The hunt that almost wasn't
By Mike Handley
Photos Courtesy of Ben Spanjers
Faced with enduring the constant belching of diesels and smell of dirt and fuel, most deer hunters would've thrown their trucks into reverse and left in their own cloud of dust - the sanctity of "prime time" ruined.
Ben Spanjers thought about leaving. The affable bowhunter wasn't a happy camper when he saw the earth-moving equipment and dump trucks about 100 yards from his treestand. But because he had nothing better to do that evening, he parked, got out and walked to the tree.
Although he suspected the whole exercise would be futile, Ben had 500 reminders back home that it could end with a thwack.
At least the wind was right.
The residents of Hokah, Minn. (pop. 600), had been talking about an enormous buck for years. Some residents put out feed for it in winter. One man found its sheds in his back yard.
The wrecker of bird feeders had even dodged a bullet in 2006, when a shotgunner missed what should've been a slam-dunk at 25 yards.
Sure that everyone was exaggerating, Ben paid the rumors little mind. Truth be told, he was sick of hearing about the alleged giant buck ... the "Hokah Legend," as it was reverently known. How could it be the same deer, season after season?
But that was before a buddy saw it in August 2008 and stated matter-of-factly that it wore at least 200 inches of antler.
"My friend knows deer," Ben said. "If he said it was a 200-incher, there was no doubt. That's when I finally started believing the rumors."
Three days after that, Ben's father-in-law, George Walther, called.
George owns 40 acres on the outskirts of town, right next to the Root River, a local garbage dump and a large tract of public ground. Only about eight of the acres are wooded. He called Ben to tell him the legendary buck was standing on his property, out in the wide open.
"I'm looking at it right now," he said.
When Ben arrived, the buck had disappeared. But he jumped it out of the last rows of standing corn when he drove a bit too far out into the field. It was every bit as impressive as his neighbors and friend had claimed.
Ben later borrowed a Reconyx trail camera from his buddy, Josh Swenson, and affixed it to an old plow at George's suggestion. From that setup, he collected no less than 500 photographs of the buck in a three-week period. (Because the camera was an infrared model, pictures were taken every second an animal was in front of the unit.)
Ben would've never thought to attach the camera to the abandoned plow. But he knows better than to argue with a farmer who sees the deer every day.
"They may not care about them," he said, "but they sure know them."
It was very hard for Ben to keep those photos to himself; he didn't show them to anyone. The buck passed by the same turnip patch on a regular basis, mostly at night. But once a week, it was late going back to its bed in the morning.
Ben figured that if he could be there on one of those mornings, he might get a crack at the Hokah Legend.
Having a day-by-day, photographic account of the buck's habits led him to purchase a cheap stand and climbing sticks (his pricey ones were already hanging elsewhere) and erect it near the turnip patch where the buck had been photographed numerous times. Josh helped.
If he'd gone in blindly, looking for a place to hang a stand, Ben never would've put it where they did.
"It was really a crappy spot," he said. "Only a couple of trees were climbable. And we had to cut shooting lanes.
"Right before we left, I climbed up in the stand one last time and saw a limb that might be a problem. I asked Josh to cut it ... and, boy, am I glad I did!"
Promising spot aside, Ben decided not to hunt from it unless the wind was favorable.
On Oct. 3, after putting in a day at the department store he manages, Ben realized that for the sixth time since he'd hung the stand at George's place, the wind was perfect. It didn't matter that the rut was at least three weeks away. If he waited for that, the deer might wander back on the adjacent and vast public tract in search of does.
"That's where the buck probably spent most of its life anyway," Ben theorized.
There wasn't much time to hunt when he got home from work, but it was either stay home and help the neighbors with some concrete, or head to the stand. His wife, Michelle, practically pushed him out the door.
When he arrived, excavators were loading dirt in large dump trucks not more than 100 yards away. Ben almost turned around and went back home, but he remembered the photos.
The trucks went in and out of the area the whole afternoon, the last one rumbling off about 6:15. Between 15 and 20 minutes later, the deer appeared.
"It had to have been there the whole time they were moving that dirt around," Ben swore. "It was bedded probably 50 or 60 yards from the trucks.
"But rather than being spooky, it acted as if it didn't have a care in the world," he added. "It wasn't even playing the wind, which was at its back."
When the buck was within 5 yards of Ben's tree, it looked up at the man at full draw. But it didn't recognize the threat and continued underneath the stand. When it was about 7 yards out and going the other way, Ben sent an arrow into the textbook quartering-away target.
"Even though it didn't exit, the arrow's flight was perfect. It caught everything," Ben said. "Of course, that meant there was no exit hole. I think it might have bled 10 drops ... total."
Ben text-messaged Michelle after the deer disappeared. She was at her father's house to celebrate his 60th birthday.
"I got him," the message read.
Three hours later, Ben returned to look for the deer with his brother-in-law, Kevin, and a friend. The three guys found nothing.
The next morning, Ben and four other guys picked up the trail. George figured the buck would head toward the nearby river. His hunch was correct, though the animal never reached water. It made its last bed without attempting to jump a fence en route.
Hunter: Ben Spanjers
Official Score: 209 7/8"
Composite Score: 233 3 /8"
-- Reprinted from the October 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.