Though he’s been out of bowhunting for three decades, Grafton, who lives on his family farm in Orion, Illinois, is no novice when it comes to the outdoors. He’s been an avid hunter since kindergarten, when he used to stalk birds with his BB gun. “I’m hunting something all year-round,” he says. Winter is coyote season.
Springtime means mushroom hunting, which requires determination and a sharp eye, both of which would come in handy on Grafton’s second buck, which he tracked after an overnight rain obliterated the already sparse blood trail.
Grafton also does a lot of bass fishing on farm ponds. “I grew up on a farm and just love the outdoors,” he says.
Living in west-central Illinois, only a stone’s throw from Iowa, it was only natural that Grafton would get big time into birds. “When I was a bowhunter 30 years ago, Illinois had only a 15-day season,” he says. “I needed something where I could hunt and shoot every day, so I got into pheasant and quail hunting and raising and training bird dogs, and I put the bow down.”
But pheasant and quail populations declined so much in west-central Illinois in recent years that Grafton started looking for something else to hunt. “I hunt geese–I have a goose pit 200 yards from my front door–but you have to rely on the goose migration. Deer are here every day; they can’t fly away and you don’t have to wait for them.” Grafton acquired a Lab pup, which he’s training for shed hunting. Then, looking to take advantage of an archery deer season that now stretches from October to mid-January, he bought a bow this summer and began practicing every day.
Once he decided to get back into archery, Grafton jumped in with both feet. He researched hunting tactics on the Internet and picked the brains of the many young bowhunters he works with. “I started doing my homework and put up seven deer stands and planted three food plots this summer. I bought all the Scent-Lok stuff I could get, and the field sprays, all that stuff, and went through the whole scent routine before every hunt.”
One popular tactic Grafton shunned was trail cameras. After reading lots of advice on avoiding mature bucks’ core areas until ready to hunt, Grafton decided to rely on his knowledge of the area and avoid the risk of spreading scent in the woods while tending to cameras. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I know where the deer bed, where they feed,” he says. He thinks he may have spied this 14-pointer last year, as he stood in his back door watching a buck chasing does during the 2009 rut.
On the Oct. 1 opener, Grafton was in one of his seven stands at dawn. He saw eight does and by 7:30 was ready to tag his first archery deer. “I had a doe messing around behind me for 15 minutes, and I was dying to kill something with the bow,” he says. “I figured if you’re gonna shoot a doe, do it now before the rut kicks in.” He made a quick clean kill to start his season off right. Over the next couple of weeks, he took advantage of stands set for every wind and hunted every day. He passed on several bucks, including the 8-pointer (pictured here) that he would eventually harvest with his second buck tag. One evening he let eight bucks walk. Even without trail cams to provide evidence, he felt sure he could do better. “I just kept telling myself, ‘I know there’s bigger bucks in here.'”
He was right. On October 17, Grafton had seen several does and bucks when he spotted a big-bodied deer 30 yards away behind some trees. “I couldn’t see the rack at first, but I immediately knew he was a shooter, just by his body. I stood up. I eventually got a look at one side of his rack and could tell by the tine height and mass that he was a nice 10-pointer. After that I tried not to focus on the rack.”
“He hit my shooting lane at 40 yards, on a slow walk. I grunted at him but he wouldn’t stop. I decided I had to take the shot anyway. I let the arrow go and it all looked good. He went through some trees and I lost sight of him, but 30 seconds later I heard a crash and heard my arrow snap.”
For 30 minutes, Grafton stood in his stand, watching the spot where the deer disappeared. “I was hunting on a point with picked corn on all sides, so if he’d run I could see which way he was headed. I was going to track him down no matter what.”
But when Grafton climbed down from his stand, he found the buck 20 yards away at the edge between the timber and the open field. “When I walked up to him I said, ‘Holy cow! What did I just kill?’ I see a lot of deer pictures from the guys at work, but you don’t realize how massive one is until you get close. I was really impressed when I grabbed that rack.”
The mainframe 10 with four kickers has 7 ½-inch brow tines and 13 5/8-inch G2s. The rack’s inside spread is a little over 20 inches and the outside spread is 22 ½. The antler bases are 6 inches around. A green score put the total nontypical gross at 185 inches. A friend aged the buck at 6 ½ years. “He may even have been bigger last year,” Grafton says.
After taking a day to butcher the deer and get the cape to a taxidermist, Grafton was back in his stand on October 19. “At first I was disappointed because I thought I was done; I thought you could only shoot one buck with an archery tag and had to shoot the second with a gun.” But after a check of Illinois regulations proved that he could take a second buck with a bow, he bought another tag. “I’d spent the whole summer practicing and I didn’t want to be done yet. I was just getting started.”
Grafton had seen the 8-pointer several times and passed. “Every time I did, I was kicking myself afterwards, thinking I should have taken him.” But he’d also seen a big 10-pointer he had his eye on, although the big buck was always out of range.
On November 25, Grafton was hunting next to a cornfield when a dozen does began piling into the standing corn 50 yards away. “I stood up, thinking, ‘Something is going to happen now. The rut is on and bucks will be moving.'” Sure enough, he saw a pair of 8-pointers and a couple of young 10-pointers move into the field a little later. “Next thing you know they’re knocking down corn, fighting, chasing, grunting,” Grafton recalls. “I had two bucks 30 yards in front of me just going at it. The night before I’d seen the big 10 200 yards from this spot, and now I’m watching with my heart jumping out of my chest, thinking, ‘If this doesn’t bring him out I don’t know what will.”
Ten minutes before shooting hours ended, Grafton watched “a big-bodied buck with a lot of white on his head” come out of the timber. “This is him, this is the big 10 I’ve been waiting for,” Grafton thought. He gave the buck a doe bleat and watched him head his way, but the buck heard the commotion in the corn and decided to investigate. “There was a lot of grunting and the other bucks came spilling out of the field like cockroaches when you turn on the light,” Grafton says.
“He came by me three times chasing bucks. I’d grunt, get him coming my way, and he’d spot another buck and doe and take off after them. He finally got all the bucks cleared out, and he chased a doe around behind me, downwind of my stand. Fortunately I had an estrous scent wick out. “I gave him a grunt and he just stiffened up: He was mad because another buck was around after he thought he’d chased them all off.” With only a couple of minutes of shooting light remaining and the buck’s dark shape silhouetted against pale prairie grass, Grafton centered his 30-yard pin and let an arrow fly.
Grafton recovered his arrow and found good blood, but he eventually lost the trail and decided to back out. He returned at first light, but rain washed away the blood. “This whole time I was thinking I’d shot the big 10,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m just gonna start mushroom hunting the timber. I’m gonna walk it like a mushroom hunter until I find him.'” Forty-five minutes later he located his deer, 125 yards from where he’d shot it. “It wasn’t the 10, but it was a damn nice 8-pointer. He’s real wide, with 7-inch brow tines and 10-inch G2s and a lot of mass. He’s got a scar across his nose for character, and a hole in his leg from fighting.” A green score puts the buck’s typical gross at 140-inches. “He’s very symmetrical,” Grafton says. “There’s not a half-inch of deductions from side to side.”
Before he picked up a bow again, Grafton did some shotgun deer hunting but never harvested anything like this year’s terrific twofer. “Before I was trying to get the population down because the deer were damaging the trees I’d planted, but now I don’t care,” he laughs. “I filled my two tags with 325 inches of bone after being away from bowhunting for 30 years. I’ll be bowhunting the rest of my life.”
Joel Grafton hadn’t picked up a bow in 30 years before this summer, but he quickly made up for lost time, knocking down a 180-class nontypical 14-pointer (left) and a 140-class typical 10-pointer (right) during the Illinois archery deer season. How he did it–by going whole hog with a ton of research and enough tree stands to hunt every day in every wind–offers lessons lots of hunters can learn from.