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Winning the Illinois (Deer) Lottery

Ken PiperBy Ken Piper

Sometimes the best deer harvests don't have the most exciting stories -- "I got to the tree, an hour later the deer came by and I got him." And at first glance that would appear to be the case for the monster 12-pointer I was blessed to take on Nov. 7, 2004. The actual hunt took only about an hour -- on the first day -- and I was seated in my treestand only 30 minutes before this world-class buck came by. But the story would only be boring if you didn't know the years of heart-pounding close calls, weather fiascos and downright bad luck that preceded taking this incredible animal.

I've had the pleasure of hunting as a non-resident in Illinois for the past five archery seasons. The first year was a nightmare, as I hunted with a horrible outfitter -- but even that bad experience couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for this incredible state. The second year was much better; and despite temperatures in the 80s, I had my first archery close encounter with a truly mature and big-antlered whitetail.

Photo: Chuck Manetta, Ken Piper Jr. and Ken Sr.
In year three, my friend Arnie Rahe introduced me to Matt Dixon of Dixon Farms Whitetails. Matt and I hit it off right away. His enthusiasm for big bucks is infectious, and he has some amazing whitetail habitat, including several thousand acres of family-owned farm. That season was fraught with bad weather, but my father, Ken Sr., and I both had bucks in sight, but we just weren't able to fire an arrow -- such is bowhunting.

In 2003, Ken Sr., didn't get his tag, ending what had become a tradition of the two of us meeting in Illinois for an archery hunt. With him living in Pennsylvania and me in Alabama, we don't get to see each other very much, and we really look forward to these hunts.

Despite the disappointment, I made the trip out to hunt with Matt and ended up messing up a perfect setup. Two does came in and busted me early in the evening, and I immediately knew I needed to move my stand to the far side of the tree to avoid being silhouetted. I didn't move, however, and when what would have been the biggest buck I had ever seen in the wild looked up and spotted me from about 30 yards, I knew I was going to pay the price for my laziness.

The buck backed out of there before I could even draw the bow. I was more than beginning to feel cursed in Illinois.

Finally, 2004 rolled around. I made sure Dad called in for his tag (which is good since they sold out in less than 24 hours). I also heard from my friend, Chuck Manetta of Miami, Florida, that he had gotten his tag. Chuck is one of the original Buckmasters Online fans, and was one of the first people to send in a story for us to post on the website. We have exchanged emails and become friends over the years and decided it would be fun to hunt as a group, so Chuck signed up to hunt at Dixon Farms with Dad and me.

Photo: Ken Piper, Bryan Dooley and Matt Dixon
The season arrived too quickly. I was way behind at work, and I had just made the decision to buy a house (partly because I couldn't find any of my hunting equipment, which was jammed into boxes in my little apartment).

At 8 p.m. the night before we were to leave, I learned that my house offer had been accepted -- emergency running around and contract-signing followed.

Saturday morning, Nov. 6, Chuck and I loaded up my pickup and headed north on I-65 out of Alabama. We had a pleasant trip, enjoying 60s music the whole way before meeting up with Ken Sr. at a hotel.

When we arrived at Dixon Farms the following afternoon, Matt was out harvesting soybeans, but guide Bryan Dooley got the three of us settled in at his home. Then came the fateful question: "Do you guys want to head out to the stands this evening?"

I looked at Dad and Chuck, and we all said, "Sure!"

It was a funny show as we scrambled to gather our gear. Bryan stood back and smiled as we ran into each other and cursed over items that weren't where they were supposed to be. We knew time was short, and our plans of having all evening to organize were out the window. As happy as I was to be heading out, the situation just added to my feeling that I had been going 1,000 miles an hour with my hair on fire the past few months.

Bryan dropped me off first. Since time was short (it was already 3 p.m.), I told him to just point me in the right direction and to go ahead and get Dad and Chuck posted.

I grabbed my stand, my fanny pack and bow and headed out across a soybean field to a corner of hardwoods. I was still looking around for a good climbing tree when several deer came running in from in front of me. Thank goodness they were all does. They moved off, and I knew I needed to find a tree right away.

I looked around and began to clip a few dead branches near an obvious deer trail. Feeling pretty good about opening up that shot a little, I grabbed the shoulder straps of my Summit Viper to hike the stand a little higher on my shoulders and sliced a clean half-inch cut in my lower lip. I had forgotten I still had my clippers in my hand.

Dripping blood and shaking my head at my stupidity, I walked over to my chosen tree and got ready to hook up my climber. I got both pieces in place and got my feet in the boot straps. Just as I prepared to climb, I dropped my jacket.

I got back out of the boot straps and was able to dangle my size 11 boot down low enough to hook it under the jacket and bring it up. I pulled the muscles in my legs by stretching too much, but I was back in business. I put my feet back in the boot straps, moved the top piece of the climber about 6 inches and immediately dropped my vest.

Back down, out of the straps and more fishing with a size 11 -- only this time no bite. I couldn't get the vest hooked. So I climbed out of the stand, jumped down to the ground, snatched the vest off the leaves, and climbed back up. Only this time I put one arm through the arm hole of the vest so I couldn't drop it again! Feet back in the straps, I got to move both the top and bottom pieces this time before I dropped my jacket again.

After a string of cursing -- even more than when I dropped the vest -- I went back down, had to climb completely out of the stand again, breathed a new string of curses, got back in the stand, back in the boot straps and began to climb. This time, both jacket and vest were clipped to my body via the fanny pack, and despite not wearing either garment, I began to sweat a good bit from all the effort. It was windy and cool, though, which kept me from becoming completely drenched.

When I was about 8 feet up off the ground, three more deer came through. The wind had covered some of my racket, but they had definitely heard something and were nervous. I was able to get a look at all three, and they were more does -- thank goodness since my bow was still on the ground tied to my hoist rope.

I moved up about 7 more feet, got the seat in place, hauled up my bow and sat down. That's when I noticed that my knees came almost up to my chin. In my rush to get situated, I hadn't tested the separation of the top and bottom pieces of the treestand and now realized they were way too close. Having visions of not adjusting my stand the year before, I still decided to tough it out. The deer were on the move and I needed to be settled. Besides, I had made so much commotion that the best I could hope for would be to see where the deer traveled so I could move my stand to a better tree. I was done fighting the situation and wanted to just relax for the last hour and a half of daylight. That was at 3:50 p.m.

I sat in the tree and began to feel at ease. The feeling of getting settled into a treestand on a beautiful evening is like medicine to a frantic brain, and I needed a good dose. The many fox squirrels kept me on my toes, but that no longer frustrates me. I just enjoy seeing the wildlife.

I was just beginning to feel chilly and thought about putting on my jacket at 4:15. Then I heard a rhythmic crunching in the leaves. "That's not a squirrel," I said.

I looked straight ahead and didn't see anything. I moved my head to the right and immediately saw a huge buck walking my way. "Oh my God!" There was no need to count points.

I pushed as hard as I could with my legs, putting pressure against the tree with my back and slid up into a standing position. He didn't see me! I turned to my right, clipped my release on the loop, made sure my feet were good and solid and looked around for an opening.

The way the buck was headed, he might step into an opening directly 90 degrees to the right. I was already in position for that shot, so now it was up to the buck. I took a quick look and decided he really was headed for that opening. I immediately drew my bow. The buck was still about 15 yards from the opening.

Instead of looking at the deer, I decided to aim at the opening. I was amazed at how calm I was as I felt the kisser button at the corner of my mouth. I felt the string on the end of my nose just like I wanted it, and I then looked at my 20-yard pin. Everything felt really good.

I kept my eye on the opening and the pin and watched for the buck out of my peripheral vision. As he got closer, I decided I would mouth-grunt just a second BEFORE I wanted him to stop. In the past, I had attempted to stop deer that way, and they always seemed to take one more step that often messed up the shot.

As the buck's front leg got to the opening, I grunted. He took that one extra step. My pin was already centered on his body, so I immediately hit the trigger of my release.

I didn't see my arrow at all, but I noticed a spot where the hair on the buck parted slightly and then returned to normal. As the buck crouched and then bounded three or so hops, I thought, "That was a little bit far back, but I think I got him!"

Remembering a tip sent in by a Buckmasters online reader, I made another mouth grunt at the buck. To my amazement, he stopped!

He was about 30 yards behind me and facing away, and he looked around for the source of the grunt. Next he gave an alarm snort and began to walk away. I grabbed my grunt tube out of my treestand pouch and made a series of much better-sounding grunts. He hesitated but kept walking. I said out loud, "Please fall. Please fall... At least wobble!"

The buck kept going, and eventually all I could see were glimpses of his tines now and then. He seemed to be stopped, which I knew was good. The longer he remained calm and was walking slowly, the better blood trail would be -- if I even hit him.

Ken PiperAs I strained to keep an eye on the tines, I heard what I was sure was another deer coming in. I turned and looked only to see another fox squirrel. I turned back toward the buck and couldn't find the tines again. I looked and looked but just couldn't make anything out.

I waited 15 minutes and couldn't take it any more. I couldn't see my arrow in the ground, and I had to know if I hit him or not.

Once near the ground, I jumped out of the stand and went to the spot I had picked out from above. I had also tied an orange ribbon up in the tree so I could better determine where I had been when I shot.

I found the spot and didn't find my arrow. Nor did I find any blood or hair. I was sick. I walked up the trail another 5 yards and kept looking. There! A spot of blood!

I walked back to where I knew the buck had been when I shot and took a closer look. There were several nice drops of blood right there!

Now that I knew I had at least hit him, I knew better than to track the deer. I got on the radio and called for Bryan. To my surprise, he answered. I told him I had taken a shot, and he said, "Was it about a 170-class buck?"

Not sure what to make of that, I said, "Well, he was pretty big... why?"

His response didn't make me feel very good. "There's a big buck standing up in the bean field eating."

We discussed our options and finally decided there was no way my buck, even if not hit well, would be casually eating in the field, so I grabbed my things and went to meet Bryan at the truck.

It was about two hours after I had shot when the five of us headed back to my stand. We got to where I had marked the blood, and Matt immediately got on the trail. There wasn't much blood at all for the first 30 yards, but then we saw good dribbles every few feet. Things were looking really good when Matt yelled that something had just taken off out ahead of us. We all just paused and looked at each other, unsure what to do. Matt then said he wanted to go on up ahead to where we had heard the noise to see if the buck had been down. About that time the blood stopped.

We were all down on our knees looking at the leaves when Bryan, who had gone up ahead unnoticed, yelled, "Ken, congratulations! Your Illinois hex is over!"

We all ran up, and there was a big-bodied deer lying in the leaves. I didn't see a rack sticking up off the ground like I expected, and my heart sunk. "I must have over-estimated that buck," I thought. Then I walked up to him and grabbed his antlers and was overcome with awe. He matched my hopes and then some.

I didn't yell and jump around like I thought I would if I ever took a deer of this caliber. Instead, I just quietly knelt down and touched him, taking in every bit of him with my eyes. Finally I got up and shared handshakes and even hugs with my friends. Every person there shared in the harvest of that majestic animal. Dad had given me a love of hunting and taught me so much about the sport. Matt and Bryan had put in the time and effort of scouting the area and directing me to the location; and Chuck had provided the enthusiasm I needed to be sharp, even though my mind was trying to focus on everything but hunting.

As I look at the pictures of this incredible buck, I realize that I might not ever take another one that compares, but that doesn't bother me. I realize I'm just one of the fortunate few who happen to be in the right place at the right time when a buck like this gets doe-crazy and makes a mistake.

For those those who like statistics, the buck measured 206 BTR composite inches and weighed approximately 300 pounds. He has two split tines, which put him in the BTR Irregular category. To give you an idea of just how strong Illinois is for big bucks, my 206-inch buck (184 4/8ths official score) ranks 12th in the Irregular category and would also finish behind three other bucks from the Typical and Semi-Irregular categories. Maybe they should rename the Land of Lincoln and call it the Land of Monster Bucks!

Key Equipment:
Bow: Bowtech Liberty
Arrows: Easton A/C/C
Broadhead: G5
Optics: Nikon Laser 600 Rangefinder
Concealment: Scent-Lok Ultimate Headcover
Treestand: Summit Viper

Dixon Farms Whitetails: Matt Dixon
2835 n 650th Rd
Colchester IL 62326

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