During the long drive up to Illinois, Greg Smith and his father stopped at Bass Pro Shops to pick up some last-minute gear. Among his purchases were new fixed-blade broadheads (he normally shoots expandables). He'd planned to shoot a few arrows before actually hunting with them, but he never got the chance.
By Mike Handley
Photo courtesy of Greg Smith
Father and son could only watch, mouths agape, as the doe and an enormous buck rose from the CRP and bounded off to the next grassy field. The guys' bows and climbers were in the truck, locked away while they were investigating a possible stand site within the public tract they'd never visited before that day.
Had the deer acted more like the ones the Smiths usually chase back home in Georgia, Greg would've never entertained the wild notion his dad, Tony, dismissed as a waste of precious little time. But the buck had slowed to a walk when it reached the adjoining field, giving Greg just enough hope that he might be able to get ahead of it.
"You'll never see that deer again," said Tony, watching his 26-year-old son frantically pulling gear from the truck.
The Smiths - Greg, his dad and brother, Tony Jr. - had gained permits for the quota hunt at Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County, Ill. Their cousin, Doug Cunningham, had put their names in the hat for the 2009 draw. He drew, too, but not for the Nov. 13-19 window.
During the 12-hour drive north, Greg and his dad stopped at a Bass Pro Shops store for some last-minute gear, and Greg marveled over some of the mounted whitetails.
"I'll never see anything that big," he sighed.
"But, you know, I was okay with it," he added. "I never expected it to happen, but at least I could always hope and wonder, 'What if?'"
They met Tony Jr., who had driven over from hunting in Indiana, and checked into a motel around 4 a.m. on Nov. 13, almost missing the first day. After a little shuteye and late breakfast, they drove to the WMA to check in and do some scouting. They normally arrive at least a day in advance to scout, but Greg and his father couldn't break away early.
It was noon by the time they checked out the first spot; almost 3:00 when they reached the second, which is where they jumped the deer.
They began the second scouting trip by walking an equestrian trail, but they ran into a hunter and turned around. Greg and his dad spotted what looked like an oak from a distance - that turned out to be a hickory - and wondered if it was dropping acorns. The doe and buck got up as the men were walking toward it.
"I knew that buck was an easy book deer," Greg said, "and it was angling in the direction of a road.
"That the deer was just walking really surprised me. If you jump a deer back in Georgia, it'll clear the county," he added.
Without voicing his plans, Greg sprinted for the truck - leaving his dad trying to dial his brother's number to tell him what they'd just seen. Tony Sr. reached the truck just as Greg was pulling out his gear. He'd already slid into his camo.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm fixin' to cut that rascal off," Greg answered.
"You'll never see that deer again," his father scoffed.
Greg began following a timbered ridge to the right of the CRP, slipping slowly and quietly forward until he found himself within 40 yards of a bedded buck and a doe.
"I thought it might've been THE buck, at first," he said, "but it was an 8-pointer with one side broken off. Even so, I didn't want to spook it. I couldn't go any farther."
Ten minutes later, the buck rose and fed off to the right toward a creek bed. The doe was 40 yards to Greg's left.
Soon thereafter, Greg heard a ruckus on the opposite hillside as a buck - THE buck - chased a doe over its crest. She dipped down and came up Greg's hill, passing within 20 yards. The broken 8-pointer passed within 15 feet.
Greg dropped his rangefinder. He barely had time to draw. He tried grunting three or four times, but the bull of the woods never slowed. All Greg could do was frantically scan ahead of it and pick out an opening.
He watched the buck's nose, ear and neck pass through the lane, and then he let the arrow fly.
"I heard a loud thud, but everything was happening so fast, I didn't know if I'd hit the deer or a tree. I usually wouldn't take a running shot like that, but this buck was so big, I had to try," he said.
The deer jumped a fallen tree and then went back down the hill. Greg never saw it go up the other side. He nocked a second arrow and sat there for 20 or 30 minutes, praying: "God, please let me find this deer or have missed it!" And then he called his dad.
"I just stuck him: a deer bigger than anything I ever dreamed of," he whispered. It also was the first buck he'd shot or shot at with his bow (not counting a buttonhead he once mistook for a doe).
Greg is colorblind - a colorblind house painter. He cannot see blood. So he backed out to wait for his dad, who had decided to hang his stand near the hickory they'd first thought was an oak.
His brother had driven to where they'd parked, but when Tony Sr. and Greg were nowhere to be seen, he'd decided to continue his own scouting and left. Greg actually saw his brother driving down the road and called him.
"My brother was laughing at me. He said I was talking 90 miles an hour and not making too much sense. I was flustered," Greg said.
The two colorblind brothers and their dad started tracking at 4:30. Tony Jr. was the first to find blood as well as the front half of Greg's arrow.
Senior found the rest of it. They followed the sparse trail for three hours, up and down hills and through CRP. When two of their three flashlights died, they decided to back out for the night.
Upon returning, they picked up the trail and followed it, speck by speck. At one point, all three men were on hands and knees, looking for pinpoints of blood. Tony Jr. eventually left them to see if he could find anyone with a tracking dog.
Tony Sr. and Greg stuck to the trail and found where the buck crossed the main road and went into a cornfield. When Junior rejoined them, Greg circled the field, while his dad and brother plowed ahead. Greg came across a gut pile where the corn gave way to a bean field, and his heart sank.
He tried to call the Tonys, but he couldn't get a signal. So he went back to where they'd entered the corn. While he was licking his wounds, another extended family member, Keith, called. He'd taken a 150-inch 9-pointer. When he heard what they were doing, he offered to help look for Greg's deer.
Turns out, the gut pile couldn't have been from Greg's buck. The blood trail didn't veer that way; it led to a creek. The four guys followed the bank on the other side until they found blood again - more than they'd been seeing. The buck never once lay down, but it looked as if it was stopping every five or 10 feet.
At 1:30, while babysitting the last drops, Greg looked off to the side and saw what might be antlers.
"I went berserk," he admitted. "I bet I covered those 20 yards in three bounds."
They retrieved some rope from the truck and dragged the buck, inch by inch, to the 20-yard-wide creek with 15-foot-high banks. They tied the rope to the antlers and used it and trees to leverage the buck across the creek. That took awhile.
Once across, they were able to load it onto a deer cart.
"Keith thanked me for letting him take part in the recovery," Greg said.
"Afterward, he told me: 'I'm not going to say you'll never get a better one ... but you might as well sell your hunting stuff.'"
Much was made over the deer by passers-by.
"One guy even ditched his truck to take pictures of it," Greg said.
He couldn't drag the deer - or even its head and cape - into the motel for the remainder of the week, but he could've stashed it in a meat processor's cooler and hung around to help his dad and brother. But Greg chose to go another route, buying two big coolers at Wal-Mart and driving all the way home.
"I lost a rack by leaving a deer at the processor's one time," he said. "I wasn't going to let this baby out of my sight."
• Hunter: Greg Smith
• Official Score: 189 7/8
• Composite: 207 1/8
• Compound Bow
-- Reprinted from the August 2010 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.