The Promised Land

Buffalo County, a 968-square-mile chunk of Wisconsin, is the monster-whitetail capital of America. I went there for a chance at lasting glory or permanent disgrace

Whitetail capital USA
A classic story from the F&S archives.Barry Blitt

The masthead of this magazine is loaded with the names of guys who can make a fire by rubbing two icicles together, catch a tarpon on a safety pin and some pocket lint, or track a squirrel over a rockslide. When the editors want an alternative perspective, they call me.

"Heavey," one purred into the phone not long ago, "we were wondering where an Eastern hardwoods hunter—let's say a guy with more passion than skill—would go to bowhunt the buck of a lifetime." Easy, I said. He'd head for the Promised Land: Buffalo County, Wisconsin. In the last decade this hunk of deer heaven led the nation with 309 record-book deer, almost twice as many as its nearest competitor. "From the numbers it looks like most any bozo would have pretty good odds at a wall hanger out there." I regretted these words even as they left my mouth.

"Good. Then that's where we're sending you." I could hear a group howl of mirth on the other end. Fine. All my life, I've wanted a shot at a big buck. Now I was going to get it. There was, of course, no guarantee. Just because you make the pilgrimage doesn't mean you'll come home a prophet. But I vowed to hunt as hard as possible. If I failed, I meant to go down swinging.

I asked around and heard good things about Buffalo County Outfitters, where Ted Marum says his object is to get each guest at least one opportunity—meaning an ethical and makeable shot—at a good (130-class or better) buck. Over the years, he says, he's been able to hold up his end of the deal 85 percent of the time on five-day bowhunts. But it's up to the hunter to convert that opportunity, which is another matter entirely.

"Big deer definitely make guys do stupid things," Marum says. Guys from other parts of the country, suddenly presented with a deer that goes 230 pounds on the hoof, take the shot without judging antlers. So they end up with a 2-year-old buck with antlers in the 115 class. "Nothing wrong with that. But we've got bigger deer here."

"Who Kill Them?"

Following directions to Gilmanton, Wisconsin, I pull up at the bunkhouse on November 7 at dusk to find the place deserted, the hunters still afield. Inside, I flip on the lights and find myself surrounded by a herd of wall mounts that look to have been executed for using illegal steroids and calcium supplements. I am transfixed by these swollen necks and antlers. A sprightly woman pops her head in the door to welcome the new hunter. It's Marum's mother, Joanie. What she does not know is that half of my brain has been shut down by the notion that I might take a buck like the ones before me. "These...big deer," I stammer. "Who kill them?" (Did I actually say Who kill them?)

"Two of them are mine," she says simply. She points out a bow-killed 8-pointer with a goalpost spread, then a 17-pointer with the root ball of a sycamore tree sprouting from his head. "He was halfway across a river going the other way when I grunted him back in," she says proudly. "Just pick yourself a bunk. Ted'll be back soon." She disappears.

By now I am more than a tad spooked. Buffalo County is one of those places where everything seems normal until you find out that water flows uphill there or the local crows wear little yellow vests and caw out soybean futures prices that are always accurate. Here, it's antlers. The Mondovi Herald-News gives no more space to the photo of a bowhunter showing off a 28-point buck wearing a snowplow on its head (a potential new state record, I later find out, that green scores 246) than it does to the kids who've won 4-H awards.

And, thanks to Quality Deer Management, the average rack size is rising. Marum tells me county residents used to willingly shoot 130-class bucks. Now they generally let anything under 145 walk. Why run up a taxidermy bill if it isn't something special?

The Meltdown of a Lifetime

Before dawn, Marum drops me off near a stand by a water hole that the deer have been hitting hard at the edge of a long cornfield. I sit with my back to the field, looking down a steep hardwoods bluff. The way you produce big bucks is by taking a lot of does, and in Buffalo County you have to kill a doe before hunting your buck. At 7:30 A.M., a heated-up young buck comes charging down the field behind me, terribly eager to do something, confused as to exactly what that something is, but increasingly sure that it should involve does. He stops, looks around, and charges off in another direction.

I'm sitting in a Lone Wolf fixed stand just 15 yards off the hole and feeling very exposed. At home, I hunt high and in thick cover. Here, the trees are bare and spindly. Fifteen feet up is about as high as you can get, and there's not much of anything between me and the water. That roomful of big heads is evidence that Marum knows how to hunt his own land, however, so I take the only option open, which is to become one with the tree.

At eight, an electric current runs through me as I hear footsteps, then the crunching of stubble. Being deer, the three does come not from the protection of the steep bluff woods I am straining my eyes to dissect but from across the open cornfield to my back. I turn my head at glacial speed to look. They are nervously sniffing where the buck walked and scanning the field. It dawns on me that their biggest fear may not be hunters but being run ragged by overeager bucks. I look at the ground and try to slow my breathing as they move toward water.

When all three are finally drinking, I draw. But my body betrays me. It knows too well that the path to my dream buck runs through the lungs of one of these deer, and it starts to shake. Soon the tree is shaking, too. The deer freeze and look around. A deer in this frame of mind is in no hurry. It is content to lock up and stay there until they take the Christmas lights down back home. I'm still at full draw but deteriorating rapidly. I don't like to shoot at alert deer, but when I can't hold out any longer, I swivel, aim just behind the nearest broadside shoulder, and release.

I have practiced for this precise moment almost daily for six months in my backyard and can more often than not put my first arrow in the kill zone at 40 yards. This one stabs the dirt a foot wide and left of the doe. All three snort, bolt, and lock up after 20 yards, searching for the source of the loud whisper. Stunned at my miss and unable to nock another arrow without getting made, I freeze, too. Over the next five minutes, the does, taut as violin strings, make their way back to the hole. Moving as slowly as humanly possible, I ease another arrow from the quiver and manage to nock it.

Then I proceed to shoot and miss twice more at does less than 20 yards away. It's not a textbook meltdown but something far more spectacular; it's the meltdown of a lifetime, breathtaking in its magnitude and totality. Such a failure would be jumping the fence into the field of farce except for one thing: It happened. To me.

To this day, I don't know whether my arrows went wide or high or came out nock-first. I don't know whether I punched my release or the arrows deflected off my arm. I don't even know if I screwed up all three shots the same way or in different ways. Hours later, when I can tell it is time to go because the light is leaking from the sky like stale air from a bad tire, I am still shell-shocked. As I try to climb down, even the tree seems to be mocking me, tugging at my shoulder to stay at the scene of my humiliation. And then I see that it may be easier to descend if I unbuckle my safety belt.

Humble Pie for Supper

When the 10 of us sit down to chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy back in camp, we go around the table reporting on the day's events. My account—three shots, three misses, standing does, close range, no obstructions—induces a profound silence around the Formica. Having just met, we do not yet know one another well enough to offer the insults and abuse by which men traditionally bestow comfort upon one another. But Marum sees this situation routinely and knows what to do. He clears his throat and says, "Could you pass the gravy, dead-eye? I mean, if you think you can do it and chew your chicken at the same time."

Everybody cracks up. We are, to a man, fools for deer, and we know that looking foolish—sometimes astoundingly so—is the cost of buying into the game. It turns out that another guy had drawn on a huge buck that would have offered a clear shot if he'd moved one step more. But the buck just melted back into the woods. Each of us is lost in his own world, fork absently swirling his mashed potatoes, seeing that buck, stirring that witches' kettle of deer lust.

Moving Up to the Majors

The next day, I sit at another water hole, this one in a cutover that has had three years to heal and now offers superior cover and browse. A 6-pointer wanders in at first light, drinks, catches a whiff of something interesting, and breaks off to follow it. For the next seven hours, I see zip. This, apparently, is not unusual. Marum had told us that the second week of November is the heart of the rut, and often slower than the week before or after because the bucks are locked up with ready does and don't have to travel.

At dusk, a lone doe wanders in to drink. Twenty yards away she stops and stares right at me, as if she knows exactly what a guy with a bow is doing sitting 15 feet up by a water hole. I am thoroughly busted. I'm not embarrassed; I'm hopping mad. But I won't hop. I won't even blink. I won't even bother to shift my eyes a few feet so she doesn't feel their weight, in the hope that she somehow isn't yet positive I'm trouble.

Then a strange thing happens. The doe ignores me. She shuffles a few feet forward and bends to drink. Trembling, I draw, settle my 20-yard pin and force myself to hold there. She stumbles off 60 yards and goes down. I've got a doe, made the cut. I'm moving up to the majors.

That night one of the guys, Keith, tells about watching two 170-class bucks fight. A female was the cause, and the heavyweights went at it for 20 minutes all around his stand by a ravine in the woods. At one point, they stumbled, fell, and slid 30 yards down the incline, then got up and went right back at it. He never had a shot.

"You saw this today?" somebody asks. Keith hesitates. Actually, he'd seen it the first day. But he hadn't wanted to tell anybody about it for fear he'd lose the stand. We all roll our eyes. Marum has 150 stands on 4,000 acres and just 10 guys hunting. There's tons of space. Besides, no one would think of laying claim to another's spot. But big deer make guys do funny things.

Having taken my doe, I naturally find myself besieged with them on the third day. They file past my stand on a bench on a steep bluff: all big, sleek, healthy ladies. They are hyper-alert, and every time they see the one small buck working the woods above me, they freeze, then take off running.

Twelve hours a day in a stand, combined with the knowledge that the buck of your life could arrive, show himself, and depart—all within five seconds—wears at a man. Back at the bunkhouse, Pete, who runs a maid service in Ohio, gets disgusted with me when I keep the light on too long looking for the earplugs that are as necessary at night in a deer camp as broadheads are afield during the day. "Damn it, Heavey, will you let me get some sleep?" he bawls. "It's 8:15, for crying out loud!"

Nightmares

On my next to last day, I hike in the dark through a cornfield and up a steep tractor path to a wooded saddle between two hills, then follow the right ridge 200 yards before descending 50 yards to a stand on the back side of the hill. Something about the setup feels right: thick woods near food, trails everywhere, rolling topography. Smells like deer to me. By 7:15 A.M., two bucks have passed in the thick underbrush above me, one of which I would have gladly whacked. I never got a tine count, but he was carrying more antler than any deer I've ever taken a poke at. He knew where he wanted to go, however, and no grunt, bleat, or rattle could entice him my way.

At noon, I make an executive decision. I'm too tired to stay alert. If I take the macho route and stay on stand, I'll be too fuzzy to react if a cruising buck presents a quick shot. On the other hand, if I come down for a half-hour nap, I risk missing a wandering noonday buck, but at least I'll be tolerably sharp for the six hours remaining. I descend, find a nice little bed of leaves, and conk out.

Minutes after I regain the stand, the biggest live rack of my life appears, walking the saddle above me. It is Godzilla, abroad in plain day, casually trolling for does. I never see his body or get a clear enough view to count tines. But he is a once-in-a-lifetime animal. Like so many monsters at midday in November, he is moving from point A to point B, and nothing I do changes his mind about it.

Later, after dinner, I go straight to bed. In the middle of the night, I'm awakened by an arm shaking my shoulder. "I don't know who you're fighting with," says the arm, "but it's getting kinda loud." I am sweating, though the room is cool. I lie awake for an hour. I'm not the only one talking in my sleep. I hear a voice suddenly blurt, "Did I miss him? Did I miss him?"

Bottom of the Ninth, Heavey at Bat

For the final day, I move to yet another water hole tucked in some hardwoods below the same saddle. Though water has not yet proved to be the buck magnet I'd hoped for, it still seems like the best move. There are lots of willing does, the deer are already lugging around their winter fat, and autumn has been dry and warm. All that genetic imperative stuff makes a guy thirsty. But I'm feeling more resigned than hopeful as I strap into an oak tree with the wind wafting across the water and into my face. I've never yet pulled a hunt out on the mythical last day.

Around 8:30 I hear the slow, deliberate crunch of leaves that no squirrel can make. A gray-coated deer emerges from the tangles on the far side of the hole and makes its way slowly in my direction. There are antlers on its head. The antlers have 10 points. The buck is moving slowly but calmly, stopping now and then to look around. It comes over the little berm that is the far edge of the water, 35 yards away. I force myself not to rise or stir.

Satisfied with the scene, the buck now comes straight down to drink. The pond is covered by a thin layer of ice, which he breaks with a few solid taps of his left front hoof. He bends to drink. I rise but do not draw. He is head-on, offering no shot. The rack is typical, not especially tall, but heavy. I guess him to be a 3-year-old. He is not a monster by local standards but he is far and away the biggest buck I've ever seen that I might have a shot at.

He finishes drinking and stands 30 yards off. I draw, sure that he can hear the sound of the arrow as it touches each fiber of my Whisker Biscuit rest. He looks around, deciding which way to go, and in the process turns broadside. I hold the middle pin on his lungs for a long time and, almost reluctantly, let it go.

The buck bounds away over a tiny rise. My arrow lies precisely where he stood, still pointing in the direction I sent it. I grunt and rattle to lure him back. Nothing. After half an hour, I descend. After all that has taken place, I'm almost afraid to look at my arrow. I pick it up and note the expanded blades on the Snyper head, which are red and wet. The shaft appears to have had precisely enough energy to pass through him and not an iota more. There is blood on the vanes. And a spot of it 5 yards away on the frozen mud at the edge of the berm.

Eighty yards away, a 10-pointer with twice as much deciduous bone as any deer I've ever killed lies piled up in some honeysuckle vines.

I crouch down and spend several minutes reassuringly patting this creature's flank. "Thank you," I whisper. And, "I'm sorry." There is the eternal hunter's feeling, the interlocking elation and regret. But this time it's leavened by more than a little humility. I have hunted this deer and found that what I have brought to ground is not only him but a new sense of my own self. I am a guy who is just aware enough to know he hardly understands a thing about deer, who loves the hunt in a way he can't explain, and who—when he succeeds—is never quite sure if it was because of his efforts or despite them. So be it.

Two hours later, Marum is admiring my buck. "That rack's got a lot of character," he says. "It's a fighting rack. Kind of compact and gnarly. Buck could do a lot of damage with that rack." He takes off his glove to shake my hand. Mine still has blood on it. I ask what he thinks it will score. "Oh," he says, "I think he's probably a book deer. If not, he's right on the edge."

I try to keep my smile from taking over my whole face. It's tough. My newfound humility flies out the door and I stand there, feeling unstoppable and confident, a deer-hunting machine if there ever was one.

To book a hunt with Buffalo County Outfitters, call 715-926-6264 or go to buffalocountyoutfitters.com.