DISCLAIMER-If you are only interested in the juicy details of the hunt please skip straight to Friday. Otherwise enjoy the read.
Those that have known me on the web for a long time and that I have had the pleasure of meeting in person know that like most here I have a great love of bowhunting. Because of this I have set some items on my bucket list that involve this sport. One of those items was to score on a net Pope and Young buck. This is something that has eluded me for many years. Not that I haven’t had my chances. I’ve seen a couple of potential gross Booners while hunting and had plenty of bucks that would have achieved my goal within range, but for one reason or another I have not been successful in putting that together until this year. Now, after 24 years of bowhunting I can scratch that one off the list.
Over the last several years reaching that goal seemed to get farther from my grasp rather than nearer. Being the age where my career is taking off and my kids are becoming involved in their own activities my time in the woods has become less and less. The days of trekking out to run dozens of trail cameras and manage food in front of them as well as spending every evening glassing fields are behind me for now. They are now replaced with either late night work or ice hockey practices, lacrosse practices or games and skating lessons. Because of this I made the decision to use the resources afforded to me by all of my hard work at my job as well as the love and support of my family and treat myself to a guided hunt.
Initially the hunt was to be with a friend that guides in Nebraska and would be a gun hunt. He has had tremendous success out there and wanted to take myself and 3 other friends out at a discounted rate. Everything was moving forward until he lost some properties and replaced them with new leases. My friends and I decided it would be best to not spend our precious vacation time and put money into a hunt where we would essentially be guinea pigs on new properties potentially putting unnecessary strain on a valued friendship. So I decided to shift my sights onto a fully guided bowhunt in one of the big midwestern states, Illinois, Iowa, or Kansas. Iowa was quickly moved down the list due to the fact that I have zero preference points and getting a tag was not likely. Kansas is a fairly drastic departure from the kind of hunting I’m used to making it a less likely candidate. Which left Illinois, a state that I’ve always wanted to hunt and offered the kind of hunting I’m more familiar with.
With my state picked I looked at outfitters and guide services. After an extensive search I narrowed the field and after combing through references and client feedback I made a request for an application. Within 3 hours of submitting my request I received a call from the owner and after a 2 hour conversation, most of which was exchanging hunting stories, I made my decision and went with IMB Outfitters in Pike County, IL.
I then booked my hunt for November 5-9 and sent in for my non-resident IL license. I sent an email to my friends that were going to go to Nebraska with me and let them know my plans. All were initially excited, but never committed to going so I was flying solo.
Fast forward to November and after getting through Hurricane Sandy with minimal impact I loaded the car and started my 15 hour drive straight from coaching my son’s hockey game. I drove to west of Indianapolis where I stopped off to rest leaving me with 4 or so hours of driving the next day. After the short final leg I pulled into the camp around lunch time to find two beautiful lodges waiting for me. I got out, stretched my legs and walked over to the skinning pole and found this lying on the ground.
Nice bucks on the ground already and the temperature was due to drop. The weather was calling for a little rain, but nothing too drastic.
I got myself checked in and was shown my room which I had all to myself. While waiting for dinner we got to watch the field behind the lodge fill up with deer and 3 shooters including one buck easily in the mid to high 140′s dogging does out in the field. Quite an encouraging start. After the first of many delicious meals at dinner I was introduced to my guide, Shane. Shane would be the guide for myself and one other hunter for the week. In his hand was a binder that had all of the properties that IMB leases. Each guide has 7-8 properties assigned to him and him alone and each property has anywhere from 2 to up to 12 stands on it. A hunter could easily hunt morning and evening in a different stand every day and not hunt the same stand twice. The way the guides work there is they are in camp for several months usually starting in late September and ending at the end of second gun season. There are two lead-guides that are on the property 9-12 months a year. They scout all year long and then tell the other guides what they are seeing and advise them on where to focus their scouting and where to hang stands. The stands are ladders and lock-ons that range in height from 15′ up to 25′ which was the highest I was in. There are also some ground blinds on some of the properties. Once the stands are hung the guide picks out several options for his hunters based on wind and activity and then the selections have to be approved by the lead-guides. At the end of each hunt the guides report their hunters sightings in the form of total deer seen, total shooters (125″ or above) seen, and total opportunities (shooter within 35 yards).
Shane told myself and Joe, my hunting partner from Albany, NY for the week, where we would be sitting. I was to be sitting at a timber edge overlooking a clear cut with goldenrod in it that served as a transition from food on top of the hill to bedding that was behind me. That takes us to Monday morning.
Morning Hunt-The conditions were less than ideal. The little bit of rain turned into a steady rain that lasted all morning with temperatures in high 30′s. I had a favorable wind, but that just served to drive the wind into my face. My stand was a 15′ ladder and I was at the bottom of the hill. This was a bit of a concern being low where any deer at around 30 yards would have been at eye level with me. I did have a cedar tree behind me with branches the wrapped around me providing good background cover. The morning proved to be uneventful as I only saw a single doe that popped out of the draw to me left and a basket 6 point. The 6 point decided to spar with a few saplings in the clear cut which provided some entertainment. I lasted until about 10 am until I was thoroughly soaked despite the best efforts of my rain gear. Joe had already given up and we headed back to the lodge to dry our gear and warm up.
Evening Hunt-The rain had lessened by the afternoon, but it was still fairly cool. I was heading to a spot that had 3 draws to it that converged at one point. I would be sitting in the middle draw with a corn field on either side of me. On the way into the spot we saw a good buck that was borderline heading toward the property I was hunting. Unfortunately as the truck approached he turned and went the other way. I geared up and headed to my stand. Now the IMB guides will take you all the way to the stand, help you get in, and hand your gear up to you if you wish. However, in an effort to minimize intrusion and scent I asked Shane to point me to where my stand was and I would take it from there. On the way to my stand walking the edge of the corn field that was only about 60-70 yards wide I saw a lot of scrape activity. As I walked I came across a small basket racked buck on the opposite side of the field from me. I got down so he could not see me and watched as he slipped into the far draw and then continued to my stand. Once in and settled I had the wind in my face. As I sat the evening was eventful as I had a doe slip into my draw from the corn on my left as I glassed to the right. She was at 25 yards when I saw her working away from me. I then saw 4 more doe off to the left that worked to the edge of my draw and then skirted the edge. I saw another doe in the field to my right and she worked down the edge toward me and then cut across to the other draw. All of the tarsals on every doe I saw was stark white indicating none of them were approaching estrous yet. Night closed in and ended my first evening with no shot opportunities.
After dinner that evening Shane showed us where he wanted us to hunt the next morning. I would be on the same property hunting a buck called Nacho. He is a main-frame 10 that is not tremendously wide, but has great mass and height. He is probably a mid-140′s buck.
Monday also showed some success for some hunters in camp as this 130” buck was on the ground.
Morning Hunt-Tuesday morning I was on the opposite end of the property I had hunted Monday evening. The draw that had been to my left the night before was still on my left with the large corn field spread out between the hedge row I was in and the creek bottom that formed that draw. Both the draw and the hedge row came together a a large block of timber that was a bedding area for the deer. As I settled into the stand the pad on the seat was like a cold sponge from Monday’s rain so I took it off and had to sit on the plastic seat. The stand was similar to a Muddy hang on and was quite comfortable despite not having a seat pad. The morning was largely uneventful as I saw 4 does about 100 yards off move down to the edge of the draw to my left. They followed the edge away from me out of sight. I also saw a coyote off to my right. Other than that, nothing.
After a delicious lunch Shane showed me a stand he had hoped I could have hunted the evening before but after discussing it with the lead-guides they opted not to put me there due to the winds being out of the east and into the cover the deer use. This property had several promising bucks on it. One was called Inferno and he had a spread that was at least 24″ inside and was a main frame 10. Easy mid to high 150′s buck. The other buck was a big 8 whose name is Godfather, but he had a brow tine that was no lie about 12″-14″ on his left side. He was probably in the low 140′s but if he still had that brow he had in the trail pictures he would be unmistakable. The last buck was a buck named Hybrid. He had large long beams that sweep upwards disguising a very wide spread. He had extremely long tines and great mass and would fall easily in the 160″ class.
Evening Hunt-The stand I was in for that night was a lock on that was about 25′ up with alfalfa on two sides and cut corn between the alfalfa. It was a small rise with cedars on the bottom that just seems to suck deer to it. Once up in the stand which was brand new and had a great seat but was not very long I could feel my back starting to tighten up. After about 45 minutes I found myself involuntarily rocking in the stand due my own backstrap having massive spasms on me. Approaching the age of 40 sucks, and I know it’s not going to get any better. I texted Shane and told him I had to get down or I was going to blow deer out because I could not sit still. Shane suggested I get down and move up a depression in the field to a hay bail blind that was across from me in an hedge row with other bails. This proved to be a critical move. After getting down and loosening up my back I got into the blind. Shortly after getting set up I saw a doe coming from the bedding timber behind me and bolting full speed across the field. Her tarsals were stained, but there was nothing chasing her. She went down to the rise across from the stand I had been in and would have given me a 30 yard broadside shot. A little later two more does come running across the field full speed in my direction. Again nothing chasing them and I lost them behind a rise in the field. Then off to my left around 4 pm 3 does and a basket 4 point came out of a patch of timber about 140 yards away. The does fed across the field and made there way around to near the stand I had been in, but out of range of that stand. The buck bedded in the field. He stayed bedded until around 4:30 when he got up and it was apparent something was headed his way. A small doe came out first. Then several other does. Then a very respectable buck that was in the mid 120′s. Very close to being a shooter, but I wasn’t focused on him because last came out Hybrid. What a buck. He milled around with the other deer and then went out of sight over the rise in the hill. When he came back he pushed the 4 point away from the does. I threw some calls at him, but this old boy wasn’t having it. I tried light seductive bleats, I tried soft tending grunts, I tried aggressive threatening grunts and growls, I tried snort wheezes, I tried rattling, I tried everything short of singing him love songs from the ’80s. He looked in my direction, but without visual confirmation of what he was hearing he was not heading my way. I watched him all the way until dark when he went back down below the rise in the field and out of sight with the other deer.
Once back at the truck I told Joe and Shane what I had seen and pointed out to where he came from on the map of the property. Shane elated and crushed me at the same time when he said, “We have a ladder stand right there.” Had I known that I would have had a shot at that deer. There was no question where I was going to be the next day and while they do not like putting guys on the same property to keep everyone happy I encouraged Joe to sit another stand leading to the other bedding area hoping to catch Hybrid or that other good buck going back to bed in the morning. I assured Shane that I did not mind sharing the property if one of us could get a crack at Hybrid. We agreed it would be an all-day sit.
Tuesday also saw some other hunter success as a buck named Caribou was killed. This buck had such tremendous mass and beam length it was hard to believe. Despite having only a 10” spread the buck scored 144 5/8”
Dinner was especially delicious that night as the thoughts of that buck crossing into range served to whet the appetite. Sleep was hard to come by knowing what potentially awaited the next morning.
All-Day Hunt-The morning came rather quickly with little sleep and we got ourselves ready and out to the stands. Joe was on a corner of a hedge row and a small strip of timber that the deer hug heading back to a bedding area on the west side of the property. I was down the same hedge row in a clump of trees at the bottom of a bowl that funneled the deer into a block of bedding timber on the east side of the property. Lady luck was not smiling on us that morning as the winds were severe and approaching 30 mph. The deer I had seen the night before likely headed for the cedars and their protective cover as that low pressure system settled in and brought those winds. It was a long 13 hours as I sat the entire day without seeing a single deer. Joe saw several does being dogged by a buck in the very far distance early in the day and that was it. A very big let down from the night before. This was also the first time in my hunting career that I have done and all-day sit and not seen a single deer. Fortunately it was not the only first for me on this trip and the others were much greater highlights.
I told Shane I would go wherever he put me as I had faith in his knowledge and my ideas clearly did not pan out. It was clear that finding a property that had rutting activity on it was critical to success.
I went to bed exhausted and drained.
Morning Hunt-Shane put me on a property that Joe had hunted earlier in the week and had seen some good activity. I was at the bottom part of a ridge overlooking a creek that the deer follow from a cut corn field that was out to my 11 o’clock back to bedding which was up behind me. There was also a cow pasture off to my right that the deer traveled. I was still bitter over my all-day skunking but hopeful that this morning would be more promising. My spirits quickly dwindled as a coyote crossed in front of me out near the creek at 6:30 in the morning. Shortly after that another coyote crossed at about 45 yards. With my frustration peaking the contemplation of sending a meat missile its way crossed my mind. The $35 projectile’s cost stayed my hand for the time being. I then watched the coyote patrol the edge of the cut corn field I was hoping deer would be coming from. Then around 7:30 a bunny came running for its life right past my stand. I looked to see a third coyote pursuing it and this one was plenty close. As it searched the brush for its furry breakfast I had had enough and prepared to send this dog to puppy heaven. It got to 17 yards and was down in a gully as I began to draw. As I started to creep my string back it popped its head out of the gully and looked right at me and took off. I looked over at the cowering bunny to my left as I cursed my luck and he stared back as if to thank me for saving his bacon. To make matters worse I was texting Joe and he was covered up with deer. He had seen over 15 deer, 5 bucks, 3 shooters, and one slammer. While I was happy for him my luck had me in the dumps. This was the low point of my trip. Fortunately from here everything started looking up. Around 8:45 I caught two doe crossing the creek about 100 yards away heading toward the field. Nothing exciting but at that point seeing deer was a plus. Around 9:30 I decided to do a rattling sequence. About 20 minutes later I caught a buck creeping up the fence of the cow pasture heading my way. Once he was 60 yards out and I could see the fence was leading him away from me I hit him with a few bleats. That stopped him in his tracks and had him looking my way. I put the end of my grunt in my jacket and threw a few soft tending bleats his way. Then I followed with a few more bleats and that was all he could stand. He jumped the fence and headed my way. As he got closer I could tell he was clearly not a shooter, but a good 2.5 year old 8 point that was around 120″. He came in and crossed to my right (perfect for a left hand shooter like me) at 17 yards oblivious to my presence. I saw that his G2 on his left side was broken and only had 2-3 inches left. He came by and crossed behind my tree at maybe 3 yards. Then he hit my trail I walked in on and got jumpy. He moved out to 35 yards and then up behind me and out the ridge top. A very fun encounter with a buck that will make somebody plenty happy in a year or two.
Thursday morning saw some redemption for a hunter that had missed a Booner earlier in the week with a double-main beam buck shot on his last morning.
After getting out for lunch Joe was as excited as I had been the evening when I saw Hybrid. He said all the bucks he saw headed toward the corner of the property and that somebody needed to hunt the blind that was in that corner. He wanted to stay in the stand he was in that morning for the evening. After making sure he didn’t mind if I hunted the blind on the same piece as him he told me that he did not care and reminded me that I wanted him to hunt the same property as me to try for Hybrid. It was really great to hunt with someone that I had never met before that week and have them appreciate what to me was a small gesture and reciprocate it with what to him was no big deal but meant the world to me. Hunters really need to act like Joe more often.
Evening Hunt-We got out to the spot that Joe had now hunted twice. It was a large CRP field with cut corn all around it and a bowl on the south side of the property. The northern edge of the bowl started a block of timber that ran down into the center of the bowl. The eastern side of the timber had an open strip about 30-40 yards wide and then ran into a hedge row that ran all the way down the property to a corner. On the top side above the bowl fingers of depression ran up the property like waves on the ocean. The deer would drop down into these fingers for cover or walk the tops. The blind I was hunting was in the top northern corner of the property where several of the fingers dump out. It would be a great spot for gun hunters, but the nearest finger and the top was all that could be reached by bow. I was encouraged though as I walked in I saw two does within archery range of the blind and one was only 10 yards from it. I settled in and waited and as the shadows got long I found that the shoot through mesh made seeing difficult as the evening sun was right on them. I didn’t want to open them though as that sun would then be illuminating the inside of the blind and me with it. Suddenly around 4:30 a doe popped up out of one of the finger depressions 25 yards away. She was definitely spooky so I got prepared. Shortly after she bounded away a buck came up but he was at about 32 yards. I could immediately tell he was a buck, but he was not a “holy crap” buck so I wanted to make sure he made the 125” minimum before shooting. The glare on the windows was making this very difficult. As he stepped out I could see he was a 10 point with 6-7 inch G2s and 8-9 inch G3s with 3ish inch G4s and then he quartered away from me I could see he had a decent frame that would put him in the high 120” low 130” range. By this time he was at 42 yards and quartering very hard away from me. If he took a step toward me to lessen the angle I would have shot, but with such a small window at that range it was just too risky. He never turned and bounded away after the doe. I threw a couple of calls at him, but he had the real thing. I believe he was 2.5 years old. I looked back over my left shoulder and there was a low 120” 8 point coming into my calls. Of course he read the script and walked in at 22 yards broadside before dropping into one of the fingers. As the evening wore on I saw a few more does and the 10 and the doe popped out into the far cut corn field. All in all it was a good evening and it was clear that we had found a property that was hot with rutting activity.
When we got back to the truck it was a tough decision on what to do on our last day. It was do or die time and while I saw some pretty good activity and actually got my first shot opportunity of the week Joe saw very little activity. Joe had decided that he wanted to sit the stand in the hedge row where he saw bucks cruising Thursday morning so I decided to sit in the stand he was in that morning in the bowl. The tough decision was what to do in the evening. Should I go back to the blind where I had the good activity or give Hybrid one last shot?
Morning Hunt-Coming down to the last day of the hunt I knew that the decision on where to sit was critical, but I felt really good about the morning spot. Joe had seen fantastic activity the day before and from my evening sit I knew the rut activity was hot in that location. We got in early and my stand was in the center of the block of timber sitting on the north side of the bowl. The wind was out of the south southeast which was perfect. Once I was settling into the stand I heard a deer coming to my stand so I killed my light and had to quietly finish getting ready in the pitch black. The morning light came and there was activity all around me. Unfortunately it was all squirrel activity. At about 5 minutes to 7 I texted Joe to let him know I was going to do a rattling sequence since we were only about 150 yards apart. I’m not sure why I did this but I faced the tree to rattle. I started out with some aggressive deep grunts followed by a few snort wheezes. Then I banged the pack rack together and got after it. After about 30 seconds of rattling I heard a deer crashing into the woods from my left and looked over to see a spike coming to watch the action. I quickly hung up my pack rack on the ladder and watched as the spike came to 20 yards and stopped. At that point I heard another deer coming up a draw in the bowl from my right. Fortunately I was facing the tree because I could simply peek around the tree to see what was approaching. When I did I immediately knew the buck that was already at 18 yards and closing was a shooter. I first noted his tine length which was very impressive and then his mass which he carried out between his G2s and G3s. I noticed that he was not very wide but that concern was washed away when I saw how strong his brow tines were. Now I had to get in position to shoot him. With one buck 20 yards away and another approaching I had to get my bow off the hook and get turned around in the stand. Fortunately the spike was now fixated on the big 8 point approaching to see who was fighting on his turf. I carefully lifted my bow from the hook and started turning from left to right with the big 8 toward my back. As I completed my turn the buck was now only 5 yards from my stand walking from behind me to out in front of me. There was a small sapling in front of me that presumably provided cover when there were leaves on it. Now all it did was block my shot. As the buck continued up the hill I peeked over my right shoulder to the spike and he was still focused on the bigger buck so I started to ease back the string on my bow. As I reached full draw I concentrated on the spot I wanted to hit on the buck that was quartering away hard but not a terrible angle. I waited for the buck to clear the branches on the sapling and when he did I stopped him and then burned the pin into the spot where I wanted the arrow to land on the deer that was now about 15 yards from me. I touched off the release and was horrified to see the arrow’s fletching kick to the right and bury itself deep into the rump of the buck. I was so focused on the shot that I missed the one little branch that was reaching into my sight window waiting to reach out and grab my fletching as it zipped by. The buck jumped and ran about 15 yards up the hill and turned toward the spike that had now jumped down into the opposite draw. He must have thought that the spike gored him because he did not take his eyes off that deer. He flicked his tail and I could see a steady stream of blood flowing down his back legs, but not a mortal shot. With each step the buck’s back end would buckle and he would almost fall. I nocked another arrow and prepared to make amends for my first terrible shot. I ranged the buck at 32 yards and waited for him to clear the tree that was covering his vitals. He took two steps toward the spike nearly falling again, but now there was a 3 inch branch running up the length of his body and after my first voyage on the fail boat I wasn’t going to chance another shot that was not clear. I knew the buck would take another couple of steps toward the spike and into the clear for an even 30 yard shot. He stumbled the couple of steps I needed toward the spike and I came to full draw. He stopped and I settled my 30 yard pin halfway up his barrel chest and released. This arrow flew true and smacked into his vitals and cracked into his far shoulder pushing through to the other side. The buck ran off clearly hurt and blood was pouring out of him as he snapped off the back of my arrow as he ran. He only made it about 60 yards before he stopped and did a sideways stumble to fall to the spot where his last breath would be taken. From there the fist pumping began. I was as excited and emotional about taking this buck as any that I can remember. I started thinking about my wife who was at home taking care of the kids on her own and how supportive she has been for me to take this trip. I was thinking about my son who I promised that if I shot a buck on this trip the mount would go in his room. I started thinking about my daughter who at 3 asks where the bucks are when we are driving around and she sees the woods. I thought about my friends that had been texting me all week to see how my trip was going and wishing me luck. I thought about Shane and all the work he was putting in to get us on deer and how clearly nervous he was when things were not going our way with a genuine interest in seeing us succeed. I thought about Joe who had graciously not only allowed me to share the property I had just killed this buck on with him, but who had sat in the very stand I was in the morning before. All of these thoughts and emotions washed over me and were overwhelming me. Just then my phone vibrated in my pocket and I looked at it to see a text from Joe asking “WTF was that? Did you just shoot?” I told him that I just smoked a big 8 point and could almost feel the elation from him in his response. Shortly after that he called and as we talked I looked back over my shoulder and saw another good buck coming right to me. I hung up with Joe and got a couple of phone pics of the deer.
He was not quite a shooter, but close. He’ll be another stud next year. After the buck moved away from where Joe was I let him know he had left. He asked if I wanted to get down and get my buck and at a little after 7 am I told him no that I would wait and not mess up his hunt and that my buck was going nowhere. It was a good thing too because the 10 point that I had seen the night before came by Joe and presented him a shot. Unfortunately his arrow also found a branch resulting in a clean miss. After waiting a few hours and no more deer showing themselves Shane came out so I could put my hands on my buck. You couldn’t have smacked the smile off of my face if you tried. So without further delay here are some pictures of my buck that has represents lifetime achievement for me.
I would like to take a moment to thank my guide Shane for all of the work he put in for us this week and having a sincere interest in seeing us succeed that cannot be feigned. At the risk of sounding like a commercial I would like to thank IMB Outfitters. Their guides, accommodations, meals, professionalism, and approach to hunting is second to none. I will be booking there again, without question. I would like to thank Joe for being a great hunting partner and being so unselfish when he easily and justifiably could have. I know that I have made a hunting friendship that will be long lasting. I want to thank my friends for pulling for me. Most importantly I would like to thank my wife and kids for supporting me and allowing me the opportunity to complete something that may seem silly to most people, but was immensely important to me.
Thank you all for taking the time to share my story.