Photos Courtesy of Benji Tate
If the path to the 17-pointer's vitals had been obstructed even momentarily, if the deer had been walking any more slowly, passed behind a tree or happened to glance upward, Benji Tate's draw might've collapsed.
The 31-year-old bowhunter from Walnut Hill, Ill., is incapable of holding his drawn bow for more than a few seconds. Too stubborn to apply for a crossbow permit and face the stigma (or even to apply for permanent disability), Benji continues to hunt with his compound bow.
The poundage is significantly less - 52 pounds - than it used to be. He can't bear practice sessions beyond flinging one or two arrows. And when he does commit, he's more apt to draw and fire his bow as if it were a recurve instead of a trussed and cabled compound. But such is life when both your hands have carpal tunnel syndrome.
Even worse for Benji, the first surgery to fix the problem only exacerbated it. The pinched nerve was severed, rendering his right hand almost useless.
Nationally, he's the one guy out of 10 who hasn't been able to return to the job, in his case to the local concrete plant, where he used to "twisty-tie" rebar together for eight to 10 hours a day.
Were it not for the fact that a release strapped to his forearm allows him to draw, he'd have to throw in the towel.
"My doctor tells me I shouldn't be hunting, but I'm not giving it up," Benji says. "I'm still in denial, I guess."
Drawing problems aside, Benji must also stay indoors whenever the thermometer approaches or dips below 32 degrees. He can't feel the cold exactly, but the pain comes. He has to wear mittens or sit on his hands. So he hunts the early season, or he'll accompany his older brother in a blind, sometimes videoing the hunt.
"They already took a nerve out of my foot to put in my hand. I told 'em I'd rather have a numb foot than not be able to use my hand. Now they can't do anything else for me," he said. "I was supposed to come out of this with a one-inch scar and a fixed hand. Now the scar runs from the tip of my middle finger to about 5 inches below my wrist."
The CTS diagnosis changed a lot of things for Benji and his wife, Joanne.
Three years ago, they bought 10 mostly wooded acres in Marion County, about nine miles from their current home. They were going to set up a modular home on the property. But after moving a shed and other outdoor equipment there, Benji's hands needed attention. His first surgery was performed a week before the home was to be delivered. After that, everything was put on hold.
In the interim, someone broke into his shed and took almost all of the couple's hunting equipment - everything worthwhile, except for her bow (his was in his truck), that could presumably be carried on the back of an ATV.
Also during the three years following their purchase and his tribulations, the Tates learned that a very large buck was calling the place home. The initial discovery was Joanne's. That first spring, she found both of a huge buck's sheds. It was the rack of an irregular 12-pointer. While impressive, the mass was that of a young deer.
They planted a food plot within the woods and set up a trail camera. When that produced no photographs of a buck anywhere close to that size, they resorted to hiding in blinds and climbing treestands with a video camera.
"We didn't see it 'til almost the end of the summer," Joanne said. "We saw two deer in the middle of a field. All we could tell was that one was Typical and the other wasn't. We spent all our spare time the next month patterning the deer and taking photos and videos of it."
Because of the first surgery, Benji and Joanne decided not to hunt the buck in 2007. In fact, they avoided it. They even bought a zoom lens for their camera so they could view it from a distance.
But in 2008, they pulled out all stops. They patterned it, videotaped it and hung stands in the springtime.
"The first week of deer season was so exciting and crazy," Joanne said. "All the bucks we had filmed for months were right there in front of us. My husband and his brother, Shannon, saw the big one walking in the woods, but it was too far away for a humane shot."
Joanne saw it one day as well, right before dark. Benji saw it a second time.
"Every time we saw it, we thought it seemed bigger than we remembered," she added.
Benji, Joanne and Shannon all went into the woods on Oct. 26. None of them saw any bucks during their morning vigils, so they came out and drove to Biggies restaurant to discuss afternoon plans over burgers and fries. They wound up returning to the same stands - Joanne in her blind next to the food plot and the brothers deeper into the tract next to a creek.
Benji's stand was halfway up a hill overlooking a creek bottom in the property's southwestern corner. About 6:00, he saw the buck easing through the bottom, which serves as a staging area for deer smart enough not to abandon caution in favor of an early meal. All the adjacent properties - 210 wooded acres surrounded by bean fields - drain into his 10 acres.
The buck had not a care in the world. When it was at 25 yards, Benji drew and released. Afterward, the buck put the pedal to the metal and bolted off to the left, heading for a dense thicket.
"I knew I didn't hit him real good," Benji said. "The arrow was a little too far back for my taste."
Almost immediately, he radioed his wife and brother.
Before giving pursuit, the trio went to another burger joint for an early supper - takeout that time because Benji was too nervous to eat inside. When they returned, the sign was sparse. Around 11 p.m., they decided to back out and resume the next day, when they could see.
"I don't think any of us slept much that night," Joanne said. "I didn't, not because of the deer, but because my husband kept tossing and turning."
She didn't bother waking Benji at first light. He hadn't been asleep for very long.
The search began when Shannon returned from hunting that morning. Since there wasn't much in the way of a blood trail, they split up to comb the area. Benji went straight to where he'd last seen the buck near a honeysuckle thicket.
"I saw what looked like a smashed-down place, got closer and saw the buck. It wasn't visible unless you got up in there," he said. "It had gone about 150 yards."
"We'd walked right next to the deer several times and didn't even know it," Joanne added.
While they knew the buck carried 17 points, the Tates were still awestruck when they got up close to the rack.
"We spent the rest of the day showing it off to everyone we knew," Joanne said.
Harvesting the deer has left Benji with mixed emotions. He's elated, of course, but also saddened. He watched the buck grow up, obsessed over it, and he put in a lot of hours scouting and picking out stand sites. They talked about it for three seasons.
"It's kind of strange," he said. "Now he's dead, and I don't have anything to look forward to."
Hunter: Benji Tate
Official Score: 196 4/8"
Composite Score: 216 4/8"
-- Reprinted from the August 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.