OL’s Hunting Editor Andrew McKean returned to his Missouri family farm in November for a farewell to his childhood home and his late father. He couldn’t know that he’d come away with the best buck of his life, and a tale for the ages.
I had been planning to return to hunt deer on the family farm in north Missouri all year, but when my father died unexpectedly in August, I resolved to go take his favorite rifles on their final deer hunt. Like many farming families, Dad’s death caused mine to reevaluate the farm’s future, and renewed talk of selling the property. This might be my last deer season on the farm where I grew up, where I fell in love with hunting. I returned for the rifle season with a mix of melancholy and purpose.
I brought two of my father’s favorite guns, a vintage Savage Model 99 lever action in .300 Savage and the first “modern” gun he bought, a 7x57mm built on a Mauser 98 action. He mail-ordered the Yugoslavian rifle back in the mid 1970s, and added a fixed 4-power Bausch & Lomb scope. He took dozens of deer with that rig, and even brought it to Montana to hunt mule deer with me a couple years ago.
The farm is a productive mix of hardwood ridges that drop into creek bottoms planted to corn and soybeans. The area is now known as a top trophy whitetail zone, but when I was a kid we didn’t see a ton of deer. My dad taught me much of what I know about hunting, slow stalks through timber and posting on fencerows and field edges. When I arrived in November, the woods were draped in thick frozen fog.
Even spider webs were bejeweled with beads of morning dew.
The highlight of any return home is getting together with my childhood friends. We are as close today as we were as rambunctious adolescent farm boys, and one of the great joys of my homecoming was inviting my friend Tom and his son Trevor to hunt the farm. Trevor is a straight-shooting, clear-eyed teenager who is becoming a great young hunter.
On one foggy morning, Trevor and I sat on a knoll overlooking a timbered draw. It was one of my father’s favorite spots, and it did me good to see a new generation of hunters sitting beneath the tree that was a sapling when I was a kid.
Tom sat in one my favorite spots, a notch of timber that overlooks a wide swath of field and several deer trails. This year was so wet in Missouri that even in late November the soybeans were still unharvested. Tom watched as this 8-point fed out into the beans, and anchored him with a 175-yard shot.
Meanwhile, one of my best Montana hunting buddies, Mark, was having his own success. He hunted a creek-bottom field all afternoon, and toward evening this tall 4×4 worked out of the timber and made a beeline for him. The buck is one of the best 8-points I’ve ever seen, with tall brow tines and main beams that nearly touch at the tips.
I was reveling in my homecoming, and the success of my friends. I walked the perimeter of the farm, checking fences and reacquainting myself with deer patterns, investigating buck rubs and scrapes, revisiting favorite spots. I had a destination: a secluded field bordering the creek. It was a spot my father always said would produce a big buck. Only it never had in the past.
Soon after I tucked into the remote soybean field I started picking it apart with my field glasses. Almost as if on cue, a big buck rose out of his bed at the far end, easily 1,000 yards away, and proceeded to trail a hot doe. I have a very clear memory of telling myself aloud, “I’m going to march down there and kill that buck,” as though saying it aloud would make it happen. It took me an hour of tedious stalking to close half the distance, and I had to take my boots off to wade a rain-swollen ditch, but finally I was ready really study the buck.
I wasn’t prepared for the view through my binocular. The buck was even bigger than he had earlier appeared, but he was so intent on that doe that even 425 yards away I knew he was killable, and I focused on his body, not his rack. If I could belly-crawl through the standing soybeans, I might sneak close enough to take a reasonably high-percentage shot. I was nervous about a long poke because the 7×57 isn’t known for its flat trajectory, and through the 4-power scope the buck seemed a mile away.
The field was so soggy that liquid mud sloshed down the front of my bibs. I was cold and wet, but it wasn’t until hours later that I noticed my discomfort. I gained 50 yards and stopped to check my progress. The buck had bedded down; I could just see the tips of tines above the beans. I crawled another 70 yards, and was just setting up my bipod for a shot when the buck jumped to his feet. Had I spooked him? I didn’t have time to answer my own question as he milled nervously and the doe started running. The first shot wasn’t my best–it hit him too far back–but it slowed him down enough that I could finish him with the following shot.
As I approached this deer I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. “You should go sit on that east field,” he’d say on every opening day we shared. “That’s where the big boys will be.” Only they never were. Until now.
I don’t remember ever weeping over an animal that wasn’t a family pet, but as I knelt over the buck, emotions washed over me. I had just killed the best buck of my life, in a hallowed field on the family farm, my father’s polished rifle beside me. I couldn’t compose myself for several minutes.
Once I cleared my eyes and my head, I studied the buck. He was even bigger than I thought, with all sorts of mass and gnarly stickers on his right frame and heavy, bladed tines. When I measured him weeks later, I got something over 180 inches of antler mass.
I cleaned the mud off my dad’s old Mauser and posed with the rifle for a few photos, imaging what my father would say to see a deer of this quality come off the family farm. And what he would think about his old rifle taking it. Then it came to me. I never felt alone on that stalk. It was almost as though he was there for every soggy step of the way, just like he was there when I fell in love with hunting a generation ago on this very same black Missouri ground.
OL’s Hunting Editor Andrew McKean returns to his Missouri family farm for a farewell to his childhood home and his late father. He couldn’t know that he’d come away with the best buck of his life, and a tale for the ages.