Hunt hard, hunt smart and never give up.
By Brandon Carter
The fall of 2012 was one of the toughest whitetail seasons I had ever seen. EHD outbreaks across the Midwest during the drought-plagued summer significantly reduced buck numbers. Weather conditions were not favorable for daytime movement or rut activity, you had to make every encounter count. Of course, luck always plays a part.
Anything and everything outside my control went badly. Coyotes spooked a 180-class buck, and then my rangefinder failed to read a 160-incher in Iowa. In Kansas, a 170-inch buck came within perfect range. As I drew my bow, he burst into a full sprint after a doe, then returned and repeated the maneuver four times. When light faded, he bedded under my tree, leaving me trapped in the stand. That’s a sample of what went wrong while filming Season 4 of Reel Shot TV.
My wife Jodie and I ended the year on a late season hunt with Sunfish Valley Whitetails in southern Ohio. We were after Lucky, a gorgeous 6x6, 180-inch buck five hunters had encountered but failed to take. Working with guide Andrew Wilburn, we established a pattern and moved in, but Lucky lived up to his name. Despite the frustration, it showed us what kind of bucks live on Sunfish Valley Whitetails properties.
I was really looking forward to the 2013-14 deer season after all the hard luck Jodie and I had the previous year. We make our living producing a hunting show and can’t endure too many seasons like that!
Unfortunately, deer sightings were down again, and mature buck encounters were near zero. Jodie took a really nice 150-inch 10-pointer in Kansas. I didn’t fill my tag, but her harvest changed my luck.
We took turns filming and hunting, and I was going to be in front of the camera when we returned to Sunfish Valley Whitetails after the 2014 Archery Trade Association (ATA) show in Nashville, Tenn.
A buck can shed its antlers any time that late in the season, and an abrupt or unusual climatic change seems to be a sure-fire way to make that happen. While we were at the ATA show, most of the country experienced extreme winter weather with record lows. I was worried those Ohio bucks would start dropping antlers like white oaks drop acorns in October.
If that wasn’t enough, Andrew was sending me Brow Tine Buck photos. When Andrew greeted us at Sunfish Valley headquarters, he said hadn’t seen any pictures of the Brow Tine Buck since late muzzleloader season.
Andrew wasn’t fazed, though, and said he thought the Brow Tine Buck still carried its rack, and that we just needed to put out some cameras a few ridges over to find him. Since we were running against the clock, we checked those cameras after just one day and night.
Brow Tine appeared on the camera the very first night. Baiting is legal in Ohio, and the buck had visited a bait site shortly after dark. We were afraid to push into the timber, and Andrew and I thought our best bet was to play it safe and hunt where pictures were taken. The area afforded undetectable access and a consistently favorable wind.
After several days, we hadn’t seen a deer, but Brow Tine was on camera from the last shooting light until first morning light. Almost always when hunting a feeding scenario, we hunt afternoons only in order to avoid blowing the deer out on a morning stand approach. We played the game well, but this mature buck disappeared in daylight.
Five or six days into the hunt, I decided it was time to move. Andrew met us at our cabin with a topo map, and we discussed how the buck always approached the camera and departed. Signs pointed to a finger ridge that led from the most rugged terrain down to the location where we had hundreds of trail camera pictures of the buck.
That night we received a blanket of snow which allowed us to backtrack Brow Tine from the bait site as he returned to his bed for the day. As we suspected, his trail led us to the finger ridge we’d identified as his staging area. We pushed as deep into the timber as possible without the risk of jumping the buck. Next we found the perfect tree for out setup.
The large cedar gave us lots of concealment, and it let us cover the entire ridge with a bow. The prevailing west wind would hit us in the face at the stand site. It was the perfect setup and, and I finally felt confident we could harvest this buck.
The forecast was brutal with highs in the 20s and snowfall nearly every day. It’s weather that makes deer hungry — and shed antlers. The clock was ticking.
Wearing our Heater Body Suits, Jodie and I braved that frigid ridge for several days, but we never saw a deer. We had been after that buck for more than a week and had only seen three deer. Late-season hunting can be hit-or-miss. At any point we could have abandoned the hunt for Brow Tine and moved to other areas with more deer, but we were determined to take that buck. Brow Tine was the kind of deer that can turn an entire season around.
On the morning of Jan. 19, Jodie and I checked the cameras one last time. If Brow Tine was on the ridge camera, we would continue to hunt. If not, we would head home to Louisiana. We checked the original camera at the bait site, but the data card was full. We had no way of knowing if Brow Tine was in the area or had his antlers.
Although, the ridge camera had never captured him, we knew he had to be traveling there. As we approached the camera, we were greeted by a fresh set of tracks in the snow. Sure enough, the last deer to walk past the camera that morning was Brow Tine.
For the first time in a week, the sky cleared and high pressure moved in. Highs hovered in the upper 20s to low 30s, and it felt good. If Brow Tine didn’t show up today, he likely never would.
We were back in the stand by 1 p.m. Around 3, a button buck came from where we thought Brow Tine was. An hour later, three does wandered by. By 5:15, I caught a glimpse of movement 200 yards up the ridge. Grabbing my binoculars, it took me nearly 10 minutes to spot him again, but there was no doubt it was Brow Tine!
He was hiding behind the trees before coming down the ridge, waiting for darkness. As I waited, it grew darker and darker. Every couple of minutes Jodie would whisper an update on available camera light.
Perhaps he had seen us move or caught a swirl of scent and turned back, we thought. Sunset was at 5:40; legal shooting light ended at 6:10, but it would be dark sooner because we were in heavy timber under a thickly branched cedar. We would run out of camera light about 15 minutes before last shooting light. At 5:50, Jodie let me know the camera was reading 0 percent light.
We had not seen the buck in 45 minutes. I accepted defeat and told Jodie to start breaking down the camera gear and prepare to climb down. But, as I turned in my stand to un-nock my arrow, I saw him!
He was about 40 yards away on a very slow walk down the edge of the ridge to my right. Jodie had already started to lower the camera, but I told her to just stay put and not move. We weren’t going to get this on camera, but there was no way we could let a possible 200-inch buck just walk by. I transitioned from producer to hunter and grabbed my bow.
Brow Tine crossed the ridge in front of us at 25 yards. Finally, after two years of the worst luck and toughest hunting imaginable, I was about to get a shot at the buck of a lifetime.
As he passed behind a tree, I drew back. Brow Tine entered an opening at 24 yards and stopped. I scanned to double check for branches, held the pin just forward of mid-body and released. The arrow penetrated almost to the fletching. The deer disappeared over the ridge and looped back in the direction he had come from.
I knew what I had seen and turned to confirm with Jodie. She said the shot was about 10 inches behind the shoulder, where I had aimed, but it was low. Looking back, I suppose I should have compensated for the 4 extra yards while using my 20 yard pin, but I was confident that we had a dead deer.
Since we didn’t see or hear the buck go down, we slipped out of the stand and left the ridge as quietly as possible.
Back at the cabin, Andrew met us, along with Matt and Brock Brewster, the owners of Sunfish Valley Whitetails. Everyone thought the shot was fatal, but we were not going to rush a recovery. Until that point, I hadn’t had one bit of nervousness, anxiousness or excitement. It hit me about two hours after the shot.
I started to shake a bit, my stomach began to knot and I got anxious and fidgety.
We waited another hour before checking the ridge to see what kind of blood trail we had. Andrews’s brother Anthony joined us, too. Their father, Homer Wilburn, had passed away the day before, and they both needed to get their minds on something else for awhile.
Anthony found blood almost immediately. It wasn’t a tremendous amount, but the spray indicated a fatal shot. After a half mile, I began to have doubts, but Andrew reassured me and we pushed on another quarter mile to the thickest, nastiest hill in the area.
Then, Andrew flipped on his light and yelled. The Brow Tine Buck was right there!
That ended the worst streak in my hunting life. For Andrew and his brother, it meant making their late father proud. Their dad was an avid hunter, and Andrew had showed him trail camera pictures of the buck during his last days battling cancer. He always asked if we’d tagged him yet and told Andrew to not give up.
Homer Wilburn’s advice was right. We never gave up. We hunted hard; we hunted smart. This buck was known throughout the community and among all the Sunfish Valley guides. We pieced together every bit of information we could gather from everyone. It was a real team effort.
Harvesting a buck of this size and under these circumstances means much more to me than any record book score could indicate, but we finally got around to measuring him and came up with an unofficial score of 197 1/8 inches, a true giant by anyone’s measure!