Hunting property yields bittersweet trophy
By Edson B. Waite Jr.
Gene Figge had no way of knowing that the 2004 season would be his last to hunt the Jersey County, Ill., farm his family had enjoyed for nearly three decades. About a month after deer season ended, the landowner died, and the property was sold.
The new owners have not been as generous.
But while the '04 season ended on a sour note for the Figges, it began with a bang.
Opening day of shotgun season found Gene hunting the farm with his father, Dennis. Even the worst weather couldn't keep them indoors, since the season lasted only three days.
"I was up in a climber stand," Gene said. "The weather was bad and getting worse. It was in the mid-30s and raining. The wind ate through my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I saw one small buck about 9:30, but it was too far away to even try a shot. Not long afterward, I was ready to quit."
Gene had already envisioned where he was going to move his stand for the evening hunt. While packing his gear in preparation for returning to the truck, a shot rang out from where Dennis was hunting. So instead of heading for the vehicle, Gene trotted off toward his dad's stand.
When he arrived a few minutes later, Dennis told him he'd shot a doe. And while father and son were planning where to drag her, Dennis noticed several very fresh rubs along a trail.
"I decided to hang my stand right there," Gene said. "I picked a tree, left my stand and some gear, and then we dragged Dad's doe toward the truck."
After lunch and a change into dry clothes, Gene returned to the woods for the afternoon in a much better mood. The weather had improved, too.
"I got situated in the stand around 2:30, warmer and certainly dryer than I had been that morning," he said. "I didn't see anything, not even a squirrel, until the last hour. With 45 minutes of daylight remaining, a deer blew. I could hear brush snapping just over the ridgetop. It sounded like the deer was racing along the other side of the ridge. And then, suddenly, a doe popped over the crest between 30 and 35 yards away.
"She was the one snorting, and a nice 10-pointer was a few steps behind her," he added.
"The two deer were moving pretty fast and headed right for me. I tried to get ready for a shot, but they never slowed. I grunted with my mouth several times, and then I resorted to yelling at them. But they kept on moving, passing almost directly under my stand. I hollered 'Stop' and maybe a few other choice words, but they kept on truckin'."
As soon as the deer disappeared, Gene sat down and tried to regain his wits.
His breath was ragged, and he was starting to shake as the adrenaline flowed through his body.
"Man, that was a nice buck, and I never had a shot," he said. "I could not believe how quickly it had all happened. The whole scenario played out in maybe two or three minutes, total.
"A second later, however, I heard more brush cracking," he continued.
"It was coming from the exact area where the other two had appeared. I zeroed-in on the same spot where the doe had crossed over and got ready. I saw antler tips, and then they grew taller and taller. I thought I'd never see the head to which they were attached.
"When the buck finally broke over the top of the ridge, it was on the same path the others had taken. I knew it would follow the same trail. I also knew that, at the speed it was moving, I wouldn't get a clean shot at it either.
"This guy was grunting with every step, way too fast. It was past me in a few seconds. I swung around in the stand as the buck headed up the big ridge. I led it a few feet and pulled the trigger," Gene said. "I didn't think I'd hit it, but it stopped for just the few seconds I needed to jack in another shell, aim and pull the trigger. The buck bolted, changed direction and was out of sight within seconds.
"I could hear it moving away, making a lot of noise as it plowed through the brush. Those sounds were followed by a very loud crash, and then I could've sworn I heard something sliding down the side of the hill. After that, everything was silent."
Gene's mind was reeling. He wanted to believe he'd just heard the buck go to ground. But he was not sure. He hurriedly unloaded his gun and came down the tree in the fading light.
"I didn't want to lose the chance to get on the track before dark. Maybe the last sounds I heard were of the buck getting out of range, maybe not. I actually closed my eyes and walked right to spot where the buck had stopped after I made the first shot. There on the ground was a spray of crimson. I had connected after all!
"I walked a more few feet as I tried to see in my mind where I had aimed for the second shot. I was fairly sure I had been on the rib cage when I pulled, but I was pretty excited.
"About three steps farther on, I found more blood and even a piece of rib bone. That did it for me. I was sure it was down somewhere.
"I hollered for my dad and told him I had hit a really big buck, and he came running. I told him how big it was, but I don't think he believed me," he continued. "We started following the trail. Dad was looking at the blood, while I was scanning the woods for either a white belly or antlers. I saw the deer first."
It had traveled a mere 50 yards.
Dennis took one quick look, and then said, "That's not a big deer ... That's a GREAT BIG DEER."
"We had never seen anything like it in all our years of hunting," Gene said.
After admiring the buck and exchanging high-fives, they decided to drag the animal to the bottom - which they hoped to reach by ATV - rather than up the ridge. They were at the check station with the buck a couple of hours later, where the attendant aged it at 7 1⁄2 years old.
While caping the deer, Gene's taxidermist found a 2-inch-long antler tip, broken off and embedded in the deer's skull in front of the eye socket. The eye was intact and appeared to have been functioning, but the area was infected.
Hunter: Gene Figge
Official Score: 180 4/8"
Composite Score: 199 1/8"
-- Reprinted from the August 2008 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.