How’s this for a year of accomplishments? In 2014 Justin Mooney, of Dixon, Kentucky, has taken first place in an Archery Shooters Association state tournament, finished in the top 10 at a national ASA tournament, and celebrated the birth of his first child. Then he went out and tagged the biggest buck of his life last month.
It all started when Mooney secured permission to hunt behind his boss’ house in Webster County. He set up a game camera on the five-acre patch of property this summer, and it wasn’t long before the cam captured a monster on the move. Each week Mooney and his boss examined the photos, keeping track of the buck’s habits. Then, late in the summer, three weeks passed without a single image of the huge whitetail.
Even so, the opening day of archery season on Sept. 6 held promise. But instead of climbing into his treestand that Saturday, Mooney found himself in the hospital delivery room. His daughter was born more than a week early.
Mooney was thrilled to be a new father, and hunting took a backseat for a couple weeks. He squeezed in a few short hunts, but it wasn’t until he checked on the trail cam that he started itching to hit the woods again: The big non-typical had reappeared.
The wind was just right on September 16, and Mooney’s wife, a fellow hunter, encouraged him to take a break and hunt that afternoon. By 4:25 p.m. Mooney was perched in a tree along a hardwood ridge. Instead of using his existing stand, however, he had packed his climber and set up in an adjacent tree he thought was better situated along the trail.
Mooney heard something on the hill behind him, but it was early still and a pair of squirrels were his only company. Then, one of the squirrels perked up, listening. The noise came again, closer this time.
“I looked down, and all of a sudden there was the deer I was after, about 30 yards off to the left, through some thick stuff,” Mooney says. “I immediately put my hand up to reach for my bow, but he walked out into the open.”
After a few tense moments Mooney managed to grab the compound. He sat there, frozen and ready to draw, but the buck stood facing the tree without presenting a shot.
“I’m waiting, and I’m seeing double. You get really excited, because that’s what you’re there for,” Mooney says. “The deer was so big, and I was about to lose it.”
“The first thing that came to my mind—and I think it helped me keep calm—was, ‘This deer looks fake.’ He’s so big, and so unique looking, he didn’t look real. I realized it was him, though, and this was my opportunity.”
Mooney’s knees eventually stopped shaking. The buck wasn’t going anywhere, he decided, but if it did, it would walk left, right, or under the stand. Browsing for acorns and nosing some Sugar Beet Crush attractant, the whitetail slowly stepped closer to the stand. Then, another buck appeared.
An 8-point bumped the dominant buck in the rump. This push turned the monster buck broadside, then it quartered away at 23 yards. Mooney seized the opportunity.
“He looked right at me, but it was too late. I was at full draw. I made a wonderful shot, a double-lung shot.”
The bruiser turned tail and ran 35 yards downhill before dropping, just out of sight.
Forty minutes after the hunt began, it was over. Mooney called his father, waited 10 minutes, then climbed down and walked to the truck. He picked up his dad and they took their time returning to the woods. Five minutes of tracking was all it took to retrace the deer’s final steps.
“I went down to him, and I dropped to my knees, grabbed hold of his rack, and told Dad, ‘Have you ever seen such a deer?’”
The whitetail’s 27 scoreable points taped 230 1/8 inches non-typical Pope and Young (gross green score). That shatters the existing Webster County record for any method of take. The county’s largest non-typical on the Pope and Young record books measured 167 1/8, and Boone and Crockett’s largest for the county measured 204 inches. This record-breaker could also potentially rank as the number-three non-typical in the entire state.
This buck had been hunted hard by multiple hunters, and nearly every one of them showed up at Mooney’s house that night to admire the buck.
Play By Play
Even while juggling recent fatherhood and a hectic work schedule, Mooney managed to execute the perfect hunt.
Patterning the buck through trail cam photos tipped him off about the buck’s most likely movements. The conclusion: hunt the afternoon, and hunt early. Mooney chose a staging area along a ridge, with a small rise in the terrain between him and the bedding area 50 yards away. He also learned valuable information in those first few sits in his hang-on stand. The set up wasn’t quite right and he was strapped for time, so Mooney tweaked his position by bringing in a climber.
As for calls, Mooney left the grunt tube at home for the early-season hunt. Instead, he relied on attractants like the Sugar Beet Crush. He also sprayed the area three times with C’Mere Deer Buck Juice. And, perhaps most importantly, Mooney only hunted those woods when the wind was right.
Even with the buck in his sights, Mooney still had to make the shot. That’s when his intensive archery training kicked in. Competing in dozens of tournaments this year helped prepare him for a perfect shot. But even with the best planning and practice, a little luck never hurts.
“This hunt was on probably the smallest piece of property I hunt, but that’s usually how it is,” Mooney said. “The deer is never where you think he’s supposed to be.”
Deer of the Year
Mooney’s Kentucky buck is eligible for OL’s Deer of the Year program. Upload a photo of your own 2014/2015 buck for a chance to win great gear from Gerber and land your deer on the cover of Outdoor Life magazine.
Secrets of the Rut
It’s the best time of the season to tag a trophy buck. If you want to make the most of it, you’d better understand the science behind whitetail breeding behavior. Here’s what you need to know, and the photos to prove it.