This particular tale begins in the spring of 2011. After one of my most successful bowhunting seasons to date, I decided it was time to move on from the lease I had come to call home the past three seasons. The days of chasing Dope Ear and Schafer were over, and it was time to find some new ground. Preferably something closer than the 250 mile drive I had been making almost every weekend during the fall. So with mixed emotions I let the landowner now that we would be moving on, and the search for a new hunting spot began.
Through some hard work, and some much needed luck, my good friend and hunting partner Mike Willand found just such a spot. Located in far Northwestern Illinois, this small slice of heaven hugs the bluffs of the mighty Mississippi River and looked to be very promising. After a brief conversation, confirming that we both agreed that this was our new spot, we signed the paperwork and began preparations for the fall.
Our first trip to the new farm was on a hot summer day in Mid-July. This was the first time I had ever stepped foot on this farm in person. Those of you who are big on pre-season scouting know how nearly impossible it can be to scout effectively during the summer months. The foliage is thick, the bugs are horrible, the temperatures are hot and the humidity is suffocating. In light of this, Mike and I did the majority of our scouting and planning of stand locations before ever heading to the woods. Aerial photos and topographic maps are without question your best friend when it comes to scouting new ground.
Having a general idea where we wanted to hang our Lone Wolf stands before heading into the field helped tremendously and allowed us to hang several sets on our first trip that July day, and finish up the remaining sets during a return trip in August. The 2nd set we hung was located nearly in the center of the farm along what we figured would be a good travel corridor during the rut.
The dog days of summer may not be the optimal time to hang stands, but sometimes you don't have much of a choice. One of the keys to being successful is being prepared, not just in hunting but in all aspects of life. Here Mike is making his way down the field edge to hang one of our Lone Wolf stands in preparation for fall.
Located on the side of a ridge we had a corn field to the North of us and a creek to the South. To most people this stand doesn’t appear to be anything special, and probably wouldn’t be a spot many people would put a stand. However, the topography doesn’t lie. If a deer wanted to move from the big timber to our West through our woods to check does in the bedding area to our East, he would most likely come through this spot.
While hanging stands that warm July day we also set out a trail camera on a fence crossing, hoping to get an inventory of the resident deer herd. On our return trip in August we checked the camera and much to our liking we had captured several pictures of what appeared to be a nice buck. The date on the first image was 7-27-11, which was Mike’s 4 year wedding anniversary. This prompted us to name the buck in the photos “Hitch”.
Our first photo of Hitch, taken in late July. The forked brow tine on his left side is a dead giveaway.
Fast forward to October 1st, our first day in stand on this farm. Opening Morning was relatively uneventful as we only saw one small buck and a doe. During the middle of the day while killing time before our evening hunt we checked our trail camera again, this time on a different fence crossing, and once again captured several photos of Hitch – this time out of velvet.
The next, and last, photo captured of Hitch on this farm. This photo was taken in late September and we never got another photo of him on this farm. Although we weren't getting pictures of him, we were confident he was still around.
Over the next several weeks we only hunted this farm a total of 3 days. While we knew the farm was holding some good deer, we didn’t want to ruin our hunting before things were getting good. At just over 100 acres it’s easy to put too much pressure on the deer early and decrease your chances of shooting a good buck. We’ve made that mistake in the past and didn’t want to make it again. So we bit our tongues and we waited.
The weekend of October 29th it was time to get serious. Instead of leaving home at 2:30 am like we had done previously, we drove out on Friday night and got a hotel room. Some extra sleep and a shower were in order now that the bigger bucks were likely on their feet during daylight hours.
Our plan for this morning was somewhat different than the previous 3 trips to the farm. Instead of circling around the edge of the property and coming in from the West, we were going to sneak straight up the middle and approach the stand from the East. You see, earlier in October during our morning walk into the stand we had spooked what sounded like a big deer in the standing corn field. Upon closer inspection of the area we found several big scrapes, some rubs and a definite “smell” of buck. Whoever it was, that deer had been marking his territory when we so rudely interrupted him. Not wanting to make the same mistake again, we altered our entry route accordingly.
Upon entering the woods on Saturday morning we once again encountered the distinct smell of buck. Many of you likely know what I’m talking about. The musky smell of rutting whitetail buck is unmistakable and running into that during late October likely means you’re in a buck’s core area. Also during our trip into the stand, which was our first to this stand for the year, we found several big beds that reinforced our theory that we were in a buck’s bedroom.
As the sun rose on the chilly 29 degree morning, the daylight revealed several rubs and a scrape all within 30 yards of our stand location. Although we had hung this stand in preparation for a good travel route, it appears that we ended up in a buck bedding area. In late October in Northern Illinois there are certainly worse places to be!
The first hour of our morning was relatively uneventful until a small button buck made an appearance. Showing up almost directly downwind of us the young buck was nervous, but unsure of just what he was smelling. This is until he busted us up in the tree, trying to have a little fun at his expense. I supposed that’s what we get for screwing around.
Our first visitor of the day, a young button buck. Anytime you start seeing yearlings out on your own you know the rut is getting close.
Roughly 45 minutes later, shortly before 9 am, I heard footsteps on the ridge to our West and shortly after I spotted a deer moving through the brush. I told Mike we had a deer on the opposite ridge working our way, and we both stood up. As the deer moved out from behind a tree the glimmer of white antlers could be seen and my heart rate quickened. I put up my Vortex binoculars to size the buck up, to which Mike responded “Put away your binoculars and grab your bow, it’s a shooter!”
Of course I didn’t listen to him as I wanted to make 100% sure this buck was a shooter before I switched my brain into kill mode. I’ve made the mistake before of not taking time to confirm the buck’s age and rack size and buck fever has gotten the best of me. However, that wasn’t a problem this time. As soon as my glass hit his rack I said to Mike “It’s Hitch”. I immediately put down the binos and reached for my Mathews.
A shot of Hitch as he approached our stand location. Here at roughly 35 yards I have no good shot opportunities.
Over the course of the next several minutes Hitch crossed the ridge and made his way in front of our stand. He crossed broadside at just over 30 yards, but I had no shot. The problem with hunting these hilly areas is that often times you can’t get high enough up in the trees to trim long shooting lanes, which was the case here. Most of my shots were within 20 yards so he was going to have to close the distance before I could get an arrow headed his direction.
After passing in front of the stand Hitch took an abrupt left and began heading away from us. Immediately, a small feeling of defeat began to set in. He had come so close, but was now headed in the wrong direction. While part of me immediately wanted to reach for my grunt call in an attempt to turn him around, the veteran deer hunter in me knew better. The buck was still within 40 yards and grunting too soon would sure do nothing but send him in the opposite direction even faster. My plan was to let him get out to 80 yards or so before hitting the call. But before that could happen, a little bit of luck headed my way. Hitch decided to turn around and come back towards us.
As the buck approached our stand and got to within 20 yards he had two trails to pick from. Both crossed well within shooting range, but one went into an open area that would make for great video and the other behind a small tree holding on dearly to its leaves. At this point my luck had started to run out, as he picked the trail shrouded by fall foliage.
When Hitch stepped into the open at just 18 yards I grunted to stop him, settled the pin on his shoulder, and sent an NAP Hellrazor tipped arrow his way. The arrow slammed into the brute’s shoulder and he tore off up the hill, stopping just 50 yards away. After just 20 seconds the mighty warrior staggered, and despite his best efforts, fell over as Mike continued to roll footage. Nearly 3 months to the day after showing up on our trail camera, Hitch was dead.
The post-shot celebration was much as you would expect. Mike and I were in somewhat of a state of disbelief as to what just happened. You see, things just never seem to work out like this for us. We hunt harder than most people we know, put more time into our stand setups and preparation, and yet rarely do our plans seem to go, well, as planned. In this case, our plan was thought out and executed to perfection. In just the 7th sit on a brand new farm the #1 target on our Hit List was down. What a way to end October!
My initial reaction after the shot. I can't believe I just shot Hitch!
Once the shock wore off and text messages were sent out we climbed down to retrieve our trophy. Despite seeing him fall we still followed the blood trail, which was incredible. Both deer I’ve shot with the Hellrazor this season have left great trails, which is a testament to both good shot placement as well as razor sharp broadheads. You don’t need a 2 inch cut to put a deer down quickly provided you hit them in the right place. My shot on Hitch was about 3 inches further forward than I would have liked, however my arrow penetrated completely through the big-bodied whitetail thanks to the ultra tough Hellrazor broadhead. I know a lot of guys like big cutting diameters, but I'll take a small, accurate, tough-as-nails broadhead any day no matter how big the cutting diameter.
There are few better feelings for a bow hunter than the first time you wrap your hands around the antlers of a buck you just shot.
Guessing Hitch at 225+ lbs on the hoof we enlisted the help of our friend and other hunting partner Mr. Kenny Tekampe to help us drag the brute out. Luckily we only had about a 60 yard drag to the field edge, where we were able to drive the truck and pick him up. After a photo and video session for this week’s episode of Bowhunt or Die we loaded him up and headed to the deer processor.
I didn’t have a chance to put a tape to him, but I would guess he scores somewhere around 145 inches, which makes him my best buck to date. I’ve yet to enter any of my qualifying bucks into the P&Y record book, but I just may with this one. He is a great example of what the Midwest has to offer when it comes to high quality whitetails.
My best buck to date, and first buck shot with my Mathews z7 Xtreme. If my luck continues it won't be the last either.
One thing I want to point out before I end this Blog is that this buck wasn’t a result of just my efforts alone. It was a team effort that required of hard work, planning, and sacrifice by my friend, hunting partner, cameraman and partner in crime Mike Willand. Mike and I dedicate nearly ½ of our season each year to film each other, which is not only a lot of work but a huge sacrifice. For those of you who have never done it, imagine sitting in a tree on a cold November morning with your bow in the truck and a camera in your hand.
So a big Thank You goes out to Mike for all of his help. From finding this farm for us to hunt, to battling with me about treestand locations to filming one of the most memorable hunts of my life, you’re a great friend and not a half bad cameraman. Hopefully I can repay the favor before the season is over!
Be sure to check out our online show, Bowhunt or Die, this Friday as the full video of this hunt will be featured in this week’s episode. And if you missed last week’s show, but sure to check it out as it features Mike’s hunt for a great suburban whitetail from earlier this October.
The end of a successful hunt is always bittersweet. The thrill of the hunt is mixed with the disappointment of knowing this particular adventure has come to an end. However, knowing that the season is young and the peak of the rut is still ahead of us gives me hope that there are more exciting hunts to come before the 2011 season is over.