By Ken Markham
-- I used to hunt deer with bow and gun, shooting mostly does. But these last few years, my job and family responsibilities have limited me to opening weekend of Wisconsin’s gun season. In the almost three decades leading up to 2008, the biggest buck I’d taken was a small 6-pointer, and that wasn’t so very long ago.
Because my area isn’t known for its big bucks, meat has always been the focus. I like to make my own venison jerky and sausage. My kids love it.
I’ve been hunting with a group of good friends for about 10 years. The guys always have a great time, regardless of whether anyone gets a deer. The original cabin was built years ago by the current owner’s great uncles, dad and grandfather. The hunting shack wasn't much, but it held us all and kept us warm. It has since been knocked down and replaced by a much nicer building.
We normally go up a day or two early and spend that time setting up blinds, clearing out shooting lanes and checking for deer sign. The guy who owns the cabin is in the woods all year: bird hunting, bowhunting and just wandering around and keeping an eye on what's going on out there. He keeps us posted as to whatever he finds or sees.
I set out to find a new spot this past season. A few of the guys had been venturing deeper into the property, so I decided to look around back there as well. On our way back to set up one guy’s stand, I saw an area that merited a closer look. It was a peninsula of hardwoods between the fire lane we use as a main trail and a fairly large swamp.
We set up a ground blind there with some old branches as a frame, beefed up by fresh pine boughs. I reinforced that with a camouflage tarp across the front.
Opening morning was a bitter 4 degrees below zero. Compared to previous seasons, few shots were fired. I didn’t see anything until a large doe skirted the swamp at the end of the day. I hoped one of the boys would get a shot at her.
Sunday morning wasn’t quite as cold. It was a lot easier to sit still.
At sunrise, a fairly large doe walked past following the edge of the swamp. About 10 minutes later, another one eased along the same trail. My confidence in that spot improved greatly.
The guys decided the night before that if the boys hadn’t filled the group’s two doe tags by noon, we’d open the door. It wasn’t lunchtime, so the walking sausage was safe from my gun.
About 7:45 a.m., I noticed some activity in the swamp to my right. I thought I saw a pretty nice rack. When the buck took a couple more steps, I realized it was far better than “nice.”
The monster was quartering away from me at about 120 yards and not getting any closer. While mulling over the dilemma and wishing the deer would turn broadside, I somehow remained calm. I needed the deer to veer left into a shooting lane if I were to have any real chance at it.
The buck obliged. But by the time it neared the opening, it was 250 yards distant. I waited until it was dead center in the lane, and then I aligned the crosshairs just behind the shoulder and about two-thirds up the body. After I squeezed the trigger, I saw the buck absorb the shot before rocketing deeper into the swamp.
Because it didn’t fall, for a second, I thought I might’ve missed. But then I kept envisioning the flinch. Actually, my first thought was disbelief that I’d even had a shot at such an animal.
I put all my stuff together and pushed it under the tarp before calling my son on the walkie-talkie. I must have sounded pretty excited because he told me to settle down so he could understand what I was saying.
After waiting for what seemed like an hour, my son finally arrived and we walked to where I thought the buck had been when I shot. When we couldn't find any sign, I went back up to my blind and coached my son to the spot. We still found nothing.
I've tracked a lot of deer in difficult situations, and I’ve always found them.
Despite numerous old tracks in the vicinity, I focused on some deep elongated prints – thinking they might’ve been where the buck dug for traction before speeding away. I continued forward another 25 yards and found the same track.
I looked at the two sets and then turned in the direction I thought they were headed. My son saw me raise my rifle and thought I had seen the deer – or a deer – running away or something. But it wasn’t running.
I gave my son the thumbs-up because I could see what looked like a wall of tines, not unlike a ribcage, rising above the swamp grass.
My son couldn’t even speak, at first. Wordlessly, we started jumping up and down and hugged. I even started to cry.
Reinforcements were called in to help drag the 180-pound (dressed) 13-pointer. It took the whole gang until 2:00 to get this guy to the truck, loaded up and back to camp. It was rough-scored at 171 inches.
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