By Jeff Stephens
-- Part 1: The 2005 bow season started out very slow. The property I hunt is 500 acres that consists of a dozen 30-acre cornfields separated by strips of heavy tree lines and two 40-acre woodlots. There are a dozen bow hunters who have permission to hunt this property. By the first of November, we had taken just three does.
Our problem was that the deer were all living in the standing corn and no one was seeing anything to shoot. Our goal on this farm is to thin out the deer population and help the landowner save his crops and landscaping. The corn had not been harvested yet so the deer had plenty of places to hide and feed without exposing themselves to danger.
I have three stands on the property. Two are on opposite sides of the cornfield and the third stand is located in a funnel between a small lake and a cattail swamp. The funnel is only about 75 yards wide and my stand is on the side closest to the swamp. I have seen deer crossing the swamp on several occasions and have been lucky enough to grunt, bleat or rattle some nice bucks out to me. I have never shot one from this stand but came really close a few times.
On Saturday morning Nov. 5, I was in my stand overlooking the swamp. I had seen some bucks start to seek out the does in the area, so I thought I would try my doe bleat can and see what I might lure out of the cattails. Just as it was light enough to see, a doe ran through the narrow strip of woods behind me. I waited for several minutes to see if she had a boyfriend following, but no such luck. I pulled out my bleat can and tipped it over three or four times then got ready. After 5 minutes or so later I noticed movement coming my way along the edge of the swamp.
Here came a small 6-pointer trying to find the source of the bleat. I started looking for a good shooting window and was seriously thinking of venison burger after six weeks of an empty freezer.
The deer was going to pass at 25 yards, but at the last moment, the buck moved a few yards off the trail. There were too many small branches in the way for a solid shot. So, I watched the buck enter the woods and walk away. Then I tried the doe call hoping it would lure it back in for a better shot.
After 30 seconds, I called twice and waited, but the buck did not come back. I waited 5 more minutes and broadcasted several more bleats and added a buck grunt. Within moments, a big buck walked in on the same trail that the 6-pointer had followed. I was afraid this buck would veer off the trail like the smaller buck did earlier, so I decided to shoot through the one small hole that I felt confident an arrow could fly through. As the buck entered my lane, I came to full draw. The buck stopped perfectly broadside, and I made my shot.
The buck raced into the woods and started to circle behind me. I could see my arrow sticking out just behind its left shoulder and realized at that moment this was a dead deer. The deer only ran 15 yards behind me before I heard it stop, but I could not see the buck through the leaves hanging from the trees. A few seconds later, I heard the buck fall. I stayed in my tree for 30 minutes to calm down and make sure that when I finally got down the buck would not get up and bolt away. I slowly descended and peeked around my tree. I knew this was a good buck, but I was really surprised to see just how big it was.
The buck had a perfect 10-point rack with four stickers coming off its bases, two on each side. However, three of the stickers were an inch long making it a 13-point deer. One side scored 69 5/8 and the other 69 7/8 with a 16-inch inside spread. The buck gross scored 156 inches and had a dressed weight of 190 pounds.
It was only 7 a.m., and I was done hunting for the day. I called my son, Jeff Jr., and he and my nephew, Paul Stephens, came out to help with the dragging.
Paul used to do professional photography so he brought along his digital camera. Between his camera and mine we shot 60 pictures. Paul put all of his pictures on a disk for me and brought me a photo that I now have framed on my desk at work. I guess six weeks isn't so long to wait for venison burgers, after all.
Part Two: People who hunt with me know that Jeff Jr. claims I have a golden horseshoe hidden somewhere. We make a bet every year on who will get the biggest buck. We also started a friendly bet last year on our favorite baseball team. He's a Sox fan and I am a Cubs fan.
As I was about to pay off my losing bet with my son, he suggested we go double or nothing on our annual big buck bet. Now that you have read part one of this story, we know who is on the way to breaking even, but not so fast.
Nine days after shooting Mr. 156, I went out after work in a drizzling rain to bowhunt. According to my wife, this proved that I am crazy. In Illinois you can buy more than one tag, but you can only shoot two bucks no matter which weapon is used. I always buy two bow tags just in case. I checked one of my stands along the cornfield, but I did not like the wind direction and decided to walk the 100 yards to my swamp stand.
As I was almost to my stand, I saw a deer out of the corner of my eye trotting across in front of me about 20 yards. If I already had been in my stand, the deer would have been 10 yards from my tree. I froze in place, and so did the buck. It was on the other side of some bushes that were too thick to shoot through, trying to figure out what I was. Slowly, I pulled an arrow from my bow quiver and relied on my 30 years of finger shooting because my release was in my pocket. I drew my bow.
The buck still could not figure out what I was (I own good rain camo), and the wind was in my face. The buck then stepped forward 3 feet to get a better look, and gave me a good broadside shot at his chest. I never saw the arrow connect, but I watched the buck run 25 yards, slow down, wobble and fall over. I didn't even get a good look at its rack before I released, but I saw enough to know the buck was a shooter. As I walked slowly over to it, all I could see was a very wide rack sticking out of a brush pile.
The buck had a 22 1/2-inch inside spread. The 8-pointer gross scored 146 inches with 3 or 4 inches of his left brow tine broken off and tipped the scales at 205 pounds field-dressed. Not only had I shot my second biggest buck nine days earlier, but now my third best buck of my life would be going on the wall, and more venison was going in the freezer.
I took out my cell phone, called Junior and said, "Junior, are you busy? You're not going believe this!"
I thank God for golden horseshoes and strong young deer draggers.