The Ones That Got Away

We All Have One Or Two – Or a Dozen – Trophies That Somehow Eluded Us. Some of These Ghosts Are Even More Memorable Than The Animals We Bagged.

If you hunt long enough, you will encounter an animal that is different from all other animals. Maybe it’s the size of his rack, or the way he behaves, or his sudden, surprising appearance.

Sometimes everything comes to­­gether and you kill that remarkable animal, and then celebrate your success with photographs and taxidermy. But sometimes, that singular animal gets away because we miss a shot, or we become so rattled we never take a shot, or some other combination of details conspire to allow him to escape.

The stories here are about those animals, the ones that burn bright in our memory precisely because we have no physical evidence they ever existed.

Tim Zick and his hunting family
The Zick Family – Sue, Jerry, and Tim – on the final day of the 2009 deer season. Tim Zick

DAD’S DEER

Tim Zick: Snellman, MINN.

My dad died in October 2012, on our family farm in northern Minnesota. In the weeks before his death, he had been preparing for me to come home for November’s deer season. He had done all of the preseason work for me. He fixed up all the deer stands, he sighted-in my rifle. He even bought my tag.

A few weeks after his funeral, I went back home for deer season as planned, even though nothing was the same. I remember an empty feeling inside me as I sifted through my dad’s things, finally locating the hunting license he’d purchased for me. There wasn’t much I could do except move forward and try my damnedest to fill that tag.

The hunting was terrible that season. The weather was cold, the air was still, and the leaves were crunchy. Nothing seemed to be moving, especially the deer.

On the second-to-last day of the season, I tried a different approach. There was a stand that my dad and I had put up several years earlier. Located on a hillside of oak trees, it was extremely close to a bedding area, but it was also very difficult to get to quietly. Because of that, we seldom hunted it. But that day, I decided to try it.

I left for the evening hunt two hours earlier than normal, buying myself time to sneak in to the stand. But as I sat in it, I could think about only one thing: I hated the direction it faced for evening hunts. I remembered my dad and I politely disagreeing on the subject when we put that stand up. As it started to get dark, I saw movement down the hillside. It was a doe, followed closely by a large-bodied buck. I raised my gun and tried to find the buck through my scope, but he kept weaving through trees. It was impossible for me to get a good hold on him.

Meanwhile, the doe kept moving closer. If she followed the trail she was on, she’d walk past me at about 40 yards, bringing the buck with her. Instead, she went between the trail and my stand. She stopped 15 yards away, sniffed the air, then sniffed again. She looked me dead in the eyes, snorted loudly, and took off running. My buck went with her.

I was so close to filling that tag—the last tag my dad would ever buy me—and in an instant, the opportunity was gone.

Was I disappointed? Sure. But that moment is burned into my memory, along with all the memories of my dad and me building stands and hunting together.

OPENING-DAY DUD

Ben O’Brien, Hargerstown, MD

i was 12 years old and tiny. Barely big enough to hold my Savage 110 steady when I shouldered it. With my dad and our neighbor Bill Miller at my side, I’d headed out for my first deer on Maryland’s youth hunt.

Bill and my old man had tested me on the floor of our garage a few weeks earlier. Could I hold the rifle? Did I understand what it truly means to pull the trigger when it is pointed toward a living target? After I passed that test, Bill took me to the range and I demonstrated adequate accuracy using his patented handloads in .243 Win.

With approval from the men, and shooting sticks to ensure I was steady on the crosshairs, we headed out.

All morning, I fought jangled nerves, the impossibly heavy rifle, and the expectations of my mentors. No one was surprised when I missed a doe at 75 yards. It was decided that we would find a situation better designed for a nervous 12-year-old. That afternoon we happened on a large downed oak tree positioned conveniently on a steep hillside that acted as a pinch point for a bunch of deer trails.

As the afternoon sun soaked the timber, I grew more confident. The tree gave me a perfect rest, and my dad, posted at my hip, gave me periodic pep talks. Bill fell asleep behind us, in the huge root hole of the fallen tree.

Out of nowhere, a 4-point buck appeared, oblivious to us. I slid the rifle across the crumbling bark. The crosshairs found the buck’s front shoulder. My dad’s voice leveled me off, keeping me calm. I squeezed the trigger.

Click.

Nothing.

Cursing.

The deer ran. Bill roused from his hole. “There goes a buck!” he yelled.

Turns out, Bill’s patented handloads weren’t so reliable after all. My first buck was lost to a dud cartridge. And my first day as a hunter became memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Ryan Busse glasses for elk.
Ryan Busse glasses for elk. Ryan Busse

CURSE OF THE BULL

Ryan Busse, KALISPELL, MONT.

I dreamed for years of moving to Montana. Flyfishing for wild trout. Hunting birds in vast prairies. Chasing deer, antelope, and, of course, elk. I assumed big bulls would be so thick I’d have my pick of the herd.

I moved to Montana, and on opening morning of my first elk season in my adopted state, I found myself on a ridgeline above the timber near the Idaho border. Minutes later, a string of elk emerged from below and crossed the ridge 50 yards from my perch. In the group was a nice 5×6 bull. I studied him for a few seconds, held my crosshairs on him, practiced my shot. And let him walk.

“This is my first hunt in Montana. I’ll have an opportunity at a 350 by the afternoon,” I said to myself with a smug chuckle. “The season is five weeks long, I am a fine figure of a man and a great hunter. No problem.”

Fourteen years and three weeks later, I finally killed a bull elk in Montana. Over the intervening years, the fine figure and great hunter was often reduced to a non-functioning, blubbering failure of an elk hunter. It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Every year I devoted at least 15 days to elk. I hunted as hard as anyone in the state. Three thousand vertical feet a day was nothing. Hearing of a hunter who stumbled into a big bull just off a road would almost send me into a rage. I blew stalks. I missed at least two shots. I spooked bulls in timber. I was surprised by other bulls. I hiked mountains endlessly, rejoicing if I saw so much as a track. Most days I fell into my truck in the dark, deflated, having seen nothing at all. Passing on that bull the first morning was a curse and I knew it. Whatever elk-god controlled the movements of elk and hunters had set out to prove to me that public-land hunting for elk is among the hardest things on the earth. It got so bad that at family dinners, we could not discuss elk hunting or my lack of prowess. It was like everyone knew I was a marked man.

Finally, after more than 150 elk-hunting days since that first Montana morning, I scored on a bull on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I’ve since taken many elk, but I will never forget the bull I let walk—or all the lessons it taught me over the next 14 years.

SNOW WHITE

Ryan Kirby, HAMILTON, ILL.

As a teenager I was obsessed with bowhunting. A cold front had blown in the night before and dropped a couple of inches of wet, sticky snow on our Illinois farm.

But I had a plan, and a place—a huge oak tree that forked 11 feet in the air. With two massive limbs for cover, it was an unconventional gem of a spot. Plus, my dad was teaching his sons the family tradition of being cheap; because it wouldn’t require a store-bought stand, we simply hammered in a few steps to the fork and dealt with the leg cramps of standing as long as we could.

I had the wind in my face as I climbed into the giant oak. My plan was to rattle. But my ace in the hole was my wardrobe. My brother and I shared a set of white painter’s coveralls that would make me invisible in all that fresh snow.

As I locked my knees and prepared for a long stand, a steady drip, drip, drip announced my mistake. The cold front was short-lived, and the snow was melting. By 9 a.m., the colors around me had changed from snowscape to the dark hues of rain-soaked hardwoods. And here I was, 11 feet off the ground, in a white jumpsuit.

Undeterred, I rattled for a couple of minutes. My legs were already uncomfortable, and I shifted my weight in the tree fork. As I did, I heard a foot stomp. I snapped my head around and locked eyes with the biggest buck I’d ever seen, staring at me from 60 yards. He’d emerged from a ravine just high enough to survey the source of the rattling. No telling how long he’d been there watching.

Our eyes met and he came unglued, turned, and flashed a profile view of his rack that I’ll never forget. I didn’t know what a Booner was at the time, but I do now, and he was one. A clean 12-point, he had long, sweeping beams and tall, heavy tines. At 100 yards, he stopped to look back and I admired him through my binocular. I’ll never forget the heartache that comes with screwing up a hunt mixed with the elation of actually seeing an animal like that on the hoof.

That buck is long gone by now. So is the oak tree, struck by lightning a decade ago. A honeysuckle thicket has grown up in its place. Every time I walk around it, I recall the giant that got away. And that gleaming white snow camo.

DOUBLE DROPS

Gerry Bethge, FAIRFIELD, CONN.

“Double drops, man! And I’ll tell you where to sit to kill him on opening day.”

Tommy Cormier could have been full of crap, but there was something about his tone that had me sitting precisely where he told me to sit on opening day.

After hours of inaction, I decided to walk up a doe. A couple of steps in, I saw the buck. Wide. Thick. Gnarly. Double drop tines. And totally oblivious to me as he chased a doe not 40 yards away.

The final shot—my 7th (yeah, I reloaded)—from my slug gun finally got his attention, but he ran off, unscathed. Then I remembered: I had forgotten to replace the turkey choke in my Mossberg.

Jack Ellis prepares to unleash Boogie Man in the West Virginia hardwoods.
Jack Ellis prepares to unleash Boogie Man in the West Virginia hardwoods. Chris Ellis

THE BEECH HOLLOW

Chris Ellis, FAYETTEVILLE, W. VA.

In the hills of my West Virginia home, there are patches of woods that are simply different. They look different. They smell different. The way you feel when you walk underneath their canopy is different.

Pine thickets, laurel bogs, mixed hardwood forests—they all have their unique qualities. But to me, a beech hollow that is shady and dark with moss-covered rocks protruding from the pungent earth is a magical place. There is generally a spring bubbling up from under a rock and flowing through a patch of wood ferns to add to the mystique. Oftentimes, you will walk up on an old giant beech that shows its scars of previous human encounters—an old rusty piece of fence wire sticking from its silver-gray bark, or the initials of someone’s loved one from a time long ago. A beech hollow is an old place filled with old trees and memories lingering in the air from long ago.

On rare occasions, when the oak mast fails and the hickory is played out, the beech hollow can become very alive with animals. As a father of a young hunter, Jack, and a keeper of a young mountain feist squirrel dog, finding a hollow full of beech trees loaded with nuts is like drawing a royal flush in poker. It’s tough not to let my excitement show until the hand is over. This is the setting of my story.

With my expectation boiling, I released the snap on Boogie Man’s lead. He entered the hollow high and rounded the hill out of sight. Jack and I readied our gear and walked the woods road above the hollow. Boogie let out a yip, the kind of sound a young dog makes when the smell of game fills his nose and he just can’t resist talking about it. I smiled at Jack when Boogie started chop-barking loud and hard. We rushed to the tree and started our game of squirrel-spotting. Jack stayed on the bank and I went low in the hollow to lie on the ground and scan the branches through my binocular. Sure enough, in the top of the tree was a ball of reddish fur—a fox squirrel. He was big—a trophy to anyone who pursues bushytails.

The squirrel was high, and with the steep slope of the gully, it was in a tricky spot to kill. The report of Jack’s 20-gauge caused Boogie to bark louder. The squirrel darted down the limb toward the tree’s bole and scurried to the other side, unharmed by the high-brass 6s. Boogie and I, thinking alike, dashed to the other side of the beech. The squirrel caught our movement and rounded the trunk back toward Jack, who slapped the trigger again. The shot again missed its mark. It was getting lively in the beech holler.

Boogie looked at me—whether in disgust or pity, I’m not sure—so I shouldered my scoped .22 and squinted the crosshairs between the fox squirrel’s ears. In the time it took me to settle in my wobble and flip the safety lever, the squirrel made for an elbow in the branch of the tree and I pressed the trigger. The crack of the .22 rang out across the hollow, followed by silence. No thump of the squirrel hitting the ground dead, no dog barking, and no young hunter screaming, “I got him, Dad!”

The old squirrel had found a hole in the beech tree. He was home. In the sudden silence of the deep hollow, we gathered ourselves and our dog and headed back up the hill toward the truck. It was time we went home too.

SWEET GRASS

Mark Copenhaver, RUDYARD, MONT.

i was a 15-year-old freshman skipping school to hunt elk with Cope, my dad, in the Sweet Grass Hills of northern Montana. We had hunted nearly all day on Sterling Wardell’s ranch. The light was fading as Dad and I headed back to the pickup after an unsuccessful day.

I remember the ache in my legs when Cope suggested that we look into a little hidden basin, just in case. As we eased to the edge of a clearing, my life was transformed. Just 150 yards in stood the biggest mule deer buck I have ever seen. I had thrown my gun to my shoulder and clicked off the safety when my dad whispered.

“We aren’t hunting deer, son. We didn’t ask for permission for deer.”

My heart sank. I knew Dad was right, but before me stood the buck of a lifetime. My mind’s eye remembers him as being more than 30 inches wide, with pitch-black antlers, deep forks, heavy mass, and a drop tine on his right side. If I were going to assign it a score, I’d guess the old warrior’s rack would exceed 240 inches. But all I could do was stand and admire him.

The buck and I watched each other for a few minutes, and I seared every characteristic of that deer into my mind. I swore that someday I’d see him again. Then he simply turned and slowly disappeared.

We finished the walk back to our pickup in the dark, lights glittering below us from all the little towns that dot Montana’s Hi-Line. When we got to the truck, my dad told me he was proud of me for not shooting that deer without permission. He had grown up in the shadow of the Sweet Grass Hills, and he told me it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen.

We stopped at the Wardells’ ranch house to check out and thank them for the opportunity to hunt. I told Sterling about the giant buck I’d seen. “I know that buck,” he said. “I’ve seen him a few times this fall. He is a giant. You should have shot him. I don’t care if you hunt deer.”

Somewhere in this story are lessons of honesty and integrity, but the real memory is of that remarkable deer. Every fall, I dream about that buck and think that maybe, just maybe, this will be the season I encounter another like him.

BROKE DOWN

Gary Giudice, NORMAN, OKLA.

The whitetail was big for our area of southern Oklahoma. When I first saw him, I guess he would have scored around 150 inches, and every year he added about 10 inches to his perfect 10-point rack.

For three years I hunted him during archery season, then muzzleloader and rifle seasons. My wife threatened divorce if I didn’t start spending as much time with her as I did hunting that deer. But although I had a number of encounters with him, I just could never get close enough to that buck to kill him.

For three full seasons, I nursed a controlled but consuming obsession, passing up plenty of nice bucks to keep my tag intact for the 10-point. Then one day, it happened. Near the end of the bow season, on a blustery January day, the buck appeared at 20 yards. Broadside. An easy shot. But there was something different about him. He had been in some fierce battles. He had a bad gash on his hindquarter and other cuts around his neck and shoulders. Even more noticeable, his perfectly symmetrical antlers resembled a red cedar that had barely survived an Oklahoma tornado. His long tines were broken off. All that remained was his main beam and several jagged daggers where points had been. What to do? For several minutes, we watched each other. Then I lowered my bow. There’s always next year, I told myself. And him. Maybe he’d be even bigger.

That was decades ago. I never saw that perfect 10-point again, but every season, I pass up other bucks, waiting in vain for another like him to reappear.

BUSTED

Jarett Babincsak, CROWN POINT, IND.

“Stay in your stand.”

“Stop getting down early.”

“You won’t kill anything walking around with a bow.”

Those were just a few of my dad’s regular admonitions during my early days of hunting Indiana deer. Sitting still was not a skill I possessed, and on this rainy November day, my 13-year-old self thought it best to abandon my post to pick my way through the woods and brushy beds. What did my old man know? It was a steady rain and strong wind, perfect stalking weather. My dad was sleeping in the truck. He had no desire to sit out in this, yet here I was, braving the weather. So emboldened and seven minutes short of my father’s 9 a.m. minimum-sit requirement, I lowered my bow to the ground and began my slow descent.

Three steps down, I heard brush cracking from the direction I’d been fruitlessly watching all morning. An ivory-antlered 8-point was headed my way, nose down, oblivious to my presence. He was moving at a good clip. All I could do was cling to the tree, watching between my leather boots as he trotted right under me. The symmetry of his rack and the dark fur running the length of his spine will be forever chiseled into my thick head.

I could’ve cried, but instead I kicked the tree a few times and then climbed the rest of the way down. All the way to the truck, I considered alternatives to my story, but when I saw my dad, I told him everything. He just smiled and said, “I bet you’ll stay in your stand from now on.”

Rachel Vandevoort buck
Rachel Vandevoort, on her 11th birthday, with her father and a northwest Montana whitetail. Rachel Vandevoort

HOOK TOE

Rachel Vandevoort, WHITEFISH, MONT.

I was lucky enough—or unlucky enough, I still can’t decide—that my first hunting season was the season my dad caught a glimpse of the monster buck that would obsess him. It was during the first snowfall of November in the big woods of northwestern Montana, and while the buck was gone in a flash, he left behind his track in the snow, a distinctive hook-shaped print caused by one left toe overlapping the other.

From that day forward, my father scoured the snow, mud, and soft earth for any sign of the hook-toed deer. Each encounter with the track or fleeting glimpse of the buck logged another waypoint in his mental GPS. On the days I joined him, he would recount the precise location of each sighting and each track with such detail, it was as if it became my story, and my buck to find.

Each year, sightings of Hook Toe became fewer. The spot where we last saw his track became a sort of hallowed place. Twenty-five years later, we still visit that spot, my dad and me, and now we take my kids and tell them the story of the one that got away.

BIG DADDY

Aaron Hitchins, OTTAWA VALLEY, ONT.

Nobody ever really got a good look at “Big Daddy.” All we knew was that he was a big buck, and so we gave him a name. Every time we hiked away from camp with our guns and lunches to hunt the mountain, we’d tell one another to shoot straight when Big Daddy came along.

Only nobody ever saw Big Daddy after that first time.

One fall, I was in my stand when a single shot rang out. Ten minutes later, Mike, the most successful and reliable deer hunter in our gang, showed up at the bottom of my tree.

“Aaron, I’d like to introduce you to Big Daddy.” I leapt from the tree and followed Mike to his stand. Mike walked 10 yards from the base of the tree to a spot in the woods. I saw him look around, then take off his hat and scratch his head before looking around again.

There was no deer. No blood. No tracks. Here was the most reliable guy in camp, with a detailed story of a giant, heavy-horned buck finally making a fatal mistake, and there was absolutely no physical evidence that it had happened. Near as we could tell, Mike had shot right over his back.

Since then, we’ve shot decent bucks off the mountain, but none will ever rival the legend of the elusive Big Daddy.