Nebraska: The Ultimate Big Buck Paradise?

"I thought you were dead," says Richard Harris playing English Bob in Unforgiven. (I'm paraphrasing here.) "I was beginning to believe that myself," replies Gene Hackman. "Until I found out I was just in Nebraska." Well, I was in Nebraska last November, near the town of Arnold, where Cabela's David Draper invited me to hunt with Table Mountain Outfitters for the opening week of the rifle deer season¿and where I took my first muley. I'll say this: If eternal paradise is all it's cracked up to be, I can understand mistaking the Cornhusker State for other side.Brandon Ray
The landscape was a surprise to someone who'd only experienced Nebraska as an interminable stretch on the way to somewhere. From Interstate 80, it's easy to dismiss the entire state as a day-long monotony of flatness. But here on the southern edge of the Sandhills, the level sea of ag fields swells to high prairie hills swept by native grasses and cut with juniper-and-cedar canyons. At the top, where Draper and his guide Doug Stolts glass for deer, is a double-take vista onto one of the country's few spots where you're as apt to spot a 28-inch muley as a 140-inch whitetail. Each morning, you climb in the dark, then catch your breath and glass for deer heading uphill to bed.Brandon Ray
This is what it looks like from perspective of the deer, who chow down at dusk and dawn in the low-lying fields of corn, alfalfa, and wheat. My guide, Shane, and I glassed dozens of morning muleys and whitetails under a long pivot just like this one, grabbing their last few bites in the gloam before heading uphill - sometimes toward us, more often into a distant draw, or in the case of a few whitetails, into the thick flatland tree strips or woodlots.Dave Hurteau
On the first morning, I spotted this whitetail as he bolted across a giant green field and into the draw Shane and I overlooked. At 500 yards, the buck looked like a borderline shooter. At 350, we guessed him at no more than 120 inches. Shane suggested I pass him up and wait for a chance at my first muley, and I agreed. So naturally, this whitetail walked right beneath us, to maybe 75 yards, where we peaked over the rim of the canyon and for the first time got a good look at the mass of his mainbeams. By the time I changed my mind and got my gun up, he'd made us. I said to Shane, "I'd love to get a close-up look at that buck's rack," and that evening I did when Utah hunter Darrel Woolley brought him in, having dropped the deer in the same general area with a 300-yard shot.Dave Hurteau
Darrel's hunting partner Roger Knight took this nice whitetail with a long shot of his own, if I remember correctly (and if I don't, I'm sure Roger won't mind my exaggerating the distance). After the opening-morning hunt, word spread fast that one of these guys had passed a 28-inch muley. Honestly, we thought they were nuts. Turns out, these guys had long since taken their share of big muleys in Utah. They both wanted whitetails and they got a couple of good ones.Dave Hurteau
I was ecstatic to kill this buck on the second morning - and I mean this buck, because he made me work for it. Just after first light, Shane (shown here at right, whose last name is Cool, by the way, which he manages to live up to) said, "There's your muley," as the buck swaggered off an alfalfa field and followed a group of does into the draw below. We circled ahead and the buck came waltzing right to us. This was going to be a gimme. . . right up until he veered into the opposite draw, chasing a different group of does, and putting a mile on us in about three seconds.Dave Hurteau
So we circled ahead, and he slipped away. And we circled and he slipped. And we circled . . . all morning long into midday, up one canyon and down the next, until I thought I'd drop. Honestly, Shane kept me after this buck long past the point where I thought we had any chance of catching up to him. In fact, we'd pretty much given up when, checking one last draw, we spotted him on a shaded bench half way up a cedar slope. My first shot, at only 80 yards or so, hit him through the shoulders and looked well-placed as he ambled away. But he stayed on his feet longer than we thought he should, so I took a second, at about 175, and dropped him. This knife got me into trouble. Shane offered to gut the buck, and I said no thanks. "Are you sure," he said. "Yes." "Really, I don't mind." "I prefer to do it." "Okay," he said finally. "But don't tell any of the other guides I didn't gut your buck." "No problem." Back at camp, while chatting with the other guides, the conversation turned to knives and everyone starting unsheathing theirs. Without thinking, I pulled my obviously bloody blade. I wonder if Shane has stopped catching flack yet.Dave Hurteau
That night I casually, harmlessly mentioned that I might sleep in the next morning, and took a merciless beating from any and all who hadn't tagged out yet. Then I went to bed . . . and slept in. Well rested, I checked my buck in then went with a couple of the guides to the local meat processor. One of the unsung benefits of filling a deer tag is that you look a lot less conspicuous going to the local butcher's to see what¿s coming in. Inside the Merna Pack processing company, on the third morning of the gun season, a disassembly line of dangling deer slid jerkily along a conveyor to three very busy, white-aproned skinners, while outside, truck after truck, like this one, backed up to the door.Dave Hurteau
I saw lots of good bucks at the butcher's, both muleys and whitetails, but the best was this one, taken by Wilma Heinowski of Ravenna, Nebraska. When I asked Wilma if I could take this picture and use it on a website, she asked what site. I told her fieldandstream.com. "You're kidding me," she said. Turns out, when we solicited stories from the nation's growing number sportswomen for last July's "The American Huntress 2007" feature, Wilma was one of more than 1,000 readers who responded, in her case telling us that in 5 long years of hunting deer, she'd yet to tag a buck. That's changed now. This giant is her first. Wilma says it was worth the wait, and I believe her.Dave Hurteau
These are The Mississippi Boys, from left to right: Lee Mock, Les Dungan, Jeff Dungan, Keith Kent, and Herman Dungan. And let me tell you, these guys know how to get it done. Their whole group tagged out in three days. Seemed like every time we sat down for a meal - after each morning and evening hunt - they had another buck in the shed and their guide was telling us about another perfect 300-yard shot. And this was after they tagged out on pronghorn the previous week in Wyoming.Dave Hurteau
Here's your typical meeting at the meat shed. It's like the instinct that drives migrations in wildebeests and the red crabs on Christmas Island. After every evening hunt, at every deer camp, everybody just automatically makes their way to the meat shed to wait for someone to bring in a buck. When someone finally does, the party moves inside. This is what our shed looked like on the third evening.Brandon Ray
More gawking and talking. As the hunt wound down, there were more and more scenes like this - bucks headed to the check station, others going to the butcher, heads headed to the taxidermist - as all but one of the hunters in camp filled his tag. Ironically, the one who didn't was one of the most accomplished there, outdooor writer and photographer Brandon Ray, who showed his experience by handling it with grace and good humor. Brandon took several of the photos shown here.Dave Hurteau
On the last morning, I tagged along on Dave Draper's hunt, which added to the already expansive body of evidence that deer look bigger in the dim light of the final day. Dave (a very accomplished hunter), his guide (a very capable pro), and me (well, whatever) all glassed this buck at about 200 yards and agreed that its rack was considerably bigger than it proved to be¿probably because this big-bodied 2-year-old was stomping around, guarding does liked he owned the place. No matter. Dave made a spectacular second shot to make up for a first that hit too far back. (He won't use it as an excuse, but through my binoculars I saw the deer turn as Dave took that first shot). In the end, he was thrilled to recover a buck that might have been otherwise lost.Courtesy of Cabela's
In this part of Nebraska - as in most of the country - a 140-inch whitetail is one heck of buck, and 28-inch muley is a dandy. But they do get bigger. To give a sense of the top-end potential here, check out this 24-inch-wide, 170-class bruiser whitetail shot by client Ed Smith the week after we left. And . . . .Courtesy of Table Mountain Outfitters
. . . this 165-ish beast, taken during the same week.Courtesy of Table Mountain Outfitters
This is the Denny family. Scott and Angie (at right), who run Table Mountain Outfitters, took daughter Kinlee and son Keedin to Texas for the kids' first big-game hunt. Both youngsters took nice whitetail does. "They were both so proud of each other it was pretty incredible to see," says Angie. You can catch Scott and Angie in action as regular featured outfitters on Bushnell Outdoors with Dave Watson, which airs on the Outdoor Channel.Courtesy of Table Mountain Outfitters