By Chad Hartman
It all started with a new hire, Mark, whose desk faces mine. As we came to know one another, our conversations ranged from work, fishing and boating to hunting.
Mark had bought a house on the outskirts of Winona Lake, Ind., less than half a mile from the city limits. His lot is 2.5 acres with a creek running along the backside. He said deer move through there all day long, including a buck he'd nicknamed "Big Boy."
That got my attention.
The next day, Mark showed me a photograph of the buck. We agreed that it was a worthy cover for any hunting magazine.
One look at that deer sent me daydreaming. I imagined the magnificent buck trotting toward me, hot on the trail of a doe. About the time it was within bow range, a tap on my shoulder pulled me out of my trance.
"Are you alright?" Mark asked, concern in his otherwise blank stare.
Mark is not a hunter. He didn't realize he'd just pumped me full of an almost lethal dose of adrenaline.
I walked away dazed, wondering if Mark would let me hunt that deer on his property. I'd met his wife. She'd mentioned that she loved to watch the "pretty deer."
Don't get me wrong. I, too, love to watch the "pretty deer," but I'd rather see them from my treestand.
I waited until the next day to ask if I could take "just one deer" from his property.
"One deer?" he asked. "Well, that won't hurt the deer population."
I quickly brought up deer management and how hunters need to help control the herd.
"Well, okay," Mark said. "But keep it low key."
I tried setting his mind at ease by saying I would be bowhunting; his wife would never even hear me.
Once I knew I was in the hunt, I researched topographic maps and scouted where the does might be bedding and the likely routes to and from those areas. Yes, I know it's only 2.5 acres, but my efforts helped build anticipation. If nothing else, I'd lay my best plans.
I first hunted Mark's place on Oct. 1, 2005. I saw an unbelievable 23 does. Turns out, the creek was a major morning thoroughfare. When I snuck away from there, I vowed not to return until the rut was underway.
My next trip was on Thursday, Oct. 27. I was in my stand before dawn, and deer were afoot. Does were everywhere, and many bedded down a mere 50 yards from me.
Although the wind was not in my favor, the deer didn't seem to care.
The next passers-by were four bucks, which veered off the main trail and strutted their stuff about 60 yards to my left. I could tell they knew where the does were bedded. The show reminded me of a middle school dance, complete with school bully, the next deer on the scene.
There was no doubt it was "Big Boy," grunting the whole way to let everyone know he'd arrived. He trotted past the other bucks as if they were insignificant.
About that time, another giant whitetail ambled into view. It was a 9-pointer that might've tallied 160, and it stopped abruptly when it spied Big Boy 40 yards away.
Big Boy raised his head high, stomped once and blew. The 9-pointer took two steps backward and bolted so fast I was sure it would crash into a tree.
The challenger gone, Big Boy started toward the does. As he approached my 30-yard shooting lane, I pulled back and bleated to stop him. But it had no effect, which caused me to panic. My eyes kept bouncing from the buck's incredible rack to my pins. I was so nervous that my arrow sailed two feet over his back.
Big Boy flinched and just kept going as if nothing had happened. If he'd busted me, I might've thrown myself off the 18-foot-high deer stand and ended it there.
Fifteen minutes before legal shooting time the next morning, I could hear Big Boy headed my way, grunting loudly with every other step. I looked down and marveled over his body size and antler mass as he paused broadside at 10 yards. There just wasn't enough light!
As he trotted away, oblivious to my presence, I could hear my own silent screams in sync with my own heartbeat, "COME BACK ... COME BACK!"
Sunrise came 20 minutes later, accompanied by a light fog. It was a beautiful and serene moment.
At around 6:50, I heard deer zigzagging through the woods, coming my way. Moments later, a doe passed to my right at 25 yards. It wasn't the ideal shooting lane I had visualized, but the quartering-to angle was doable if that's all I had ... and if the buck took the same path.
I heard a grunt-grunt-wheeze a few seconds later, close, and drew my bow. Big Boy walked out of the trees and into the same opening the doe had crossed. He stopped and looked at me.
It was the only possible shot I could take. I had only seconds before he would leave my shooting lane. I only glanced at his rack that time.
My carbon arrow hit the deer with so much force that it made my own knees buckle. He whirled and crashed through the woods like a bulldozer.
After thanking the Lord, I dug out my cell phone. But nobody was home. All my second-shift friends were hunting.
I went straight to my truck and drove home. I knew I needed my trailer and some help. I was on the trail an hour later, happy to see bubbles in the blood, which signified a lung hit.
I found the arrow and followed the trail 50 yards until the blood stopped. After circling the last sign, I was on the phone again, frantically trying to find friends who were home. I finally reached Chuck, who said he could be there within the hour.
Before Chuck arrived, I covered a lot of ground, crossing one paved road and searching another woodlot before returning to square one.
After pleading to God for any sign, I stumbled across one drop of blood in the middle of a large four-wheeler trail, a quarter-mile from where I'd found the last drop. The buck crossed a creek and went down a road. I lost the trail at a stop sign.
Chuck pulled up at that moment. Like me, he was amazed at how far the buck had traveled. Also, instead of staying in the woods, the buck was headed straight for town. We looked around and saw four ladies jogging, and three young kids were flying a kite. People were everywhere!
We continued weaving through yards and woodlots until I caught up with the deer, which wasn't ready to give up the ghost. He got away from me again.
While Chuck and I plowed ahead, someone apparently saw us, deduced that we were up to no good and called the police. When we rounded one house, we ran into an officer.
The curtain fell on our comedy of errors.
Just as well, I thought. I'd botched it.
At home, I watched the video from my bow-mounted camera.
Unbeknownst to me, it had been set to full zoom. I couldn't see the arrow hit the deer; I could only hear it. Thoroughly depressed, I didn't leave the house for three days.
One week later, a coworker told me his dad worked with a guy who had found my buck.
We connected, and I relayed my story. Only when convinced I was legit did he give me the telephone number of a friend, Chris, to whom he'd given the head.
After speaking and meeting with Chris, I finally got my deer. And with the help of my county conservation officer, I was able to put my archery tag on Big Boy's antlers.
Editor's Note: The story Chad sent to us was originally pushing 5,000 words - about five times longer than the average Rack magazine feature. For space's sake, the neighborhood chase and the agonizing ordeal of connecting with the people who had found or handed off the deer were greatly condensed.
Hunter: Chad Hartman
Official Score: 166 5/8
Composite: 187 1/8
-- Reprinted from the Winter 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.