keenly. The Christeners are warm hosts, but this is a family moment, a time to remember.

Inside, around the dining room table, we chat about Robert’s side business hauling cattle, and Melissa’s upcoming volleyball schedule. Janet has fixed pot roast, plates piled high with steaming vegetables. As I hold hands with the Christeners while Robert says grace, I can hear the mama cows shuffling in the feedlots outside. With my eyes closed I see the three Christener whitetails hanging in the barn, towering overhead, each one the end of a winding trail leading to one special place, and I tell myself that this is how it should be.

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Ticking Clock
Two days later I hike across a half mile of CRP grass as stars streak across the sky, and burrow into a frost-sheathed haystack. It is 14 degrees and everything is right: the wind quartering in my face, a killer setup commanding a half dozen wooded draws. Everything except for the complete lack of deer.

I’m halfway through a five-day hunt, and I haven’t seen a mammal in three hours. Dejected, I drive back to Mike’s place, warm a pot of five-hour-old coffee, and plop down in the living room to make myself feel better with a giant bowl of Cap’n Crunch. This doesn’t work, either. I am surrounded by reminders of what could be.

On one wall, there’s a huge 11-pointer with a branched brow tine, next to another 11-point buck with midbeam mass fat as a cottonmouth back home. Directly over my head: 12- and 14-pointers. Framing the door to my bedroom: a soaring 10-pointer with overlapping main-beam points and a garishly tall 12-pointer with a triple-branched G2. Whoppers are propped in corners like forgotten mops. The TV stand looks like a voodoo supply closet: skulls and antlers in a heap. Within 20 feet are 20 sets of whitetail antlers so large that most American hunters would carry their photos around in their wallets.

“I like ’em with some character, I guess,” Mike said earlier, trying not to smirk as I gawked at his dropped-tine, branched-tine, misshapen-beam trophies.

I take a drive down to Hofman Farm Supply, in nearby Blaine. Back in the day, Blaine sported a bank, hotel, stockyard, grocery store, and bar. “This was a real community,” Elaine Hofman says. “Folks thought we were really something for a while.” Hofman has run the store with her husband for 37 years, since the day after their wedding. These days, the old farm-supply store is mostly stocked with auto parts and tires, a reflection of the lack of farm business here once the railroads literally pulled up the tracks. Dressed in packer boots and a snazzy red jacket with a Christmas tree brooch, Hofman is tickled pink to hear about Deer Central. “It’s remarkable that we’re noted for something up here. The town’s just about all gone now.”

It seems that the changes and challenges facing the Christeners are reflected in what’s happening elsewhere in Deer Central. This rolling, pastoral countryside keeps a tight grip on the hearts of its residents but has a harder time holding on to the people themselves. There were 32 seniors in Mike’s graduating class at Frankfort High School. Melissa’s class is half that size. For now Deer Central serves as Christener Central, too, a time and place where the family’s diverging paths are wound back together.

In the dark the next morning, Robert describes what we’ll see when the sun comes up. “This is a half-section, 320 acres,” he whispers. In front of our pop-up blind, a deep draw leads into grassland, thicketed with plum and dogwood. There are beanfields to the south and alfalfa in the field behind us, but the land still hews to its pioneering history. To the north, native pasture rolls out of sight. “There’s big bluestem, little bluestem, buffalo grass. Prairie that’s been here, basically, forever.”

Now the wind comes up with the sun. By shooting light the gusts are ripping better than 30 mph. They knock the pop-up blind around like a thin bush and whisk through the shooting windows we’ve closed to meager slits. It doesn’t take long to start a slight shiver.

When I set out on this long-shot quest, my intention was to spend a cold morning or two in the heart of deer hunting in America, and roll the dice on the gift of a deer in such a place. I’ve found all I could want in a deer hunting spot, no doubt. But more compelling than my discovery of Deer Central has been my encounter with the family that loves this place, that shepherds the very ground that sustains their bodies and souls and knits their family together. Glancing over, I see Robert’s face silhouetted in the dark shadows of the blacked-out pop-up. His eyes are fixed somewhere out on the rolling hillsides of his family land, and it occurs to me that no matter how hard I look, I will never see what he sees.

Robert shuffles his feet and arches his back in a long stretch. “When you called me and told me about the idea of Deer Central,” he says, “I felt like it was a real privilege to have something like that on our land.” He is quiet for a moment. “I really want you to shoot a big deer, Eddie. But seeing my boy with that buck the other night, him and his brother together, after so many years for Donnie.” He shakes his head and glances over, almost apologetically. “Well, that’s just everything to me. I sure hope you understand that.”

If I didn’t, I think, I wouldn’t be here.

Last Call
On my last morning in Pottawatomie County I follow fence posts in the dark until a line of plum trees runs out along an alfalfa field. I worm under a barbed wire fence, snip thorns from a plum’s trunk and lower branches, and hunker down in the grass. I am invisible. I prop my boots up on the lowest strand of barbed wire, and wait for it to come together in Deer Central.

Three hours later, I have no choice. I’m faced with a three-hour drive to a 2 p.m. flight. A trio of western meadowlarks flies into the tree overhead, chipping nervously. I take it as a Kansas farewell. I’ve had my chance.

When I stand up, there he is. A very big deer, an 8-pointer, at least, and likely larger, with a neck like a sack of cattle feed. He must have been stepping out of the plum thicket as I crawled out of my hide, within rifle range with a steady rest, but by the time I get the scope on him I figure it’s 250 yards, and he’s loping through broken thicket cover, aware of danger but not yet crazy-spooked. I seethe with frustration and disappointment. Five days of hard hunting and I needed but five seconds more. I center the buck in the glass, then move the crosshairs ahead of his shoulder, and in my mind I empty the rifle’s magazine. But already I’m shaking my head. This deer deserves better.

I ease the rifle down. He’s crossing pasture now and pours it on. With each vaulting leap he covers 15, maybe 20, feet of open ground, and seems to belong to both earth and sky. A part of me knows he belongs to the Christeners, as well, and that he’s not meant to be my deer. For the moment he is, quite simply, a marvelous thing to behold, and when he vanishes into a distant wood’s edge I realize that I am smiling.