By Mike Handley
Photos Courtesy of Mike Nelson
WARNING: Shooting a buck of this caliber could result in a mouthful of soap.
Graying philosophical types (and writers fond of clichés) sometimes point out that "It's the journey, not the destination" that counts. It's a reference to how one should enjoy the chapters of the book of life, each and every one, long before the climax.
In simpler terms, it means "Getting there is half the fun."
The age-old advice carried a different and more literal meaning for Mike Nelson of Oakdale, Minn., a couple of years ago. For it was the short journey back to his truck, not the hours spent in a treestand, that the 28-year-old will remember for the rest of his life.
Mike had never hunted in Illinois prior to 2006, when he was invited by a friend, Dan Ellyson (who owns A-1 Archery in Hudson, Wis.), to join a group of guys for a week of bowhunting prior to the state's first shotgun season. He'd met Dan about four years earlier, when he decided to seek out a pro shop for a new bow purchase rather than patronize one of the big box stores.
Dan told him they'd be hunting with Ben Kessler's Big Neck Outfitters, more of a self-guided affair in which Ben leases farms and provides his clients with maps.
"Dan had hunted with Ben several times. It was basically his deal. I was probably invited because one of the regulars couldn't go," Mike said. "It was affordable, so I figured, "Why not?'"
The men left Wisconsin at 2 a.m. on Nov. 11, drove almost nine hours and arrived with plenty of time to study maps and hang their stands.
Mike and another guy, Bryan, were assigned "the river farm," while the rest of the gang split another couple of tracts. They even had time to sit in their newly hung stands for the remainder of the afternoon.
After seeing nothing that first evening and only a few does and fawns the next morning, Mike and Bryan decided they should move to the west side of the small river that dissected the property. They drove around as far as they could go, planning to hike deeper into the river bottom, but the many rubs and scrapes they saw along the way merited a change of plans.
Why go any farther?
After looking around, Mike chose a promising tree. When the two men reached the base of the tree and set down their loads, Mike glanced up to see a buck bedded just 50 yards away.
"Don't move," he whispered to Bryan. "There's a friggin shooter right there!"
Bryan eased back to the truck to retrieve his bow. Only when he returned did the 10-pointer decide it might not be invisible after all and bolted, running right past the unarmed Mike. It seemed to favor its leg, which could explain its reluctance to flee earlier.
"This is IT," the guys agreed. "This is the spot."
Mike returned after lunch. He didn't see the 10-pointer, but he did pass up a decent 4x4, a deer he might've shot if he'd been back home in Wisconsin.
"The only reason I didn't is because one of the other guys shot about a 140-inch 9-pointer," he said.
There was a lot of deer activity there the next morning, but the biggest buck wore only a tight 6-point rack. After lunch (Nov. 13), however, Mike learned why Illinois is one of the most popular bowhunting destinations in North America.
Within five minutes of settling into his stand, Mike "can-called." He says he always does this as soon as he's strapped in because he feels it might de-spook anything he might've alerted getting to his stand. Within minutes, a forkhorn and a small 6-pointer passed through.
Forty-five minutes later, he heard a strange noise - more of a roar than a grunt - shortly before a spike barreled past. Twenty minutes after that episode, he heard the peculiar noise again. And that time, with the aid of binoculars, he was able to pinpoint its location AND its maker. A pig of a buck was bedded out in the CRP about 70 yards distant. Further glassing revealed that it was baby-sitting a hot doe, also bedded.
"I think every time another buck passed anywhere close to them, that guy would sound off," he said.
Mike tried everything in his personal bag of tricks - grunting, bleating and rattling - to get the buck's attention and lure it closer, but it would not leave its girlfriend.
"I'd wait a bit before trying the new greatest strategy, but nothing worked," he added.
Mike eventually realized that he was not going to pull the buck away from its doe. He also reasoned that since the two deer were directly between him and his truck 300 yards away, he'd have to loop around them, in unfamiliar territory, if he didn't want to spook them. That's why he decided to get down earlier than usual.
As quietly as possible, he descended the climbing sticks and began slipping through the CRP. The walking was much easier than he'd expected. He found himself in a clear swath through the tall grass.
At one point he glanced around to see a deer about 70 yards away and coming toward him. At first, he had no clue if the animal was a buck or doe, but then it raised its head long enough to flash a nice rack. Mike knelt and waited, sure that the buck would have to cross the swath.
When it did, Mike was ready.
"I came to full draw, thinking I was going to have a much longer shot," he said.
"As soon as the buck stepped into the open, it was no more than 25 yards away. It saw me instantly, but it was too late."
After the shot, the deer kicked and plowed nose-first into the grass. It was as if it was skiing across the CRP.
"I kinda fell apart after that," Mike admitted. "I'd only seen the antlers for two seconds, tops, but I knew it was a giant.
"I stayed on my knees for a few minutes. And then I decided to leave my bow there - to mark the spot - and crawl over to a dip in the terrain before I stood and continued on to my truck," he continued.
He called his father while en route to pick up Bryan. His father wasn't amused at Mike's unbridled exuberance and choice of adjectives in describing the big whitetail.
"Don't swear at me," he demanded.
"But I can't help it," Mike answered.
His dad hung up on him.
Mike couldn't tell his bowhunting brethren much about the buck's rack beyond the fact that there were lots of points. But that was enough to convince the entire gang - six guys - to accompany him the next morning.
Waiting for sunup was not easy for Mike. He might've been okay with Dan's suggestion that they leave the tracking for the next day if a local farmer hadn't pontificated that the coyotes wouldn't wait.
The farmer was wrong.
Hunter: Mike Nelson
Official Score: 208 1/8"
Composite Score: 225 7/8"
-- Reprinted from the September 2008 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.