The whitetail of a lifetime
What was supposed to be a one-time deer hunt in the Nebraska Sandhils turned into a years-long campaign that finally ended last December, with the whitetail of a lifetime.. Pete Lloyd

He emerged early, when the light was dim but legal and the December frost made ghosts of his breath. He ascended a mound toward a cut cornfield, then we began our approach. One hundred yards away, he stood—head down, left shoulder broadside—in a wind that did his kind no favors. This was all working out too well.

My last two hunts out here had kind of conditioned me to failure: I’d had high hopes that were dashed; I’d made decisions that haunted me. This time, in the last chapter of what had evolved into a three-​­season journey, I arrived with simple goals: to hunt hard and to hunt with a friend. But now, only 45 minutes into day one, with the muzzleloader stable on the sticks and the crosshairs settling over vitals, the former was an afterthought. I hadn’t exactly hunted hard on this trip—I hadn’t had the chance—but I did hunt hard to get here.

“He’s a good buck,” my guide said. “But it’s your call if you want to shoot.”

Rifle season illustration
Chapter 1: The Rifle Season
November 2013 Pete Lloyd

Chapter 1

The Rifle Season | November 2013

Four years ago, if you’d asked me what animal I most wanted to hunt for the first time, I would have answered mule deer. I can’t say why, exactly, other than I was just enthralled by the animal. And it was that desire that triggered an invitation to western Nebraska, courtesy of my buddies Chuck Smock and Joe Arterburn, from Cabela’s. They’d been given access to hunt a cattle ranch near North Platte, Neb., and asked me to join them. The place was supposed to have lots of deer—muleys and whitetails—and we’d have it all to ourselves. I was in.

Also on the hunt were two of Smock and Arterburn’s co­workers, Wes Remmer and Nathan Borowski. We arrived in the afternoon and spent the next few hours setting up camp. Before dinner, we fixed drinks, and Arterburn made a simple, but fitting, toast: “Welcome to Nebraska.” Later on, sleep came in fits. Excitement the night before a hunt you’ve been dreaming about will do that to you.

Over the next three and a half days, though, that excitement lessened into just-stay-patient optimism before settling into it’s-not-gonna-happen acceptance. In all, we saw one big whitetail that never gave us a shot; a dink mule deer with a doe; and one decent muley buck that we saw twice on the first day—and I passed on, twice. We’d arrived with the hope of getting a deer for the camp, so it was a little disappointing to end the trip without one. Still, this camp was one of the best I’ve ever shared. We might have eaten our tags, but we also had our fill of fun.

After we broke down camp, I still had one more day before I was due home. A friend of Arterburn’s had offered to come out and hunt with me on the ranch for the rest of the day. The offer was thoughtful, but I declined. I’d really enjoyed hunting alongside Arterburn, and if I was going to shoot a deer here, I wanted it to happen with him. Besides, the deer wouldn’t have been my deer; it would’ve belonged to the camp. And now our camp was over, as was my chance at a Nebraska buck.

Or so I thought at the time.

Crossbow hunting illustration
Chapter 2: The Archery Season
November 2015 Pete Lloyd

Chapter 2

The Archery Season | November 2015

At some point after I’d left nebraska, Smock had an idea: to bring me back not once more, but twice—first to hunt deer during the state’s archery season, then during the late muzzleloader season. What better way to get to know a landscape, he figured, than to hunt it year after year after year, throughout the entire deer season?

We couldn’t make a crossbow hunt happen in 2014, so it took two years to come together. Unfortunately, by then Arterburn and Remmer had left Cabela’s, and because Smock was slammed at work the week of the hunt, it would be just Borowski and me. We’d miss the others at camp, for sure, but Borowski and I had since become buddies and I was excited to hunt with him.

Only a few weeks before this trip, I’d traveled to Montana and accomplished there what I couldn’t back in 2013—killing my first mule deer. As much as I would’ve liked to fill that tag in the Sandhills, it did take some pressure off chapter two of the Nebraska trilogy; now I’d be satisfied with a muley or a whitetail.

Given that it was just Borowski and me, we ditched the wall-tent camp for a guesthouse in Arnold, Neb., where Cory Peterson runs Hidden Valley Outfitters on 55,000 acres of prime deer country. Along with guiding, Peterson also farms and raises beef cattle, and the evening we arrived, he drove Borowski and me around, scouting. After 4 p.m., we started seeing deer in the fields—including a few really nice bucks. “Looking for love,” he said.

Before first light the next morning, I stepped into a ground blind tucked into some cedars on the edge of a secluded calving pasture. Thirty-two yards in front of me was a water tank. By shooting light, the temperature was 30 degrees, and frost crusted the ground. Peterson said this was the first cold spell they’d had all month, so the deer should be moving.

But they weren’t. The first two days were quiet. I saw some deer—mostly does and a couple of bucks that appeared out of range and never stayed very long. On the afternoon-evening hunt on day three, however, things got interesting. I returned to the blind by the water tank. It felt like a perfect spot because the temperature had climbed to 60 degrees, so I figured the deer would gravitate toward water.

And they did. First a small loner buck that scented me almost immediately; then a single doe that came running in and took a long drink and stayed to browse in the pasture until her ears pricked up at the sound of a nearby grunt. I looked to my right, and there, maybe 15 yards away, through a dense patch of cedars, I saw a thick body and a heavy rack. The buck grunted again. The doe moved toward me—and got within 6 yards. I kept dead still. She sniffed, then walked away into the woods that bordered the pasture. The buck remained; he hadn’t moved an inch. I was ready for him to walk into the pasture.

Instead, he followed the doe, and the pasture was quiet again. What a wild privilege, to witness the rut come alive right before you.

The action died until 5:32, when I looked up and saw an 8-point whitetail—the biggest deer I’d seen all week. He moved toward the water tank, stopped, then crept close enough for a drink. I thumbed the safety, deepened my breathing, and steadied the crosshairs on his right shoulder. A thump followed the shot.

The deer bolted into the woods, then halted after 30 yards. He stood there and appeared to be struggling. I expected him to drop. Instead, he ran off. I waited till it was dark before I went looking for blood. Large drops led to where I’d watched him stand still; on the ground was an encouraging pool. I continued, but soon I was too far into unfamiliar woods. Leaving the trail disgusted me, but I knew it was stupid to wander deeper in the dark. And I was confident I’d find the deer first thing tomorrow.

The next morning, I continued where I’d left the trail, but the blood thinned to almost nothing the deeper I went. An hour in, I was on my hands and knees, struggling to connect one red dot to the next. When I lost the trail entirely, Peterson and his partner Dan Blowers came to help. Peterson found traces, and we followed the lead. The deer had taken an all-over-the-place path; the farther we went, the scarcer the blood became. Ultimately, the trail came to an end at the place where the deer had likely bedded last night. The grass was matted down, and in the middle, a few blades were stained a light red. “He’s gone,” Peterson said. “And I don’t think he’s dead.” We never did find the bolt, and the pattern of the blood trail seemed to indicate that it had all come from a shot that hit too far back on the deer’s right side. I came here to kill a deer. Instead, I’d hurt one. And I felt sick.

We had one more day to hunt. I returned to the water-tank blind but spent little time inside it. I wanted to use every last minute to search for the deer that I knew I’d never find.

muzzleloader illustration
Chapter 3: The Muzzleloader Season
December 2016 Pete Lloyd

Chapter 3

The Muzzleloader Season | December 2016

I made the call. I wanted to shoot. It didn’t matter to me that this hunt was less than an hour old or that this buck was the first I’d seen, because the complete hunt didn’t begin with this moment. It had been going on for four years now—had been full of highs and lows and more than enough bucks that I was satisfied and ready for it to end, with this deer.

The buck fed in the cut cornfield covered in frost as I inched a little closer to have a clearer picure of him in the scope. I exhaled a ghost of my own, and fired. The shot hammered him, but the deer stayed put—almost like he’d been stunned. A second load dropped him. A third eliminated any last doubt.

I was with Borowski and Peterson, hunting again on Peterson’s property. The three of us walked toward the buck—a stout 8-point whitetail with two broken tines. I’d killed a fighter. As I grabbed the antlers, I struggled to accept that it was all over. I thought back to rifle camp, bluffing poker hands in the wall tent and stalking deer in a snowstorm with Arterburn. I went back to last year’s agonizing crossbow hunt, remembering an impulse I’d had to call it quits on this campaign. Then I returned to the moment, admiring exactly what I had wanted when this hunt began: a hard-earned deer. “Congrats, man,” Borowski said.

“Thanks, Newt.” And in that moment, I realized something else: The hunt wasn’t over—not yet. I had my deer; now it was Borowski’s turn.

“Well,” Peterson said, “let’s go for a walk.”

We followed Peterson up a ridgetop where we glassed the country below. Peterson’s property really was beautiful. The rippling sandhills were blanketed with cedars, and there was plenty of tall grass where muleys and whitetails could bed. I hadn’t come close to covering all 55,000 acres, but over the last two seasons, I’d gotten the lay of the land. For a place so far from home, this country felt warmly familiar.

Read Next: The Perfect Shooter

The rest of day one, and the next two, was uneventful. We saw does feeding in fields and a couple of smaller muley bucks competing over a hot doe on the wrong side of Peterson’s property line. As the week went on, I felt better and better about my decision to tag out early, but I was also starting to worry for Borowski. His friendship was the most valuable thing that had come from this campaign, and I wanted him to fill his tag. The trip, otherwise, would feel incomplete.

On morning four, we drove to the same spot where I had killed my deer. Borowski and I crept behind Peterson as he peeked into the field. Immediately, I could tell he’d seen something … big. He quickly spread the shooting sticks, and Borowski settled in for the shot.

Peterson watched through his binoculars as Borowski fired. Then he erupted in a burst of euphoric profanity. “You smoked him!” Peterson shouted. He started pacing back and forth, swearing, breathing heavy. “I’ve been trying to get him for three weeks. He’s big!”

We found blood 50 yards from the shot, and 30 yards on, we found the deer. He had 10 points, and his antler bases were as thick as my wrists. Peterson wondered aloud if this was the deer that’d fought and broken the points on mine. I smiled and decided to believe that he was.

All the while, it seemed as if Borowski was in another world. There were moments when I caught him staring off into nowhere, his eyes wide and his smile one of dumbfounded delight. In another moment, he was on his stomach, his chin perched on his hands, staring into the eyes of his deer—a deer that Peterson would later score at 163. The deer of a lifetime.

Now the hunt was over—four years and three seasons after it began with another deer hunt that, if you were to ask me, officially began with a simple toast: Welcome to Nebraska.