The Buck with 9 Lives

Though many had tried, the huge 10-point had always managed to escape. Now it was my turn to try my luck.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

It was the middle of December. The Midwestern airport bustled with men in striped ties and dark overcoats squeezing in their last business trips before the holidays. People clogged the concourses. The shops, like overstuffed stockings, were brimming with glitzy tchotchkes under faux Christmas trees. Somewhere above the din, the piped-in strains of Bing Crosby reminded me that Christmas was coming. I missed my kids and in some ways wished I was one of the happy travelers heading home, but I was going deer hunting. It all felt a bit surreal as I walked through the terminal under my old, brown Stetson.

A light snow was falling, the tiny flakes easing down and then swirling up in great, white clouds as the prairie winds blew against the frozen windowpanes. "Good hunting weather," I thought as I made my way down to the baggage claim.

My bags were already on the conveyor when I arrived, and there was my friend Mark Drury, smiling and following me with his Palmcorder. I felt a little silly being on camera as Mark fired questions at me, but the locals didn't seem to notice.

The highway leading out to where we were going to hunt ran through rolling hills and pasturelands. Grain fields gave way to pockets of hardwoods whose gnarled limbs looked as though they were penned in black ink against the white canvas of snow. We chatted about the weather and our chances in the days to come. Mark hoped to capture my hunt on video.

I had waited two years to draw a coveted tag for the area's late rifle season. Even before Mark began to tell me, I knew how good the deer hunting here could be. He asked what kind of buck I was looking for, revisiting conversations we'd had before.

"I'm really hoping for something special," I told him. "In fact, I'm perfectly willing to go home empty-handed, but I won't pull the trigger on any deer less than one-fifty." I realized I probably sounded like a jerk and tried to save the conversation. "I don't mean to sound greedy. It's just a goal I've set for myself," I said, my voice trailing off.

"That's a good goal," Mark said with a smile, "and a realistic one for the area we're going to hunt."

I sensed he knew a lot more than what he was letting on. Then came the clincher. "There are even bigger bucks than that where we're going. It all depends on the weather and our luck."

I thought about my luck as the silos and farmhouses drifted by. I thought about all the time I'd spent on deer stands in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba-places where guys take dream deer every season. Except for me. Though I'd been successful on most of my hunts, I had yet to see a real super buck. The woods, of course, don't owe us anything, but when you've put that kind of time into places known for monster bucks and never seen the first hair of one, you have to wonder whether you're ever going to. Those were the thoughts that followed me into the field that afternoon.

[pagebreak] Oh, So Close
Mark is an incredible guy to hunt with. Years of chasing big whitetails have honed his deer-hunting skills to where he doesn't miss a thing. The wind is everything when he chooses stands on any given morning or afternoon. The westerly breeze that afternoon was very light and just right to hunt a stand in a huge oak tree that backed onto a pond. Mark had specifically chosen that location because the pond would keep any deer from getting behind us on our downwind side. It would also serve as a buffer zone, allowing our scent to be carried far back over the water, where it would disperse.

I eyed the big oak with suspicion, knowing that Mark's stands were somewhere up in the clouds. When you make your living filming deer hunts, you tend to hang high. And when you dislike heights the way I do, such climbs make your palms sweat. Snow and ice had covered the limbs and steps, making them extra slippery. "How are we going to get wn in the dark?" I thought. Mark made it about halfway up before slip-sliding back down. "Man, that's too hairy," he whispered, "even for me." I breathed an inner sigh of relief.

Our backup stand was situated about 300 yards farther upwind, just off the corner of a large cornfield. We wouldn't have the pond to block deer from getting behind us, but Mark's setup was about 50 yards short of a major crossing on the downwind side. Deer would move left to right from thick woods, jumping a three-strand fence to access the corn. The wind was perfect, so we climbed in at 3 o'clock and waited for dusk. Nothing except a few crows stirred that afternoon, but 10 minutes before we couldn't video anymore, everything moved at once. First a nice 140-class buck came out upwind of us on the edge of the cornfield. He was five on one side and four on the other. In most people's books he'd be a shooter, but I was determined to stick to my game plan. Five does crossed in front of us from the woods to the field.

When it was almost dark our 4x5 friend started down the fence line to check the does out, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. I could hear Mark suck in a deep breath as we both spotted a massive 10-pointer making his way down the fence line toward us. One glance and I slipped the safety off. Everything about him was huge and he walked stiff-legged, like old bucks do. He definitely had an attitude. When he locked eyes with the smaller buck, the 4x5 bolted.

I had the crosshairs on the big 10-pointer, but I wanted to make sure Mark was getting good video footage before I shot. "I'm out of light," Mark whispered. I eased the safety back on and watched as the biggest whitetail I'd ever seen moved off into the woods. Not shooting him was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, but when you're working as a team, sometimes you just have to suck it up.

We climbed down at dark, not saying a word as we made our way back to the truck. But as we passed the edge of the field by the big oak stand, something huge busted off to our right. Cornstalks clattered and limbs cracked as the deer hit the woods. "Now that's a big deer," Mark whispered in the dark. You could have scraped my eyes off with a stick.

Back at the truck, Mark said he was really disappointed in the number of deer we had seen. "This was a weird night. On a normal evening on that stand we might see thirty or forty deer. But they weren't there tonight."

I found it hard to believe it was a busted evening. I'd just seen the biggest whitetail of my life. And I could only imagine how big the deer was that bounded away in the dark. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

[pagebreak] Five-Minute Madness
Next morning we had a south wind and Mark took me to a place he likes to hunt late in the season because it has a lot of "thermal cover"-cedars that break the wind on the south-sloping terrain to provide a warmer, more protected bedding area for deer. Cornfields ran out from the woods and rich Biologic lay around the edges beneath a mantle of snow.

We crept in under cover of darkness. Mark doesn't like to invade these places very often. In fact, he doesn't even like to whisper in these areas. The whole idea is never to let the deer know they're being hunted-no sound, no scent, no nothing. We slipped into our stand without a sound, trying not to shake in the biting cold.

We had just climbed in when Mark started seeing does. I was stuffing three CopperSolid slugs into the 870 pump when Mark spotted a huge buck moving down along the field edge, headed straight for our blind. I slowly raised the shotgun, being extra careful to minimize my movements. Even at 150 yards I knew he was bigger than the buck we'd seen the night before, and I tried not to let my eyes wander up to his heavy 10-point beams. "Just think about the shot," I told myself.

On he came. He was walking with purpose, like he wanted to get someplace in a hurry. He never stopped and I marveled at his body size, noting his stiff gait and heavy dewlap, which swung like a Brahma bull's each time he took a step. A yearling buck was trailing him but could hardly keep up. This guy was on a mission.

I could hear the faint whir of Mark's camera in the background as I tracked the buck through the scope. At about 60 yards he turned west, closing on the edge of the woods that now lay just 15 yards ahead. Mark finally bleated, and the huge buck froze. He locked onto our stand, but the crosshairs were already on the crease just inside his front shoulder and the last bit of slack was coming out of the trigger. The shotgun bucked, I heard the whip-crack of the slug hitting home and saw him lurch for the trees.

I racked the slide, hoping to get off another shot, but the smaller buck was running beside him now and I didn't dare chance it. Then they were into the trees. I knew I'd hit him well; still I held my breath as I watched him run headlong down the ridge, a gray blur against the white snow and black silhouettes of trees. Then he slowed and stopped. I couldn't see him fall from my position, but Mark did.

"You just killed the biggest buck of your life," he gushed from behind the camera. "How does it feel?" I tried to talk but my mind was in a fog. I unloaded the pump in disbelief. We'd been on stand no more than 5 minutes and it was all over. I finally sat back, feeling the washing-machine jitters hit my legs. Mark did several takes of my post-shot interview but I knew I was just babbling.

We finally climbed down and paced the distance to where the buck had stood-63 steps. Deep gouges lay in the snow where he had leaped following the shot. Then there was blood, first in tiny droplets, then in bright red splashes that marked each bound. Then his steps became shorter and you could see that he was beginning to stumble drunkenly. Then he was down, the brown curl of an antler peeking up over the edge of the snow.

[pagebreak] Honoring A Monarch
As I walked up to the buck I began to realize just how good a deer he was. He was a perfect 10-pointer with no more than an inch or two of difference from one side to the other, and a body like a horse. Even after running hard all through the rut, his body size was incredible. Back at the barn the scales showed his live weight was 260 pounds. His dressed weight was 205. His rack measured 20 inches wide and his G-2's were 10½ inches tall. Mark would later green-score him at 163, but what really made him special was his age.

At 5½ years he was truly in his prime. Bucks don't get that way by being dumb, and to take one like that straight up on his home turf meant more to me than any score could. Mark said he recognized the buck right away from trail camee was walking with purpose, like he wanted to get someplace in a hurry. He never stopped and I marveled at his body size, noting his stiff gait and heavy dewlap, which swung like a Brahma bull's each time he took a step. A yearling buck was trailing him but could hardly keep up. This guy was on a mission.

I could hear the faint whir of Mark's camera in the background as I tracked the buck through the scope. At about 60 yards he turned west, closing on the edge of the woods that now lay just 15 yards ahead. Mark finally bleated, and the huge buck froze. He locked onto our stand, but the crosshairs were already on the crease just inside his front shoulder and the last bit of slack was coming out of the trigger. The shotgun bucked, I heard the whip-crack of the slug hitting home and saw him lurch for the trees.

I racked the slide, hoping to get off another shot, but the smaller buck was running beside him now and I didn't dare chance it. Then they were into the trees. I knew I'd hit him well; still I held my breath as I watched him run headlong down the ridge, a gray blur against the white snow and black silhouettes of trees. Then he slowed and stopped. I couldn't see him fall from my position, but Mark did.

"You just killed the biggest buck of your life," he gushed from behind the camera. "How does it feel?" I tried to talk but my mind was in a fog. I unloaded the pump in disbelief. We'd been on stand no more than 5 minutes and it was all over. I finally sat back, feeling the washing-machine jitters hit my legs. Mark did several takes of my post-shot interview but I knew I was just babbling.

We finally climbed down and paced the distance to where the buck had stood-63 steps. Deep gouges lay in the snow where he had leaped following the shot. Then there was blood, first in tiny droplets, then in bright red splashes that marked each bound. Then his steps became shorter and you could see that he was beginning to stumble drunkenly. Then he was down, the brown curl of an antler peeking up over the edge of the snow.

[pagebreak] Honoring A Monarch
As I walked up to the buck I began to realize just how good a deer he was. He was a perfect 10-pointer with no more than an inch or two of difference from one side to the other, and a body like a horse. Even after running hard all through the rut, his body size was incredible. Back at the barn the scales showed his live weight was 260 pounds. His dressed weight was 205. His rack measured 20 inches wide and his G-2's were 10½ inches tall. Mark would later green-score him at 163, but what really made him special was his age.

At 5½ years he was truly in his prime. Bucks don't get that way by being dumb, and to take one like that straight up on his home turf meant more to me than any score could. Mark said he recognized the buck right away from trail came