Old Fashion Leg Work
It was my 5th straight night of a cold cheeseburger and fries. The last night before the 2nd Firearms season here in Illinois. I had been glassing a field full of does for a week looking for the buck I had seen one afternoon during the archery season. The encounter was brief to say the least. I had not located a shooter buck during the off season. The cameras had been full of small bucks and 3-year-olds, so I was moving from stand to stand trying to locate one. Tough season. I was not hunting my usual rut stands located on the surrounding ridges because you can’t shoot them if you can’t find them. I had instead been sitting a majority of my time on the field stands hoping to locate an area that a shooter buck had claimed as his own.
The 4th week of October had me again sitting on a large ag. field looking. I had not given up hope but was very discouraged and tired. My attitude was bad to say the least. No shooters, no sleep, and cold weather had beat me down to about my shoe level. I had seen plenty of deer but nothing above the age of 3. It was getting close to sunset when it happened. I was looking at my accounts on my phone to see who had connected with a trophy already and not paying much attention to my surroundings. I happened to glance up from my phone when a giant old buck stepped out a mere 25 yards from my position. He had his nose to the ground like a bloodhound looking for an escaped prisoner. I quickly grabbed my Ravin and laid it on the stick. A quick grunt with my mouth was a futile attempt to stop him. He turned his head in my direction, never missing a step, and bolted into an adjacent timber line. I just stared at the field not believing what had just happened. The old buck had played this game before. Instead of stopping to check out the grunt, he jumped and turned on the afterburners not evening using a trail into the other timber but instead making his own through the thick honeysuckle and multiflora rose that bordered the field edge. Darkness was setting in as I lowered the bow and pack to the ground. I turned on my light and scanned the area the buck had emerged from an hour ago. There was no trail. He had just bulldozed his way through the brush down wind of a major doe trail. He was using his nose much like a good gun dog looking for a downed bird. No wonder I had not had any pics of this brute. He does not run the trails. Oh, he was a smart one. He probably had a few encounters with hunters before. Maybe even had been cut by a failed shot. The walk back to my Tundra was a slow one through the mud. It was miserable. The added 10 pounds of mud on my boots did nothing for my already bad attitude, but the good thing was I had a buck to chase and that upped my spirits a bit.
Fast forward to the last week of November. I had been in the stand day in and day out trying to get this buck on the ground without as much as a glimpse of him checking or chasing does. He had probably locked down doe after doe not moving much from the dense cover in that area. A week before 2nd gun season had me wondering if he had been tagged by another hunter or locked down on another farm. I had been moving from stand to stand in that area, but no dice. He had vanished. I sat at the dinner table staring at my bowl of soup picking burrs from my shirt tossing them into the garbage can. Was he still around I pondered? I was not seeing him or his tracks. I sat staring into the bowl of soup when I made a decision. I was not going to hunt the last week before gun season. Instead, I would spend each evening at a strategic location searching the fields for him. I had seen a pretty sizeable group of does feeding in a picked corn field from the highway each evening on my way home. This was as good as any place to start. I hunted ducks the next morning and I was having about as much luck with them old birds as I was having locating the buck, I had named Houdini. Much like the great magician, he too had vanished into thin air.
Night after night, I did the same thing. I picked a burger up at the local choke and puke and headed my way to a group of grain bins where I would set up the tripod and mount a pair of 1970ish binos my dad had let me borrow from his Walrus hunt in Alaska many years ago. They could look at a gnats a.. at a mile away but would break your neck if you had to carry them. It was Wednesday the evening before the 2nd firearm season here in Illinois. I started my nightly ritual of picking up a burger and headed to the grain bins for a sit. Unfolding my chair and setting up the tripod was a rough one. The cold northwest wind was cutting through my light jacket sending chills up my spine. I had all but lost hope in relocating the buck, if he was still alive. A half hour into my glassing the does started to enter the field. Small group after group entered the field until there was around 2 dozen scouring the ground for grain the picker had missed.
During that week, they worked about 400 hundred yards of field and were feeding near a small outside corner of the giant field. With around a half hour of light left, I saw one of the groups of does all turn and look toward the edge of the field staring hard. I worked the adjustment on the binos and scanned the wood line. Just as fate would have it, a great buck stepped out and gazed at the feeding does. He walked methodically through the groups’ scent checking each group for any sign they were in heat or close. He was a good one but I was not sure if it was the same buck I had seen. I quickly searched the wood line hoping to find a place to set up the next evening when another great buck stepped into the field. He too was looking for another girlfriend. I was waiting for a fight, but they both worked their way through the does, lip curling, try to catch the scent of a hot doe before the other could. Wow, two months without any luck and here I had two shooters both in my field. Darkness was fast approaching. I looked hard to find an approach route to get to the area without busting the does out that were bedding right on the edge of the field. A quick glance on my phone for tomorrow’s wind direction, there was a low swale in the field that would get me to the wood line without them seeing or winding me, that’s if the weatherman was right on his prediction for the next day. Darkness fell over the landscape as both bucks fed in the field.
The next night had me headed to the farm around noon. I had chosen not to hunt the morning for an afternoon sit. Around 12:15, I hit the swale methodically working my way slowly toward the tree line, checking the wind as I went. At around 1:30 I had reached my destination.
The point I had worked to was a little low, not offering me much of a view of the field. Just in the timber line was a large hinge cut brush pile. I slowly cut my way with a hand saw into the top of the pile, using the larger trees as steps. After I was comfortable with my position, I climbed back down and grabbed my Remington and pack. I was in a good spot and hopefully had not spooked the bedding does and one of the bucks I had seen the night before.
The sun was starting to set when the first group of does started to enter the field. They did not have a care in the world as they stepped one by one into the cut corn field. There were 8 in the field. They were hard to see because of the position of the sun as it lowered on the horizon directly behind the feeding group. Another group of does emerged on the other side of the point working their way towards the middle of the field. The wind had died. I hoped the buck would show himself before the 2nd group of does cut my trail in and sound an alarm of a foreign intruder in their feeding area. With around a dozen does in the field and only about an hour of legal shooting time left, a big doe from the first group started to stare back at the wood line. Could this be the buck? Several more raised their heads and stared at the same spot.
I slowly raised the Remington and set it on my shooting sticks. I was having a hard time ranging the does as the setting sun was directly behind them. I moved the Nikon range finder back and forth until it finally locked in a range of around 120 yards. I laid it back on my chest and waited. It did not take long before the buck stepped out of the brush and slowly walked into the field. I put the Remington to my shoulder and buried my face into the Leopold 3×9 scope. I could not see anything. The sun was directly setting through his antlers. I knew he was big and had mass, but I could not see the cross hairs in the scope. I was freaking out as he was moving further into the field getting closer to my effective range with the shotgun.
I then remembered a trick my father had taught me at the range when I used to tag along with him on afternoons when his buddies and him were at the range sighting in there Weatherby’s for another international hunt. He would take off his cap and hold it over the top of the scope to stop the glare. I quickly removed my hat and laid it across the top of the scope. It worked. I could now see the cross hairs and the dark silhouette of the buck. He had worked his way another 20 yards or so into the field when I got on him. I bleated and he stopped. I placed the cross hairs on his upper shoulder because he had moved out another 20 yards and touched off the Remington letting the 285 grain AccuTip slug loose. There was no thump. He whirled towards the timber and disappeared without so much as a flinch. The does scattered and within seconds there was nothing but silence. Had I misjudged the distance? Had he been farther into the field? Had the slug penetrated only corn stubble? My mind raced as I tried to relive the shot in my mind. It was only a blur. I ejected the shell and started to load my pack. I was shaking pretty bad and about half of my gear made it into the pack with the other half bouncing off the tangle of branches under my feet. I worked my way down from my perch and laid the pack on the ground. I loaded another slug into the chamber and cautiously worked towards the edge.
The tall horse weeds prevented me from seeing the field, so I was reluctant to move very fast. Five feet to go and I just took a deep breath and proceeded. I stepped into the field and searched the wood line. To my amazement, the buck was laying just at the edge of the field stone dead. I let out a howl that could have been heard from several blocks away. I started toward the buck. I could see bone of his large rack from a hundred yards away. This, my friends, is a good thing. He was a slob, probably pushing 275 field dressed. His massive neck and head almost dwarfed the set of thick dark antlers. I began to count 9 long points, but where was the G2? He had broken it off during a fight, probably with the other giant I had seen the night before. A few pics tagged and he was loaded into the truck. What a story I thought to myself as I pulled on to the frontage road and headed home.
The next day found me caping him out and calling Mike Reliford, my taxidermist, telling him I would be headed his way in another hour or so. I pulled into his drive, and we talked about the broke tine. The rack was perfectly symmetrical. Had he not broken that tine he would be pushing the 170-inch mark that we trophy hunters shoot for. Inside, we put a tape to the rack. On the broke side, we just used the same measurement from the good G2 for the measurement of the one that had been lost. After his quick math adding up the fractions and measurements, he looked up and said 168 7/8’s had he not lost the tine. He was still short of the 170-inch B&C mark. A great buck none the less. He assured me he could make another tine to match the broken one for the mount. He will not make the book, but in my mind, he will always be known as my 5th Booner.
It was a trying season with lots of lows, but when I lose hope and am dead tired, I always look back on that season and think it only takes a second to turn a dismal season into a great memory burned into your brain. Never give up. You are in a great Whitetail state, and they are there in the fields, the thickets and bottoms. Sometimes going back to the old ways of reading sign and glassing will prove to be an essential part of the hunt. You cannot always put all of your trust in those cameras. Even though they hunt for bucks 24/7, they don’t always see everything….
I did not guide muskies this fall but will be back into the boat next spring so remember to book your muskie trips early to be guaranteed a spot in my boat during the ice out season. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. The old trolling one has been disabled. My number is 309-267-8309 to get on the list.
SEE YA IN THE THICKETS