Archery deer season is back in full swing in the Bluegrass State and hunters from across the state, as well as around the country, have hit the Kentucky woods in search of velvet bucks. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time this week with Will and Michelle Brantley, of Brantley Outdoors in west Kentucky, as we chased velvet bucks during the 2020 Realtree Bow Camp.
Brantley specializes in early season velvet bucks. And that was our mission – to kill a mature buck in velvet before he turned hard horn. With the 2020 archery season starting on September 5th, there was a small window to make it happen. It’s not uncommon to see the majority of the bucks in full velvet on the 5th of September, and mostly hard horn by the 7th, so we had our work cut out for us.
The Game Plan
As hard as it is to stay out of the woods on opening morning, we opted to sleep in, hang out around camp, shoot bows, check out an assortment of gear in Realtree camo, and focus on the prep work for the afternoon sit.
Bobby Redfern of Realtree gave us a closer look at a couple patterns we’d be putting to the test in a variety of terrain and landscapes. Realtree Edge and the new Realtree Excape were the patterns we’d rely on for concealment while in the treestand. These camo patterns, built into the Drive Series apparel from Element Outdoors, made for a comfortable clothing option despite the warm temperatures during our hunt.
The Realtree Excape camo is a bold new pattern that blends into a variety of landscapes, both east and west, and is unlike the typical sticks and limbs pattern that Realtree has been known for in the past.
After getting a closer look at the gear and goods, we stepped out on the camp range to loosen up, check sights, and confirm confidence in our gear before heading in for lunch.
Eating Like Kings
Hunting camp cooking can often be a feast or famine kind of deal depending on who you’re with. But the moment we stepped into the lodge and experienced the sights and smells of the eats prepared by camp cook, Michael Pendley, we knew we’d be eating like kings during our time at deer camp in Kentucky.
Pendley is the cooking guru and blogger for Realtree’s popular Timber2Table food blog. If you haven’t checked it out, give it a look. He’s a down to earth dude sharing recipes that are practical and easily prepared from what you already have in the kitchen. No crazy ingredients, or outrageous prep chores.
Nervous excitement filled the truck as we made the drive to our treestands for our first sit on the opening afternoon. It’s not unlike the jitters that come prior to kickoff on game day. I get pumped up and excited, but I’ve also got sweaty hands and a heart rate that’s kicked up a few clicks.
The first afternoon found me in a lock-on stand on a white oak ridge tucked between a field, 2-lane road, and a neighboring farm that wrapped around the backside of our property.
I slipped into the stand as quietly as possible and began to get things set up before pulling my bow up.
Temps were in the upper 80’s for the afternoon, making the long sit in the sun a tough one. Fortunately, the Realtree pants I was trying out had zip-off legs. I quickly converted the pants into shorts and sat back to wait on the action to unfold.
After a couple long hours of sweating in the sun, I heard crunching in the leaves and saw deer making their way down the ridge toward my stand. Leading the way were two fawns followed by their momma. Shortly after these deer passed through, another set of twin fawns came by with an even larger doe following behind. She was a shooter doe, no doubt, but Brantley had already warned of blowing the stand location up too early in the hunt by turning arrows loose on does. I love shooting does, so it would be a test of my patience, particularly after having 7 or 8 deer slip past in bow range as the sun began to dip lower in the sky.
It’s been said that early season velvet buck hunts typically come down to a 30 minute window of opportunity before dark. You can sit there all afternoon, but your hunt is often wrapped up in that half hour before last light.
And despite an entertaining parade of activity by the does and fawns, the buck action held true to showing up after 7:00pm.
I was surrounded by does and fawns on the oak ridge when two bucks came side-hilling the ridge in front of me. The largest buck led the way and crossed in front of me, just 18 yards away. I needed to stand to shoot through an opening in front of me, but I was pinned down with a couple of curious does giving me the evil eye. However, as the buck passed by me, the does focused on him instead of me. It was my chance to make a move.
I eased up from a seated position and did my best to quietly turn for a shot. I would have one small window in the canopy of limbs to shoot through before the buck was gone. I came to full draw as the buck approached the opening, squatted to clear a few limbs and let the arrow fly as the buck stopped on cue at 23 yards.
The shot sounded good and looked even better. My lighted nock melted behind the buck’s shoulder, sending him crashing through the woods.
I didn’t hear the buck go down, but was pretty confident I heard him cough as the lung shot did its work and brought the buck’s journey to an end. I sent a quick text to my guide, Ryan McCafferty, to let him know I had just shot a deer. We made plans to meet back at the truck and give the buck some time since I didn’t hear the deer fall, just to be safe.
After meeting back up at the truck, we decided to head back for supper before coming back with lights and a blood trailing crew to retrieve the deer.
Pendley had another amazing spread of eats waiting for us when we returned to the lodge. We ate big, swapped stories, and assembled a crew before heading back to the property to take up the blood trail.
Once we got back to the property, Will’s wife, Michelle, Ryan, and I headed back down the trail to begin a quiet approach to where I shot the deer. I showed them where the shot went down, where I first found blood, and the direction the deer ran off. Michelle is a blood trail tracking guru that’ll put most hunters to shame when it comes to spotting blood on the ground. It was good to have her along on the trail, particularly when the blood began to slow down and became more spread out.
After following the trail down into a creek, the blood trail turned back up the ridge. The buck had circled back toward my stand. A moment later, I heard Michelle say my name with extra excitement in her voice. I shined my headlamp up the ridge and saw a white belly on the ground just 20 yards away. The buck had circled back and laid dead less than 75 yards from my stand. The thick cover didn’t allow me to see him fall after the shot.
Hugs and high-fives ensued as Ryan joined us and we all began to celebrate.
It was reminder of how hunting turns strangers into friends and family as you experience the highs and lows of hunting together.
The buck was a fat-bellied scrapper with a face full of scars and a neck like November. He was easily the oldest and biggest bodied buck I’ve yet to lay hands on.
With a buck on the ground that would easily tip the scales at 250 pounds, we called the other guys in for backup on the haul out. We were just a few hundred yards from road access, but wheels and some beefed up horse power would certainly make the haul out quick and easy.
By the time we made it back to the truck, snapped some photos, got the deer in the cooler, and made the long drive back to camp, it was nearly 2:00am. It had been a long day, full of excitement and all the stuff us bowhunters dream about all year long. It was the perfect opening afternoon bowhunting velvet bucks in Kentucky.
We spent the next day sleeping in, taking more photos, and butchering deer around camp. Mike Shea, of Black Rifle Coffee Company, had killed a doe the night before as well, so he joined us for knocking out skinning chores before heading out for the afternoon hunt on Day 2.
Kentucky Meat Run
With a family of six at home, my crew goes through a lot of meat each year, so a fresh cooler full of meat was more than welcomed to get the 2020 archery season started off right.
That’s also why I jumped at the chance to climb back in the stand on the afternoon of Day 2 when Brantley offered another location that had a number of does coming through each afternoon before dark.
I climbed into the stand that evening with Kerry Wix on the back side of the tree in the Tethrd saddle to film the hunt. It was another long sit in the sun, but just about the time we were thinking we’d been stuck in the gar hole, I saw a deer moving through the brush toward our stand. As quick as I could turn and tell Wix we had a player out front, the deer was stepping into our shooting lane.
With light fading fast, I quickly got the greenlight to drop the string and let an arrow fly. The shot looked high, but the steep angle sent the arrow zipping through the doe’s lungs. She made a mad dash across the field before piling up just over the hill.
Just after dark, Brantley pulled up in the truck to pick us up. Natalie Krebs, from Outdoor Life, was riding shotgun. Krebs had killed a doe of her own on the other side of the farm earlier in the evening. It was a great end to a Kentucky meat run on Day 2.
If you ever get the itch to chase a velvet buck in the early season, be sure to holler at Will and Michelle Brantley of Brantley Outdoors. Their hospitality and down-home feel make for an early season bowhunting experience that’s hard to beat.
Bowhunting velvet bucks in Kentucky can be a feast or famine type affair. I was blessed to be in the hot seat for a couple days that allowed me to punch a few tags, and hang out in camp with some fine folks I now call friends.
Mathews VXR 28
Realtree Excape/Edge/Timber Camo
Element Drive Series Apparel
Bushnell Engage Binos and Bone Collector Rangefinder
Rage Hypodermic NC
Easton Axis Arrows
HHA Tetra Sight
HHA Virtus Arrow Rest
Hunter Safety System Shadow Harness
LaCrosse Alpha Agility Boots