Story and Photos by Tom Avery
Why don't you go hunting."
It was a statement, not a question - one every hunter longs to hear, especially from the lips of his significant other.
Mike Navrat got those marching orders on Tuesday, Nov. 6, just as he was about to start in on the chore list as long as the ladder he was hoisting. He was happy to trade his paintbrush and a gallon of "Roxbury Caramel" for his bow and a couple of arrows.
With the mercury level surging toward 80 degrees, however, Mike began second-guessing his decision to bolt for the woods. He almost turned the truck around halfway to his rendezvous with a friend, Dennis, in northeast Kansas.
2001 was the second year Mike had hunted that Jefferson County farm. The previous season was really more of a learning experience, even though it ended with his first-ever buck, a young 7-pointer. Seems Mike found the ideal vantage point among some large cottonwoods flanking thick scrub.
Mike was in no hurry to break a sweat and climb into a deer stand that day. He enjoyed a long visit with Dennis before journeying to the farthest corner of the property about 3:45.
The 10-foot-high ladder stand was dwarfed by the massive cottonwood to which it was attached. Not 15 minutes aloft, Mike spotted something moving about 50 yards south. A large doe was slipping through the woods, nervous, as if being pursued. By the time the surprised hunter got his bearings and recognized the spectacle that was unfolding, it was too late for him to stand.
He was sitting down, twisted to the right with bow on his lap. The wary doe stared right at Mike as if to say "Not you, too?"
Mike was doing everything he could not to stare directly at the doe. He was able to glean just enough to know she was on to him and was going to stay clear.
Getting a bit ruffled with anticipation, Mike finally caught a glimpse of the buck that was apparently expecting a little afternoon delight.
Nervousness escalated to full-body trembling when the biggest deer Mike had ever seen lifted its head and looked directly at him. Had he not been sitting down, he might've tumbled off the ladder.
The buck stared right at Mike, but in a different way - more glib than anything.
By that time, the doe was making her way past Mike at a fairly safe distance. He expected the buck to follow. Mike was already thinking how privileged he was just to have seen such a specimen.
The doe never did get any closer than 50 yards, hardly a comfortable distance for a good shot on a deer. Compounding the difficulties was that Mike was sitting and contorted, right leg dangling, and his body was shaking like a well played tambourine.
The buck put its head down and started walking again, choosing a different and closer path. The realization actually made Mike shut his mouth in hopes of muffling his heartbeat.
As the buck walked behind another huge cottonwood, Mike had about two seconds to draw his bow unseen. For a right-handed hunter, the shot to the right is definitely the most awkward. In this case, however, Mike actually used his own tree to his advantage.
The tree stabilized his right arm, paring the hovering view in his peep sight from the buck's entire body down to the general area of shoulder and vitals.
When the deer stepped clear of the cottonwood at 30 yards, the 45-year-old bowhunter squeezed his release.
Both deer ran off after the shot. Perhaps because of the blood roaring in his own head, Mike never heard the impact, and he couldn't see his arrow anywhere. Peeling his arm off the tree trunk stabilizer, Mike started feeling the tremors again and had to carefully descend his ladder and sit at the base of his stand for a while.
Convinced his arrow must've hit the buck's shoulder and stopped short of passing through, Mike's spirits were low as he walked over to investigate the scene. They improved considerably when he found his arrow, bloody from tip to nock. And they soared when he glanced around and saw the painted trail.
Mike tiptoed out and reached a safe area where he knew he wouldn't disturb anything, and then his pace quickened.
Walking turned to jogging, and jogging became an all-out sprint as Mike plowed through a field of ragweed toward his ATV. Momentarily oblivious to his chronic asthma, he soon regretted his choice. But he coughed his way to his four-wheeler and sped off to the house.
Dennis was on his tractor when he saw his friend driving like the Blair Witch was giving chase. He knew right away that something special had happened.
The two friends and Dennis' son, Matt, who had never tracked a deer, returned to search for it. The task was rather elementary, but Matt thoroughly enjoyed pointing out the obvious. The giant buck hadn't gone 60 yards.
One Man's Loss
By Tom Avery
I was champing at the bit when the first Saturday of Kansas' 2001 bow season approached, even though it can often mean enduring sweltering heat and humidity. And hot it was.
An early morning rain didn't help to squelch the heat or the humidity, but it did contribute to a rather short outing. I was out of my treestand by 9:00.
In all my years of hunting, the hardest thing for me to do is to be in a stand during the middle of the day. Midday is for hanging out with your buddies, target shooting, eating and napping.
I learned the error of my ways the hard way.
Following my brief morning vigil, I decided my time would be better spent trying to catch some bass and crappie at a nearby farm pond. Any deer in its right mind would be bedded down in the tropical heat.
After catching a few fish, my thoughts began to stray. My heart was still in the woods.
I decided I'd go for a walk through a section of timber I was just getting to know. I'd hung a stand beside a good trail about two months earlier, and I wanted to see if there had been any new developments.
I grabbed my video camera so I could show my wife where she would be sitting when she joined me in a few weeks. I had just purchased the camera and needed to get familiar with it anyway.
While fumbling with the zoom function on a faraway squirrel, I saw a buck. Because all I could see was its profile, I couldn't tell much about it, at first. But 10 seconds later, the "nice deer" turned its head and stole my breath.
This dude was massive. I had a perfect crosswind, quiet woods, a clueless giant strolling along the timber's edge a mere 70 yards away from me, and my bow was gone somewhere with my brains.
The buck was walking from a pasture full of cattle. If any deer could ever mingle with the likes of 30 or so half-ton bovines, this was such a critter. The whitetail hit a north/south fence, turned away from me, lifted its head, and I was dumfounded. The rack was incredibly wide. I'd seen some nice deer in my life, but this was, by far, the biggest.
It was hard for me to count points, but after many replays of the tape later, I could pick out at least 21.
After it jumped the fence that it was dwarfing, the buck started to circle to the west and follow a creek. It was getting closer, still about 60 yards away and in thick cover. I filmed it for about five minutes, hoping it would never come any closer, or the regret I'd have for not having my bow in my hands might have left me suicidal.
Once it got down in the creek, I crawled out of the woods and started to immediately devise a plan that would ultimately put that head on my wall.
I got to know that section of woods very well over the next few weeks, but never again did the wandering nomad show. I tried to convince myself this deer was a ghost, but the overplayed video proved otherwise.
The mystery of the buck's disappearance lasted for six years. In 2007, the pieces of the puzzle all came together when I got a call from Mike Navrat, who had heard about my video. When we realized he'd taken the very same deer, he eventually came to my house and shared the rest of "Buckzilla's" story.
Editor's Note: Seeing Tom's footage of Buckzilla is what convinced me to travel to the Sunflower State for the first time. I've had the privilege - thanks to outfitter Mike Nickels of McLouth - of hunting the "Buckzilla woods" many times over the years. One of those outings proved to be the most exciting bowhunt I've ever had. - Mike Handley
Hunter: Mike Navrat
Official Score: 198 1/8"
Composite Score: 222 2/8"
-- Reprinted from the August 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.