The 5 Season Quest For "Sweet 16"
The Whitetail Journal, August 2012
Mike Bunning would have been a happy man with a good story if his arrow had struck rib bone instead of shoulder blade when he shot at a 16-point buck in northwestern Illinois' Jo Daviess County in late October 2007.
Instead, after four more hunting seasons and bad memories of that 18-yard shot-gone-bad, Bunning became an ecstatic man with an epic tale when he killed the buck as a 19-pointer while bowhunting from the same stand Nov. 5, 2011. For those keeping score, the buck blossomed from an approximate gross score of 175 inches in 2007 to a gross green nontypical score of 220'1s inches in 2011. After the 60-day drying period, its gross typical score was 191%, its net typical score was 182'1s, its gross nontypical score was 221%, and its net nontypical score was 212%.
A great bowhunting story is more than numbers, of course. Antler scores reveal nothing of Bunning's perseverance, hard work, close calls, emotional swings and—ultimately—redemption when capitalizing on a second chance.
Bunning first spotted the buck while glassing from the roads near his property in July 2007. Bunning knew he was watching something special as he photographed the buck feeding in crop fields that year in July and August. He dubbed the buck "Sweet 16" and estimated his age at 41/2.
Bunning didn't go far when deciding where to hunt the big buck that fall. His favorite stand was only about 200 yards from the buck's frequent summer-evening feeding area. Even so, he hunted until late October before first encountering the buck again. That evening Bunning saw three bucks approaching through nearby pine trees. He passed on the first two when they reached bow range.
At that point Bunning hadn't confirmed the third buck was Sweet 16, but he knew the buck had a huge rack. The buck hung back to rub a shrub as his smaller companions walked through Bunning's 6-yard-wide shooting lane. When the big buck resumed walking, Bunning pulled back his arrow and tracked the buck's progress at full draw. When the buck's bulky beams and tremendous tines entered the shooting lane, Bunning recognized the buck and made the "mmeeeepp" sound he routinely uses to stop deer he's about to arrow.
Instead of stopping, the buck snapped his head upright and stared at Bunning while taking two steps toward him. Although the buck was no longer perfectly broadside, Bunning confidently placed his sight-pin behind its shoulder and touched the release's trigger. Crack! As the buck whirled and ran downhill away from Bunning, he saw his arrow had hit the buck's shoulder blade, penetrating just deep enough to hold tight as the shaft snapped off on the first tree the buck passed.
Bunning descended and found the arrow, which was missing the front four inches of its shaft. The buck's sparse blood trail offered no encouragement. "I found only eight drops of blood over the 80 yards from where he was hit, and then nothing," Bunning said. Even so, he and some friends spent much of the next two days conducting a grid search of several hundred square acres, but found nothing more. The buck was gone.
But was he dead? Bunning felt crushed. Relief did not come until three days later when Bunning spotted the buck feeding nearby in a cut cornfield. "He was walking fine and we couldn't see any noticeable issues," he said.
Although Bunning hunted the rest of the 2007 season and logged 75 hours on stand that autumn, he never saw the buck again. Neither did he and his friends find its sheds when hunting antlers the next spring. The buck did not reappear on his trail cameras until late July and August. It still carried 16 points, but its 12-point main-frame rack had gained a forked G 1 to go with its forked G2 and G3 tines on the right side, and carried only a forked G2 on the left side after losing its G3 split. Once the buck shed its velvet, Bunning studied his trail-cam photos and estimated the buck's rack would gross-score 185 inches.
But by the time the 2008 archery season opened, Bunning was wondering if the buck had somehow died. His fears deepened when he neither saw nor photographed the buck from September through November, despite spending at least 100 hours on stand and keeping his trail cameras deployed around his property.
Just when Bunning had almost lost hope, the buck resurfaced in December in Bunning's trail-cam photos. When taking a few days off during the New Year's break, Bunning shared his pictures with Todd Graf, a friend and neighbor he had met the previous fall. Graf, owner and founder of the Rhino Group and Bowhunting.com, owns land near Bunning's property.
As their trust and friendship grew in autumn 2008, Bunning and Graf started comparing notes on Sweet 16. Graf had never seen the buck while hunting, but he knew of him from his trail-cam photos. While sharing insights and photos in January 2009, Bunning and Graf decided to pool their resources to help each other hunt the buck.
Between them, Bunning and Graf maintain about 25 tree stands and more than 20 trail cameras, so they tried to fine-tune their approach to zero-in on the buck's known whereabouts. Eventually, they focused much of their effort on 100 acres of dense brush, oaks and pines where the buck spent most of his time.
By late summer 2009, their still photo and video-recording trail cameras revealed the buck had become an 18-pointer, and they estimated his gross score at 200 inches. Bunning and Graf spent more time doing habitat work and scouting that summer, while placing more stands and trail cameras. Despite the extra work, increased trail-cam surveillance, and both men logging 125 hours of stand time, neither man saw the buck all autumn. If not for trail-cam photos from the night of Oct. 4 and other trail-cam photos showing it chasing a doe in early November, they might have feared the buck was dead.
A trail-camera photo confirmed the buck was alive in late June. Two more trail-cam pictures in August showed his antlers taking on different characteristics, but the bowhunters didn't get a good look at his new rack until Oct. 5 when the buck "posed" for a 10-second video. Once again he had a 12-point main-frame, but only its G 1 and G2 tines on the right beam and G2 tine on the left beam were split, making it a 15-point rack. Still, Bunning and Graf estimated it would gross-score about 200 inches.
In late October, Bunning had the buck broadside at 28 yards just before legal shooting hours, so he passed on the shot. A week later Bunning saw the buck again, and got to full draw when the buck approached within 22 yards. Then the buck stopped behind a tree, turned and walked directly away, providing no shot.
Also in November, Bunning learned a neighbor had gotten to full draw on the buck, but couldn't get a shot. As Graf bowhunted deep into December, he filmed three encounters with the buck at muzzleloading distances as it browsed in a food plot. In each case, factors outside Graf's control forced the buck's retreat.
After tallying their hours on stand in 2010, Bunning logged 125 hours and Graf 175, all of it devoted to this one big buck.
After seeing the buck several times on his property that winter, Bunning and Graf gathered some friends and scoured the area in March 2011 to look for his sheds. Graf found both antlers close to where they had spotted the buck eating turnips much of the winter. The sheds confirmed their estimates—more than 200 inches.
The buck produced a 14-point main-frame rack for the first time and three split tines on both sides. He also appeared in hundreds of trail-cam photos and videos that July and August, documenting the rack's tremendous development. Then the buck disappeared from Sept. 23 through Nov. 4, causing Bunning and Graf to worry that he had been killed.
When Graf returned to hunt in early November, he grabbed the memory card from a trail camera near the site he intended to hunt. A quick review produced good news and bad. Sweet 16 still lived, but Graf had missed a great opportunity to shoot the buck the day before when it walked past his empty stand 18 yards away. During their morning hunt on Nov. 5, Bunning and Graf noticed a lot of hunting activity by neighbors, much of it near the buck's most recent trailcam photo. The wind had also picked up and was blowing the wrong direction for hunting their favorite stands.
They decided to move, settling on the area about a half-mile away where the five-season hunt had begun four years ago. Bunning chose to hunt from the tree he knew well, and Graf chose a stand about 125 yards away.
By this point, Bunning had logged nearly 50 hours on stand while Graf had logged 150. At 4 p.m., Bunning saw a buck approaching from his right. After grabbing his bow, turning on his camera and turning around to line up a shot, he realized it was a monstrous buck. When it was about 45 yards away, Bunning saw split G2s and realized this could be "him."
"My heart started to race like never before, but I didn't know if he would get close enough for a shot," Bunning said. "He paused at about 35 yards, then turned slightly and walked toward me. I saw a shooting lane where he'd be broadside at 27 yards. As he walked, I drew back and placed my 25-yard pin in the shooting lane. I decided not to stop him this time.
"When he cleared the final tree and my pin settled on his shoulder, I released the arrow. I heard the arrow hit, the deer did a jump-kick and turned to head back the way he came. Then he stopped 10 yards from where I shot him and just stood there. I couldn't see an exit hole! He started walking slowly. As I thought about nocking another arrow, he stumbled twice and fell within 20 yards."
With shaking fingers, Bunning grabbed his cell phone and texted Graf and his hunting partners that he had killed a giant buck, and it looked like Sweet 16. Texts of disbelief poured in. Trying to calm down, Bunning descended the tree and approached the dead buck 45 yards away. "That rack got bigger and bigger with every step," Bunning said. "It was him! I sat down next to him and snapped a picture. Then I just sat there, overcome with emotion."
The events of the past five seasons flashed through Bunning's mind. All those hours of scouting, trimming shooting lanes, hanging and moving stands, collecting hundreds of photos and infinite megabytes of video, and worrying through sleepless nights, wondering if the buck was still alive; was it all worth it? Heck yes!
But now the journey was over. His friends would join him, bringing with them awe and congratulations. And so he sat quietly, neither wishing for, nor worrying, whether there would be an encore. The buck of a lifetime was his, and no other deer - or story could equal the one now finished.
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