SUDDEN SUCCESS: In an instant, a quiet morning on stand turned into one of sheer panic. But it was the best kind of panic a deer hunter can experience.
I was hunting in Brown County, Minnesota, not far from the village of Hanska. I'd seen the 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer a few times early in the 2017 archery season but hadn't been able to arrow him. Now I was back on opening morning of firearms season, and I had big plans for that buck: plans that involved melted butter, garlic and a saute pan. Unfortunately, now he was gone.
The final 15 minutes before shooting light might be my favorite part of opening day. This time brings back memories of past seasons mixed with the excitement of a new one and plans for future hunts. The ghosts of friends long gone swirl in the mist, and we're together again stalking the woods and swamps of my memory.
Pouring a cup of coffee while waiting for shooting light, I imagined how my friends would laugh at me when told my buck had walked within a foot of my stand without a shot. Oh well, I thought, maybe something better will show up.
When the first sliver of sun crested the horizon at about 8 o'clock, I was a little surprised. We usually hear a lot of shooting in farm country, but to that point not a single shot had been fired within hearing range. No deer, no pheasants. Not even the duck hunters calling from their boat less than 100 yards away. It might be one of those quiet mornings that end up as just extended squirrel-watching sessions.
Then everything changed. A doe burst from the edge of the oak grove, and she was in a hurry. Sprint 20 yards, stop, check her back trail, repeat. I'd seen that behavior before, and it always had meant only one thing: A doe is nearly ready to breed, and her boyfriend is close behind.
At 70 yards she made a sharp right turn that put her on the trail coming my way. I reached for my binoculars and focused on the woods behind her, expecting to see one of the yearling bucks I had on trail camera. Instead, what trotted into the clearing was the stuff dreams are made of. I was looking at the biggest buck I'd seen in almost five decades of deer hunting. My heart went into overdrive, and breathing became almost impossible.
My first impression was of how his antlers were much wider than his shoulders. Then the length of the tines became obvious. He paused for a second as the first rays of sun made his rack gleam like a mass of twisted, golden sabers. Awesome, majestic, regal: words can't fully describe that picture-perfect pose. The sight will stay with me forever.
By now the doe was only 20 yards away from my tree and closing fast. Maybe she wasn't quite ready for the buck's attentions, or maybe she was just being coy and playing hard to get. Either way, her escape trail would bring her within 20 feet of my perch.
The monster stood frozen at 70 yards. I could almost see the wariness and indecision in his body language; he'd watch the doe, then check his back trail, then back to the doe. Bucks don't live to a ripe old age by being stupid, and this old boy knew it might be a bad idea to chase his lady along the open edge of a field in broad daylight.
Luckily for me, his urge to breed won out. After a last glance over his shoulder, he dipped his massive headgear and came at a dead run. As the adrenaline pumped into my veins. I dropped the binoculars to my chest and with all the grace of a drunken sailor made a quick lurch for my battered old 12 gauge.
The commotion was enough to get the attention of the doe, which skidded to a stop beneath me. I threw the butt of the gun against my shoulder, planted my cheek on the stock, clicked off the safety, peered down the scope and tried to hold on the chest of the buck racing at me.
As the doe locked her eyes on me up in the tree and froze in place, the buck slammed on the brakes and locked eyes on his girlfriend. I steadied the crosshairs on the center of his chest, just below the neck. We were at a stalemate, and time stood still. He was just 40 yards out but facing me: not an ideal shot, in my mind, and I really didn't want to mess this up.
He was still staring at the doe, which was still staring at me. But their body language said they were on the verge of panic. Meanwhile, I was trying to decide whether to shoot or just have a heart attack and die right there in my stand. So many thoughts were flying through my brain: He's a Booner!... Don't blow it!... He's gonna bolt!... I hope my gun is loaded!
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the doe spin to head back toward the timber, so I knew the buck was only a second from bolting as well. As I began to squeeze the trigger, he crouched to gather his legs. But he was a half-second too slow. The 1-ounce saboted slug caught him in the lower neck and severed his spine instantly.
I lowered my gun, gulped a few breaths of air, closed my eyes and tried to calm down. I called my nephew, Jay, to share the news. He was finishing up the last of the corn harvest, so he hadn't made it to his tree stand: a stand on the same trail my buck had just traveled. It was the first opening morning of slug season Jay had missed in 20 years.
After I texted a photo of the buck to my wife, Jyl, and a few friends, my phone came alive. Minutes later, my dad got there. His first comment was, "Wow! How many points does he have?" I'd forgotten to count! We came up with 16, plus a few more stickers that might make an inch. Dad and I have hunted together my whole life, so I was happy he was there.
We estimated the deer's live weight at nearly 300 pounds. So when my friends Mark and John called to offer assistance. I gladly accepted. Upon their arrival we shot some photos, dressed the deer and loaded him into the truck.
After the drying period, the 9x9 rack received a net score of 215 7/8. The inside spread is 20 6/8, the greatest spread 24 0/8. But the most impressive feature is the mass. Of the eight main beam circumferences, the smallest is 5 0/8, the biggest 6 4/8. Put it all together and he was the top buck in Minnesota in '17, and Brown County's biggest ever.
Many of my best memories are of deer season. The foggy sunrises and sudden snowstorms, the golden afternoons and frozen rivers and always the bonds of brotherhood. Taking a true giant and being able to share that experience with family and friends is a humbling gift from God. I view the experience as the culmination of a lifetime spent in pursuit of the greatest game animal of them all: the white-tailed deer.
BY BARRY THOMPSON