By Robert Gratson
-- We’ve all heard tales of a hunter shooting a deer and then someone taking it from them. This is one of those stories. It happened to me in Fayette County back in the 1992 archery season.
I was hunting with a very close friend who we will call Adam. We were hunting a local farm in which my brother-in-law, Brandon, put us on after introducing us to the landowner. Brandon kept telling us of a giant buck that he saw in one of the fields almost every morning on the way to work and occasionally while spotting.
One day, we met with the landowner, and he immediately informed us that he bowhunted the one back field edge by a pond, but didn’t care what other part we hunted as long as we stayed away from there. We happily agreed. The landowner was awesome. He drove us around the property showing us where he had been seeing lots of deer in the mornings and evening. This took a lot of legwork out of the equation, almost too good to be true.
The next week, Adam and I hunted the farm with somewhat good success. It was early in the season, and we’d already passed up a couple of bucks in hopes of spotting the big buck that Brandon was seeing. But after a two weeks of seeing only small bucks and a bunch of does, we were about to give up on the farm. Then the big buck showed for a few minutes one evening while we were leaving the woods. It was too dark to make him out for sure, but we could tell just how large he was by his silhouette against a light-colored cornfield. We were excited about hunting the property again.
After a few more fruitless hunts, we sat down to discuss what we were doing wrong. We were beginning to see the big buck more frequently, but he simply didn’t show until almost dark. But we knew he was there and hoped that at some point, the buck would make a fatal mistake. Then it happened.
On the final Friday of archery season, Adam and I were hunting a thicket overlooking a small grain field, maybe 3 acres in size. All week, we’d seen a group of does in the field being chased by smaller bucks.
I was in the corner of the field where the fence line ran through the woods. Adam was about 50 yards behind me, up in the woods. We were set up and ready to go by 2 p.m. But after two hours of seeing nothing, not even a doe, I was getting a sinking feeling that this hunt was another useless attempt.
I was right. I did see two does moving out of sight across the lower edge of the field about 100 yards away. But for some reason, I was still disgusted and decided to quit early. I walked up to Adam. He, too, was a bit disgusted, but said he had heard a couple of very deep-throated grunts in the thick woods behind him.
I told him about the does I saw and where they were heading. He said that it was the same direction that the grunting buck seemed to be going. So we decided to sneak out into the field and see what we could find in these last few minutes of hunting.
We edged back down past my stand together and turned where the does were heading. After walking a couple of minutes, I noticed the backs of three deer in front of us about 75 yards away, just over the roll over in the field.
But there was nothing we could do. We were in the middle of the field with no cover. There was, however, a round hay bale about 10 yards from us. We dropped to our knees to sneak to it. When Adam began to crawl, all three heads popped up, and the middle deer was our buck.
"Don’t move!" I hissed. The big buck was looking right at us. Adam froze. I was up on my knees by his shoulder. I told him that I would hit the grunt just to see if the buck would react. He did!
I hit the grunt tube again, and the buck started stomping and moving quickly in our direction. Adam whispered that our silhouette must look like a deer. He told me to take a shot if he came close enough. The buck trotted to within a perfect 20-yard shot and stopped broadside. I drew and released. I will never forget the CRFACK! sound as the arrow hit the buck. He reared up and bolted across the field into the cornfield.
We both knew that I’d hit him, but were concerned over how fast he took off. We waited 20 minutes. It was almost dark. We went to where the buck stood and immediately found hair. Then we started finding small drops of blood, which led to bigger and bigger spots. but all were very unwanted dark blood. We tracked the buck to the fence. Somehow, he went under it instead of over it and into the cornfield.
The cornfield was only 30 yards wide, and we decided to enter it in hopes of finding the buck there. But when we exited the field, we were greeted with a "Hey!" from above. We looked up, and there was the property owner.
He asked what we were doing, and I told him that I hit one. I then asked if he saw it. He said no, but heard the corn busting and all kinds of noise heading right down the middle of it. Right then, I made the mistake of taking someone else’s advice and waiting until morning. I knew the deer wasn’t far. But it was dark. We all talked for a minute with each other and all three of us walked out.
I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. I tossed and turned and even contemplated going back out at 3 a.m. on my own. But I waited for Brandon and Adam. They showed up at 5 a.m., and we headed out. By the time we got to the spot of the shot, it was 6:00. We tracked the deer just as we did the night before right into the cornfield. The blood was there, but scarce, and we lost if near the other side of it. We figured the property owner was right; the deer turned and ran down through the middle of the field.
I started that way then I heard Brandon holler "Rob, over here!" I ran over through the corn, and he was standing on the edge just below where we saw the owner the night before. He said, "Look here. There is good blood heading into this ravine." I was confused at this point. The ravine is only 25 yards wide and I knew the owner had to see the buck pass his stand at only 15 yards below him. We went into the ravine and to the edge of the field on the other side.
My world came crashing down. There was a gut pile, and to make it worse, my arrow lay in the middle of it. We talked for a minute and thought just maybe the landowner recovered the deer for me. We followed the drag mark through the frost until it stopped at a set of fresh tire tracks in the frost. We followed the tire tracks right to the farm owner’s barn. The doors were locked, so we walked up to the house.
The owner was sitting at the table drinking coffee. I asked if he found my buck. He said "Heck no, but I killed a monster this morning, just a little while ago to be exact" We all looked at each other, and Adam said, "But if that’s true, why is Rob’s arrow in the gut pile?" At that point, the owner became a little confrontational and started babbling about the arrow being his and so on and so on. We asked to see the deer, and he outright refused us. I was disgusted and walked out the door.
That was the last time I ever spoke to the man or hunted anywhere within five miles of his farm. He was a member of a club that I belonged tom and everybody would say, "Man, you should have seen the buck Ray got on his farm."
I took it for a while, never saying anything until the night that the buck pool was announced. Then I heard it "This years winner is Ray!" He came in holding the tremendous rack. This was the first time I saw the rack or any part of the buck since that day. I immediately turned bright-red and stood up saying "Why don’t you tell them the truth about that deer, Ray? I am sure everyone would like to hear it." I stated my story and walked out. Everybody looked at me as if I were nuts. I felt really strange after saying that, and never returned to the club again.
The years passed and I put the incident in the back of my mind. Someday when the time was right, maybe I would tell the story to one of my kids.
This is where the story takes a turn. On December 8, 2006, my family lost everything we owned to a horrible house fire. Some things were irreplaceable: my hunting journals, story portfolios and many treasured trophies from years past. I was left with nothing. Then, in 2007, I opened the door as I was leaving and was greeted by a UPS delivery drive with a large box. I opened it immediately and was amazed, excited, upset and a loss for what I was feeling at the time. It was the big buck’s rack from 1992 and a letter from the landowner’s son. This is what it said:
I hope that the rack made it OK. It’s all and the least that I "we" can do. When I heard you and your family lost everything (even your mounts) in the fire. I was crushed but thankful that you and your family made it out OK. Then I remembered this deer. Honestly, you knew the story, and dad never confessed to taking that buck from you until the summer of 2002. For ten years, we honestly thought you were just crazy and jealous. I am so sorry. You rightfully own this buck, and you are the hunter who killed this beautiful animal. Now that they are in their rightful owner’s hands after all these years, I am looking forward to the story about how this hunt transpired for real, and from the actual person who killed it. Well, I guess very big CONGRATULATIONS! is in order. That’s a great buck. In case you were unaware, dad passed in 2004 while shoveling snow. It happened quickly. I know that he really would want you to have these. He mentioned numerous times since 2002 about trying to approach you, but never could bring himself to do it. We would love to have you back on the farm to hunt someday. Please stop by the house. My brother still lives there and is expecting you and wants to show you that there are still some really big bucks on it. Dad was the last one to hunt it back in 2001. Eric and I don’t hunt anymore. Our careers are too demanding, taking him and I out of time more often than not. I traveled to Virginia so much that I ended up buying a house here in 2002. Been here ever since."
Gary & Eric
In the end, I still have an empty feeling in my heart, even after having this magnificent trophy again. I have the memory of that hunt, but never was able to truly appreciate what this animal was and what it gave to me in the end, its life. To me, hunting and harvesting any animal has a much greater importance than just a set of bones for the wall and a few memories. It’s the giving of thanks to the animal that just went through the ultimate sacrifice for someone he didn’t even know, and to the Lord above for allowing this to happen. Maybe that’s why I love this sport so much and have experienced these great moments, memories and seasons. I feel that I have been truly blessed. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for me.