Mike Sheffer and Donnie Ervin are a pair of western Kentucky hunters and family friends with a shared history of hunting big whitetail bucks. They live fairly close to each other in Union County and have been known to swap hunting tales whenever they chance to meet. They’ll have plenty to talk about in the final days of 2018, as back in early November, they each tagged gargantuan bucks. Sheffer killed his buck—a green-scored 226-inch giant—with his bow in southern Illinois back on Nov. 3. The following weekend, on Nov. 11, Ervin shot his 218-incher in Kentucky with a rifle. Here’s the lowdown on how it all came together for the two hunting buddies.
Tines Out to Here
The first week of November is a bit early for big bucks to be rutting in southern Illinois, and Mike Sheffer only expected to see an eager spike chasing the doe he saw slipping through the patch of woods he was tending. It was about 7:30 in the morning and the doe stopped for a moment several yards away to look back at an invisible companion before slinking on toward her bedding area.
Moments passed before the 48-year-old bowhunter heard the other deer shuffling through the leaves toward his stand. He figured it was a hopeful youngster trailing the doe, or just another doe. When Sheffer finally caught glimpses of the deer through the trees, however, his heart started pounding and he automatically switched into predator mode.
It was a buck he saw, and a big one. The closer it got, the more enormous its rack seemed to be. A mainframe 12-pointer, it had split G2s and brow tines, with lots of stickers at the bases. The length of the tines was the rack’s most impressive feature, and a tip-off to Sheffer that it was a buck he and his hunting buddies had seen before—at least on trail cameras. As the buck came on gingerly, Sheffer waited 22 feet above the forest floor, wondering if this was going to be the day his patience and persistence were validated.
The Way It’s Supposed To Work
Illinois is known for growing super-sized whitetails, and the southern Illinois farm where Sheffer was hunting has produced its share. Food plots and restraint on the part of hunters allowed on the farm have achieved their goals. A number of bucks worthy of Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett status have been taken there, though none as magnificent as the one that Sheffer had spotted that morning in early November. It wasn’t a stranger, however. Sheffer, who lives across the Ohio River in Union County, had virtually watched this particular buck grow from a 175-inch buck in 2017 to the big boy it had become.
“The rack had features that were there from year to year,” says Sheffer. “So we had pictures of him from last season (2017) and a few years back when he was a 135-inch 10-point. I passed him up three or four times in 2017 because I was hunting an older buck. I also knew that if everything pretty much remained the same he was going to be even better this year. He sure was.”
As good hunters will do, Sheffer focused on the buck to determine its travel habits. He knew from conversations with others and his own observations that the buck spent most of its time on a neighboring farm, and usually it started using the farm he hunted in late summer. This year, the buck started tripping Sheffer’s trail cameras in June, and the hunter wondered if it was gradually switching its home range.
“I didn’t have many daytime pictures of the buck, but the pictures I got told me that I needed to set up on him and where I needed to hunt him,” recalls Sheffer. “I started out hunting the fringes of where he stayed most of the time, and then started moving in. I figured there was a chance—maybe not a good chance—that I would get a shot at him at some point if I just focused on him. But the rut was still about 10 days away from going full bore and I figured it was a long shot.”
Sheffer has a few wireless cameras. During the first couple of days in November, he received daytime photos of the buck, including one in which it passed near a lock-on stand. Not knowing if the buck was simply reacclimating to its old stomping grounds or starting to search for hot does, Sheffer decided to set up the next morning in a patch of woods between a food plot and a bedding area of brushy draws and scrubby trees.
That’s when his plan and wishful thinking bore fruit. The buck followed the doe until it reached a spot several yards away and then, as if it had decided the doe wasn’t worth following, it turned and quartered toward Sheffer. By the time it was within range, Sheffer’s Mathews Triax was at full draw. He grunted to stop the buck at about 25 yards away, then released the Easton Axis 400 shaft and 100-grain G5 Deadmeat expandable broadhead.
“When the arrow hit him, he just flinched a little. I saw by the Lumenok that it went high in his shoulder, but it didn’t go through the other shoulder,” says Sheffer. “So I was nervous about the shot. The buck spun around, took off, and ran out of hearing.”
Sheffer waited and decided what to do next. The shot he took was a difficult one, with the buck coming toward him at an angle, and the buck’s blood trail was likely to be meager because the shot was high and there was no pass-through. Sheffer decided to climb down and call Lance Brantley, of On Track K-9 Deer Recovery (270-952-2459), rather than look for the deer himself.
“It took Hank [Brantley’s bloodhound] all of about five minutes to find the buck,” notes Sheffer. “He ran about 150 yards before dropping. As it turned out, I got him through both lungs.”
Sheffer has measured a lot of antlers, including many of his own, but was stunned by the dimensions he got from the rack’s green-score: 226 inches. Though it will lose some inches due to inconsistencies, his Illinois buck is still worthy of record-book distinction and another reminder of how big they grow ’em in the Land of Lincoln.
Buck #2: Grandpa’s Deer
Ervin’s deer roamed the rolling croplands of Union County, Kentucky, seemingly invisible most of the time, though spotted enough by locals during the past few years to have become a topic of conversation wherever local hunters gathered. In the parlance of country folk, it had what might be termed a “rocking chair rack,” because of how the rack’s size and weight caused the buck’s head to swag back and forth a bit as it trotted across a road or along a fence line. News of such whitetails spread quickly. More than one hunter knew the big buck was there; the only question was who would be the one to put his tag on it.
As it turned out, that distinction went to Ervin, who shot the bruiser on the second day of Kentucky’s gun season. The buck sported an 11-point mainframe rack with random stickers, a split G2 and a couple of flyers—16 scoreable points in all. Its most distinctive feature, however, was its mass, with more than 7 inches at its greatest circumferences.
A Family of Hunters
Ervin, 68, shot the buck on family farmland in Union County with a Savage 110 .270 while hunting with his daughter Anissa and two granddaughters, Darby (16) and Alli (11), in a box blind he built and has used for a number of years. The blind overlooks a portion of a soybean field bordered by a thick stand of phragmites (pronounced frag-my-teez) grass. The buck approached the blind at about 4 p.m., trailing a doe.
“You wouldn’t believe how thick the phragmites is there unless you tried to walk through it,” says Ervin. “We had to bushhog strips through it so the deer would come in, it’s so thick. That evening we had seen a couple of deer, including a decent 8-pointer, and were talking about one of the girls shooting it. But we decided to wait.”
Ervin’s nephew, Tim, was hunting nearby and the two men knew the big buck was in the neighborhood. Their concern was so did other hunters nearby, and they were closing in. A teenage hunter on an adjoining farm had tried a shot at the buck the day before, but his rifle misfired. In 2017, another hunter had taken a shot at the buck, but missed.
“We’d known about the buck for a while,” recalls Ervin, a retired coalmine inspector. “Tim had let a couple of guys go in to the place and look for sheds. We had sheds from the last three years. He was about 175 inches a couple of years ago, then about 205 last year. Tim had trail cameras out, too, and we had nighttime photos of him. He just kept getting bigger every year.”
Tim and his uncle had agreed that if the buck walked out on Ervin, he was to take the shot rather than one of the girls. That evening, random deer came and went, but at about 4 o’clock, a doe appeared in one of the phragmites strips about 75 yards away. Then the buck of Ervin’s dreams suddenly materialized close behind.
Taking the Shot
“When I first saw him behind the doe he just trotted across an opening like he didn’t really want to be there,” recalls Ervin. “Then he disappeared into the thick grass. I waited and waited for him to cross the next strip, but it seemed like it took forever. Then the doe popped out and him right behind. The girls were all excited and one of them pulled down a window in our shooting house to see better.
“The deer heard it or saw it and just froze. I knew I had to shoot right then, but I was ready,” adds Ervin. “When I shot, he didn’t really react like most deer do; he didn’t hump up, mule-kick or go down in the back, but there was no way for me to miss him. He and the doe ran off the way they came, but after several minutes the doe came back alone—a good sign.”
Tim was close enough to have heard the shot, and within minutes phoned his uncle. Ervin told his nephew he had shot the big buck, and Tim soon arrived to help locate it. Once they found the trail in the tall grass, it was only a matter of minutes before they located the buck. Not surprisingly, it’s the biggest Ervin has ever set his sights on, but he’s philosophical about his accomplishment, and credits Mother Nature and the rut more than his own skill.
“As best we can, we monitor the number of does we have on the property. If it’s necessary to take out some does because there are too many of them, we do, but not necessarily every year,” says Ervin. “A big old buck didn’t get that way by making mistakes. Does are the only buck bait you can really count on. That’s what got this old boy in the end.”
Putting It Together
Why do some regions seem to always produce eye-popping whitetails? It’s a combination of factors, but chiefly good genetics, available nutrition, and selective harvest. A closer look at the area that Sheffer and Ervin hunt helps explain.
The layout: Though in different states, the areas in Illinois and Kentucky where Sheffer and Ervin bagged their bucks are similar in topography and habitat. Both have benefited from minerals laid down by glaciers in ancient times, and alluvial deposits each spring when the Ohio River and its tributaries leave their banks.
As the crow flies, the farm where Sheffer hunts is only about 20 miles from Ervin’s shooting house, though separated from it by the river and the rippling hills of Kentucky’s Western Coal Field. The Illinois property lies in sparsely populated Gallatin County, once dotted with coal mines and now bounded by rich farmland upstream to its boundary at the Wabash River and southwesterly toward the woodlands of the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area and Shawnee National Forest. Though public land there is popular with area hunters, the hunting pressure it generates tends to push deer toward the sanctuaries of farms and reclaimed coalmine country with its mix of croplands, patches of woods, and brushy creek bottoms.
As could be said about most of Kentucky’s river counties, Union County is also well-suited to nurture bucks of record-book proportion. It’s one of the Commonwealth’s most productive farming counties and among the state’s leaders in corn and soybean production. Ervin’s buck made its home on what was Peabody Coal Company land, not far from Chalybeate Hills, Union County’s geographical backbone and home to the 5,400-acre Higginson-Henry Wildlife Management Area.
Plenty to eat: Whether in Union County, Kentucky, or southern Illinois, deer have plenty of grain and beans to glean early in the bowhunting season, but such food sources disappear quickly as the weather cools. Mike Sheffer and Donnie Ervin rely on plots of varying sizes planted with clover- or brassica-based mixes to attract and hold deer on their hunting lands through the season.
Sheffer plants food plots of Imperial Whitetail and Biologic each year on the Illinois property, though the bowhunter prefers to hunt in the travel corridors between the plots and bedding areas. Ervin’s food plots are seeded with oats, turnips, rape and radishes.
Lots of Cover: Reclaimed coalmine land, whether in southern Illinois or western Kentucky, is a haven for whitetails, especially when it’s surrounded by productive farmlands with grain crops such as corn and soybeans. Ervin and Sheffer agree that cover around food plots is also essential, as it provides deer quick concealment and a sense of security. In most cases, varied cover such as native wild grasses and saplings around plots also supplies more browse.
Two Takes on Cameras
Sheffer and Ervin have different perspectives on the use of one of modern hunting’s most popular tools. “Trail cameras tell you what kind of deer you’ve got, and how they come and go,” advises Sheffer. “Once you understand that deer don’t just wander around aimlessly, you can pattern them and come up with a pretty good game plan as far as where and when to put your stands. It’s never a hundred percent, but you’ve got to have a plan based on the terrain, where the deer travel, and why they go that way.”
Donnie Ervin admits he is old school when it comes to trail cameras. He has no use for them, and relies instead on scouting sign on the ground such as rub lines and scrapes, as well as what experience has taught him about an area and its terrain.
“After so many seasons hunting a place, you pretty well know what you’ve got,” says Ervin. “You know where to put stands based on sign and past years. Tim uses cameras a lot, but I don’t like to fool with them. They might tell you that you’ve got a heck of a buck, but they also might not show anything worth getting up early in the morning and climbing a tree for.”