By James Stovall
When I heard that Florida’s Green Swamp WMA was going to take in another 38,000 acres of basically virgin territory that had not been hunted for 13 years, I put my name in the hat for one of the 54 permits to be granted for two different bowhunts. Fortunately, I was drawn.
I began scouting the land after ordering and obtaining topo maps and aerial photos of the area in June. The number and sizes of the buck rubs immediately impressed me. Some were the size of my lower leg, and I heard others claim they found rubs the size of their thighs. I don’t doubt it.
After weeks of scouting, I had located several shooter bucks (four points on at least one side to be legal), but none that I wanted to hunt. I was seeking a buck for the records, and I knew that property was capable of producing book-class animals.
Five days before the Sept. 25 opener, I was scouting and found four huge tracks. Knowing that the bucks were still in bachelor groups, I figured these were four good bucks, probably traveling together. I started tracking the deer the best I could, but the terrain was incredibly tough. The deer had wandered through palmetto flats interlaced with cypress hammocks and tightly woven thickets of myrtle bushes and gawberries.
I was finally able to slip inside the bucks’ core area by pure stubbornness and persistence. Sure, I lost the tracks many times, but I was able to circle and zigzag until I rediscovered them.
I had gone maybe 1,000 yards when I found myself staring at a buck the size of ... Well, there was about 200 inches of antler atop the feeding deer 40 yards in front of me. And he had no idea I was there.
I watched him for nearly two minutes through my binoculars. I tried my best to count his points, but all I counted was 17 (of the rack’s 26) because he kept moving his head. Finally, he grew uneasy and slowly moved off in a stiff-legged walk. He wasn’t sure what he saw, but he knew something was out of place.
The buck walked around a cypress pond and stood over there for close to 20 minutes. During that time, he shook like a dog after getting a bath, scratched his back with one of his drop tines, and he groomed his neck and face with his rear hoof. Other than that, he stood like a statue — staring back in my direction.
My arms were so tired of holding up my field glasses that I had to use a scrub oak limb as a prop. He finally slipped back into a thick tangle of palmettos and gawberries. After mentally choosing the best spot for a treestand, I also slipped out of the area.
A tropical depression out in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to hit shore the following morning. I went back anyway to hang my stand and trim some limbs, knowing that Mother Nature would wash away any trace of my presence. As I slipped into the area, I spooked four dandy shooters, including the big buck, right under my chosen tree.
Three hours after leaving the woods, I was dealing with mixed emotions. I was excited that there were four nice bucks in my area, but now I would be hunting one that knew he was being pursued.
The next week, I could not focus at work. I was losing sleep, and I was not eating right. This buck had literally taken over my life. I was determined to sit all day on Saturday, opening day, because I would not be able to do it on Sunday.
I was already dressed before the alarm sounded at 3 a.m. I reached the WMA’s gate at 4:00, an hour before it would open. No one else had arrived yet. I was pumped. I wanted to get to my stand well before daylight to allow the woods to settle. It was also a 30-minute walk to my stand, and I didn’t want to rush and work up a sweat. But I need not have worried. The full moon enabled me to slip quietly into the setup.
Daylight broke right after three deer walked under my tree at a mere 10 steps. The deer seemed to be following the trail I’d laid with my drag rag. One of them had a fairly high and wide rack, but he was not the big irregular buck. The rest of the morning was mostly uneventful.
Around 4 p.m., high winds, a light rain and haunting dark clouds filled the sky as a storm pushed its way up the state from the Caribbean. With winds gusting at more than 30 miles per hour, the storm passed quickly. At 6:10, I made another visual sweep of the area, and I did a double take back to the northeast. "There he is!"
I’m not sure if I said that aloud.
I quickly glassed him and confirmed that he was indeed the huge irregular buck. Even at 150 yards, I could see his distinct rack with my naked eye. He was feeding in my direction until an 8-pointer walked out and started feeding parallel to my stand. He was a great buck in his own right, but a dwarf compared to the one I wanted. The respectful, smaller buck eventually fed uphill, leaving the big guy back in the thicker cover.
Finally, at around 6:40, my buck stepped into the clear. He looked uphill at the other buck, 200 yards distant, and then he twitched his tail and began feeding in the same direction. I knew I needed to get in front of his path, and I knew exactly which path he was going to take.
I held my bow in my teeth, stepped off my stand and slipped down the stick ladder. Upon reaching the ground, I glassed the deer once again. All was calm in his world, while mine was reaching an excitement level understood only by a bowhunter. I crawled in a semicircle about 150 yards to get in front of him, through palmettos and scrub oaks.
When I could not risk another move, I slowly nocked an arrow and rose to my feet. Nearly 15 long minutes passed before he reached bow range.
Watching such a buck that close was not easy. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but I also was confident in the shot that was about to present itself. When the buck put his head down to feed, I slowly drew and sent an arrow toward my unsuspecting target.
"SMACK!" The arrow dropped the buck with a hit to his spine. A quick follow-up shot behind the last rib finished him.
I ran back to my stand to retrieve my video camera. My face and my voice betrayed my excitement.
After taping the "walk-up" (I couldn’t film myself taking the shot), I set up the camera, walked around in front and put my hands on my deer for the very first time. It was a long 13 hours in the tree, but the reward was well worth the effort.
I collect hunting videotapes, and I have always wanted to video my own hunts. My wife, Jennifer, and I purchased a camcorder only days before this hunt. I had told my friends that I just hoped to be able to video the buck so that they could see it. I got a lot more, however. I filmed the buck as he fed before I started my stalk.
The deer weighed 150 pounds, and he was only 3 1/2 years old. Not only is he the No. 1 irregular bow buck for Florida in the BTR, but he also is tops in the Pope and Young Club’s non-typical velvet category.