The Right One
Buck: “Jackson,” a 91⁄2-year-old, 150-class typical
Hunter: Misty Loggins, country artist and Bowtech ambassador**
Location: Southwestern West Virginia
Date of Kill: Dec. 29, 2015
Before the season started, my hunting partner and cameraman Jeremy Starks showed me a trail-cam picture of this beautiful 91⁄2-year-old buck—and I knew. We had 10 other shooters on that property, all over 150. But this one was mine. I needed him.
We named the buck Jackson. He bedded on a bench partway down a mountain, and we hung a stand where I’d have a chance to catch him coming or going. I started hunting that stand in late September, and after dozens of sits, I never got a glimpse of him. I passed up scads of P&Y bucks.
I typically won’t hunt a stand more than two days in a row. But our cameras showed he was there. Mainly, I couldn’t get away from it. Jackson was more than a buck to me. He was a chance for things to go right. My dad had recently passed. A string of things in my life then would go almost right, but then not. After a while, you lose a little sparkle. I thought Jackson could help me get it back.
Finally, in early December, I looked up and there he was. He walked in to 25 yards. I swear I didn’t move half an inch, but he caught me, and vanished. I don’t cry a lot, but I’m not too proud to admit that I cried for hours then.
I kept going back until Christmas, when I spent a half day in Georgia with my family, then returned for three last-ditch days of hunting Jackson. On the second evening, a fantastic buck we named Mr. Velvedeer, because he holds his velvet all year, walked under my stand. I wouldn’t even draw on him. “Girl, you are so stubborn,” Starks said. I answered, “Jackson is going to come in tomorrow.”
By 9 a.m. on Dec. 29, the final day I could hunt, we hadn’t seen a deer. I said a prayer: God, let me accept that this isn’t meant to happen—or please just let him come in. “Here he comes,” Starks said.
Then I finally saw Jackson approaching. He stopped, looked up, and stared right at me for 45 minutes! We have it on the clock. He didn’t move a muscle.
I froze. I felt like I couldn’t blink. It was excruciating. After an eternity, Jackson broke, moved closer, and started parading in a big circle, showing off—big body, big neck, tarsal glands dark as night. But I never had the right shot, and he turned and started moving off. Starks said, “I’m sorry, Mist.” Then, almost out of bow range, Jackson stopped, looked back toward me, and turned to give me a perfect quartering-away shot, at 37 yards. The arrow went through his heart.
I learned so much from Jackson. I learned how to hunt a big, mature buck—even hunt him hard—without pushing him out of his core area. We were so careful with scent; we hiked way out of our way to get in and out without getting caught. But mostly I learned about myself. In the 208 hours I spent in that stand, I found out that I can out-stubborn just about anyone. I realize now how much I’m willing to give up for what I want. That’s what it takes to kill a buck like this. I lost so much sleep, missed work opportunities, skipped holidays. I’m 10 times the hunter I was before Jackson, and I’m stronger than I ever knew. There have been moments since when I’ve questioned myself, and then I think of this hunt and say, “I can do it.” I thank Jackson for that.
One Too Many
Buck: “Klondike,” a 1806⁄8-inch typical
Hunter: Jared Lurk, pharmacist, Drury Outdoors team member
Date of Kill: Dec. 21, 2015
In 2011 I got pics of a great buck, and when he showed up again on camera in mid October 2012, he stopped me in my tracks. I named him Klondike, because getting him would be like striking gold.
Problem was, I was already obsessed with another huge buck I’d named Hightower. I’d been hunting him since 2006, and seen him only a dozen times or so in that time—and I probably sat 30 times for every encounter or two. I was out of my mind over Hightower. Honestly, I let my quest for him cut too much into my family time.
Finally in 2013, I killed Hightower during the late muzzleloader season. At 184 and change, it was the biggest buck of my life. But when Klondike showed up on camera in September of 2014, he was just about as big. I really wanted this deer, but I knew I couldn’t put myself or my family through another campaign like the one with Hightower. But I also realized that I didn’t have to.
Hightower was an over-the-top obsession, but what I learned from hunting him allowed me to chase this new quest much more efficiently. I went over my history with Hightower, and my trail-cam record of both bucks, and I noted the periods when the deer showed up in daylight. Then I concentrated my hunting on similar days, and my ratio of sightings to sits with Klondike went way up. In 2015, I had a new baby and couldn’t hunt him until the last part of the season. I killed him on my third sit, on the opening day of muzzleloader season.
Klondike proved to me that just because you’re obsessed with a buck, it doesn’t mean you have to turn your life upside down to get him. In fact, most days you’re wasting your time trying to kill a huge, old buck. There are three periods when a deer like this is what I call “daylightable.” The first is a three- or four-day period right before peak breeding, or lockdown. The next is a little less than a month later, during the second rut. The biggest bucks will cover miles to find the few late-cycling does and fawns then. The last is in December, when those bucks just have to get out and feed. I focus on high-pressure days and a rising moon in the afternoon during those periods, and it’s made a huge difference. I used those tactics last year and killed a 6-year-old buck that was in the 160s.
One for Two
Buck: “The Freak,” a 208-inch net typical 7×7
Hunters: Dave and Lyla Nennig, retirees
Location: Southern Iowa
Date of Kill: Dec. 22, 2016
Dave: In mid October of 2013 we started getting pics of this incredible 3-year-old buck with almost freakishly tall tines, which led to the nickname “The Freak.” I’d always dreamed of having a 200-inch buck on our farm, and this deer had the right stuff.
In 2014, the Freak again showed up on our cameras in mid October, and he had blown up into a beautiful 6×5 in the 170s. Weeks later, he walked right under my treestand. I’d never killed a buck that big with my bow, but I decided he needed another year.
Once again, in 2015, he didn’t show until mid October. But there was no doubt: The Freak had grown into the 200-incher I’d dreamed of chasing. My motto that year was The Freak or Failure. And after weeks of hard hunting, I got the latter. I had two encounters with him that fall, but no shot. I also noticed that the buck had a serious wound, and I felt sure he wouldn’t survive the winter.
**Lyla:* Mid October came and went in 2016 with no sign of the Freak, so we assumed he was dead. But then in November—after Dave filled his bow tags on different bucks—the Freak showed up on camera. He was huge, but his rack was still in velvet, probably because of last year’s injury. With Dave tagged out, we had to pray the buck would make it to late muzzleloader season. I only hunt muzzleloader, and that year it was The Freak or Failure for me, too.
On the fourth day of the season, the wind was finally right for me to sit my favorite blind. I crawled in before daylight for an all-day hunt. Around 3:30 p.m. I was watching a bunch of does feed in the food plot when they all looked up and stared at the wood’s edge. I looked over and saw the Freak. I had a moment of I can’t do this, before I opened the windows without spooking the deer feeding right in front of me, and got down on my knees to shoot. My heart was beating so fast I remember thinking, I’m gonna stroke out here. At 50 yards, the buck gave me a perfect broadside. At the shot, he ran a few yards back the way he came and then tipped over.
Dave: The Freak proved that passing up a younger deer with amazing potential can truly pay off. We also paid close attention to his preferred areas, through trail-cam pics and observation, so when Lyla went into her blind that morning, we knew she’d be watching a plot that was in the Freak’s core area for that time of year.
Lyla: I love to hunt all day, but Dave wouldn’t let me do that until the wind and other conditions were perfect for my favorite spot. The Freak was on the food plot 90 minutes before dark, so it clearly paid off to wait. Our two granddaughters who are learning to hunt were so excited, and it’s pretty neat for them to think, Look at what grandma did!
One That Got Away
In 2013 I started getting pics of a great buck, but he’d always vanish in mid October. I’d had mature bucks shift core areas on me before, so I hung cameras on other parts of the farm, thinking I’d get him again. Nothing. I looked hard for his sheds and never found them.
In 2016 we got summer pictures, and the buck had absolutely exploded—to over 200 inches. I decided it was that buck or bust. When the season came, I hunted where I thought he was living and never saw him. Now I was going nuts. I plastered the area with trail cams and spent the rest of the season hunting just that deer, and never once saw him or got his picture.
In late December, someone sent me a pic of a woman posing behind a huge buck, and I recognized the deer immediately. I called a warden friend and he knew exactly who had killed it—Lyla and Dave Nennig, on a farm 12 miles away.
“You’re crazy,” I told him. He said he was 110 percent sure, and said the buck never showed up on the Nennigs’ farm until October and would stay until spring and disappear. They had always wondered where he went.
I actually got in touch with Dave and Lyla, and we compared stories. I won’t lie; it was a little tough to find out that for the last three months I’d been hunting a buck that basically didn’t exist—at least not within 12 miles. But it was awesome that she got him, and good to have some closure.
—Steve Snow, as told to Scott Bestul
Make One’s Bed
Buck: “Split Ear,” a 160-class 10-point
Hunter: Dave Olson, farmer
Location:* Southeast Minnesota
**Date of Kill: Dec. 18, 2016
In December of 2015, with our buck tags already filled, my daughter and I watched this big 10-point walk within 10 yards of our blind. He had a tall, heavy rack and a big split in his right ear. I hoped he’d make it through the winter.
When I got pics of him the following summer, I knew which buck I wanted that fall. But I didn’t realize how much until late October when a 150-class buck walked into easy bow range. Any other year I would have taken that buck, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot because I knew Split Ear was living on my farm. My buddies all gave me a hard time about it.
I got lots of pics of Split Ear in a fairly tight area near a food plot behind my barn, but I’d only seen him from stand twice. I have another property that I usually hunt in the late season, but I couldn’t pull myself away from Split Ear.
Finally, on Dec. 18, the coldest day of the year, I headed to the place where my daughter and I had seen him a year ago. He was the first deer out that afternoon. I still shake terribly when I see a good buck, but Split Ear took enough time walking into bow range that I could calm down and make the shot.
You don’t need 1,000 acres to hold a good buck into the late season. I’d done some logging in an old woodlot, planted a couple of plots, put in a pond, and let the cover grow up. The whole area is only 12 acres, bordered by public ground. Split Ear pretty much moved in and claimed the spot as his core area. Now every year there seems to be a mature buck that does the same. I hunt it carefully and only on the fringes.
One Time, for the Kid
Buck: “RT,” a 158-inch typical 9-point
Hunter: Graycen Jordan (told by Realree’s Tyler Jordan)
Location: southern georgia
Date of Kill: Dec. 9, 2015
RT lived on our farm year-round—that’s how he got his name, RT, for “Realtree Farms.” We’d get pictures of him all summer and fall, and see him from stand every season—but it was like a cloud of bad luck kept us from killing him. Late in October of 2015, I had three encounters with him three days in a row. At one point, he chased a doe right past my tree in bow range, and I was all but yelling at him to try to make him stop. He never did.
Later that fall, during rifle season, we started getting regular daylight pictures of him on a 3-acre clover and chicory plot. But that field is tough to hunt. The only real option is to sit in a blind we set up on the edge—and even getting into that is sketchy. You can’t hunt it in the morning. We drive a golf cart close to it early in the afternoon, and then crawl up from behind to get inside. You’ve got to crawl back out in the dark without spooking the 30 or 40 deer that’ll be in the field, too. And you have to have a northwest wind to even try hunting there.
I was out of town, but my little sister, Graycen, who was 9 years old at the time, wanted to hunt RT in a bad way. But Dad kept telling her to hold off because the wind was wrong.
So they waited—for nearly two weeks. Finally, a cold front came through, they got the northwest wind they needed, and they snuck into the blind. The hunt itself was almost anticlimactic: RT came out early and fed for about two minutes before giving Graycen a good shot—and she ended the quest.
It can be a long wait between cold fronts in the South. But when they happen, they’re huge. And you just can’t chance a bad wind with a big buck. I doubt Graycen would’ve killed RT if she hadn’t waited for the perfect conditions. Late-season food sources can be different here than in the Midwest, too. We’ve planted corn and brassicas, but our clover and chicory plots are still the most important. They stay green through January, and they draw just as many deer at the end of the season as they do early in fall.
The One Place
Buck: “The Elf,” a 154-inch typical
Hunter: Jeff Danker, host of BuckVentures Outdoors
Location: Oklahoma Panhandle
Date of Kill: Dec. 9, 2016
In my seminars, I always tell hunters: “Stay in your stand until after shooting light.” The last five minutes can be the best ones of the day—and you can learn a ton about a buck by watching him through your binoculars after shooting light ends.
But I broke my own rule in 2015, and it cost me big-time on a buck called the Elf. This deer was like a ghost. We had hundreds of photos of him but had never seen him. I’d gotten a picture of him in a drainage, and we went for a daylight-to-dark sit. With 10 minutes of light left, I decided I’d had enough. I looked at my cameraman and said, “Let’s go. I’m done.” I took my arrow off the string—and then he said, “Don’t move. Buck.” There was the Elf, standing 25 yards from my tree, looking straight up at me. He blew out of there, and I didn’t see him again that season.
Last year, we kept getting his picture but still didn’t see him. In two years’ worth of photos, I’d never seen a broken antler tine on the Elf, which is almost unheard of out here after the rut—so I knew he wasn’t a fighter, and that I shouldn’t call to him. My only chance would be to intercept him.
Come December, I got a picture of the Elf 3 miles from his normal area. The country here is wide open, but he was moving toward a wheatfield through this draw that has a single tree in it. Deer walk by that tree all the time; we call the stand in it the Lonesome Dove.
We climbed in one afternoon when conditions were perfect: cold, with a north wind. In 45 minutes, I spotted the Elf chasing a doe fawn. Then he disappeared. I wanted to call at him, but I made myself wait. It was a good thing, too, because only minutes later he popped up over the hill and walked past the tree at 14 yards, where I finally arrowed him.
In the open country here, we don’t have traditional timber pinch points, but there are definitely areas where deer just prefer to walk. A lone tree on the prairie is like a magnet to deer; it’s a place where you had better put a treestand. The late rut is also way overlooked. People hunt so hard in November that they forget about deer come December. But the cold weather then keeps deer on their feet, and those yearling does in heat are scared to death of a buck, so they’ll just run out in the wide open. If people hunted December as hard as they do earlier in the fall, they’d consistently kill bigger bucks.
One of a Kind
Buck: A 160-class 8-point
Hunter: Ronnie Strong, railroad operator
Location: Central Illinois
Date of Kill: Dec. 16, 2016
I usually don’t let a buck get under my skin, but in 2015 a big 8-point bent the rules for me. He was an absolute bully. He fought or chased off every buck he encountered. If a doe wasn’t ready to breed, he’d gore her in the butt. He was such a train wreck, I decided I’d go after him.
On my first sit, he came to within 15 yards. I was at full draw when he turned his head—and his main beam was broken at the G2. I gave him a pass for the year.
The next fall, starting in the middle of November, the buck was on every camera on the farm, unafraid to move in daylight, but never doing the same thing twice. He’d be on one end of the farm one day, the other the next. I don’t name bucks, and I’m usually happy to kill the first 51⁄2-year-old buck I see. But this deer was different. I hunted him like a man possessed. In a normal season I gain weight; that year I lost 25 pounds. I was sick from sitting in the cold and wind, and my buddies were laughing at my obsession.
In my experience, when temperatures are really cold, deer prefer corn over green food. But this crazy buck was just the opposite. On a December afternoon in a cold, freezing drizzle, I forced myself to sit a green food source—and sure enough that’s where he showed up, on his feet an hour before dusk. When I shot him, he looked right up at me, stood there for several minutes, then tipped over dead.
With some bucks, you have to throw what you know about mature deer right out the window. I’ve killed 30 bucks over 150 inches, and this deer didn’t behave like a single one of them. When I set up the night I killed him, I remember thinking, This doesn’t make any sense—except for this deer. And I have to admit that fooling him was pretty satisfying. I’ve killed a 190, two 180s, and several 170-class deer. I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for that maybe-160 8-point.