By Mike Handley
Had Jim Casto taken his North Dakota record with a recurve, it would've also been No. 2 in the world - since the BTR has separate classifications for its bow category.
Missing what should be a gimmee can rattle even the most experienced archer. Doing it (or, more accurately, NOT doing it) twice in a row can bring a guy to his knees.
Longtime bowhunter Jim Casto Jr. didn't care to test the "third time's a charm" theory during his 2006 trip to North Dakota. Forty-four years of shooting bows has taught him that when his confidence is taking a nosedive, it's time to swap his beloved recurve for a compound, which is why he packs both.
Thus, after missing a tremendous 8-pointer on day one and shooting under a mule deer on day two, Jim uncased his backup bow.
Jim, fellow West Virginian Frank Boggess and Jim's cousin, Dale Casto of Bentonville, Ark., arrived in Bismarck, N.D., on Dec. 2, eager to begin their five-day hunt at Ernie Hellickson's Trail End Ranch in Dunn County. Jim and Frank had been making the pilgrimage for five years, but it was Dale's maiden visit.
They had booked the Dec. 4-8 hunt a year in advance.
While whitetail tags are available over the counter, the funeral director from Evans, West Va., usually applies in February for an "any deer" tag that's also legal for a muley. That kind of tag had come in handy twice for Jim in the four previous trips.
Jim first tried North Dakota on a hunch five years ago. He'd heard that it was a "sleeper state" for whitetails, so he did a little research that led him to Gerald DeFoe, who was guiding for another outfitter at the time. The two struck up a friendship, and Jim asked "Jerry" to call if he ever struck out on his own, which he did.
During their first day afield that Monday, Jim missed an exceptional, wide-racked 4x4 whitetail that might've tallied 150 or better. It was the best of 15 to pass his way. Frank saw 25 mule deer, six of them bucks. One rascal wore a heavy 8x8 set of antlers. (He wound up taking one of those back to West Va.)
Dale, meanwhile, double-lunged a muley of his own - his first ever.
The next day was action-packed as well. The skies were overcast, the temperature dropped to near zero, and a fierce, 30-mph wind cut to the bone.
Nevertheless, Jim saw 56 deer, among them eight bucks. He even took a shot at a 150-class 5x5 mule deer at 22 yards, but the arrow sailed a foot under it.
Frank saw his share, too, probably more than 20 muleys. And Dale had gone out in hopes of adding a Merriam's turkey to his game bag.
The weather changed on Wednesday.
Hunter: Jim Castro Jr.
It's almost always breezy, Jim said, but not on Dec. 6. "It was as calm and quiet as could be. You almost could hear the coyotes thinking.
"It's painfully cold up there in December. The temperature got up to around nothing one time," he deadpanned. "But on that day, it was 6 below."
All of Jerry's hunting spots -sweetened with alfalfa - have both treestands and elevated box-type blinds, the latter for when it's really cold. The box blind Jim climbed into that morning was about 8 feet off the ground, situated in some timber flanking the Little Missouri River.
He'd been there no longer than half an hour when he happened to look to his left and saw an enormous buck about 75 yards away.
"I went to pieces," admits the 52-year-old. "I thought I was over that stuff, but no. Never once had seeing a deer affected me like that. I could not function. One minute, I'd been convincing myself that I was going to shoot another buck (the largest of four he'd been watching). The next, I forgot about it completely."
Jim lost sight of the impossibly huge deer for the next 45 minutes. When he saw it again, it was a mere 16 or 17 yards to his right.
Even if he hadn't shot it, Jim would've considered that afternoon as the absolute pinnacle of his bowhunting career. "Just to look at a deer like that was great," he said. "That is what hunters live their lives for. And then it dawned on me, 'This is going to be my opportunity.'"
If he could stop shaking.
"Nothing in my imagination had prepared me for the reality of encountering a buck of that caliber," he said. "And I've seen thousands of deer."
On this day, Jim had brought along his compound bow, which isn't his weapon of choice. He usually hunts with a recurve.
He flings at least two or three carbon arrows a day with his favorite bow, compared to maybe once a month with his compound. He takes the more modern model only because he knows that he's fully capable, if not likely, to lose his confidence with the recurve to what he calls "target panic." If that happens, the only cure is to exchange weapons.
Two misses were reason enough to make the switch.
As Jim began to draw, he noticed that he was shaking uncontrollably and unable to function. He talked himself through it, praying for the tremors to subside. His nerves settled almost instantly, and the bow felt as if it was locked in a vice. He settled the pin just in front of the left flank, pulled through the release, and the arrow sliced through the liver and one lung before burying up in the right shoulder.
Jerry DeFoe makes it clear that he wants all hunters to remain on their stands until he arrives to pick them up and help with tracking, if needed. Jim, however, wanted to have a look before the sun disappeared.
The 350-yard trail was easy to follow, and he found his buck lying motionless on the riverbank.
When Jerry arrived, Jim was just returning to his stand. The outfitter knew that his client must've scored, even before Jim shared the details. With flashlights in hand, the men followed Jim's tracks to the fallen whitetail. When Jerry's light illuminated the antlers, he was almost speechless.
"UN-BE-LIEVABLE!" he almost whispered.
The next couple days were filled with visits from folks within a two-county area. The telephone rang off the hook.
"After the story was published in the Bismarck Tribune, I received a call from another outfitter, Bill Jorgenson, who informed me that four of his hunters had been trying to harvest that deer for six weeks," Jerry said. "On the evening of Dec. 2, one of his hunters became ill and left his stand at 3:50 p.m. There was a game camera mounted to the stand. It took a picture of this buck at 4:15 p.m. and again at 7:30 a.m. the following morning."
In other words, had the man not left his stand, North Dakota's new state record might've been his, not Jim's.
Editor's Note: If you'd like to visit the sleeper state, call Gerald DeFoe at (701) 842-3415.
Hunter: Jim Castro Jr.
Official Score: 212 5/8"
Composite Score: 230 7/8"
-- Reprinted from the October 2007 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine