Hunting Big Game Hunting Deer Hunting Whitetail Deer Hunting

Bowhunter Tags Surprise 210-Class Iowa Buck on Pressured Public Ground

"It had been hammered during the rut, and on my way in I passed a couple of tree stands, a mock scrape, then a Shoot-n-See target hung from an oak"
Andrew McKean Avatar
Courtesy J.D. Vandenburg

I was talking myself out of an evening sit. It had been a long season, I had family in town for Thanksgiving, and my three girls—all under age eight—were missing their dad just about as much as I was missing them. But almost as though he could read my mind, my brother-in-law, who has been one of my closest friends since before I married his sister, called me as I was coming out of a morning stand and told me to finish strong. You never know what the late rut will bring.

So for the evening I headed to a patch of public land about an hour from Des Moines. It’s a long, narrow chunk of ground surrounded by ag. Little draws drop off a ridge down to the fields. I had hung cameras there maybe five years ago and had gotten photos of some good bucks, but I quit running cameras shortly afterward. They disappoint you, either because they don’t get any pictures, or because they get pictures of bucks you never end up seeing when you hunt.

But I had marked a tree on the property that was intriguing, and I still had the waypoint in my phone. It grew at the end of a long hardwood ridge, where the oaks transition into sticker brush, buckbrush, and pines. I thought that might be a good place for the end of the rut, maybe to intercept a buck coming out of or heading into that bedding area.

An overhead shot of a hunter's head and the back of a big buck's antlers.
Vandenburg takes a moment with his buck.

Courtesy J.D. Vandenburg

It was the last Saturday of bow season and I expected the parking area to be full, but surprisingly there were no vehicles. Still, the number of empty Hot Hands wrappers strewn around was a sign that it had been hammered during the rut, and on my way in I passed a couple of tree stands, a mock scrape, then a Shoot-n-See target hung from an oak tree. Somebody had been target practicing about 30 yards from the tree I wanted to sit in. It wasn’t exactly pristine wilderness.

I’m what you’d call a hang-and-hunt hunter. I use a saddle and climbing sticks and hang on a tree I’ve identified earlier or where the deer sign points me. There’s not much public land in Iowa, and what’s accessible are small, heavily pressured parcels. But I try to adapt by hunting mid-week when I can, and I’m thankful for a spouse who lets me go. I’m an auction representative for an over-the-road truck company, trying to help companies sell their used equipment, so it can be hard to get time away. Plus, my oldest daughter likes to be involved. Her thing is packing out a deer heart so we can cut it up and eat it when we get home.

I’ve shot some decent deer but usually I end up shooting a lot of does and either not filling my buck tag or shooting something that’s not quite mature. That was my mindset last Saturday. I was going in blind, but it was the end of the rut and like my brother-in-law always says, you never know. Finish strong. Hopefully I’d get a shot at a doe.

I had just gotten settled when I heard noise down the ridge. I’d seen squirrels everywhere on my way in, so I looked around the tree expecting to see a squirrel. Instead, I saw the right side of a buck’s rack coming out from behind a big pine tree. Based on what I saw, I immediately knew it was a deer I wanted to shoot. I grabbed my bow and tried to get my release on, but the adrenaline was already starting to shake up my body. Somehow, my D-loop was backward on my bowstring. I couldn’t understand how to clip my release in, so I ended up just grabbing the loop with my fingers and turned it around and got clipped in. The deer never stopped moving, and somehow I got to full draw.

I shoot a single-pin sight, and all the time I was thinking he’s at 20 to 25 yards, walking from left to right. His head was down, like he was looking for something. Maybe he was on a hot doe, or maybe he was run down, or maybe he was headed home, I don’t know. I got my pin on his vitals, but he was cruising. I gave a “baahp” to get him to stop, but it was like he didn’t hear it or he just ignored it. He went behind a cluster of hardwoods with some gaps but no good shooting lanes. I was waiting for him to come out the other side, also aware that he was about to hit my wind.

I’m freaking out in milliseconds. He comes out the other side and one more time I “baahp” him, but he still doesn’t stop. I immediately knew I’d have to shoot while he was walking, which is a shot I just don’t practice. Hindsight is 20/20, and I should have followed through with my swing, but I stopped my bow and hit him high and a little back. My initial feeling was just total sickness.

He ran off about 20 yards and looked back in my direction. He’s right there, at 40 yards in the open timber. Broadside. I almost tried to get another arrow in him, but I worried he would see me moving and bolt out of there. So I stayed totally still and he started trotting again. I thought I saw him stumble a little bit, but it was one of those things: Did I really see him stumble or am I making it up in my mind because I wanted to see it so bad? He walked maybe another 50 yards and then out of sight.

All sorts of thoughts flitted through my mind. How am I going to walk out in order not to bump him? How should I approach when I come back tomorrow? How much is it going to snow tonight?

A bowhunter smiles while sitting behind a big buck in the woods.
Vandenburg with his biggest buck to date.

Courtesy J.D. Vandenburg

I called my brother-in-law. It was about 2:30 p.m. when I shot and I figured my brother-in-law wasn’t quite out to his own stand. When he picked up, I told him I’d just shot the biggest buck I’ve ever seen. Because, when he was walking away, I could see how big he was.

“I probably just shot a 200-incher,” I told him, “I think he’s a 14-pointer.”

I was immediately aware how ridiculous that sounded, but that’s what I said. I walked him through my shot. Based on all that, he thought I should stay in my stand until dark, and then try to find my arrow. So I used my binocular to scan the ground, and I’m 90 percent sure I spotted my arrow, with red on the white fletching.

Then I spotted a little blood on the trail through my binocular. About that time, I heard a long, extended grunt. My first thought was that there’s another hunter in the woods, maybe in that stand I had passed on my way in.

The longest hour of my life goes by, and my anxiety began to rise as the snow started to fly. I texted my brother-in-law, who said he thought it’d be okay if I got out of my stand to look for my arrow.

“Just be a ninja and don’t get any wild hairs to go tracking him,” he added.

I scanned the woods again, and this time I thought I could see a chunk of a main beam, but it was 150 yards away through the timber and I couldn’t confirm it. So I somehow sat on the tiny foot platform and glassed under some branches and I see a back leg kicked back, and at an angle that didn’t look like he was bedded down. Like he was dead.

A hunter admires the antlers of a big buck.

I’m not gonna lie. I kinda lost it there in the tree stand. Not like I was screaming, more like I was weeping. I couldn’t even believe it. I don’t have the words to describe exactly what it was like.

I called my brother-in-law again, and he said he’d come right over. In the meantime I was able to get down and get to where I could confirm that the buck was down for good. I got over to him, tagged him, and tele-checked him. Then I just sat by him. I looked at him.

I’m a person of faith, and I thanked the Lord for the opportunity, one that I don’t think I necessarily deserved or earned. I was just humbled by the opportunity and just sat there until my brother-in-law showed up. He tackled me. We high-fived. We fist-bumped. And then we got to whooping and hollering—after he confirmed there was nobody hunting that stand up the ridge. We just stood there in awe of him. I had stuff scattered everywhere. I lost my knife on the ground. He was trying to keep me together. Somehow we got the buck field-dressed and loaded on to his deer cart, which I was thankful for since that deer was about 1,000 yards from the pickup.

Then it became a spectacle. We had all my close hunting buddies wanting to see him. It was just one of those nights that we don’t experience in hunting very often, everyone wanting to be a part of it—pumped up for me, and for the chance to see an animal like that, that’s not mounted on the wall or on TV. I got to stop at a few family Thanksgiving gatherings, everybody came out and checked him out. Eventually I brought him back to my house. My brother-in-law had said from the time I called him that he wanted to put a tape on him.

“I don’t even care what he scores,” I told him.

“I know,” he said. “But I want to know.”

A bowhunter holds up the head of a nice buck in light snow.

So my brother-in-law did the measuring while I entered the dimensions in my phone. I just started laughing because I realized he was going to be over 200 inches. I was just thinking, Oh. My. Lord. My brother-in-law got a very rough gross score of 211-7/8. A buddy came over and taped him at 210-4/8, without knowing the prior score.

My wildest dreams had been of shooting a 160-inch deer. My best-ever buck, which I shot when I was 18, is a 167-inch 10-point, and I’ve shot a couple deer in the 150-inch range. But most of the time I’m shooting 130-class deer or I’m filing doe tags. I’ve missed some big deer, and when I released my arrow, I thought this might be one I’d never see again.

When we field dressed him, I found I had hit only one lung and no other organs, but his entire chest cavity was full of blood. I got lucky—or more accurately, blessed—on multiple occasions: first that I got a shot at that deer, second that I recovered him, and third that he was as big as he is.

I used to do some part-time taxidermy, and I’ll still mount a deer or two a year for a buddy or a relative. I’m going to mount this deer myself. I’m a little torn about whether to use the cape. He’s missing the hair from both his shoulders. I’m not sure if he lived in a swamp somewhere or if he was rubbed from fighting. I do know I’ve never seen a tick load on any deer like this buck, so maybe he was rubbing his shoulders trying to get the ticks off.

Read Next: 85 Late Season Deer Hunting Tips to Save Your Season

I’m still in awe of his dimensions. That right side that I saw as he was walking in has so many typical points coming off that long main beam that’s just unbelievable. I never thought I’d see that, period, let along on a deer coming through the woods toward me. And his tine length is crazy, too: His 2s, 3s, and 4s are all super long and he has a sticker, a sort of hook, coming off his left G-2.

If I had to pick out one thing about him that blows my mind is the fact that he’s a main-frame seven. And none of his tines are short. I’ve shot 8-pointers with shorter tines than his last point. It’s just hard for me to believe that a deer like that exists—let alone that I’d get a chance to encounter him.