By Mike Handley
The cock of the walk was a 9-pointer that protected the archipelago of cedars like a deranged mockingbird. No other deer, regardless of plumbing, could come near the outcrop of evergreens. The ones that dared were greeted by a 300-pound fuzzball with no neck, no sense of humor and plenty of attitude. It wore a bone-white rack with tines thicker than spokes on a wagon wheel — a 5x4 with enough inches to be my best buck to date.
A 150-inch 12-pointer is a fine whitetail. A 10-pointer with that much antler looks even better. But seeing such an array on a mainframe 4x4 is akin to drinking two cans of Red Bull, back to back.
I watched the brute all morning until the barrage of would-be challengers and unattached females ceased. And then I never saw the old boy again, nor any other that could rival his size. Every now and then, a doe veered out of the evergreens hell-bent on eluding a pursuer, but none of the suitors was the big 5x4.
Mike Puhalla of Steinauer, Neb., took his best whitetail ever on Nov. 13, a 7x6 that grosses nearly 186 inches. After cultivating the land and feeding the neighborhood deer all his life, the farmer finally reaped what he’d sown.
It was Nov. 10, 2007, the peak of the rut in Pawnee County, Neb., and opening day of the rifle season. It would’ve taken an earthquake to shake me out of my treestand before nightfall, although the unrelenting wind tried its best.
In the middle of the day, five very respectable 8-pointers attempted to corral a hot doe in the cedars 50 yards directly behind me. The largest was a 3 1/2-year-old pushing 140 inches. The others were a year younger, but even their racks would’ve qualified for the record book, if collected by bow and arrow. I leveled my rifle at the king of the hill and “shot” it five times —mouthing the word “kapow” — without ever sliding my finger inside the trigger guard. If I’d been bowhunting, I would’ve pulled everything out of my bag of tricks to coax it closer.
This was the first time I’d hunted Nebraska with anything other than a bow. Prior to 2006, it was practically impossible for a nonresident to get a rifle tag for the eastern part of the state. Heck, even residents weren’t guaranteed a license. In many cases, in order to avoid divorce court, Nebraskan couples had to alternate years.
I never understood the limit on licenses there, considering the number of deer running around and feasting on the plentiful corn and soybeans. Southeast Nebraska isn’t like the western part of the state, where cover, food and whitetails are sparse. Pawnee and neighboring counties are laid out like big pieces of graph paper, with white dirt roads instead of blue lines.
It’s farm country, but the fields are separated by stands of timber and brush reminiscent of western Illinois. A comparison to northeast Kansas might be better. The only difference between the two is the rut peaks about three days earlier north of the state line.
I’m not surprised that wildlife officials had a change of heart. And I’m glad they did.
So there I sat, $457 buck tag in my wallet and a brand new .300 Win Mag in hand, eager to get a poke at some of the mule-faced bucks I could never seem to see in bow range. I wasn’t going to burn that tag on just any old buck, not in “Deer Camp,” where my good friend Tim Puhalla stashes most of his clients. I’ve been smitten with that place since arrowing my first record-book buck there back in 2002.
I’ve returned four times to hunt with Tim over the last five seasons. During my stays, I’ve laid tapes to a 190-inch Typical (taken by the landowner’s father), a 185-incher that Tim’s dad shot off the same farm I’ve had the privilege to hunt, as well as two other monsters collected by his sister and brother-in-law. And this isn’t counting the numerous book-class deer they’ve found dead on the place, which are listed in the record book as “pickups.”
The writer shot this juvenile buck during the last hour of his ’07 trip to the Land of Cornhusks, ensuring that he’d have to again broach the “dead animal” topic while his bags were being x-rayed at the airport.
Nebraska’s nine-day rifle season usually begins the Saturday closest to Nov. 13. In some years, bowhunters will see the peak of the rut before that. In others, as was the case in 2007, riflemen get it. I got it.
Tim had set up one of his homemade ladder stands against a lone oak in the middle of a ridgetop pasture flanked on both sides by bedding areas. God only knows how many bucks have been taken or shot at from that vantage point.
My first day sitting there, I saw 24 bucks — only two of them dinks. But most of the action was at the top end of the pasture 600 yards away, which is why I spent the next three days 600 yards closer to the hub, a move cinched when I tried to put the new Remington to the test and shot under an 11-pointer quartering away at 400 (I forgot to hold over the deer).
On Sunday and Monday, I hunted from the ground, alternately sitting in a fold-up chair and leaning against a gnarly oak. The action slowed considerably as the hunt wore on, but still there were numerous run-ins with rut-crazed whitetails. Three very nice 8-pointers, in fact, chased does within mere feet.
With one more hour remaining in my hunt, I decided to take the next decent buck I saw. Taking one 2 1/2-year-old from that place would be like plucking an apple from a tree loaded with fruit. I already had amassed several anecdotes for a story. I’d even had the privilege of measuring a 232-incher taken by a college kid in the little town of Steinauer, where I was staying in a former convent turned bed-and-breakfast.
I wanted a “meat buck” (since collecting a meat doe wasn’t possible with the tag I held). The last thing my wife told me in the Montgomery, Ala., airport was to bring home backstraps and tenderloins. I aimed to oblige.
My marriage was saved as opportunity knocked at 8:05. Fifteen minutes earlier, a doe had crossed the fence behind me and disappeared into the cedars. When a 9-pointer came in at a trot on the very same path, I dropped it. Mission accomplished.
And then the floodgates opened.
While I waited for Tim to arrive, the place revealed why it’s called Deer Camp. Bucks came out in force, in range and — because I already had one on the ground — in luck. The best was a gorgeous 11-pointer, which practically stepped on my dead buck. It and a smaller 4x4 picked up where my 9-pointer had fallen short. They zigzagged throughout the cedar corner, appearing several times in the wide open.
Even as Tim began driving his Silverado toward my deer, yet another 8-pointer stood barely 30 yards away to ponder the audacity of our actions.
For the residents of Deer Camp, life goes on ... until next year.
Editor’s Note: To book a hunt with Tim Puhalla, one of the author’s favorite outfitters, call (402) 520-0006.
This article was published in the November, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.