Four-year hunt ends in a cloud of smoke ... and a flood of emotions.
As I hunkered down in a little clover patch with my hands on the antlers of a mature whitetail, I found myself experiencing so many different emotions that nothing made sense. I had been watching and keeping up with this buck for four years, so I was happy and proud — but also sad.
Our hunting place is surrounded by water on three sides, so it has a pretty good natural barrier. It is a big bend in the Mississippi River locally known as Kentucky Bend. It’s pretty easy to control access to the one open side.
About eight years ago, we started a management program to improve our hunting. It’s pretty simple. We plant food plots so the deer have year-round access to all the food they need. And we don’t take 1½- or 2½-year-old bucks.
A buck cannot have a big rack until it’s grown, and that means it needs to live to at least 3½. Each club member may take only one buck per season. And, last but not least, we remove plenty of does. It keeps the buck-to-doe ratio closer to the perfect one to one, even though you will probably never achieve that number in a wild herd.
The first time I saw the deer I refer to as Old White Foot, it was a 2½-year-old 9-pointer with four white feet — not stocking feet like a horse, where the white extends a foot or so up the leg, but just very noticeable white hair over and above the hooves. I thought it would be a good idea to try to keep tabs on that buck. That began a four-year period of observing his every habit and movement.
I put out trail cameras and got some good photos, and I videotaped him several times during the winter. I could hardly wait for the next season to see how much change there would be.
I put out cameras in mid-July to try to get an early glimpse of him. In August, I got him on film at a salt lick. Boy, he had really put on some bone!
Finally, time came to sit in a stand, and it wasn’t long before I saw Old White Foot with a doe. He had become a 3½-year-old breeding buck — still a 9-pointer, but quite a bit heavier.
I saw him several times during hunting season, and by the late muzzleloader season, he looked pretty rough. We don’t have really bad winters here, but looking at him made me realize why a lot of the older bucks die up north where the weather is sub-zero and snow is deep. This buck’s rundown body couldn’t have survived anything of that nature.
The next year, I put my cameras out to see if Old White Foot had made it through the winter and, if so, how much he had added to his headgear. I was hoping he would be a 10-pointer, indicating the time had come to trade in the camera for a gun. I got a good picture or two before season and decided if I saw him while hunting, he was mine.
I was sitting in my stand the very first day of early muzzleloader season when he eased out to feed, white feet shining. It was the moment of truth. I told myself, “You have plenty of time. Watch him for a few minutes.”
As I watched the buck graze, I thought, “Maybe I’ll give him another year.” Then I thought, “You must be crazy to pass a 145-class buck.” But I decided to wait at least until later in the season. I figured I would see him again.
As the fall went on, I filmed Old White Foot again several times. Once he was so close I could have jumped onto his back. Each time I saw him, it was easier to just look and not shoot. So another season came and went with him and his 9-point rack still on the place.
The 2003 season was to be it. No waiting, no looking, no studying. “Shoot on sight” was my game plan. With great anticipation, I put the cameras out and waited for the usual pictures of Old White Foot at his preferred salt licks and food plots. I waited and I waited. Hunting season came and went and I never saw him.
I was sick.
By then I was so obsessed with the deer that no other buck interested me. It was Old White Foot or nothing. He had been so predictable, so visible. At almost any time, I could see him or put out a trail camera and get a picture. I just couldn’t believe he had disappeared.
Since I hadn’t seen him by the end of the season, I started thinking maybe someone had tagged him. But surely we would have heard about a 5½-year-old buck with a rack in the 150s being taken.
Maybe he’d died after the rut. There are lots of coyotes around, so maybe they pulled him down in his weakened state after the rut. For the next four or five months, I imagined every possible scenario. I even thought that maybe a tug boat might have run over him as he crossed the river.
At least hoping that he was still around, I started to work on a plan that would increase my chance of seeing him the next season. There’s an area on the hunting place I call The Interior. It’s about 200 acres of bodock trees, honeysuckle vines and underbrush so thick you can hardly get through it. The deer love the place, so it is our designated sanctuary for them. I only enter it in the spring to look for sheds.
I figured Old White Foot’s core area was in and around The Interior. I thought I’d try to set up three or four stands right at the edge of that jungle. If he moved just a little before dark, I might get a shot, assuming he was still alive.
I found huge 8- to 14-inch rubs and old scrapes everywhere. It just had to be his sign, so I placed my stands. I even waited for a pretty good storm to come through so there would be lots of limbs and treetops lying around to disguise where I had trimmed.
I found a little opening where a couple of big elm trees had died and let the sunlight through to the ground. Grass had grown up in the spot, so I sprayed it with Round-Up. About three weeks later, I planted it with clover. The first rain after planting brought it up, and I had a food plot right at the very edge of the sanctuary. I added a mineral lick nearby and doctored it up with all the “candy” supplements they make for deer. It was a perfect setup.
Everything was how I wanted it, so I stayed out of the area for the rest of the year. If my plan worked, on opening day, I would be standing in that spot with a big smile on my face.
As summer became fall, I was still hoping to get a picture of “my” deer. I got images of some really big bucks, shooters anywhere in the country, but none of Old White Foot.
Then, lo and behold, one week before the season opened, guess who showed up on a trail camera in the little clover patch? It was a good close-up, head-on shot with just enough angle to count 10 dark points.
Imagine how bad I felt the night before opening morning when the weather called for an east wind for the next three days. We don’t have three east winds a year here, but that’s what we were in for. I hunted other areas, hoping the buck would be moving around. No such luck. The rut was still eight or 10 days away, so I guess he was staying in the thick stuff.
Finally, the wind changed. I was in my stand an hour before daylight, straining to see in the dark. Dawn finally broke, and with it came deer movement, but not the one deer I wanted to see. I stayed there most of the day but saw no sign of Old White Foot. The next few days were the same.
The seasons chugged along, with second muzzleloader season set to start on Dec. 15. The rut was still going, but winding down. I began to think maybe food would be the key to getting a shot, because Old White Foot had to be getting pretty thin by then.
I decided to hunt the clover in the evening instead of morning. I thought he might be in a run-down state, plus he might be hungry enough to move out into the plot a little before dark.
The wind was perfect. Strangely, I was pumped up, even after hunting all those days and not even getting a peep at him. I knew he was out there somewhere. Well, that day slipped by and it was time to go to the cabin. After supper, I took the picture out and looked at it again. Each time I looked at that photo, I would go to bed with the image burned into my brain.
That next morning, I hunted on the river. I filmed a couple of bigger bucks and a bobcat. At about noon, I went to camp for a bite to eat and a cup of hot coffee. After lunch, the temperature started to drop. It was close to freezing, and the sky was as clear as a bell — what a fine day to sit in a deer stand.
Nothing happened for a long time. After a couple of hours, a doe and fawn entered the plot. I watched them feed, and I looked at my watch — 5 p.m. The sun was heading down, and the night chill was in the air.
All of a sudden, a doe came into the plot at a brisk pace, not stopping to feed. I thought that was a little strange. She had gotten out into the open about 30 or 40 yards. About the time I started to think, “Maybe a buck is pushing her,” out of the brush popped a rack like I’d never seen before.
Holy moly, what a deer!
I was already looking through my binoculars when he came out, so right off I knew he was a shooter, but the next thing I noticed were those white feet coming up out of that clover as he walked after his sweetheart. “That’s him!”
As I brought the muzzleloader to my shoulder, I thought, “You’ve got one shot and one shot only. It’s got to count.”
I tried my best to steady my aim by taking rest on the old sycamore tree. I made a sound with my mouth that was supposed to be a grunt, but it didn’t come out that way. It was a sound, but certainly not a grunt. The buck paid no attention to it and just kept right on walking.
I put my crosshairs on his shoulder and touched off the shot. With a huge puff of white smoke in front of me, I must have looked like some kind of jumping jack in that tree, trying to see if he was down. Finally, I could see he was standing straddle legged, facing the way he’d come. “Oh no! How could I have missed him at 80 yards?”
After digging through a coat, vest and shirt pocket to find my so-called quick loads and finally getting one open, I was sure he would run before I was ready for a second shot. But I made it. I took rest again and fired. This time when the white cloud drifted away, there he lay.
If you think I was shaken up before, it was nothing compared to how it hit me then. Have you ever tried to climb out of a tree on rubber legs with a violently shaking body and arms? It ain’t easy!
When I walked up to Old White Foot, a flood of emotions ran through me. There is no way I can express all the feelings I was experiencing at that moment. I was proud, I was happy, I was nervous, I was sad. That moment has been repeated millions of times in the past, and it must be the same feeling for everyone.
Pretty soon my thoughts turned to next season. I wondered how it would be without the deer I have been keeping up with for so long. Maybe I’d find one of his sons to match wits with so the spirit of the hunt would continue, just as it has since the beginning of time.
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This article was published in the Winter 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.