By Darin Fager
Darin Fager can thank the deer gods that his best buck in 21 years of hunting was stoned on estrus at the time of their meeting. Photo Courtesy of Darin Fager
First of all, to answer a couple of questions: Yes, my doctor has confirmed that I did indeed have two heart attacks and a stroke during my 2007 hunt. And yes, this buck is for sale, if you want to put my son through college.
Oh, and by the way, if you want to know where I shot my deer, all I can say is it was somewhere in southern Illinois. If you want to know exactly where, just send me directions to your best hunting spot, and I will do the same.
Here's how it all transpired.
At 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17, I heard a deer grunting from within a small stand of trees about 200 yards distant. A few minutes later, a doe burst out of the trees with this monster on her heels. She was running full tilt, and her suitor was trying to corral her like a cutting horse. As if the buck needed a constant reminder that the object of its affection was in or very near estrus, Romeo kept his nose no more than 6 inches off the ground.
When the deer passed through a stand of saplings, I could hear the buck's rack smacking into branches, even though it was turning its head to weave through the gaps. I was amazed at the antlers' mass and number of points.
The doe and buck looped back into the trees in a matter of 15 seconds. The buck had been so fast, I never was able to acquire it in my sights.
Afterward, I was almost dumbstruck. "What just happened?" I asked. "Holy cow ... what a massive buck!"
I was both excited to have seen that deer and disappointed that it was gone.
For the next 45 minutes, the buck grunted every 10 minutes, and then the doe made another loop down out of the trees, the buck right on her tail, sort of growling. It was a low, strong and constant grunt.
I thought for a second that it wanted to eat her. And she apparently thought the same thing because she looked like she was running for her life.
Fortunately for me, she paused in some saplings, and the buck followed suit. It was about 135 yards away, and I was set up with a bipod and a field chair. My scoped .50-caliber muzzleloader is certainly capable of dropping deer out to 150 yards.
I had my gun rested firmly and had what looked like an open shot. But when I squeezed the trigger and waited a few seconds for the cloud of smoke to dissipate, the buck was still standing there. I couldn't believe it.
Wondering the whole time if it was about to fall over dead, I immediately started the 30-second process of reloading. After the bullet got stuck in the speed-loader, I had to put my ramrod through it and into my barrel. When I'd finally seated the bullet, I reloaded the primer.
Again rested firm, I shot for the second time.
It looked like a bottle rocket spiraled out of my barrel, leaving a 50-yard-long contrail.
Photo Courtesy of Darin Fager
The buck looked over at me through the smoke trail, and then turned back to the doe. I thought I was done. My heart slid into my lower intestine. I sat there for probably 10 minutes, scoping him out, thinking my barrel was plugged or something because I couldn't see light through my breech plug.
Frankly, I wasn't thinking clearly. I could see all the junk, split tines and mass on that rack, and I almost vomited.
I even considered, for a minute, grunting, rattling or even trying to sneak within pistol range - none of which would work, since the deer knew something was amiss.
While I kept running through my options, the buck was just standing there. I ultimately decided to clear my barrel with a primer (which was not actually necessary). If the buck was still there, I'd shoot again. So I reloaded a primer and fired it. The deer glanced my way and then moved a few yards up the hill.
I couldn't reload fast enough. But, again, the confounded bullet got stuck in the speed loader. I finally loaded the primer with my slightly shaking hands, rested and took aim.
At that point, the buck was quartering away at 150 yards. I squeezed off my last shot, and the animal finally hit the ground.
All those moments of doubt and anxiety instantly turned to complete elation.
I am glad this dude was into that silly doe, and thankful she stood around the whole time.
I must say, in my defense, that I didn't miss this deer six times - contrary to rumors. I only actually missed once. And even then, I stand firm that the bullet hit a sapling that was not detectable to my naked eye.
By the way, the best explanation for the bottle rocket is that I had bad or fouled powder. Another thought was that when I was in a hurry to reload, I might not have fully seated the blackpowder pellets and bullet completely against the breech plug (though some say I would not be telling this story if that had been the case).
After the season was over, I was given some very interesting photographs of my deer in velvet, taken by another hunter earlier in the year. The pictures show two points that had been broken off before I shot the buck. One was a 6- to 8-inch irregular point branching off the right P-3 that shot back into the middle of the rack. Also, a 2-inch sticker at the base of the right antler was missing.
In closing, it wouldn't be right if I failed to mention my hunting partner, Grant Guthman. He scouted this area and encouraged me to hunt near him. He even gave me his boots after I waterlogged mine on opening morning. I probably wouldn't have had this hunt without him.
Hunter: Darin Fager
Official Score: 192 5/8"
Composite Score: 208 6/8"
-- Reprinted from the November 2008 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.